Somehow, the NBA Draft Could Be Determined by Patrick McCaw

Patrick McCaw signing with the Toronto Raptors should be mundane news. The 23-year-old is a largely unremarkable shooting guard joining a roster full of wings. Yet McCaw will likely be in the headlines for weeks, and not because of anything Raptors-related. Between Golden State, where McCaw played last season, and Toronto, where ESPN reported he’s planning to sign, McCaw made a pit stop by signing in Cleveland. Now, the Warriors are accusing the Cavaliers of foul play, and have filed a formal complaint to the league, which is now investigating if Cleveland had colluded with McCaw and signed him with ulterior motives.

It’s a complicated mix of cap terminology and conspiracy, but the results of the NBA’s impending investigation could have a resounding impact on Cleveland’s future as a franchise. Have questions? Here’s a quick explainer to get up to speed:

Why isn’t McCaw still with Golden State?

McCaw couldn’t come to an agreement with the Warriors during his restricted free agency last summer. The front office offered him a two-year, $5 million contract that was partially guaranteed, but McCaw turned it down and subsequently refused to sign a qualifying offer. As the regular season tipped off, McCaw held out and created one of the more bizarre side stories in the Warriors’ superteam era.

On December 28, the Cavaliers offered McCaw a two-year, $6 million contract, none of which was guaranteed. Because McCaw was still a restricted free agent, the Warriors had the right to match and retain him, but Golden State is already deep into the luxury tax. It would’ve cost the team three times the money to keep McCaw: Per ESPN, matching would’ve bumped the Warriors’ luxury tax bill another $11.3 million to a total $61.6 million. So the Warriors let him go, and he became a Cav.

Why was his stint with Cleveland so short?

The Cavaliers had a tight window—three games—to release McCaw before the league’s annual deadline that guarantees all previously non-guaranteed salaries. McCaw would’ve been guaranteed $3 million had Cleveland kept him; instead, they cut him right after three games. Upon first look, it’s a raw deal for McCaw: He left a championship team to go to Cleveland and made just $323,529 out of his possible $6 million in the process.

But getting the ax freed him of all binds, including his restricted status. Once McCaw cleared waivers, he became an unrestricted free agent, which allowed him to sign with the Raptors for the veteran minimum. His one-year, $786,211 deal with Toronto is still a pretty substantial haircut, but at least he got the chance to freely shop around and find a team that wanted him.

Why would Cleveland get in trouble?

Golden State is essentially accusing Cleveland of having bad intentions. Allow The New York Times’s Marc Stein, who broke the story, to explain:

Teams and players are forbidden from making “unauthorized agreements” based on deals that are “expressed or implied, oral or written” or include “promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent, or understandings of any kind” with respect to a player contract.

If the purpose of signing and releasing McCaw was either to do him a favor —i.e., to liberate him from contractual obligations to the Warriors—or to simply stick it to Cleveland’s frequent Finals rival, then the Cavs would be violating league rules.

What happens if the NBA finds that Cleveland broke the rules?

Unauthorized agreements can be punishable with heavy fines and the loss of draft picks. Because Golden State filed a formal complaint, Cleveland could be fined up to $6 million for wrongdoing done while McCaw was still with the Warriors franchise. Further, if any connivance was discovered between McCaw’s camp and the Cavaliers—like agreeing to sign and release him—Cleveland could lose its 2019 first-round draft pick.

What does Cleveland have to live for, if not its 2019 first-round draft pick?

Not much! The Cavaliers have stunk their way into the worst record in the NBA (8-34). The worst three teams will each have a 14 percent chance of landing the top overall pick in the draft, and it’s highly likely that Cleveland is one of those squads. And this isn’t just any old year to lose a chance at the top overall pick: Zion Williamson could be at stake. The Cavs’ draft pick vanishing into thin air could radically alter the franchise’s rebuild and have repercussions throughout the league as a whole.

That scenario still seems somewhat unlikely, given all the hoops the NBA will have to jump through to prove that McCaw and the Cavs had an agreement, but it’s still possible that when the league announces its findings, a draft pick disappears. McCaw is already a two-time NBA champion with the Warriors, but if the Cavs were found at fault, this would be his greatest contribution to the Golden State-Cleveland rivalry.

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