The NBA is a two-team league now, and at this moment, the Cleveland Cavaliers look particularly overmatched by Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors.
The team that won 73 games last regular season and came within minutes of winning a second-straight title over the Cavs in effect made a trade Monday -- Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes for Durant and center Zaza Pachulia. It's a trade any smart general manager doesn't hesitate to make.
It's a "trade" that puts the Warriors -- already the favorites to win the NBA title for the second time in three years -- in a position of nearly unprecedented power. Golden State has an unfair level of talent on its team, and it ransacked their top competitor -- perhaps their only worthy adversary -- in the Western Conference to acquire the piece de resistance of the NBA's latest superteam.
Yes, Golden State ended Oklahoma City's title hopes while simultaneously and superfluously improving their own chances to win. The NBA is a cruel business.
Boston should be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference next year, but they are not on the same level as the Cavs -- they're not even that close. As of today, it appears that it would take an injury to LeBron James (and perhaps more) for Boston to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2017 NBA Finals.
The San Antonio Spurs don't match up with the Warriors, who boast two of the top three, and four of the 12 best players in the NBA, all of which are in their primes. Unless Kawhi Leonard makes a Currian leap in offensive production next year, and Tony Parker and Pau Gasol find their legs from the early part of the decade, the Warriors' Death Lineup -- which is now apocalyptic with Durant playing power forward -- will run the Spurs off the court.
No, this league of 30 teams is in all actuality a two-team race. We're on a collision course with Cavs-Warriors III, and LeBron can't look at what's happening in Oakland and like his chances in that rubber match.
The King needs to counter. He can't get a player of Durant's caliber -- the Cavs currently have no salary cap room to add a big-time free agent -- but he can get chasers to join him in Cleveland.
The Warriors and Cavs are now in a penny-ante arms race. It's a quest to see who can get the best players with the paltry options available to them -- minimum-value contracts and mid-level exceptions.
The Warriors will need to fill as many as five spots with minimum contracts; the Cavs may add as many as three minimum deals.
The values of the contracts might be low, but the stakes couldn't be higher -- If Cleveland doesn't land better players to fill out their bench than Golden State does, the Warriors will become even more prohibitive favorites to win the title.
LeBron needs to pull out the stops for this one. He needs to use every tool at his disposal and liquidate every ounce of goodwill he has.
He can start by convincing Dwyane Wade to come to Cleveland.
Those close to the situation in Miami say that Wade is "hurt" and "angry" at how contract negotiations with the Heat have unfolded. ESPN reported Monday that Wade has a two-year, $40 million deal on the table from Miami, but with the way things have gone down, it might no longer be about the money for him. Wade was loyal to the Heat for the better part of a decade, taking less than his open-market value to help the team sign and keep key players and continue winning, but he expected that loyalty to be repaid this season. Instead, Miami's brass took out another mortgage against Wade's lifer status.
(To be fair to Pat Riley and company, Miami didn't have much choice -- Hassan Whiteside's contract situation put the Heat in a precarious scenario.)
Wade has given every indication to the Heat that he's not going to wait for them to do right -- he's leveraging his free agency to get more out of Miami, though it doesn't appear that Miami has much more to offer. The showdown should be over by now.
That said, Miami doesn't (and shouldn't) take threats of big contract offers coming from Milwaukee and Denver seriously -- Wade isn't going to leave Miami for the Nuggets and Bucks.
But he might leave for his good buddy, LeBron.
There are two ways Wade can sign with the Cavs, one is easy to do and difficult to imagine, the other is difficult to do and equally tricky to fathom.
First, Wade could sign with Cleveland for the league minimum or Cleveland's mini mid-level exception, worth about $3.5 million. Is Wade so angry with Miami that he'll tarnish his reputation in Miami -- he's inarguably the most important player in Heat history -- and take a massive pay cut of at least $16.5 million? It's hard to see that happening, but the option is on the table.
Or, Cleveland could pay Wade more -- but not what the Heat are offering -- by moving either Kevin Love or Iman Shumpert, or by renouncing LeBron's massive $29 million cap hold.
It'd be a risky move. The Cavs cannot sacrifice a single player in this arms race with Golden State, so trading someone to make room for Wade isn't a good move. Cleveland has a title-winning base -- it needs to add to that, not subtract.
Having LeBron take less money would also work -- if he was renounced but re-signed with the Cavs, he would still have full Bird rights next year, entitling him to a supermax deal -- but that would only free up roughly $9 million in cap space, from which the Cavs would have to sign both Wade and James. LeBron, who has a massive deal with Nike padding his pockets, could sign a minimum contract after being renounced and giving Wade the remainder, though that would still be less than half of what Miami was offering.
Frankly, it seems like a stretch for Wade to play for Cleveland, and yet it remains a viable option. The only questions that remain are: is Wade serious about leaving Miami, and if so, how much is he willing to sacrifice to help his friend? (And how much is his friend willing to sacrifice in return?)
Clearly, it won't be easy, but LeBron needs to make a splash, and right now, the biggest splash he can make is landing Wade in Ohio.