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With the Golden State Warriors up 3-0 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the 2017-18 season is effectively over.
While the nonstop, perpetually forward-looking nature of the league means we’ve been thinking about offseason transactions for months, we’re finally on the brink of seeing some significant personnel changes.
This is true for teams at all levels of the league’s competitive hierarchy, including the two at the top. Though the Cavs have a glut of players on guaranteed contracts next year, the uncertainty surrounding LeBron James’ plans means the status quo isn’t assured for anybody.
If James stays, he’ll want more help. If he goes, the Cavs will face a daunting rebuild.
Golden State, meanwhile, has to add shooting on the wing and address a rotation cramped by the presence of too many conventional centers. With several outside veterans sure to want a shot at ring-chasing next year, expect the Warriors to capitalize by moving on from some mainstays.
Even the best teams in the league have to deal with turnover. The following Golden State and Cleveland players look especially likely to to get discarded in the shuffle.
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The Warriors have six guys whose primary position is center, and that doesn’t include Draymond Green, who occupies the position in the moments that matter most. There’s no way the Dubs carry that kind of roster imbalance into next season.
It isn’t difficult to figure out who’s most likely to go.
Zaza Pachulia was little more than a ceremonial starter in 2016-17, his first year with the Warriors. He’d get his six minutes to start the first and third quarters during the regular season, maybe pick up a few more if the opponent had a particularly slow-footed matchup for him and then disappear to the bench for higher-leverage stretches.
The story was largely the same this past year, except Pachulia lost his grip on the starting role in the second half. After coming off the bench four times in February, he joined the first unit in only six of the dozen contests he played in March. He started only three times in April, and he has been excised from the non-garbage-time rotation during the postseason.
Jordan Bell is ready to take on a bigger role, possibly as a starting 5, and Golden State may be able to keep JaVale McGee and Kevon Looney at a discount because there’s so little money and so many bigs in this summer’s market.
Pachulia is a fearsome screener and excellent position rebounder, but he can’t score inside or out and isn’t mobile enough to see the floor against modern like-sized lineups. He’s also 34 years old. A genuine vestige of the bygone center era, Pachulia won’t be back.
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Kendrick Perkins’ most notable postseason accomplishment was getting into a sideline dustup with Stephen Curry. That’s not the best use of a playoff roster spot, though it did produce one of the better quotes of the year.
“I don’t know why people keep wanting to pick battles this way,” Perkins told reporters. “Might want to choose that [expletive] wisely, man, [rather] than [bleeping] with me. I don’t think I’m the problem that they want, though, might want to pick another battle.”
The veteran enforcer spent the bulk of his season playing for the G League’s Canton Charge before Cleveland signed him on the last day of the regular season. Apparently needing a strong locker room voice for the playoffs, the Cavs thought it worthwhile to add Perk to the mix.
Either that, or James told the front office to do it, and everyone went scampering to make it happen.
There’s no way the Cavs pick up a team option that’ll net Perkins nearly $2.5 million next year. Not when roster spots are so precious, and not when Cleveland figures to pay a brutal tax on every dollar spent if James comes back and causes the payroll to explode.
Cleveland can’t play Perkins in games that matter. He hasn’t played a postseason minute since 2015. Whether James stays or goes, Perkins doesn’t have a place on the team.
Plus, if the Cavs want him back on the bench next postseason, they can always snatch him up in April again.
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David West’s limitations mirror those of Pachulia’s while being slightly less severe. Immobility didn’t completely remove him from the playoff rotation, as West’s skills as a passer and mid-range shooter gave him enough value to toss out against most opponents.
But it was telling that Golden State put the 37-year-old on the floor for 10 or more minutes in only two of his last 10 playoff games.
West thought about retiring in 2017 after winning his first title, and he even contemplated hanging it up before joining the Warriors two years ago. Though he’s still productive and valuable as a mentor in the locker room, West is bound to consider calling it quits again after this season.
This time, having won a title and successfully defended it, you’d have to think his competitive fire would be quenched.
This is slightly different than the Pachulia situation. West is valuable enough to Golden State’s chemistry and makeup that there will be a roster spot for him if he wants it. Consider this a bet that he’ll leave the Warriors and the NBA on his own terms.
