The NBA Finalists: How to Make a Sequel

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In the usual late-June way, league executives are tittering over how Golden State ran Cleveland off the floor with super-small lineups featuring Draymond Green at center. They are curious about how much of Golden State’s model is replicable, and whether the army of hulking 7-footers about to hit free agency are less valuable than they seemed just two weeks ago.

The Warriors didn’t win the title playing super-small. They won playing super-small when they could get away with it — when the boost in spacing and speed outweighed the risk of behemoths slaughtering them underneath. The Warriors won because they could toggle between styles, just as Boris Diaw’s futon-like flexibility allowed San Antonio to morph into a new sort of team when threatened.

Building a team deep enough to play multiple styles well is a limbo dance under the salary cap. It took the Warriors drafting Green in the second round, bringing back Stephen Curry on what is now an absurd extension, and snagging Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut at fair money well below the max. One blown deal and the entire plan would have disintegrated.

Golden State is perfectly set up to contend for years, but it is already facing the financial pinch of keeping a championship-caliber team together. Klay Thompson’s max-level extension kicks in next season, Green is about to sign his own max deal, and several key players will be up for new contracts over the next two years. And that’s before Curry can sign a max deal that will start around $30 million, almost triple (!) his current salary, in 2017-18.

The Cavaliers already have LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving under max contracts, and Tristan Thompson will push to join them this summer. It is impossible to pile up that many max contracts and compete in free agency for quality bench players who unlock different playing styles — a strategic versatility any team needs to win four playoff series.

This is why the Cavs and Warriors are competing again, as they dangle similar trade packages to claw out some flexibility. The Cavaliers are shopping the combination of Brendan Haywood and the 24th pick, while the Warriors are trawling for someone to take David Lee, with the 30th pick as a potential sweetener, per sources around the league.

The Cavs want a player for Haywood’s nonguaranteed $10.5 million deal, since they have no other easy way to nab a player in that salary range. Golden State wouldn’t mind getting a back-of-the-rotation cog for Lee, but it will settle for the $50 million1 in savings it would generate just by dumping him into someone’s cap room.

That may end up costing the Warriors more than one first-round pick, and if it does, Golden State will have to find an alternative path — and probably eat a hefty tax bill in the process. The rest of the league knows how much Golden State would save by flipping Lee for nothing, and no one is psyched to do the champs a solid in exchange for just the final pick of the first round. Maybe those teams are talking big, but Lee’s $15.5 million salary would represent perhaps the highest price ever paid for a crappy first-round pick, and every team with cap room — aside from perhaps the Sixers, who exist in a separate dimension — has plans to use it on players better than Lee.

Golden State cannot toss away two first-round picks as the price of shedding Lee. They’re already out one future pick to the Jazz, and it’s hard to sustain a contender when you can’t replenish the roster with cheap young players. Even the 30th pick and Festus Ezeli might be too much. Finding a successor for Andrew Bogut is Golden State’s biggest long-term roster challenge; the Warriors didn’t need Bogut to beat Cleveland, but they absolutely needed a traditional center to get through the 97 games that came before.

The cap jump coming in 2016 and 2017 will give the Warriors flexibility that champions almost never get, and perhaps they can strike for a Bogut successor then. But that’s not a guarantee.

All of this is easy for me to say; it’s not my money. If Green were to get the max starting around $15.8 million, the Warriors’ payroll with Lee would crack $100 million — about $19 million over the tax line, for a total bill approaching $150 million. That’s more than double what Joe Lacob and his co-owners paid to field this year’s champions. Rich guys don’t stay rich by turning down chances to save $50 million.

The Warriors almost certainly won’t sacrifice two picks for that financial relief, per league sources. They are raking in money, and they appear willing to absorb a moderate tax hit — the kind they would face if they were to buy Lee out or trade him for a player earning less money. The Warriors earned about $15 million in basketball-only activities last season, per a memo obtained by Grantland, and they should blow that away when this season’s numbers come in.

