From the time Dan Gilbert purchased the Cavaliers more than a decade ago, he made it clear he would spare no expense to bring a championship to Cleveland. Even as strands of confetti lay strewn across the city, however, Gilbert is still writing checks.
Barring any lineup changes, J.R. Smith’s new contract will give the Cavs the most expensive starting lineup in NBA history. Smith’s deal, which the team announced on Saturday, brings the salary of the Cavs’ starting five to about $100 million in a year the salary cap is $94 million. Roughly half the teams in the league are projected to have payrolls under $100 million.
Before the current television deal sent the salary cap and tax threshold soaring, $100 million payrolls in the NBA were rare. Now half the league has them. But $100 million on five players? Never before. Even the Golden State Warriors, after adding Kevin Durant, will pay their starting five about $73 million this season.
The Cavs’ championship cost Gilbert $54 million in luxury taxes last season, the second-highest tax check ever written behind only the $90 million check Mikhail Prokhorov wrote for the Brooklyn Nets’ second-round exit in 2014. Yet even in a year when Gilbert lost millions, he’s back to do it again. The final numbers won’t be known for months yet, but Smith’s signing means the Cavs are again projecting a payroll and tax bill totaling about $160 million.
“Bringing J.R. back as part of our core group was a priority for us,” Cavs general manager David Griffin said in the release announcing Smith’s signing. “He’s a special part of this family and we are very pleased to have reached an agreement that we all can feel good about.”
It took a few weeks, but the Cavs ultimately gave Smith what he wanted. They were previously hesitant to commit long term to Smith, but now they’re guaranteed to pay him for the next three years. The fourth and final year on his deal is not fully guaranteed.
Smith’s contract means the top nine in the Cavs’ rotation is now under team control for at least the next two seasons. Channing Frye and Mike Dunleavy will be free agents in 2018, and LeBron James and Iman Shumpert have the opportunity to join them. Kevin Love is under team control through the summer of 2019 and Smith, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson are under team control through 2020.
As for the megabucks starting five, the only wrinkle could be if coach Tyronn Lue juggles his starting lineup. Lue has hinted in recent days he might experiment with his second unit and offered a curious response when asked specifically about Frye.
“We can definitely experiment with him because with his length he can guard 5s in the post, so he can play 4 or 5,” Lue said. “But right now I’m envisioning something else to start the season, something we’ve been thinking about doing a little different. We’ll see how it works.”
Lue has reiterated throughout the preseason he wants to limit some of the pounding Thompson takes against the league’s bigger centers. Whether or not he is considering swapping Frye for Thompson is pure conjecture at this point, but if he leaves things the way they are, the salaries going to the starters will be historic.