- The Cleveland Cavaliers can offer LeBron James the most money in free agency, and that is their one distinct advantage.
- According to reports in recent years, James has not been willing to take anything less than a max contract, and by all accounts, he has not had a change of heart.
- If James still wants the max contract but doesn’t want to re-sign with the Cavs, he could orchestrate a trade to another team, which could benefit the Cavs.
As the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the Finals and generally looked overmatched in the playoffs, many in the NBA world started to anticipate LeBron James would leave the Cavs in free agency this summer.
Not only do the Cavs look to be nearing the end of their run of dominating the Eastern Conference, but they have few paths to improve this offseason, thanks to a bevy of large contracts and a lack of attractive trade assets.
However, the Cavs do hold one significant advantage over the rest of the NBA in potentially re-signing James: money.
The Cavs can offer more money than any other team in the NBA, thanks to its Collective Bargaining Agreement. They could offer James a five-year contract worth 35% of the salary cap, with 8% raises each season, whereas any opposing team could give him only four-year deals with 5% increases.
Since returning to the Cavs in 2014, James has not been willing to accept anything less than the maximum amount. He opted out of his contract each season to not only keep the pressure on the Cavs’ front office, but maximize his earnings.
When James’ initial plan for a $200 million contract was foiled by an obscure rule under the old CBA, he helped the players union change it in the new CBA, allowing teams to sign players to five-year deals up until they are 38 years old, up from 36. James is 33.
Furthermore, in December, James told Cleveland.com that he wanted to “break the mold” on his next contract.
“I want to kind of try to break the mold just for the next generation, just take the narrative out of ‘You’re past your prime when you hit 31,’ or ‘You’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league,’ or whatever the case may be,” James said. “Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get $200 [million] or $300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious.”
In December, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne wrote that when James hit free agency in 2014, his representatives told prospective teams to be prepared to offer the max “and not a penny less.” Windhorst reported on Saturday that James’ views had not changed.
Of course, the Cavs wouldn’t necessarily be the favorite to re-sign James. But they can offer the most money to a player who is not willing to take a discount.
It could benefit the Cavs in other ways too. Only a few teams will be able to open up the cap space to sign James outright this summer to his max salary, approximately $35 million for next season. That could force teams to have to trade for James, which would benefit both him and the Cavs. Teams that want to sign James outright but don’t have the cap space will have to explore two avenues: making trades to clear that cap space without taking money back, or making a trade with the Cavs.
If James were to get traded, he would have to opt into the last year of his deal. According to Windhorst, a team that trades for James could sign him to a four-year extension after six months, giving James a five-year commitment worth over $200 million. If James were to play out this season on his contract, he couldn’t sign a five-year deal next year, as that would take him beyond age 38.
James and the Cavs could also arrange a sign-and-trade, in which the Cavs sign James to his true maximum contract then trade him to another team in a prearranged deal.
For the Cavs, it could mean they could get something for their best asset even if he decides to leave. Teams won’t give up their best assets for James in a trade if he’s determined to go there, but something is better than nothing for Cleveland.
The only thing that seems certain as James enters what could be a wild offseason is that teams that want him must be able to offer the max contract, or they’ll have to get creative.