NBA Trade Rumors And The Dan Gilbert Narrative

Dan Gilbert

LeBron James made a choice.

It may have been a conscious decision to take the night off, or a subconscious acquiescence to an inexorable force that he simply didn’t think was worth fighting. Whatever happened in Game 5 against the Boston Celtics in 2010, however the hell it went down, LeBron James, at some point, decided that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play his best.

That choice, that decision, that night dogged him. In Cleveland, he was a quitter. In every game he lost after that, he was a choker. He “couldn’t close” or simply chose not to, ceding things to some other less-talented teammate. He was afraid to force the action and get fouled because he couldn’t hit free throws under pressure. He was afraid to take the big shot. He couldn’t make the big shot.

This was beyond Skip Bayless carnival barking on the set of First and Ten. This was the narrative that dogged LeBron James. To the media and general public it served, it became a part of his existence as a basketball player, just as much as his incredible athleticism and statistical output.


Dan Gilbert made a choice. The Cavaliers owner decided to write a comic sans screed, taking dead aim at his former franchise player and looking to move the spurned hometown faithful. It’s often said that he wasn’t writing that letter for a national audience, to throw his name in the story; but rather, he was writing it for the fanbase of his franchise, a letter intended for Northeast Ohio zip codes only.

No matter the intent or audience, that letter will dog Gilbert for the duration of his public life in the NBA. The perception and narrative have been set, the die is cast.

There’s no need to re-litigate the merits of the letter. But the letter had and continues to have consequences. Whether the perception it has created is accurate or not, it’s the top-of-mind item that will color everything as soon as his name is inserted into a discussion.

Why is this relevant now? Because every time you hear the Cavaliers brought up in trade rumors either in a report, or an opinion inside the report, things are almost always extrapolated out to some point weighing Dan Gilbert’s perceived effect on the rumored deal.

This was most acute during the speculated three-team trade between the Cavs, Magic, and Nets. It’s applicable every time the Cavs come up — but what about Gilbert, what’s the consideration or angle we should give him on this one? With the cornucopia of draft picks and cap space, the Cavaliers are continually rumored as a trading partner. And Gilbert is a constant consideration.

A couple highlights from this month, as the Cavaliers were thrown into the Dwight Howard whirlwind. Adrian Wojnarowksi, perhaps the most well-known and respected NBA reporter, inked this during the Nets-Cavs epoch of the Dwight saga:

Several league executives with knowledge of the negotiations believe the small-market Cavaliers had become sensitive to criticism they were contributing to the construction of another big-market super power.

In the same week, Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio fired off this tweet:

Wut? That’s somewhere between an equivocation and a blindfolded throw at a dartboard.

This is not necessarily unique to Gilbert. Plenty of owners have their reputations — Phoenix’s Robert Sarver, Chicago’s Jerry Reinsdorf, New York’s James Dolan. It’s just that the perception of Gilbert lords over everything they do, and the perception, by and large, stems from the comic sans missive.

There was plenty of hand-wringing and worry when Gilbert first bought the team — fears that a slickster hands-on owner would squander the LeBron James experience with a series of reactionary and hasty moves, much like another pro sports owner named Dan who presides over the NFL franchise in Washington. Gilbert came on the scene somewhat loudly and cleaned house, shipping off Paul Silas. But he generally stayed out of things and by all accounts, tried to model his franchise after the San Antonio Spurs, hiring Danny Ferry and Mike Brown.

But now everything is viewed in comic sans font. He’s definitely acted out beyond the original letter, getting into unbecoming Twitter tiffs with bloggisists. Then there was last year’s letter, where he denounced the Hornets trade of Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, calling it a “travesty” and invoking the Washington Generals. He was largely seen as one of the driving forces perpetuating the lockout, playing hardball and stalling a season — another perception he had to combat.

The Cavaliers are trying to move on from the messiness of all this, and the loss of the greatest player in franchise history. They’re generally a well-run franchise and in great shape, with a new hope and a new face. But that narrative surrounding their owner will remain.

LeBron had a far greater ability to control or change his narrative. Dan Gilbert can take on onerous contracts in an attempt to add assets (which basically worked out as well as it could in the Baron Davis trade). Unfairly or not, Gilbert will have to live with the consequences of the perception that’s stuck over the past two years. The discussion of LeBron’s “legacy” prompted much of his narrative. Gilbert is an owner, and his legacy doesn’t matter all that much outside of Cleveland, so winning won’t necessarily change how he’s viewed.

