After LeBron: Does Cleveland Have a Plan B Without James?

Workers remove the Nike LeBron James banner from the Sherwin-Williams building near Quicken Loans Arena on July 3 in Cleveland. LeBron's second spell in Cleveland has ended after four years. Jason Miller/Getty Images

It has been less than three days since it was announced that LeBron James will join the Los Angeles Lakers next year, but the deal has already been dissected to the most microscopic details.

Lost in the flurry of "What will the Lakers look with LeBron" headlines, there is the small matter of a franchise, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for whom the move is going to have as big an impact as for the Lakers.

Much like Los Angeles, Cleveland is also on the verge of a new era but if the wind of expectation has swept through California, the chilly gust of trepidation is slowly settling in Ohio.

For the first time in four years, Cleveland has to get used to life without LeBron and the fact his departure might have been on the cards for some time does not make it any easier. The Cavs made the NBA Finals in each of the last four seasons since LeBron returned to Ohio in 2014, but that chapter is over and odds on the Cavs winning the title next season went from 25/1 to 500/1 once his departure was announced.

Similarly, bookmakers currently offer an over/under 29.5 games for the Cavs' next season, despite the fact they won over 50 games a year in the last four consecutive seasons.

2018-19 NBA win totals (Bovada):@cavs OU 29.5@Lakers OU 53.5

— Odds Shark (@OddsShark) July 2, 2018

Cleveland knows all about the impact of losing the best player of his generation and went 97-215 during LeBron's spell in Miami and 4-23 in games without him over the last four years. To put the size of the number 23-shaped hole that has opened in Ohio into context, it is worth considering that last season the three-time NBA champion led the Cavs in points and assists and was third in rebounds.

The Cavs will get a lot worse without LeBron but the key for them is finding a way to do so without undermining what already looks like a bleak future even further.

What will Dan Gilbert do?

That responsibility falls on the front office and, arguably for the first time since LeBron returned to Ohio, the ball is firmly in Dan Gilbert's court.

While the Cavs owner thanked LeBron in a statement and was a lot more magnanimous this time than he was when the four-time MVP left for Miami in 2010, some suggested his life was made a lot easier by the latter's decision.

"Dan Gilbert does not mind the thought of LeBron James leaving at all," ESPN's Steven A. Smith said on First Take.

"Matter of fact, I had one executive tell me, excuse me, I can't wait until he leaves because I'll get my team back. This is something that Dan Gilbert has actually echoed."

Conversely, however, even if Gilbert wanted to chase a big-ticket free agent to partially offset the blow of losing LeBron, his task would be almost impossible.

Cleveland has limited room for maneuver in the market and is already capped-out until the end of next season, at least. Kevin Love, the best player on the Cavs' roster, is under contract for another two seasons and will pocket $24.1 million next season, while George Hill, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Korver are owned a combined $71.2 million.

At the same time, apart from Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto, the Eastern Conference is mediocre enough to allow even a LeBron-less Cavs to reach the postseason.

However, that would not be in their best interest as their current roster would not stand a chance against the young Sixers nor the Celtics, who will have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back next season.

Time to trade Love?

Trading the former for very little return last summer might have accelerated LeBron's decision to leave but, ironically, it might also pave the way for Cleveland to tank, which is probably their best chance to rebuild a winning team a few years down the line.

The key to the Cavs becoming a 20 to 25-win team next season is Love. In June, ESPN reported Cleveland was not actively seeking to trade the five-time All Star regardless of LeBron's decision, a position which was reaffirmed by sources quoted by Joe Vardon of last week.

However, The Athletic reported Tuesday that the Cavs appeared to have change their minds and they are open to moving the 29-year-old, who averaged 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds last season.

Cleveland has tried to trade the power forward multiple times in the past and while he might not command as big a return as he would have had a few years ago, the Cavs would still be able to get some draft picks while moving their biggest earner off their books.

The prospect of receiving one or more draft picks would be appealing for the Cavs, who owe their first-round pick next year to Atlanta if it falls outside the top 10.

At the same time, the odds of Cleveland winning the draft lottery as they did in three of the four years after LeBron left for the first time look remote at best.

That might not necessarily be a bad thing either, given their disastrous selection of Anthony Bennet at number one pick of the 2013 draft had long-lasting effects, which partially contributed to the current situation.

The King has left and it could be a long wait before a new coronation takes place in Cleveland.