Caris LeVert makes $17 million this year for the Cavaliers. In the NBA economy, this makes him middle class. How do you get to the middle class? Well, you show enough to tempt a team to give you serious money, but also enough flaws to keep them from giving you a max deal.
LeVert fits this bill perfectly. Once a month or so, he will produce a game that reminds you of peak-level Kobe, with thirty-plus points on strong efficiency and good peripherals. For a brief moment, he will be good enough that you are willing to wait through a month of ball-stopping and indifferent defense just for the next glimpse of what could be.
The ball-stopping and the defense are why LeVert is not a star, along with a career’s worth of so-so three-point shooting. There is also his health. His career high in games is 71, and teams are hesitant to give big deals to guys who miss a third of the season on a regular basis.
Being in the middle class entails being constantly involved in trade rumors.
LeVert has been traded twice since he signed his current contract with the Nets, and he seems likely to be traded by the Cavaliers before this season’s trade deadline. There are reasons for this beyond LeVert’s personal strengths and weaknesses. Most NBA trades need to align on a salary basis. Players making less than LeVert are less likely to move the needle enough to be serious trade targets, and players making much more are either too valuable to trade or are underperforming their deals and thus hard to get rid of.
LeVert’s fit with the Cavaliers also makes a trade likely. His skill set is somewhat redundant on a team with two ball-dominant guards in Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. Levert has fit in somewhat as a scorer off the bench who gives the starters a breather and keeps the offense humming, but that role might diminish when Ricky Rubio returns after the first of the year.
There’s also the current construction of the roster to consider. The Cavs have four-fifths of a championship lineup, but few options for filling the remaining hole at small forward. Utah owns much of their future draft capital thanks to the Mitchell trade, and cap space will be next to nothing once Evan Mobley’s rookie deal expires and he gets a megadeal to go with those already signed by Mitchell and Garland.
The Cavaliers have a hole to fill on the wing, and trading Levert is the best way to do it.
It’s hard to see the Cavs reaching the next level as a contender without addressing the small forward position. The ability of the guards to penetrate and the interior skills of Mobley and Jarrett Allen mean that someone who can reliably hit open threes from the corner would have immense value. Isaac Okoro and Lamar Stevens, the best defensive options at the three, don’t have the shooting chops to hold down the spot as starters.
Cedi Osman provides shooting and energy in spurts but lacks consistency. Dean Wade might be the best option, but his best long-term role might be as depth at power forward, as the Cavs are only a Kevin Love injury – a situation that seems more likely just from having uttered it – away from being critically thin in the frontcourt (and Love’s contract also expires after this season).
So a trade in which LeVert’s salary is swapped for someone who can guard wings and be effective without the ball might be the only way to meaningfully upgrade the roster, either in the short term or down the road.
The fact that LeVert’s deal expires after this season increases the urgency because it makes it valuable to a team that wants to shed a longer-term deal, like Charlotte with Gordon Heyward or Detroit with Bojan Bogdanovic; and also because if LeVert leaves as a free agent next year, the Cavs might not be able to replace him with similar talent or salary because of the salary cap rules.