Short-Term Roster Options for the Cavaliers

Short-Term Roster Options for the Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers got dealt a double dose of bad news on Friday afternoon. First, it came out that Darius Garland is set to miss several weeks due to a fractured jaw. Garland was injured in a collision with Kristaps Porzingis early in the second half of the Cavaliers loss to the Boston Celtics on Thursday. It was subsequently reported that Garland would likely miss a month.

Roughly an hour later it was reported that Evan Mobley would miss six-to-eight weeks due to arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Mobley has already missed the Cavs last four games due to the knee injury.

It’s tough to lose a single starter to injury. Losing two of them in the span of an hour is even harder to swallow. And when those starters are an All-Star (Garland) and an All-Defensive team player (Mobley), it’s really hard to fathom.

As of Friday, Cleveland is 13-12 and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. They’ve had only 11 games with their five starters available. After finishing 51-31 and fourth in the Eastern Conference a season ago, this season has been an injury-marred disappointment.

But all hope isn’t lost for Cleveland. They’ve still got Donovan Mitchell. Jarrett Allen is still backing the NBA’s eighth-best defense. Max Strus could take more shots. Caris LeVert is perfectly capable of increasing his scoring and playmaking. Dean Wade and Georges Niang can help hold down the power forward spot until Mobley returns.

However, it’s rarely about the next man up in the NBA. It’s usually more about who is the “next” next man up. Who steps into the roles behind the backups who have to do more? That’s where problems tend to lie.

For Cleveland, the answers aren’t really clear. When they were in this situation in 2021-22 and needed point guard depth, Koby Altman swung a small trade to pick up Rajon Rondo from the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Cavs have some internal options they could look at, beyond the players already in the rotation that will be asked to do more. And maybe a couple of other players who are out will make their way back into the fold.

One thing is clear: Cleveland needs to find some additional depth for the next several weeks to stay in the playoff hunt. Let’s take a look at where the Cavaliers might find it.

Internal Options

At point guard, Cleveland has some pretty capable options already in the fold. Unfortunately, two of those players are also currently unavailable. Ty Jerome is recovering from a severe ankle sprain that’s kept him out for a month-and-a-half. Ricky Rubio has yet to play this season, as he’s handling a personal situation. It’s unclear when, or if, Rubio will return.

If either Jerome or Rubio were able to go, and the Cavs certainly won’t pressure either of them before they are ready, they’d step in for Dairus Garland. As it stands, the only other actually healthy point guard on the roster is two-way player Craig Porter Jr.

Porter has appeared in 14 games for Cleveland already. The 6-foot-2 playmaker has held up fairly well in backup duty, as he’s averaged 7.2 points in 14.3 minutes per game. Porter isn’t much of a threat from deep, but he’s tough and a good finisher. He’s also got more passing chops than he’s shown in the NBA to this point.

Porter can handle more minutes. But he’s all the Cavs have left at the position at the moment. Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert can play point guard, but both are score-first guys. And neither is ideal for defending opposing ballhandlers.

Also, as a two-way player, there are some issues with relying on Porter to take on a key role over the next several weeks. Players signed to a two-way contract are limited to being on the active roster for 50 games per season. Porter is already at 23 games this season. That’s nearly half of his allotted games. If Garland is out just one month, that would be 13 more games.

That’s not exactly untenable. Cleveland would just have to hope that Garland is back after missing only a month. And, for the rest of the season, they’d have to manage the 14 or so NBA games Porter would have left to be active for.

Up front, the story is a little different. Dean Wade has started the last four games in place of Evan Mobley. It’s likely that will continue. Georges Niang will continue to play a key role off the bench as the backup four and small-ball five.

An additional downside to Mobley being out is that he functions as the Cavs de facto backup center too. Niang can only do so much as a backup for Jarrett Allen. That means some additional minutes could be available for Damian Jones behind Allen.

Jones has been up and down throughout his career. He played well for the Sacramento Kings two seasons ago. Then Jones struggled with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, before remerging with some good games after being traded to the Utah Jazz. Look for Jones to get the first crack at additional minutes, but Cleveland needs to prepared to look elsewhere.

