Before we even start, let me first apologize. I asked everyone to believe and I dared to try to offer us hope, and it turned out to be nothing more than a fool’s errand. The Boston Celtics are a better basketball team than the Cleveland Cavaliers, especially when LeBron’s elbow is so injured he can’t even dribble a basketball without losing control of it. It seems easy to see now in hindsight, but the Celtics are such a complete team with at least 3 future Hall of Fame players (who are all still capable of playing at a high level) and 4 real All-Stars. The Cavaliers had the oldest player in the league in Shaq (and we laugh at the Celtics’ age….hah), 2 underperforming and nonproducing pseudo All Stars in Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams, a couple role players in Anderson Varejao, Anthony Parker, Delonte West, and Jamario Moon, and a high energy, promising young player who started 73 games this year but suddenly lost his playing time once playoffs started in JJ Hickson. Oh, and they had about 50% of LeBron James. That’s why yesterday I was all “Rise Above” and today I’m all “Bloodbuzz Ohio”.
This one hurts. Deeply. I can’t get my head out of this rut and I’m physically sick to my stomach as if the girl I was madly in love with just told me “listen, we need to talk”. Here I thought this relationship was great. Maybe not perfect, but we were working on it all the time and I was sure we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. And in the course of a week, everything fell apart and I realized our relationship was nothing but a sham. A facade. An illusion wrapped in misguided reason.
In a world where Vince Carter lasts longer in the playoffs than LeBron James does, nothing seems to make sense. Just 5 days ago I was positive the Cavs were ultimately going to win this series and that the Cavaliers were a Championship caliber team. Had LeBron James left the Cavaliers, I felt good knowing that the Cavaliers as an organization did their part. Now? I’m not sure what to think. The illusion that LeBron has a better chance to win here than in New York is shattered. If LeBron stays and the Cavs want to contend for a title, this roster needs a complete overhaul, no different from where the Knicks are right now. But at least the Knicks have already trimmed all the fat.
And the Bulls? Forget about it. There’s no comparison between what he could have there and what he has here. You throw LeBron James on that Bulls team that gave this Cavs team fits for 5 games, and you instantly have a team infinitely better than the Cavaliers. Sure, if Mo Williams, Delonte West, and Antawn Jamison played to their normal levels, the Cavs might be better than the Bulls, better than the Knicks…..even better than the Celtics. But at some point you realize guys are who they are. There’s a difference between regular season players and postseason players. The Cavaliers lack postseason players.
So LeBron is gone, right? Well, not so fast. That’s not what I’m saying. LeBron still has plenty of great reasons to stay in Cleveland. I’m just saying that for the first time, I can see that Cleveland doesn’t offer him the best chance to win a Championship. So if Cleveland wants to become the team that LeBron needs in order to stay, then we’re about to see some major changes.
First of all, I don’t see any way Mike Brown keeps his job. And as much as I support Mike Brown and think he’s an excellent basketball coach overall, he has some major weaknesses that are preventing him from getting the job done. The Cavaliers passed on Amare Stoudemire in part because they didn’t want to give up JJ Hickson, and Mike Brown proceeded to throw him on the bench for the vast majority of the playoffs. That move alone completely disrupted the flow and momentum that these players had. The 4 games of rest was misguided in retrospect. Not realizing that Jamison can’t defend Garnett sooner than Game 6 was a major misstep. Coach Brown has been given ample time and plenty of tools, but he’s lost this team and it’s time for a new voice to take over.
As for the roster itself, nobody should be secure on this team. While I think Anderson Varejao and maybe JJ Hickson, Delonte West, and Jamario Moon are serviceable rotation guys, the Cavaliers must do anything and everything to improve the quality of players on this team. If you have to give up a Varejao or Hickson to make a major upgrade, you have to do it. Nobody needs to tell you how important keeping LeBron is.
So if we take LeBron out of the equation for a second, let’s examine the roster and salaries for next season again. Here are the players with fully guaranteed contracts (including Sebastian Telfair, who has a player option that he will without question pick up):
In April the NBA announced they are projected a $56.1 million salary cap for the 2010-11 season. That leaves the Cavs with $11,547,059 to spend. Until you factor in LeBron’s cap hold, that is. Even though he’s a free agent, LeBron’s salary (actually, 105% of his previous salary) still counts against the Cavs until he either signs elsewhere or the Cavs renounce his Bird Rights. So if LeBron stays, his max salary will be 105% of his previous salary, which comes out to $16,568,908. No matter what else happens, if LeBron stays in Cleveland, the Cavs are over the cap and are at the mercy of trades and the Mid Level Exception to make improvements to the roster.
