ATLANTA -- At February's trade deadline, Dan Gilbert mulled a $32 million decision as his general manager waited for an answer.
The night before, the Cavs had agreed to trade Anderson Varejao to the Portland Trail Blazers, a move that had been under discussion for weeks. It was a costly deal from an asset standpoint, requiring the Cavs to give away a popular player plus a first-round draft pick.
It was a straight money deal, it was going to save the Cavs' owner around $50 million this season alone because his Cleveland Cavaliers are so deep into the luxury tax that every dollar they were spending was costing them $4 in tax. Varejao was an extremely popular player but there was a push to get off the contract, which became a problem after Varejao tore his Achilles in 2014.
The Cavs could've stopped right there, deal Varejao and call it a deadline. It was an option on the table. An option that made major sense. They were in first place. They were deep at every position. They were still facing paying $27 million in luxury tax, still far and away the most in the league.
Channing Frye first visited the Cavs in 2009 when the team was desperate to add shooting as LeBron James was headed to the final year of his contract. The front office then was convinced he was a great fit with James. But Frye longed to play in Phoenix, where he had dreamed of playing with Steve Nash since he was in college at Arizona, and he signed there instead.
In 2014, Frye was a free agent again. David Griffin, who helped recruit him to Phoenix over Cleveland five years earlier, was the new GM in Cleveland and trying to do it again. He sold Frye on playing with Kyrie Irving and told him about plans to sign free agent Gordon Hayward. They swapped numbers and approached a deal. Then James' agent called about his return to Cleveland and the breaks were slammed. Frye ended up in Orlando.
Now it was 2016, and Frye and the Cavs were moving into alignment again. Griffin was competing with the Los Angeles Clippers to get Frye from the Magic. Griffin could get him for a second-round pick -- the Magic preferred the Cavs' deal -- but the catch was the Cavs had to swallow Frye's contract.
Since Gilbert bought the Cavs in 2005, he'd spent a total of $50 million in luxury tax. There are 20 other teams who haven't paid a total of $28 million in tax (Frye was also owed the balance of his salary that got the total investment to that $32 million number) this deal was going to cost in their franchise histories.
Would Frye, who averaged five points and three rebounds for the Magic, really make a difference?
The answer came Friday night when he scored 27 points off the bench as the Cavs took a 3-0 series lead on the Atlanta Hawks. Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks' outstanding coach, tried a strategy change to double team the Cavs' guards and stifle their 3-point shooting barrage they'd been leveling Atlanta with early in the series.
As the Cavs struggled with the traps, their main antidote, Kevin Love, got into foul trouble. Their offense got stuck and the Hawks took an 11-point second-half lead. Then coach Ty Lue went to Frye, the option that became available with the February trade.
"I think every night I just know I need to go out there and do my job," Frye said. "I kind of figured I'm 7-foot so they're not going to block it, so I shot it."
Frye didn't even play in Game 1 of the Hawks series. There might be other playoff games in which he doesn't play. But on Friday he went 7-of-9 from beyond the arc.
"That's what we brought him here for," James said. "We brought him here to shoot. And shoot and shoot and shoot. He did exactly that."
Having a player like Frye is indeed a luxury, the definition of the system in question. Gilbert, who attended the game, saw exactly where his money went.
When the Cavs announced the Frye deal, it was presented as a three-team trade with the Blazers and Magic. By moving Varejao and Jared Cunningham, a side player in the deal, and taking on Frye, the Cavs announced they'd saved $15 million in salary and tax this season.
This was true and a point of pride for Griffin, who perhaps felt the need to justify why he'd used a first-round pick to facilitate the deal. A trade that saved money and added a potentially useful player? That's a good trade deadline day indeed.
But those inside the Cavs knew it was actually two separate deals, and Gilbert had to be willing to green light. That includes James.
For all his past issues with Gilbert -- there are scars both men will forever carry and their trust level will always probably tenuous -- he knows he'll spend. It was one of the reasons James came back to Cleveland, because Gilbert will spend.
Frye knows it, too.
"When I got traded here I knew there was responsibility to come at the level these guys are playing at," Frye said. "[Magic coach] Scott Skiles told me, 'Hey Channing man, you're a great player, you're going to help them win a game in a series, you know. You're going to help them win a game and do some bigger things.' I always think about that."