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Cunningham coming on for Cavs

CLEVELAND — There are plenty of items on Jared Cunningham’s wish list. He wants to play. He wants to be on the Cavs roster at the end of the season. And he wants a handshake — one of those secret, choreographed maneuvers all the cool kids get.

The first two items are out of his control. The third might just be a matter of time.

Cunningham, a first-round draft pick out of Oregon State in 2012, has gravitated toward LeBron James during his first season with the Cavs. That’s the way James prefers it. He typically seeks out the younger players on the roster and becomes a bit of a mentor to them, inviting them to team dinners on the road and counseling them on life in the NBA.

“Now we just need a handshake,” Cunningham joked.

If he sticks around long enough, he might just get one.

Cunningham is going to prove an interesting test case to Dan Gilbert’s beliefs. The Cavs owner said prior to last season and reiterated again this season that after investing so much, it’s foolish to pull back at the margins. Cunningham personifies the margin.

He is not a core piece. This is his fifth team in four years — his draft rights were traded to Dallas before he had a chance to suit up with Cleveland. There is a chance, however, that he is a late bloomer and at 24 is starting to figure things out. He has always been considered to have a good defensive skill set, but rarely did it transfer onto the court, until now.

Cavs coach David Blatt has been so pleased that he gave Cunningham his first NBA start Friday in place of the injured J.R. Smith.

Still, it’s an opportunity after he beat out Quinn Cook for the final roster spot. Cunningham caught Blatt’s eye early, defended well in camp and throughout the preseason while leading the Cavs in scoring. The scoring part didn’t matter as much as his athleticism and defense.

“He can help us,” James Jones said of Cunningham. “We need him to help us. He brings what we don’t have.”

Jones loves how Cunningham can play both guard spots and the way he runs the floor. A team with three stars like the Cavs when they’re whole can really cripple opponents when complementary pieces like Cunningham add easy transition baskets. And he’s making less than $1 million this season.

So what’s the problem?

The Cavs are so far over the salary cap that Cunningham’s $980,000 contract is actually equivalent to $5 million Gilbert will have to pay when salary and luxury taxes are combined. He is the only player working on a non-guaranteed contract, meaning the Cavs can release him before Jan. 10 when all contracts become guaranteed and significantly reduce their tax bill.

The team still has two months to make that decision. If Cunningham has integrated himself into this system by then to the point that Blatt and general manager David Griffin want to keep him, it’s highly likely Gilbert would allow them to keep him. There could be other, more creative ways to trim the roster and tax bill.

Joe Harris has struggled in limited time, but his spot is secure because of his guaranteed contract. The Cavs could try to trade him for a second-round pick, particularly since they likely won’t own any picks in next summer’s draft and are short on second-round picks for the next few years. But there is risk with that, too. The Cavs gave up too soon on one of their own high second-round selections a few years ago and kept Manny Harris over Danny Green.

Green was waived a couple more times, but now has flourished in a San Antionio Spurs system surrounded by stars. That’s not to suggest Harris is the next Danny Green, but the Cavs love to surround their Big Three with as many shooters as they can find. Harris, despite his numbers, remains a better long-range shooter than Cunningham.

For now, however, Cunningham has clearly passed Harris on the Cavs’ depth chart. And if everyone is healthy in June, neither will likely hold much of an on-court role with this team.

If Cunningham is still here in June at all, a lot went right for him this season. Including, perhaps, his own handshake.

Cleveland's Jared Cunningham, left, drives against New York's Langston Galloway in a recent game. AP PHOTO