What’s hard to swallow, however, is if that persona and perception start to negatively impact trades. Jason Lloyd, who’s about as plugged-in as you can get on the Cavaliers side, brought a tempered perspective and threw some cold water on the notion that “super team” considerations affected the rumored Nets trade:

 I have tremendous respect for @WojYahooNBA, but completely disagree #Cavs were sensitive to criticisms over trade. They simply didn’t like the deal in front of them. Period.

That’s almost certainly closer to reality than some league executive’s speculation. For LeBron, the reality was that he won countless games in the final minutes of his career, most of them wearing a Cavs uniform and pushing them across the finish line with a W. But the narrative and perception became something wholly different, zoning in on every little thing that would fulfill the preconceived notions and fill out the story.

In reality, Gilbert is likely not affecting potential trade scenarios. But it helps fill out why rumored deals with tons of obstacles never get beyond a reporter’s Twitter feed or Sulia thingy. The outside perception, however, in both the media and executive offices around the league, will remain. Here’s hoping that doesn’t actually become a reason why a team won’t, or can’t complete deal. If it is, those are just some of the consequences Gilbert will have to live with for his choices.

  • Steve

    This overly simplified and incorrect argument keeps popping up. Gilbert has yet to spend real money after the Lebron season-ticket-sale wealth slowed down. Even when they traded for Baron Davis, payroll was a fairly low $50 million and they already sold those season tickets. This despite a system much more favorable to small-market owners than Dolan has to deal with. But go ahead and pretend otherwise.

  • Steve

    Ah, you’re probably young and don’t know any better, so I won’t ruin the dream for you. But a franchise is not simply a toy. I know there’s no changing your mind, but in a few years, you’ll come back and admit how wrong you were.

  • SDA

    IMO that the beauty of it. He’s made good moves ever since LeBum left. In the NBA you can’t buy a team without having a few pieces in place already. Hes set himself up perfectly all the way to the Bynum rumors. He is poised to make the big move if its feasible. If the Dolans were in the same situation they would pass on Bynum and sign a lower tier over the hill player to try and catch lightning in a bottle. Gilbert makes moves because its the right move to make to try and win.

  • SDA

    Many franchises are bought to make money and they never win. The ones that win are those that are toys.

  • Scott @ WFNY

    Great piece, Brendan. And aside from a select few, I’m very impressed with the discussion in the comments as well. Good stuff all around here.

  • SDA

    yeah its been a fun night with Steve. :)

  • SDA

    And I do mean that in the nicest of ways It was fun having a debate with someone. in a civil way

  • A Fan

    Deep pockets thanks to LeBron? Try deep pockets thanks to Quicken Loans. As is the case with most owners, the bulk of his money comes from outside enterprises. James Dolan: Cablevision Systems Corp. Mickey Arison: Carnival Corp. Buss, Reinsdorf, & Sterling: Real estate. The Cavs are just a feather in Gilbert’s cap.

  • Steve

    He may have made good moves since Lebron (we’re all old enough here to not use childish insults), but they haven’t resulted in wins yet. I’m optimistic, but not writing anything down just yet. And we’re rumored to get Bynum because we have cap space, which is because it doesn’t make any sense to go spending money just yet, not because Gilbert is some basketball genius. If the Dolans were in the same situation, things would be exactly the same because the difference between the owners is that Gilbert gets to operate under a salary cap/revenue sharing structure that doesn’t allow bigger markets to completely outbid him for talent. Oh, and that still hasn’t prevented most of Gilbert’s signings from being lower tier or over the hill players, unless of course you were impressed by Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall.

  • Steve

    I know, I know, we all pretend that majority owners fund their sports teams with their bigger enterprises, but nearly every franchise has a bunch of minority owners, and the only reason for that is that the team makes money hand over fist. The Cavs were able to spend a bunch of money because Lebron brought a bunch of money into the organization. If Gilbert was losing money on the Cavs, and pulling money out of Quicken to cover his losses, there would be a lot of pretty powerful people around town up in arms. It’s not happening.

  • Steve

    Well your persuasive examples certainly have convinced me.

  • Rod Miller

    What’s the big deal with the letter for Gawd’s sake. Bigger issues that deserve our time. Had the letter been in Bodoni maybe all would be okay.

  • Rod Miller

    Gilbert is brilliant and wealthy. Obviously he has more than a clue.