West, a two-time All-Star and Grade-A bruiser for 15 seasons, has earned a break.
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The Cavs have nine players on fully guaranteed contracts for the 2018-19 season, while Rodney Hood will be a restricted free agent. Those commitments alone will put them over the cap, even if James leaves.
If James comes back at his typical max rate, pow, luxury tax!
Other than James and Perkins, Jose Calderon is thus the most likely to leave.
The 13-year vet appeared in 57 regular-season games and shot the lights out, as usual. Among non-bigs who played at least 50 contests, Calderon’s 62.4 effective field-goal percentage ranked behind only Kyle Korver’s.
But Calderon, who turns 37 in September, can’t be counted on to defend or create against serious competition. Plus, he’s the only current point guard on the roster behind George Hill (who isn’t going anywhere with $19 million due next season).
Whether James leaves or not, Cleveland will be in dire need of a more consistently playable backup at the 1.
You could throw Jeff Green into the mix as another Cavaliers candidate who could move on, but he showed enough flashes to warrant another minimum salary if he’s willing to take it. Calderon is the much likelier pick to be a former Cavalier.
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The Swaggy P experience has largely gone as expected.
For some reason, the Warriors expected more from Nick Young. Their decision to use their full taxpayer’s mid-level exception on him last summer says they viewed the spacey gunner as a legitimate rotation piece.
Instead, predictably, Young rarely knew the sets on offense, went comatose on D for several months in a row and has been borderline unplayable in the postseason.
Out of shape from the jump, Young shot 37.7 percent from deep and tied a career low with 7.3 points per game for Golden State. He posted a plus-3.1 net rating on the season, which ranked 13th on the team.
An unrestricted free agent, Young is a sure goner. Golden State desperately needs shooting from a player that doesn’t actively sabotage the operation on both ends. Even in Young’s swaggiest stretches, he was still giving back at least as much on D as he was getting on O. The Dubs know they can do better with their MLE.
Young came aboard after players like Draymond Green recruited him. After seeing how the season played out, it’s safe to assume GM Bob Myers won’t be soliciting similar input on his next signing.
Young flopped with the Warriors, but he’s an eminently likable personality whose outside shot is good enough to get him a contract someplace else.
He just doesn’t fit on a team that takes winning as seriously as the Warriors.
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Maybe he’s had his mind made up for months, or maybe he’s so disciplined about compartmentalizing that he hasn’t even considered free agency yet.
But LeBron James is about to face yet another pivotal decision.
It’s tough to nail down the most logical landing spot. If James shows interest in joining the Houston Rockets, you’d better believe general manager Daryl Morey has a three-ring binder with “Project Chosen 1” embossed on the front. The cap mechanics are seemingly insurmountable, and Houston would have to shed bodies and cash to make it work, but where there’s a will, there’s a opt-in-and-trade.
The Philadelphia 76ers seemed like the best destination until the “Bryan Colangelo and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Burner Account” fiasco. But now that Colangelo is out and David Griffin, a GM James wanted to keep in Cleveland, is a possible successor, the Sixers are looking more appealing than ever. Philly could make moves to clear the few extra million it’d need for a max contract.
There’s the Los Angeles Lakers, of course. But James’ empire is already global without the big-market punch of L.A., so one of the better selling points of signing there is moot. Not to mention that the Lakers, even with another max-level free agent, wouldn’t be anywhere close to serious contention in the West.
Fortunately, we don’t have to get the arrival right. All we’re doing is pegging James as a likely departure.
Anyone watching James stew on the bench after being trebly abandoned in Game 1 of the Finals—George Hill missed a free throw, JR Smith blacked out and Tyronn Lue failed to call a timeout—would understand if James has doubts about sticking with the Cavs. And that’s to say nothing of a long-fractured relationship with owner Dan Gilbert.
Cap-strapped, devoid of young talent and clearly undermanned against top competition, Cleveland can’t claim it gives James the best chance to win a ring anymore.
Surprises are always possible, but the logic of a James exit is just too strong to ignore.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.