In the podcast I did with Craig over the weekend, we talked a bit about the Miami Heat winning streak and whether it’s actually as impressive as it seems. Now, don’t get me wrong, winning 27 straight games in the NBA is always impressive. I cannot emphasize this enough…Their run is amazing.
Yet, I still can’t help but feel underwhelmed by it when I look at the rest of the NBA. I think this is a one team league right now. We can debate whether that’s more about the dominance and greatness of Miami or more about the lackluster play of the rest of the Association. I personally think a team doing this in the late 80s/early 90s when every team had a star would have been more impressive. In this current climate where all the stars are migrating to a select few teams, it has created a situation where Miami can beat arguably 85% of the other teams without breaking a sweat.
But even on those teams who have been arms race winners (Clippers, Knicks, Lakers), only the Clippers are really a threat to Miami1. Instead, it’s the two home-grown teams (Thunder and Spurs) who appear to be the biggest threats to the Heat’s throne. That’s not to discount the Nuggets, who are a patchwork team that is exceeding everyone’s expectations. Or Memphis, who is 5th in the West but would be 2nd in the East.
The point is, even as Miami is “just” 3 games above San Antonio for the NBA’s best record despite playing in the vastly inferior conference, the Heat are still the juggernaut that everyone else is chasing. They are the Champions wearing the crown until someone can steal it off their heads.
For the Cavaliers, that’s the goal. It’s not going to happen this season. It almost certainly won’t happen next season. But the 2014-15 season is where this thing is headed. That’s the focal point2 for the Cavaliers current rebuilding plan. But I’m not necessarily talking about LeBron James here.
Sure, the most literal way to steal the Heat’s crown would be to lure the King back to his home. Putting LeBron James on a team with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, and whatever likely top 5 pick the Cavaliers get this year would instantly re-shape the Eastern Conference and vault the Cavaliers back to one of the top slots of the conference.
But what if LeBron doesn’t come back to Cleveland? Is that game over for the Cavaliers? Do the Cavaliers need LeBron James to return to prominence?
I ask these questions because Marc Stein dumped a huge bucket of cold water on any idea of LeBron returning to Cleveland in the Weekend Dime. Stein went in depth to lay out some really great reasons why any thought of LeBron returning to Cleveland in 2 years is ludicrous.
It’s just one man’s opinion there. He has no more insight into LeBron’s thinking than anyone else. You might think Brian Windhorst has more perspective than Stein, especially after reading his recent take on LeBron’s next Decision. But remember, last time around, Brian was just as wrong as Stein was in saying they felt LeBron would stay in Cleveland.
And that’s the point. Nobody makes decisions for LeBron. He’s going to make his next Decision for his reasons alone, and trying to project those reasons is futile. At the end of the day, I agree with Stein that the thought of LeBron turning his back on Dwyane Wade seems far fetched. No matter how exciting the thought of LeBron’s return is for some, we have to maintain perspective here and understand that Miami is the overwhelming favorite to retain LeBron’s services. Nothing will be worse for Cleveland sports fans than to unrealistically get hopes or expectations raised, only to have them crushed by LeBron again. Cleveland seems to finally be getting over LeBron leaving, lets not open new wounds here.
That’s not to say it’s hopeless. Lets keep our fingers crossed behind our back. But don’t be crushed, let down, or angry if/when LeBron stays with his BFF in Miami.
So with that all said, lets forget about LeBron on the Cavaliers for now, and focus instead on LeBron in Miami and how the Cavaliers can beat them. Because if Cleveland wants to win an NBA Championship, eventually it’s going to have to come by going through LeBron James and his Miami Heat.
2014-15 remains the key season. I’d like to hope the Cavaliers are getting the injury bug out of the way this season. If they can stay healthy next year, I have to believe they will be back in the postseason. By 2014-15, hopefully the Cavaliers will have made the right moves to be a team with postseason experience ready to make a move up the Eastern standings.
But how do they get there? That part of the equation might start as soon as this offseason.
