James’ camp and the Cavaliers’ front office have maintained a regular dialogue since the season ended, sources said. James’ agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, informed the Cavs on Friday morning that the four-time MVP would not opt in to the final year of his contract; he was scheduled to make $35.6 million in 2018-19.
Paul, who represents several other players entering into free agency — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Nerlens Noel among them — will conduct all his business over the phone when free agency begins, sources told ESPN.
It is unclear at this point if an in-person meeting between James and the Cavs has been scheduled down the line. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported this week that James would not be seeking elaborate pitch meetings during the free-agency process.
Had James opted in on Friday, the Cavaliers’ brass would have considered that a bad sign, as they believed his biggest motivation to do so would be to accommodate a trade to another team that didn’t have the cap space to sign him outright, such as the Houston Rockets.
As it stands now, the Cavs believe they are still in the mix to retain James and can offer significantly more money — $207 million over five years, compared to $152 million over four years — than the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers, the other two teams seen as the most likely suitors.
A source familiar with the Cavs’ thinking said re-signing James is Cleveland’s “Plan A, B and C” when it comes to free agency.
Cleveland is already over the league’s projected $101 million salary cap, even without James’ contract, with the 10 guaranteed contracts already on the books. The Cavs’ $3.4 million qualifying offer to make Rodney Hood a restricted free agent, as first reported by Cleveland.com, would bring the total to 11 players.
James would be the 12th, which means Cleveland will only be looking to fill two or three open roster spots as it is.
Teams can carry a maximum of 15 players. The Cavs, however, will likely keep at least one roster spot open so they can guarantee Kendrick Perkins‘ $2.5 million contract, in the event they find a trade partner that will require Perkins’ salary to be added to the deal to make the math work.
The Cavs have the $5.3 million taxpayer’s midlevel exception available to them to spend on free agents, which they could offer to one player or try to split between two players in order to offer a slight premium over the veteran’s minimum.
A league source familiar with the Cavs’ thinking told ESPN that the franchise has found it difficult to plan for its full team around James with the way he has approached his free agency, which could prompt hesitancy by free agents or trade partners to complete deals with Cleveland in the interim.
Yet whatever pitfalls that might come with how James goes about his decision, the Cavs, according to the source, are still very much hoping to re-sign him.
Cleveland has a couple of other veterans from last year’s team set to be free agents — Jeff Green and Jose Calderon — but neither is considered a “first-pass” guy and should be still on the market after the Cavs have figured out James’ plans.
While it could seem like the Cavs are in for a relatively quiet free-agency period outside of the James pursuit, the summer was preceded by a bevy of activity arranged by general manager Koby Altman, from trading for Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and George Hill in February to drafting point guard Collin Sexton with the No. 8 pick in June.