American sports have become enamored with future value. This dynamic is probably best illustrated through the ‘Process’-era Philadelphia 76ers, the most hyped team in NBA history that has yet to play a playoff game. Even outside of Philadelphia, however, potential success has repeatedly taken precedence over actual results. When the up-and-coming Minnesota Timberwolves began to consider trading for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, some observers objected on the grounds that Butler—a star in his prime—was too old to fit the team’s timeline. When the Boston Celtics consolidated valuable assets in a trade for Kyrie Irving, they were accused of mortgaging their future for the elite player. This line of thinking is not limited to basketball. When MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers acquired a pair of all-star outfielders last Thursday, they were criticized for overcommitting to a rebuilding team.
Yet the Brewers, like the teams before them, understood that future value is only useful if it maximizes the club’s chance to win a championship. This particular lesson has been lost on the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland owns one of the most valuable assets in basketball: the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick. Were the Cavaliers to offer the Brooklyn pick in trade, it would yield a star player that could change the team’s playoff fortunes. However, Cleveland has refused to put the pick into any potential deals.
Failure to trade the Brooklyn pick would represent incredible shortsightedness on the part of the Cavs. The Cavaliers have a rare chance to compete for an NBA title this year, something that can only be said about a handful teams. While they will never be favored in a Finals series against the Warriors’ Death Star, a savvy trade could make them true championship contenders. To this end, the Cavaliers must follow the the Brewers’ example and strike while the iron is hot.
What the Brewers Got Right
Last week the Milwaukee Brewers stunned the baseball world with two momentous transactions. The organization traded for Miami’s Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain in free agency, adding two star players in a matter of hours. While the moves undoubtedly improved Milwaukee’s 2018 roster, they received ample criticism. To obtain Yelich, the Brewers had to give up three of the team’s top prospects, including #1 prospect Lewis Brinson, one of the most promising outfielders in the minor leagues. Acquiring Cain was similarly costly. The Brewers committed five years and $80 Million: a large chunk of change for a club in baseball’s smallest market. And while Cain has been worth that figure in years past, he will turn 32 when the season begins and is in the decline phase of his career.
What’s more, the Brewers were seemingly in the midst of a rebuild. Milwaukee had a surprisingly competitive 2017, but the team was not expected to be a contender in the coming season. Most believed that the Brewers would have been wise to continue developing their young players and focusing on the future; few would have advised a win-now move.
The Brewers’ weakness on paper is borne out in the projections. Fangraphs has the club slotted for a 77-85 record—even after accounting for the new acquisitions. While other projection systems have them faring much better, it is clear that success is not the least bit guaranteed, despite the big moves. Did the Brewers jeopardize a promising rebuild for the sake of mediocrity?
The answer, in short, is no. By turning future assets into real value, Milwaukee’s front office made the best decision for the club. While the team was forced to part with promising players, it also shed a considerable amount of risk. Prospects like Brinson offer tantalizing upside, but there is a very real chance that the player yields no value whatsoever. Indeed, Fangraphs’ projection system estimates that there is a greater than 50 percent chance that Brinson’s career value will be less than Christian Yelich’s production last season. The Brewers were able to consolidate their collection of risky prospects and emerged with a bona fide star.
This dovetails into a second important point: Christian Yelich is a darn good player. He has been a top-ten outfielder by Wins Above Replacement over the past four seasons. He can play centerfield, he can hit and he is one of the best baserunners in the league. Just as important, Yelich is under contract at a bargain rate until 2022. Players like Yelich are the crown jewels of most franchises; the Marlins were only compelled to trade the player as part of an ownership-mandated teardown. Christian Yelich should be a part of successful Brewers teams for the next half-decade.
While the Miami fire-sale netted the Brewers one star, anomalous free agent inactivity allowed them to collect another. As a team with piddling resources, the Brewers very rarely land marquee free agents. The $80 million pledged to Cain represents the largest contract in team history and it is barely more than 4th starter money in today’s MLB. In most years, the Brewers would have been outbid in their pursuit of Cain, another star who has been even better than Yelich.