If Niang can hold up to some extent as the backup five, the Cavaliers could have two other two-way players step forward.

Odd as it may be, Isaiah Mobley could benefit from his brother being out. The elder Mobley has seen limited action in his two NBA seasons, but he’s been excellent in the G League over that time. The 6-foot-8 forward has proven to be a double-double threat, as he averaged 22.1 points and 9.9 rebounds over 17 games with the Cleveland Charge. He’s also a decent shot-blocker with 20 blocks over that same set of games.

If Cleveland wants even more scoring punch with upside, they could hand some minutes to rookie two-way player Emoni Bates. The 6-foot-8 wing has seen limited NBA action in seven games, but he’s been tearing up the G League this season. In nine games with the Charge, Bates has averaged 24.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks. Even better than his counting stats: Bates has shot 46.3% from the field, and an impressive 42.2% on a whopping 10 three-point attempts per game.

Outside of the two-way players, Cleveland’s only real hope from their internal options is a return to play for Jerome or Rubio. Otherwise, they’re looking outside of the organization to get by.

Free Agent Options

Cleveland is sitting on an open roster spot. Part of the reason the Cavaliers have an open roster spot is that they are just $752,133 beneath the luxury tax line. The Cavs haven’t paid the tax outside of the LeBron James years in their history. That’s acted as a de facto hard cap on adding salary in recent years.

If the Cavs looked to the free agent market for help, they’d find some stopgap options. The question is if any of those players are worth going into the tax for, or leaving Koby Altman looking for a salary-shedding move to dip under the tax by the trade deadline.

If Cleveland was to sign a free agent ahead of their next game on Saturday, December 16, here’s what they’d be looking at for each tier:

  • Rookie Free Agent: $778,547
  • One Year of Service Free Agent: $1,252,954
  • Two-Years of Service Free Agent (veteran minimum): $1,404,508

That’s the prorated amount for each tier of free agent. Even signing a rookie free agent would see Cleveland go over the tax line.

Now, there are some workarounds here. The Cavaliers could sign a free agent to a non-guaranteed contract, keep them until Garland and/or Mobley returns and then waive that player. Let’s say they need that player for 45 days (allotting a bit more time for Garland to return beyond a month), the Cavs would be on the hook for the following in guaranteed salary:

  • Rookie Free Agent: $289,542
  • One Year of Service Free Agent: $465,975
  • Two-Years of Service Free Agent (veteran minimum): $522,338

That would keep Cleveland clear of the tax line, with a little bit of play, should they need to keep the player longer.

It’s worth noting, if Altman wanted to convert one of his two-way players, they would end up on a prorated minimum contract too. Emoni Bates and Craig Porter Jr. are rookies, while Isaiah Mobley has one year of service.

The other option Cleveland could take is to wait until teams are allowed to sign 10-Day contracts. That starts on January 5, 2024. The 10-Day contract tiers are the following for each 10-Day deal:

  • Rookie Free Agent: $64,343
  • One Year of Service Free Agent: $103,550
  • Two-Years of Service Free Agent (veteran minimum): $116,075

That’s definitely an option for the Cavaliers to fill their open roster, while cycling through different players. Two challenges with 10-Day contracts: First, Cleveland would have to wait three weeks to sign a player to such a deal. Second, teams are limited to signing the same player to only two 10-Day deals per season, before they have to sign them for the remainder of the season.

If Cleveland wants to pursue some free agent options, here are some point guards they could look at:

  • Michael Carter-Williams (Mexico City Capitanes): Carter-Williams isn’t scoring much in the G League, nor shooting well. But he’s played well in setting his team up and he’s played very solid defense. He’s also got loads of experience at the NBA level.
  • Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers): Pippen is playing well for the G League Lakers. He’s scoring and shooting at a solid clip, and he’s been an improved playmaker in his second professional season. He looks primed for a callup.
  • Jason Preston (Memphis Hustle): Preston has been one of the G League’s better playmakers this season. He’s also done a nice job getting to the basket and finishing. Preston also has good size for the position.
  • Brandon Goodwin (Westchester Knicks): Goodwin is forever on the fringes of the NBA. He’s been on rosters as a standard and two-way player. Shooting remains a concern, but Goodwin is a tough defender, good rebounder for his size and a solid playmaker. The Cavs also have familiarity with him from previous stints with the team.

