CLEVELAND: In 2008, a young and inexperienced Memphis Grizzlies team sent three players to the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend. The Grizzlies ended the season a woeful 22-60, but three years later, they were one of the best teams in the West and playing in the conference semifinals.
The next season, the Oklahoma City Thunder sent three players to the Rising Stars Challenge. The Thunder ended a dreadful 23-59, but three years later, they were playing in the NBA Finals.
The Cavaliers, just as the Thunder in 2009, began Saturday on pace to finish 23-59. They will be sending four players to the Rising Stars Challenge this month. Does that make them a lock for the NBA Finals in 2016?
Only if LeBron James returns.
The Cavs are venturing where no team has gone before them. When Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller walk onto the court in Houston in two weeks, the Cavs will become the first team in the 20-year history of the event to send four players to the Rising Stars Challenge and have one of them also playing in the real All-Star Game. No team that had three representatives in the rookie game has done that.
Simply the amount of players a team sends to a rookie/sophomore game, of course, hardly guarantees future success. The Los Angeles Clippers sent three in 2001 and, four years later, still hadn’t made the playoffs.
The Cavs had four players named to the game in 1998 when it was exclusively for rookies (Derek Anderson was injured and didn’t play). The Cavs even made the playoffs that season but didn’t return to the postseason for eight years.
For now, however, the Cavs appear ahead of the curve.
The NBA world is changing, and only a select few owners will be able to afford to play by the old rules.
As the new luxury-tax penalties take effect next season, draft picks — and productive players on rookie contracts — will become more valuable than ever before. That’s part of the reason the Cavs continue to stockpile draft picks from any team willing to part with them.
The new tax penalties are crippling to teams over the threshold. During James’ last three years in Cleveland, Dan Gilbert paid a total of $43 million in tax penalties.
Using the new tax system, Gilbert would’ve had to pay $106 million just in penalties. The Cavs’ payroll all three seasons combined was $172 million, meaning Gilbert would’ve paid an average of $92.6 million in payroll and taxes. Very, very few owners in the NBA outside of Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Miami can afford that type of budget.
The Los Angeles Lakers, for example, make an average of $200 million per season thanks to their monstrous 20-year television contract with Time Warner that kicked in this season. As a result, the Buss family doesn’t have to pay as much attention to the luxury tax as teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, who have already dismantled pieces of their core out of fear of the looming luxury tax.
The whole point of the new collective-bargaining agreement was to balance the playing field, but television contracts prevent that from ever happening without a hard cap. Small market teams are still being punished for building the right way.
The Thunder and Grizzlies both built powerful teams primarily through the draft, just as the Cavs are attempting. But Rudy Gay was traded last week because he was making too much money and James Harden was traded away from the Thunder because he was seeking more money than the team was willing to pay — the Thunder are one of just seven franchises to never pay a luxury tax in the NBA.
Looking back at the youngsters who participated in the Rising Stars Challenge, it’s interesting how one of the miniature Big Three on the successful teams never survived.
The Thunder sent Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green to the game in ’09, but Green was later traded to the Boston Celtics before the Thunder became legitimate title contenders.
The Grizzlies sent Gay, Mike Conley and Juan Carlos Navarro in ’08, but Navarro returned to the Euroleague after a brief stint in the NBA.
The 1997 Lakers sent Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher and Travis Knight to the game in Cleveland. Bryant and Fisher were anchors to many Lakers championships, but Knight bounced around the league and finally retired after seven nondescript seasons.
That puts the odds against the Cavs maintaining the four, particularly since another high draft pick is coming this summer. Under the terms of the new CBA, the Cavs can designate one player to receive a five-year maximum contract (everyone else only qualifies for four years). The Cavs’ five-year deal will almost certainly go to Irving when his deal expires in the summer of 2015.
How the rest of the players fare remains to be seen. But if history is any indication, the Cavs are headed in the right direction, regardless of their messy record.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.