However, this offseason has been unusually quiet and most free agents remain unsigned, even as spring training approaches. Baseball’s richest teams are avoiding the luxury threshold, severely limiting their free agent budgets. The San Francisco Giants, for example, are a big-market team with a desperate need at centerfield. Yet the Giants are under the tax line by less than $5 Million, taking them out of the running for Cain. Other teams are simply staying away from free agency, instead focusing on younger (and cheaper) players. This inactivity left a gaping window open for Milwaukee, whose dollars could go further than ever before.
The Brewers capitalized on an anomalous offseason and have emerged with a contending team. Even though a division title will be a big ask, the Brewers are in a good spot to compete for a wild card at the very least—and wild card teams can certainly be World Series teams. The Brewers ended 2017 with volatile prospects and unusually valuable cash; they have entered 2018 as the clear winner of the offseason.
The Cavaliers’ Conundrum
The Cavs also have a chance to compete in 2018, but unlike the Brewers they seem reluctant to take it. This will be the last year, most likely, of Lebron James’ tenure in Cleveland. The best player alive will become a free agent after this season and while it is possible that James will re-sign, most signs point to an exit.
Even at age 33, James makes the Cavaliers instant favorites in the Eastern Conference. Despite his generally lackadaisical approach to the regular season, he is an All-Star starter and MVP candidate. There is a reason that Lebron has participated in seven consecutive Finals; his mere presence makes a team a juggernaut. This is especially impressive in the NBA, whose playoffs reward excellence and root out the weak. While a wild card underdog may have a chance in MLB, only the best of the best compete for NBA titles.
Given how difficult it is to build a contending team in the NBA, any year with title hopes must be milked for all that it’s worth. For the Cavaliers this means that the time to win is right now, when Lebron James remains on the roster. Despite the team’s struggles in the month of January, an injury to the team’s all-star center, and a series with the Warriors looming, the Cavaliers have a team with a genuine shot at a championship. It is their duty to exchange the Brooklyn pick for anything that will help in this pursuit.
Trading the pick would yield a substantial upgrade; it is by far the best asset in the league available for trade and is easily worth a star player in return. For instance, the Cavaliers could use the pick to trade for Kemba Walker, the Charlotte Hornets’ elite point guard. A deal built around the clearly hobbled Isaiah Thomas and the Brooklyn pick would add an incredible amount of offensive talent to the Cavs. Indeed, while Walker’s Hornets are a dismal 21-29, the team has a point-differential of a 55-27 team when Kemba is on the floor. The deal would also satisfy Charlotte owner Michael Jordan’s demand that the club receive an “all-star” (i.e. Thomas) in return.
A Walker trade could yield other valuable pieces as well, if the Cavs wished. Players like Charlotte’s Marvin Williams and Nicolas Batum could certainly help Cleveland. Both offer three-point shooting and can play solid defense in the switching scheme that is required against Golden State. Moreover, both players are overpaid on their current contracts and the rebuilding Hornets would gladly shed their salary.
While trading the Brooklyn pick could earn the Cavaliers a championship banner, retaining the draft selection would be holding on to future value to no end. For one thing, the odds that the pick yields a star player are low. While high draft picks are among the best ways to acquire a star, the probability of selecting one is low in absolute terms. Even if the Cavaliers retain the pick, their immediate future will not be bright. Cleveland will be capped out and devoid of many assets, even if Lebron leaves. No matter what happens before the February 8 trade deadline, the next good Cavs team is many years away. It would be foolish to sacrifice the current great Cavs team on its behalf.
In short, the Cavaliers and Brewers found themselves in similar situations this winter. Both had flawed rosters, but also shared a unique opportunity to compete this season. The Brewers capitalized and constructed a team primed to make the postseason for the first time since 2011. The Cavaliers have faltered thus far, apparently hesitant to go for it one last time with Lebron James on the roster. Hopefully they will realize their mistake before it is too late; future value is all well and good, but flags fly forever.