If the Cavs feel they need help up front more, here are some G League options worth a look:

  • Mouhamadou Gueye (Raptors 905): Gueye has been one of the best shot-blockers and rebounders in the G League this season. He’s bouncy and athletic and a good finisher. It’s unlikely he makes it much past the G League Showcase next week without at least a two-way deal.
  • Trey Jemison (Birmingham Squadron): Jemison is in the same vein as Gueye. He’s done a nice job blocking shots and he’s even better on the boards. He’s not quite as strong of a finisher, but he has nice touch out to about 10-15 feet.
  • Maozinha Pereira (Mexico City Capitanes): Pereira is a 6-foot-8 ball of energy. He’s all over the glass on both ends and he’s a physical defender with some shot-blocking ability too. He’s also a good finisher in the paint. Pereira can also step out and shoot it a little bit.
  • Meyers Leonard (unsigned): Leonard finished out the year with the Milwaukee Bucks and looked pretty solid. He seemed to work past the off-court racial slur issue that saw him out of the NBA for near two years too. If he’s in shape and wants to play, Leonard is probably worth bringing in for at least a workout to see where he’s at.

Trade Options

The same luxury tax issues exist if the Cavaliers want to make a trade. They probably be limited in how much money they’d want to bring back. Two years ago, Rajon Rondo was a very easy acquisition, because he was on a veteran minimum contract and the Cavs didn’t have to give up much to get him.

This time around, the Cavs are going to be hard-pressed to find such an easy trade target. However, if they are willing to take on some money in a deal, things will open up considerably. And the easiest way to get there is a potentially uncomfortable path, but a familiar one.

At the 2022 trade deadline, Ricky Rubio was out for the season due to a torn ACL. Cleveland used his expiring contract to acquire Caris LeVert. That July, after Rubio’s contract ended, the Cavs re-signed him to the deal he’s currently on.

If Cleveland wants to make a trade, they might be looking at a similar type of situation. Rubio’s $6.1 million contract is their best piece of salary-matching in a trade, that doesn’t belong to a current rotation player. It might be uncomfortable to trade a player who is away from the team dealing with a personal issue, but the history says it could be something Rubio is amenable to again. $4.25 million of Rubio’s $6.4 million contract is guaranteed for 2024-25, so the acquiring team could treat him as a way to get off some longer-team salary that they may not want.

If Cleveland is open to trading Rubio (and, to be clear, they might need to add someone else to plus-up the salary-matching for a bigger salary), here is a list of some players who make sense as trade targets:

Point Guards

  • Alec Burks (Detroit Pistons): one year, $10.5 million remaining

  • T.J. McConnell (Indiana Pacers): two years, $18 million remaining (2024-25 has $5 million of $8.3 million guaranteed)

  • Jordan McLaughlin (Minnesota Timberwolves): one year, $2.3 million remaining

  • Monte Morris (Detroit Pistons): one year, $9.8 million remaining

Bigs

  • Mo Bamba (Philadelphia 76ers): one year, $2 million remaining (veteran minimum deal, would not require salary-matching)

  • Andre Drummond (Chicago Bulls): one year, $3.4 million remaining

  • Sandro Mamukelashvili (San Antonio Spurs: one year, $2 million remaining (veteran minimum deal, would not require salary-matching)

  • Mike Muscala (Washington Wizards): one year, $3.5 million remaining

  • Kelly Olynyk (Utah Jazz): one year, $12.2 million remaining

  • P.J. Tucker (LA Clippers): two years, $22.5 million remaining (2024-25 is a $11.5 million player option)