They just won the title, and sources say they smashed all-time league records with game-day gate receipts approaching $10 million. One twist: Under league rules, the Warriors don’t get to keep nearly as much of that cash as you’d expect. The league itself snatches 50 percent of gate receipts for most playoff games; it uses the cash to fund playoff expenses and divides the rest up among all 30 teams, so that playoff hosts are in effect paying a small subsidy to lottery teams — one plank of revenue-sharing.

Half of the gate money that teams keep goes directly to players as part of the collective bargaining agreement, so hosts really only keep 25 percent of all playoff gate. And if the home team closes a series in either Game 5 or Game 7, they have to kick an extra share to the visiting team — a cookie to make up for the fact that the lower seed enjoyed one fewer home game in the series.2

This will all change next season after some grumbling from playoff teams. The Board of Governors recently voted to cut the league’s share of playoff gate from 50 to 25 percent, according to sources familiar with the vote. The NBA will need almost all of that 25 percent to cover postseason operating expenses, meaning less free money for lottery teams — and more anxiety in small markets about how revenue-sharing will work under the mammoth new national TV deal.3

Still, the Warriors are swimming in it, and they will swallow a medium-size tax bill if they can’t trade Lee and just one pick for $0 in return. A buyout is probably the cleanest solution. If a team expresses interest in signing Lee as a free agent, the Warriors could buy him out for the difference between his new and old salaries, making Lee whole. Big boys like the Knicks and Lakers can talk themselves into just about anything — “He’s a 20-and-10 guy, baby!” — if the real stars jilt them.

Golden State could also deal Lee for players earning less, but that’s a thorny path, since the Warriors do not want to take on salary beyond this season. As things stand now, they could carve out some wiggle room under the cap next summer — plus some interesting sign-and-trade possibilities if a star makes it known he’d like to join Curry — and major space for the summer of 2017. They want to hoard that room.

They are not going to flip Lee and a pick for someone like Channing Frye or Nikola Pekovic — expensive bigs with three seasons left on their contracts. A trade involving Lee and the 30th pick for the combination of Spencer Hawes4 and Gerald Henderson is more palatable, since Hawes earns a bit less than those other guys and the Warriors could use the stretch provision to soften the hit of Hawes’s salary. (They cannot use the stretch provision on Lee, since he signed his contract under the old collective bargaining deal.) A Lee deal to Denver for the expiring contracts of J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye would be even tastier, but it would require Denver really loving Lee and that pick.

And in both scenarios, the Dubs would prefer offloading one of the acquired players onto a team with cap room — a dance that gets delicate once you introduce third and fourth partners. The Warriors could keep Lee into the season and wait out Philly’s asking price, but they would risk alienating Lee and his agent; Lee needs to revive his value ahead of his own free agency a year from now, and he can’t do that sitting on the bench.

Golden State will have to cut someplace, because Green is getting his. “The guy just helps you win,” says Bob Myers, the team’s GM. “That’s not a compelling argument for some people, because it doesn’t get into specifics — like his numbers. But it should be the only truism that matters. He helps you win games.”

The only question is whether the Warriors will wait for Green to draw an offer on the market and then match it. That brings the risk of Green signing a shorter Chandler Parsons–style offer sheet — a deal that carries just two guaranteed seasons, plus a player option. The Spurs and Bulls can sidestep that pitfall by hitting Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, respectively, with “maximum qualifying offers” — ironclad five-year max deals, with no options for either side. When an incumbent team takes that step, any rival has to offer at least three fully guaranteed seasons, which would torpedo a Parsons-style plan.

But teams can use that weapon only with first-round picks, per cap experts. Green is a second-round pick, and that distinction robs Golden State of a crucial tool.

Still, Green is a curious case, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Warriors were fine bringing him back on a shorter deal. He’s already 25, and teams aren’t quite sold on Green as a max player in any context. He’s worth the max this summer, but this is a one-time-only waiting period before the cap jumps from $67 million to $108 million in two years — bringing max salaries up with it.5 A max signed this summer is almost a fake max. Locking up someone like Leonard to a five-year deal starting at $15.8 million now is appealing precisely because Leonard could ink a deal starting at $25 million in the summer of 2017.

