During the whole NBA offseason to date, there has been speculation that LeBron James might return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A question I have had throughout that process is, “Uhh, why?”
Yeah, James just went to the NBA Finals with the Cavs, and they probably would have done better if he hadn’t been nursing a broken hand after JR Smith blew Game 1 in the JR Smithest fashion imaginable. And yeah, James is an Ohio guy who’s going to be competitive and a big money-maker wherever he chooses to ply his trade.
But good lord, the Cavaliers are one of the most embarrassing collections of marginal- and no-talent players around a superstar in sports today. This is a team that got dragged kicking and screaming to three consecutive Finals by the greatest player in NBA history and, even if he had been replaced by a slightly less-impactful All-Star player at the same position, the Cavs probably would have gotten crushed by the Raptors in the second round.
So LeBron could go to LA or Philadelphia or any other number of clubs with actual good players at multiple positions, and that would be a big improvement for him, professionally. The idea that he would stick around in Cleveland out of, what, loyalty? It’s absurd and little more than a nice story the people of Cleveland will tell themselves rather than having to walk into the Cuoyhoga over their prodigal son choosing to leave for the second time in a decade.
The reason I bring all this up is because the Islanders are still, inexplicably, rumored to be in the running to win the John Tavares sweepstakes.
Again I ask: “Uhh, why?”
At least with the Cavs, y’know, Kevin Love and Ty Lue are there. And at least LeBron knows that his quality alone allows the Cavs to be meaningfully competitive in a relatively weak conference (for now.. give the Celtics and Sixers a year or two and some health). And at least people show up to Cavs games. And that every person in Quicken Loans Arena can see all parts of the playing surface. And at least they don’t have to wait multiple years to get an arena that will actually be worth going to. And at least they’re not the, what, seventh-biggest team in town. And at least the Cavs have been good in the recent past, though again, that’s largely because of LeBron’s presence alone. And at least LeBron is from a town 45 minutes away.
The Cavs can, in theory, point to all of these things even as they woo LeBron in a token effort to keep him around, which everyone knows he’s not going to do.
So why on earth would Tavares, whose current team boasts no meaningful supporting cast apart from Mat Barzal and now, Barry Trotz. And no ability to be meaningfully competitive in a division with a number of elite teams even if he returns. And no fan support. And a horrible arena situation that’s years from being resolved even if an end is finally in sight. And no one in the local media paying attention (for good reason). And no chance to improve to “Cup contender” status any time soon. And no local ties apart from the fact that he’s been employed there for a decade.
The Islanders cannot, then, reasonably make the argument that Long Island is the best place for Tavares to ply his trade for what will likely be the remainder of his career, especially because their new GM isn’t exactly a guy with a track record of luring or retaining top talent since everyone got over their Y2K worries.
Like, honestly, what do the Islanders have to offer Tavares besides, “You’ve been here awhile, yeah?” as though that’s not somehow a drawback? They have money to spend, I guess, but looking at how they’ve spent it in the past — Andrew Ladd for five more seasons at $5.5 million, Johnny Boychuk for four more at $6 million — and what Lou Lamoriello valued as GM of the Maple Leafs, Tavares shouldn’t exactly be filled with hope that top talent is going to be coming aboard any time soon.
What’s more likely? That Lamoriello uses his ample cap space to pursue, say, James van Riemsdyk in addition to Tavares, or that he gives Roman Polak $3 million dollars over multiple seasons? Because you have to say that if Lamoriello retains Tavares successfully, it would be the first time he got a top UFA to stick with one of his teams in quite some time. Dating back as far as Scott Niedermayer, this is a guy who can’t get elite players to stick with his program, and besides, when was the last time the Islanders got a coveted free agent under the age of 30 without overpaying him to an absurd extent?
And this history, by the way, is from a budget team, which makes the misallocation of every dollar even more impactful on the team’s ability to compete.
One assumes that any presentation the team made to Tavares highlighted a real internal plan to improve, but over what period of time does that plan unfold? How many wins does Barry Trotz add to the kitty? How much do some of the prospects that could make the roster this season actually bring to the table? These are all important questions and I don’t think the answers are really there for the team to actually appear attractive.
This team missed the playoffs by 17 points last season and without a goaltender addition that’s going to deliver them, I don’t know, .920ish save percentages all season, that’s a huge gap to have to make up. Even with Tavares, the best player the franchise has had since its dynasty days, they’ve been out of the first round of the playoffs just once since 1992-93. And they’ve missed the postseason altogether at a 2-to-1 ratio over that span.
What’s going to change now?
While Tavares is certainly no LeBron James in terms of talent and impact (hell, even Connor McDavid isn’t), he’s certainly the biggest-name UFA to hit the market in the past decade. As such, he’s going to be able to punch his own ticket, meaning that the ask from all five or six of the teams now being considered — including the Islanders — is going to be more or less the same. The Islanders have the advantage of being able to offer the extra year at $10 million AAV or whatever the number is, but once you’re absurdly wealthy like that, the extra year might not be as important as “Legend Status.”
The problem with the NHL, I think, is that guys are too loyal to their teams. Why, for example, did McDavid sign himself up for eight years of misery in Edmonton when he could have signed a deal that got him exactly as far as UFA status and bounced out of that joy-vacuum of a franchise? Tavares did the same thing, and in fact took a hometown discount to do it, but to a lesser extent.
One would hope, for his sake, that he doesn’t make the same mistake this time. One would hope, for his sake, that his rumored interest in the Islanders is just a case of him being polite.
Because much like the basketball world at large should be a little bummed to see LeBron have to grind out another season with that collection of players in Cleveland, no one who lives more than an hour from the LIE should want a talent like Tavares to waste eight more years with this dead-end franchise.
It’s bad for him and it’s frankly bad for the sport.
But take heart, Islanders fans. Maybe they’ll get another kick at the can with Jack Hughes.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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