It’s hard to say if there’s really ever such a thing as a wasted season. I suppose fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers would think back to the 2002-03 season and consider that a wasted season. If you recall, that was the season the Cavaliers hit rock bottom and gained the fortune of winning the draft lottery and the right to draft LeBron James.
Of course, in retrospect, winning that lottery was akin to Hurley from the TV show “Lost” using cursed numbers to win the lottery. Hurley’s “good luck” initially gave him great fortune, ultimately brought him nothing but misery and heartbreak before leaving him stranded on a bizarre island where he had to search for his redemption. It would seem the Cavaliers can relate to that plight these days, as LeBron James brought the franchise nothing but ultimate misery and heartbreak before leaving the team stranded in an isolated wasteland.
Yet, if we think back to that 2002-03 season, was it really a wasted season? Sure, the team went 17-65 and played in front of an average attendance of just 11,497 (worst in the NBA). It wasn’t much fun and local interest in the team probably sank even lower than national interest in the team. Nevertheless, that season was building toward something. It was a necessary step in a natural process that ultimately led to some of the highest moments in the franchise’s history. It took the Cleveland Cavaliers to a place that all fans desperately want the team to get back to.
It would be so easy for us to write this season off completely. Call it a waste and try to forget about it completely. After all, this is a team that was built to play around LeBron James. When you remove the most talented player in the NBA from the lineup, bad things were bound to happen. Now the team is decimated by injury, has lost the heart and soul of the team for the season, and their collective spirit was absolutely crushed in the December 2nd embarrassment in front of the entire world against LeBron and the Miami Heat.
It would be so much easier for us to just forget and move on. Yet, to call this a wasted season would be a mistake. In that 2003 season, the Cavaliers did indeed find themselves in the necessary position of finishing tied for last to ensure their split of the most lottery combinations with Denver. That was the good news. The bad news was that they had strip the team of virtually all talent to get there. In fact, when LeBron James led the Cavaliers into the playoffs just 3 seasons later, the only player remaining from that 2003 team was Zydrunas Ilgauskas. In order to get LeBron James, the Cavaliers had to rid their team of almost every player worth keeping.
This year, the Cavaliers may find themselves in a different situation, and this is why this season shouldn’t be looked at as a total waste. Make no mistake, there is no LeBron James waiting for the Cavaliers in the draft pool. LeBron was a once in a lifetime type of player and personality and the Cavaliers had their chance with him and ultimately fell short of their goal. This time, though, the Cavaliers can try a different approach to rebuilding.
The Cavaliers are in the midst of one of the worst stretches of basketball in franchise history. They have lost 17 straight games and an astounding 27 out of their last 28 games. That’s a .0357 winning percentage over those 28 games. Their (-11.16) average margin of victory is not only dead last, it’s almost double the 2nd to last team, Minnesota (-5.89). They are 30th in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency. This is a bad basketball team and they currently have a 2 game cushion for the race for best lottery odds.
In addition to the prospect of adding quality players through the draft, this season is a learning experience for most of the current players, as they now have to learn to deal not only with losing, but also how to play without an elite talent like LeBron James around to mask everyone else’s deficiencies. Obviously the players are struggling with that now, but I believe that the struggles this team is going through this year will make this a better team going forward in the future.
The rebuilding process isn’t going to happen overnight. The team is looking at many years of building ahead of them. Yet this organization can use the lessons from their failures with LeBron and the ultimate fallout of this season to try to build a more complete team from this point going forward. Instead of having massive turnover the minute they bring in a top level talent like they did last time, they can and should use some of the materials that currently exist to build a cohesive team around the talent that is acquired in the draft.
The Cavaliers are in position to have top picks in the next several drafts, giving them the chance to add young talent to guys who have stepped up this year and proven they can play. The win loss record is atrocious, but are you telling me that Daniel Gibson and Anderson Varejao can’t be a part of this organization throughout the rebuild? This season has shown us that the Cavaliers can actually rebuild while holding on to some of their more valuable assets. This is a luxury they didn’t have last time.
Sure, Carlos Boozer was around when LeBron James joined the team, but he would leave the team after LeBron’s rookie season. By the start of LeBron’s sophomore year, he was more or less doing everything by himself, with some help from Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden. The player the Cavaliers draft this time around won’t have LeBron’s talent, but what he will have is better supporting talent than LeBron had and he will walk into a situation with a more team-oriented approach to basketball.
At the end of the day, none of this is to say that this season hasn’t been difficult. It’s been one of the most difficult things to go through that I have ever experienced as a Cavs fan. Going from first to worst in one season isn’t a feeling I wish anyone to ever have to feel again. And I’m not here right now to say that it’s going to get better any time soon. Rather, this has been a season that has placed a permanent scar on all of us. Some people hide behind their scars. Others wear their scars as a point of pride, a sort of everlasting reminder of a pain they have overcome.
How the Cavaliers organization deals with the scar that is the 2011 season will define the legacy of this franchise over the next decade. Ultimately, the success or failure of this process will come as a result of the players the Cavs draft. If they draft well and find impact players, though, then this season won’t be a total waste, because the lessons of this season and the memory of where this franchise had to go to return to the top are lessons that will never be forgotten. Without a couple of extremely successful drafts, however, the Cavaliers are going to struggle in their rebuilding process. If anything, that’s the lesson that this season has taught us. Without top level talent, the ability of supporting players is wholly unimportant, no matter how well those supporting players might play.