MILWAUKEE: Right about the time the Toronto Raptors were finishing off a gory victory over the gloomy Cavaliers on Tuesday, my email inbox and Twitter mentions began exploding with complaints about the Cavaliers. Four days later, it hadn’t stopped.
Byron Scott needs to be fired. Dan Gilbert is cheap. Chris Grant is ruining the franchise. And on and on and on.
I completely understand why fans are frustrated. The Cavs have already endured losing streaks of six, four, five and six games. Progress has been difficult to see. Tristan Thompson certainly hasn’t improved offensively and appears to be regressing. Kyrie Irving’s turnovers are climbing, and his on-court demeanor appears to be eroding.
The players are frustrated and the coach is frustrated. They entered Saturday’s game at Milwaukee with the second-worst record in the NBA, and they have the league’s worst record over the last three seasons.
But you can stop asking for changes at the top. They aren’t coming.
Gilbert made it clear before the start of the season that he was firmly behind this rebuild. He has complete faith in Grant’s plan and Grant has total faith in Scott — which is why he quickly picked up the option year on Scott’s contract for next season.
I wrote during training camp that this year had the makings to be completely opposite of the last two seasons, when the Cavs got off to decent starts, only to helplessly watch the season crumble around them.
This had all the ingredients for a terrible start — even before the injuries to Irving and Dion Waiters — but the potential for a stronger finish. Ten of their first 14 games were on the road, and so many sets of back-to-backs have left them with only one day of practice every week for about the last month. So little instructional time is debilitating to a young team that needs the extra work. Add in the time missed by Irving and Waiters, and essentially one month of this season was a complete loss.
The bottom half of the Cavs’ roster could be lopped off, and only their families would notice. But when a team is committed to building through the draft, they can only go so fast. The Cavs have added two first-round picks each of the last two years, and they’ll add two more next summer.
They have signed only one unrestricted veteran free agent each of the last three offseasons (Joey Graham, Anthony Parker and C.J. Miles). That was by design. The total spent thus far in free agency is less than $6 million total on all three — couch cushion change compared to today’s NBA standards.
Cleveland fans understandably don’t want to hear about giving any team in town more time. They’ve waited 48 years for a championship and the final grains of patience tumbled through the hourglass about the time LeBron James left for South Beach.
Unfortunately, there is no other alternative, given the path the Cavs have chosen. And they have chosen this path because Grant and Gilbert steadfastly believe it is the only way to truly build a championship contender in this market.
There is a chance it won’t work. In fact, there’s an excellent chance it won’t work. For every success story such as Oklahoma City and Memphis, there are countless other teams such as the Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards, Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Bobcats and Minnesota Timberwolves who have spent years bouncing around the draft lottery with little hope of truly escaping.
The odds are against this working, but the Cavs see it as their only chance. They could sign a few more free agents, climb to around .500 and even make the playoffs as a No. 7 or No. 8 seed, but that will be their ceiling. It won’t get much better, and it certainly won’t end with a championship.
Grant has tried for years to trade for a star. Not surprisingly, none is available. He tried using the No. 4 pick a couple of years ago to land Al Horford, but the Atlanta Hawks said no, so the Cavs selected Thompson.
Grant has checked on the availability of LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol. He has explored taking Pau Gasol off the Lakers’ hands. And after Kevin Love blasted the Minnesota Timberwolves organization in a recent Yahoo Sports story, Grant checked in to see if they had any interest in moving Love in a package built around Varejao. The answer was no.
At the start of the season, I was convinced this was the year the Cavs would trade Varejao. It still might happen, but barring an unforeseen injury to a contender, it’s looking as if Varejao will end this season in Cleveland. There simply isn’t a deal out there right now that makes sense for both sides. The Cavs want a lot for Varejao and see no reason to drop the asking price.
The most logical fit from their perspective is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have a top-three, protected lottery pick from the woeful Toronto Raptors in next summer’s draft, along with young players like Perry Jones III and Jeremy Lamb.
There’s only one problem: The Thunder have shown little interest in acquiring Varejao, according to two league sources. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti has big concerns over whether Varejao can defend Western Conference centers such as Gasol and Dwight Howard in a seven-game playoff series. Equally important, Lamb has really struggled with the Thunder, and the Cavs weren’t very high on Jones after his freshman season at Baylor.
While their opinion of him certainly could’ve changed over time, the Cavs passed on Jones twice in last year’s draft. So did nearly every other team in the league. Trading an All-Star caliber center now, for a guy they could’ve taken in the draft (twice), doesn’t make much sense.
The LeBron factor
There is a timeline. Scott said last week there will come a time when the Cavaliers have to shift into win-now mode, but he said it might not come this year. It won’t. It will come next year.
The clock is ticking on the Cavaliers to improve, but it isn’t Gilbert standing over the organization impatiently tapping his foot. It’s the calendar and the fast-approaching summer of 2014.
Yes, it’s the sequel to “The Decision,” and it’s coming faster than you think. James is widely expected to opt out of his contract after next season, if for no other reason than to sign another max contract.
And yes, believe it or not, he will give Cleveland a close look. He has a relationship with Irving and Thompson. His new agent, Rich Paul, is a local guy who has long been a close friend. Paul also represents Thompson. A number of pieces are aligning, but the biggest draw is missing.
The Cavs realistically must be a playoff team for James to consider them. He will turn 30 during the 2014-15 season. It’s inconceivable he would return to Cleveland for a rebuilding project. That means the Cavs will at least have to make the playoffs next season for them to be viable contenders in a free-agent market that will surely include the Heat and Los Angeles Lakers.
That puts the Cavs into a difficult position — again. They absolutely cannot, and will not, make panic decisions on this roster to placate James’ potential desires. They’ve been down that road, and we all know how that turned out. Yet stay on this path as one of the worst teams in the league, and they will most likely disqualify themselves from the bidding.
That’s the real race in Cleveland. While a number of fans still despise James, the Cavs would welcome him back to a rebuilt roster that would instantly make them again one of the best teams in the East. There is plenty of work that needs to be completed before that’s even close to a possibility.
So Grant will continue calling around looking to use the Cavs’ draft picks, young players and Varejao in an effort to hit another home run. He already hit one when he turned Mo Williams into Irving. If he hits another, the direction of the Cavaliers can dramatically change over the next 18 months.