Following and writing about the LeBron James fallout in Cleveland has been miserable. Fatigue has set in, and fans are growing more and more weary about reading about LeBron. “It’s time to move on” is a common theme amongst fans, and I get it. Trust me, I’m sick of writing about him as well. While I can’t promise I’ll never write about LeBron James again, what I can promise is that as time goes on, the focus on Cleveland basketball will shift from what was to what is to what will be.
Believe it or not, I’m eager for the 2010-11 season to start. I’ve already begun laying the ground work on team capsules for my season previews, and I’ve begun to think more heavily about what the Cavaliers will look like this year. I think the Cavaliers team is full of proud players who have grown accustomed to winning. Often times, the hardest part about rebuilding a franchise in any sport is turning around the culture of losing.
Thankfully, in Cleveland, the Cavaliers’ culture of losing is a distant memory. With Z and LeBron’s departures, there are no Cavaliers left who know anything but winning in Cleveland. Anderson Varejao knows nothing but winning. Daniel Gibson knows nothing but winning. Same with Leon Powe and JJ Hickson. Mo Williams has been instrumental in Cleveland making the leap from good team to elite team.
I’m not here to sell rainbows and lollipops to everyone, but the point is that turning around a culture of pride and winning isn’t automatic. These players have heard the doubters and the proclamations of the end of basketball in Cleveland. I’m excited to see a new system, a new coach, and a new team full of overlooked players who will have to band together in an us-against-the-world mentality in order to have any chance of even being respectable. It’s a challenge, but challenges can be fun.
Of course, no matter what happens this season, though, 2010-11 is a transition season for this franchise. No matter how much I may enjoy, as a basketball fan, watching how this group of players reacts to adversity, the reality is that this is nowhere near a Championship contending team. Even if the Cavaliers were to pull off a major coup and somehow use their trade exception to land a new franchise player to build around (and really, that’s not going to happen), they still lack the assets to compete in a new mega-team landscape where Miami has their Big 3, Boston has their again Big 3, and New York is about to have a Big 3 (when Carmelo and CP3 end up there, which will happen).
So for the Cavaliers to get back to where we all want them to be, they are going to have to put in a lot of hard work and make a lot of hard choices. ESPN’s Chad Ford and John Hollinger recently ranked all 30 NBA franchises based on expected success over the next 3 seasons. They ranked the Cavaliers 28th, ahead of only the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Bobcats. Their reasoning?
We hate to pour salt on the wound, but LeBron’s “Decision” destroyed his hometown franchise now and for the foreseeable future. Cavaliers fans continue to insist that it’s the way LeBron ditched them that has caused so much anger, but over time, the real pain will be watching this Cavs team without him.
In his open letter condemning LeBron, owner Dan Gilbert guaranteed the Cavs would win a championship without their former star, but that’s easier said than done. Cleveland traditionally has not been a top free-agent destination. Now, the team has another problem: Gilbert’s heat-of-the-moment diatribe against LeBron was read by players around the league, and a number of player agents have told us their clients don’t want to play there after seeing how Gilbert treated a guy who made him hundreds of millions during the past several years. In any case, as we’ve seen this summer, players just won’t flock to Cleveland without the lure of LeBron.
The roster itself is another weak point. Mo Williams, Ramon Sessions, Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson are good pieces but not the kind of young talent that could carry the franchise forward in future seasons. The Cavs lack trade assets as well.
Cleveland did get a bounty of draft picks from Miami in the LeBron sign-and-trade. But given how stacked the Heat are right now, those picks likely will be the worst in the first round — and the Cavs aren’t going to replace LeBron with a series of No. 30 draft picks.
To be fair, you have to take anything agents say with a grain of salt. Their job is to drive prices up, so of course they will say their clients don’t want to play in Cleveland, It will drive up the price for the Cavaliers to sign anyone. The truth is, though, this is nothing new for the Cavaliers. I’ve written in the past about Cleveland’s problems luring free agents to town. Prior to signing Parker, Moon, and Powe this last offseason, the list of free agents to sign with the Cavaliers after the Larry Hughes debacle were Dwayne Jones, Scot Pollard, David Wesley, Devin Brown, Cedric Simmons, Tarence Kinsey, and Lorenzen Wright (RIP). Critics want to say Gilbert’s letter hurts Cleveland’s chances of signing free agents….so what? Free agents don’t want to come to Cleveland anyway.
The way the Cavaliers will rebuild is the same way they always have. They will use the draft and trades to bring in players. For all the talk of players not wanting to come to Cleveland on their own, those who are forced to come to NE Ohio either via trade or draft never seem to complain too much. Especially with Dan Gilbert at the helm, the Cavaliers have been transformed into a first class franchise. They have state of the art facilities including the impressive Cleveland Clinic Courts and a revamped locker room. Gilbert has shown he’s willing to spare no expense to put a world class product together from top to bottom. Despite common perception, the Cavaliers actually have a loyal and passionate fan base. What Cavs fans may lack in numbers, they make up for in passion and in noise in the stands.
The Cavaliers will always have plenty to offer free agents as long as Dan Gilbert is the owner of this franchise. Signing free agents is a concern, but money talks and time heals most wounds. Just as time will eventually ease the pain over losing LeBron and the public humiliation he set on this franchise, so too will time slowly wipe away doubts in free agents minds about Dan Gilbert as an owner. Time may not change the perception of Cleveland as a city in the minds of professional athletes, but as long as Gilbert continues to take care of his players and treat them well, word will spread and the stigma surrounding his letter will subside.
Besides, there are plenty of smart and rational players in the NBA. I’m sure in a moment of honesty most would admit that they understand it was a heat of the moment error in judgment on Gilbert’s part and that no other player could ever be so important to Gilbert and the Cavaliers as to warrant that kind of reaction. This was a once in a lifetime kind of hurt and pain, and I have to believe most people realize this, whether they choose to admit it or not.
I don’t know what the Cavaliers rebuilding process will look like, nor can I even imagine what this team will look like 3 years from now. What I do know is that even though Gilbert has his doubters and his critics, he’s yet to lose my support and I don’t think the impact of his letter to Cavs fans will have quite as strong of a negative impact on this franchise as most believe. After all, LeBron turning his back on the Cavaliers did a thousand times more damage to the franchise than any letter from the owner could ever do, and that’s all that matters. LeBron James is the reason the Cavaliers are in the position they are in right now, not Dan Gilbert.