The jury is out on whether Green’s salary should shoot up in lockstep with the max, and this is coming from someone who spent the entire season slobbering over the dude. He’s a freaking monster, the prototypical playmaking 4, with the unmatched versatility to jostle with Marc Gasol and stick stride-for-stride with James Harden.

But, as we said, he’s 25 — and a five-year deal would take him through age 30. The thought of Green losing just half a step makes me nervous. That could be the difference between staying in front of Harden and reading the back of Harden’s jersey. If Green can’t switch onto basically any player, he becomes a lot less valuable. As it is, Green can barely open up enough air space on offense to loft contested floaters; what would happen if that window were to shrink a few inches? The fire in Green’s belly comes from proving doubters wrong. Can a max-contract guy still have a chip on his shoulder?

Things would be different if Green were a better shooter, and the Warriors are hopeful he can knock down more of those ridiculously open triples Curry creates for him — shots Green passed up in the Finals. “The challenge for him, as I’ve told him many times, is to keep perfecting his offense,” says Ron Adams, the team’s sage assistant coach. “He can be much better than he is now.” The coaches would especially like Green to work on his corner 3.

The Warriors can offer Green a regular five-year max contract,6 but they could save a little bit of scratch by matching a shorter rival deal. If teams steer clear, knowing Golden State will match, the Warriors could squeeze Green for a bit of a discount. Either way, don’t expect Eric Bledsoe–level acrimony. Championship teams don’t screw with their chemistry.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 22: LeBron James #23 high fives teammate Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game on February 22, 2015 at Madison Square Garden in New York, New York.

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The Cavs aren’t champions, but they have the roster for it — and the bill. If they bring everyone back at the expected rates, including LeBron and Love once they opt out, they will end up spending more than $200 million on payroll — the largest figure in league history.

That would include spending $56 million, almost the entire salary cap, on three guys — LeBron, Love, and Thompson — who need heavy minutes at power forward. Blowing by the tax removes almost every path toward signing an outside free agent, and vacuums up lots of gold from Dan Gilbert’s money bin. “It’s difficult to put yourself in a position where you can’t capitalize on an opportunity,” Griffin says. But team officials say Gilbert is all-in to spend whatever it takes, even if doing so might leave Cleveland stuck with this roster through at least 2018.

“It’s a given with our ownership,” Griffin says. “Now, it’s not sustainable to run those numbers year after year, as we’ve seen in other places. But if it’s to keep this group together, we can absolutely do it. It’s not gonna be cheap, but we’re gonna find a way.”

Griffin has repeatedly said the Cavs plan to keep Love, but plugged-in executives around the league continue to predict the Cavs will sign-and-trade Love after advancing so far without him. That would unclutter the power forward spot, and if the Cavs can recoup rotation players and picks, they’d have to at least consider it. Love needs the ball to live up to a max contract, and even Griffin has told me that watching LeBron carry a misfit cast within two wins of the title taught him a lot about the kind of supporting cast he wants around his centerpiece.

“LeBron needs to have the ball so much for you to be as good as you can be, and you need to be very selective about the guys who get to have it when he doesn’t,” Griffin said. “You cannot have too much ball dominance around him.”

But here’s the thing: If I had to choose between Love and Thompson, I’d pick Love and work the sign-and-trade market for Thompson this summer — a path that may be closed off to Griffin, given that Thompson and LeBron have the same agent. And if Gilbert were willing to barf up all that money, then I’d keep both — even if the Love-LeBron fit has been awkward so far. If the Cavs choose Thompson over Love, they may end up regretting it, unless they can nab a killer bounty for Love. And Love opting into the final year of his contract might be the Cavs’ worst nightmare. It would hang over their entire season like a cloud, with each day increasing the possibility Love walks for nothing in return.