There are a couple guys missing from the roster above. Shaq and Ilgauskas are both free agents. Delonte West’s contract isn’t guaranteed, the Cavs have a team option on Leon Powe ($915,852), and they can make Jawad Williams a qualifying offer of $1,029,000. The Cavs have Shaq’s Bird Rights, but they lost Z’s Bird Rights when they traded him. This means that unless Z is willing to come back for the Veteran’s minimum, we’ve almost certainly seen Z play his last game in Cleveland. As for Shaq, while he says he wants to come back and the Cavs could bring him back with his Bird Rights, I don’t see any reason for the Cavs to do so no matter what LeBron does. It’s time to admit that bringing him to Cleveland didn’t work and to move on.
What the Cavs do with Jawad Williams really doesn’t matter all that much. We know he can play a little, but he’s not going to ever be a playoff player. There’s no reason not to pick up Leon Powe’s option. At that salary he’s a bargain and it will be nice to see what he can give when fully healthy and has training camp to work his way into the rotation. As for Delonte, if LeBron stays I think the Cavs should and will bring him back. However, if LeBron leaves, Delonte’s $4,500,000 salary isn’t worth hanging on to.
We can talk about free agents later once we have more info on who is staying and who is leaving across the league, but one thing stands out to me. The Cavaliers’ primary problem is that they went for broke this season and failed. Last offseason, they had a choice. They could save cap space and make a run for another major free agent to bring in with LeBron, or they could use all their assets to make a Championship run in 2009-10. They went for the latter, and I still think that was the right decision. You have to strike while you can, and the best way to keep LeBron was always going to be to win a Championship and prove to him it can be done in Cleveland.
So they spent a lot of money to keep Varejao in Cleveland, they traded for Shaq, they used almost all of their cap exceptions to sign Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, and Leon Powe to multi-year deals. They traded for Antawn Jamison and took on his contract long term. They did all this to build a deep roster with the versatility to match up with anyone. Once the playoffs came, though, and Mike Brown shrunk the rotation and refused to use the team’s depth and versatility to adapt to the Celtics, and other players flat out disappeared, it left the Cavaliers stuck with what they have this year. Which makes the grass on the other side appear all the more green.
Had Danny Ferry known this would be the result, I’d imagine he would have done things differently. So as much as it’s tempting to say shame on him for putting the Cavs in this position, it’s fundamentally and factually wrong for us to do so. Ferry gave LeBron a great roster. He gave LeBron the best regular season team in basketball. And almost everyone bought into it, from fans to the media. Everyone thought the Cavs were a great team who would be facing off with Orlando to fight a great battle to see who got to play for a title. I hope LeBron can remember that as well.
I’m not going to speculate at all on what LeBron’s actually going to do. I have no clue, and I have no inside information. I have absolutely no idea what LeBron truly wants and where his head is at. Scott pointed out that LeBron has plan, and we have to just wait it out (side note: isn’t it funny that LeBron hasn’t thought about it at all, yet he has a game plan that he is going to carry out?). If LeBron wants to remain loyal to this area and to define his legacy here with a franchise that will never stop supporting him (and building around him and striving to improve the team) and fans who will love him (as long as he’s winning), then staying in Cleveland is a great option for him. If LeBron wants instant gratification and a chance to win a Championship in 2011, he’s going to leave and go someplace else. It’s really just that simple.
The Cleveland Cavaliers franchise as a whole is about to go through the roughest offseason in team history. Coaching changes, possible front office changes, roster overhauls, and the specter of LeBron James walking out on us all. It’s too overwhelming to think about, and yet the reality of it is so palpable. I mentioned yesterday that “in the flash of a moment everything can change forever”. I meant it in a different, more positive context, but life doesn’t always work like that. Understanding how everything came crashing down like this defies explanation.
They say it’s always darkest before the dawn. I hope that’s true, because I’m ready for the dawn of a new day. I’m ready for the next era of Cavalier basketball, whatever that may entail. I hope it’s the next era of LeBron James. Losing LeBron will be the most painful sports loss of my life. But it’s important to remember, we were Cavs fans before LeBron, and we will be Cavs fans after LeBron. Life will go on, and the team’s quest for a Championship (no matter how successful or unsuccessful that may be) will go on as well with or without LeBron.
And hey, at least we still have Christian Eyenga to look forward to someday, right?