Buried in his cold water dousing of the rumor mill, Marc Stein mentioned this point:
Rival executives know what the Cavs are trying to do with all those future first-round picks and all that cap space they’ve amassed: Trade for (or sign) a Kevin Love-ish complement to Irving to really make The Next Decision tough.
Ok, fine, it could make the Decision 2.0 a little tougher. That’s all good, but that’s not what I find compelling about this. The more compelling point is that even if LeBron says no, landing a Kevin Love-caliber talent would be a major coup for Chris Grant and a quite satisfying consolation prize in the LeBron sweepstakes.
I’ve long thought that this should be the Cavaliers’ goal with all of these assets they’re stockpiling, but this is the first I’ve seen a reporter come out and actually say it. The Cavaliers have options, and now is the time for them to start using their options to build a team for 2014-15. Not to entice LeBron James back, but to take advantage of the assets they have and get this team back into some degree of title contention.
Do you know how many players have a fully guaranteed contract for 2014-15? The answer is zero. Zilch. None. The Cavaliers have team options on Anderson Varejao, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, and Tyler Zeller. Clearly some of those players will be picked up. Also, I think there’s a good chance Wayne Ellington is re-signed and maybe Shaun Livingston as well. Same with Marreese Speights. But as of right now, no players are guaranteed roster spots in 2014-15. This is remarkable flexibility for the franchise.
It’s not just about current players. The Cavaliers also have a plethora of future draft picks coming their way. In addition to their own picks (the Cavaliers owe no future picks to anyone), they could have as many as 7 extra draft picks through 2015, plus the ability to swap the Lakers pick this year with the Heat pick.
All of this adds up to just a ridiculous number of options going forward for the Cavaliers. We’re talking an almost literal unlimited potential for deals, picks, trades, signings, etc. So to predict any one move is awfully tough to do at this point. But it’s reassuring to know that big moves are likely coming.
One of the biggest moves could come this offseason. With Anderson Varejao already done for the season and Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters looking like they could both be done as well, the Cavaliers are cruising for a bottom 3 spot in the NBA standings. In other words, a top 5 pick in this year’s draft is looking pretty good. But what if the Cavaliers don’t use that pick?
One of the most intriguing options for the Cavaliers would be to trade their pick. Everyone talks about the Thunder model of team building, but what about the Celtics’ model? Remember, once upon a time they were a bad team with Paul Pierce, some intriguing young players, and a top 5 draft pick. They turned those assets into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. What if the Cavaliers were to package this top 5 pick, a player like Tristan Thompson or Anderson Varejao, and other draft picks and/or players for something like a couple star players?
In my opinion, the Cavaliers do not need LeBron to get back into some form of contention. But they need to make some big moves to bring in some elite talent quickly. With this season that has devolved into another #TankStrong campaign, following the Jon Leuer trade, the asset acquisition phase can come to an end. It’s time for the Cavaliers to start turning these assets into real pieces of the puzzle.
I’m not saying the Cavaliers will, or even should, trade their first round pick3, but I am saying that they ought to be shopping that thing around like crazy. See what’s out there, see who’s willing to make a deal.
Waiting for LeBron is a dangerous strategy. He’s the best player in the world by a country mile and that’s not likely to change any time soon. So by all means, pursue him. But don’t sit on your hands until that time. LeBron or Bust is too risky of a strategy for me4. The Cavaliers already made the mistake of not surrounding a superstar with other star players. Lets not go down that road again.
So no, the Cavaliers don’t need LeBron to contend again. But they do need to add some much better players to this team. I like every player on this team on a personal level. But as much as I like some of these guys, the talent level just isn’t where it needs to be. Using acquired late first round picks and second round picks isn’t likely to change this. The way for the Cavaliers to get to where they want to be is eventually going to require using these assets to acquire star-quality players. Hopefully that starts sooner than later. Because while everyone is talking about LeBron’s next Decision, Kyrie Irving’s “Decision” is going to come quicker than we realize.
and probably not a serious threat even at their best [↩]