Thompson is a good player who can do at least two things really well: destroy fools for offensive rebounds and scamper around on defense. His skill set on offense overlaps with Timofey Mozgov’s, and Mozgov is a more natural finisher who flashed a nice pick-and-roll chemistry with LeBron.

(Two fun side stories on Mozgov: The guy was beloved in Denver. Tim Connelly, the Nuggets GM, flew to Cleveland for Game 3 of the Finals just to support Mozgov, and even tried to buy a Mozgov jersey. He couldn’t find one in the team store. “He obviously didn’t try hard enough,” Mozgov jokes. The night Denver traded Mozgov, Connelly took him out for wings; Mozgov scarfed up about 40 wings as Connelly consoled him about the deal. “It was like, ‘You can be emotional if you want, but you’re going to play with LeBron James,’” Connelly remembers.

Mozgov was indeed as much of a deal-breaker in the Carmelo Anthony trade as has been speculated. Masai Ujiri, then the Nuggets GM, had a mantra he would repeat to New York officials: “No Mozgov, no Melo.”)

Mozgov is a fearsome presence around the rim on defense. Thompson amped up his rim protection in the playoffs, but he’s inconsistent at it, and undersized at center. He is a better fit in a small-ball game, but he’s not Green; he’s not as airtight at switching onto wing scorers, and he can’t punish bigger defenders by hitting 3s or making plays off the bounce.

Factor in Mozgov’s cheap salary for next season and there’s a lot of appeal in keeping the LeBron-Love-Mozgov frontline together — and exploring the market for Thompson.

If that path is closed, the Cavs should keep Love anyway — especially if they can sign him to a five-year max deal. He’d be a bargain as the cap rises, and if he and LeBron develop chemistry — everyone forgets that that process takes time — LeBron can offload some of the scoring burden onto him. LeBron is not going to be able to chase 30 points per game forever.

If the chemistry process proves fitful, a number of executives have suggested that the Cavs could bring Love off the bench as a temporary fix. That sounds outlandish; Cleveland officials looked horrified when I brought it up during the Finals, but Love could still log 30-plus minutes a game dominating the second unit and sharing the floor with LeBron to end each half.

It’s easier to find a Thompson knockoff than it is to do the same with Love. It’s hard to find anyone when you’re locked into a $200 million roster, which is why the Cavs are fishing around with Haywood’s contract and the 24th pick.

The market for that package has been cool so far, sources say. A team could waive Haywood and gain $10 million of instant cap space to use in free agency, but there aren’t a lot of teams who need cap relief so urgently that they’d flip a quality rotation guy to get it. There just aren’t as many bad long-term contracts clogging up books, and a lot of the iffy ones are tied to big guys — a spot at which the Cavs would be well-stocked with Thompson, Love, Mozgov, LeBron, and Anderson Varejao.

The Cavs want a secondary playmaker, and landing one would give them leverage to let J.R. Smith walk. But everyone wants 3-and-D guys who can dribble and play multiple positions; the 24th pick and borderline-unnecessary cap space isn’t enough (for now) to pry away someone like Wilson Chandler, Jeff Green, Jamal Crawford, Nicolas Batum, or Danilo Gallinari. The Cavs could open up more possibilities by adding another future first-round pick, but that’s a dangerous game.

There are some more gettable lower-level guys out there — Evan Turner, Jarrett Jack, Greivis Vasquez, Marvin Williams, and perhaps Darren Collison if the Kings move on Ty Lawson — but Cleveland might crave something better, and Haywood’s $10 million deal creates salary-matching issues in some scenarios.

In the end, Cleveland may have to be content bringing back the same team; Griffin says they are. “Look, we just had maybe the craziest year in the history of team sports,” he says. “And David [Blatt] proved we can win in multiple ways, with multiple styles. But we are a helluva team with the Big Three. And that’s the team we want to be.”

That’s the safest path, provided Gilbert is willing to bite the bullet on a comical tax bill. Any other scenario, and especially moving on from Love, brings some major short- and long-term risk.

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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