  • SDA

    If I’m not mistaken didn’t LeBrick chase away free agents? And didnt we pass on Amare because of LBJ ? Seems to me the reason we didn’t win a championship with him had nothing to do with Gilbert. And I seriously doubt Gilbert would be outbid in Baseball. In fact I maintain that the salary cap kept Gilbert from spending everything he had to bring us a championship. He was constantly over the cap during the last mess when he was going for the ring. Can we say the same about the Dolans.

  • SDA

    yankees, redwings,mavericks there are 3

  • mgbode

    the more you win, the more money they are worth. yes, there are some owners that treat their teams like toys (add redskins and tigers to your list), however a vast majority are in it for the amount that the franchise values increase over time (see Dodgers $2billion sale – a $1.7bil increase during a recession over 8 years of ownership. that’s an extreme example, but lot’s of owners have made a ton of money flipping franchises).

  • mgbode

    the Suns passed on the Amare/Hickson deal, not us.

    LeBron didn’t “chase away” any FAs but there were long rumors that guys like Artest and Ariza wouldn’t sign with the Cavs because he wouldn’t guarantee them that he would be around (and he certainly didn’t do a public/media recruiting buzz like he has done in Miami).

    Final note, Gilbert is too smart a business man to buy the Indians. If he owned them, maybe, maybe, he’d be willing to gamble a $20mil/year loss a couple years just to try to build something and get fan interest up to make up for those losses. But, if it doesn’t work (like 2008), then I largely doubt that Gilbert would just keep forking over $20mil/year when he knows even doing that puts him ~$50mil behind the payroll of the Tigers/White Sox.

  • BenRM

    I care very little about the opinion of the talking heads on the WWSL. They wanted the Dwight to Brooklyn deal to go through b/c it’d make for an amazing storyline. When it didn’t happen the way they wanted, they needed a scapegoat, and Gilbert is a favorite of theirs.

    At the end of the day, the Cavs (rightfully in my opinion) wanted nothing to do with the 2 year, $24 million deal Humphries received.

  • mgbode

    and the rumor was that he wanted more years than that to oblige signing with the Cavs.

  • awesome username

    Gilbert should just do us all a favor and buy the Indians. The one sport where deep pockets can actually make a difference.

  • Steve

    SDA – if there was no salary cap, Gilbert would have been outbid so quick, his head would spin. The Knicks can generate more revenue with an Isaiah Thomas led 60 loss team than the Cavs can generate with Lebron leading them to 60 wins. Gilbert is thanking his lucky stars he got to be in the NBA instead of with the Brewers, who he was too poor to buy.

  • Steve

    About how to make money, in some possibly shady ways. He hasn’t shown he has a clue about how to build a basketball team.

  • Steve

    None of those are toys. All three are well-oiled money making machines. New York and Dallas are huge, rich markets that their owners exploited brilliantly. Detroit is a big market that absolutely loves hockey, no matter how good or bad the team is. That’s another easy exploitation too.

  • Thomas Pestak

    he was taking losses during the LeBron years. Made his first profit in 2010. Do some research before you comment.

  • Thomas Pestak

    Just like players came here interested in a ring from 2007-2010?

  • Thomas Pestak

    Guys, just stop. Someone else has already done the research.

  • floydrubino

    Who cares what Windhorst thinks. He doesn’t know anything about how the cavs selling out would translate into more people going to Gilbert’s casino. Your talking about a team growing in value for the next 7 years. Try taking the amount of people over 7 years that would of gone to the casino because the cavs were the hottest ticket in the whole area. Try selling those luxury suites when you are the 4 or 5 seed in the east at best with these picks. Gilbert lost out on so much because lebron was the one of the most popular athletes on the planet. My estimate could be under because look at how people have already forgotten how lebron played cleveland because he won a ring. If we didn’t get Kyrie think where our franchise would be with Gilbert and Grant making these other draft selections. Take Kyrie off the team and all gilbert has done is draft the players that didn’t have the most upside at the time they were picking because they are hand selecting certain positions. It’s the wrong way to do it until we are a title contender already.

  • Paul Talbott AndTina

    lets just say i would much rather have Gilbert owning the Cavs than that loud mouth Mark Cuban that never shuts up and makes a ass out of himself regularly at most every home game.

  • cavs sucks

    obviously they will profit cause all of the season tickets and deals from tv, advertising, etc were made before lebron departed. without james they will pay less salary for players that’s why they profited, but it didn’t happen on the season after cause no one wants to watch the game anymore. cleveland sucks and the owner invested on useless players except for james last time. and you are so retarded for not knowing all of this