BROOKLYN, N.Y.: With Tuesday’s deadline to deal Andrew Bynum fast approaching, the Cavaliers have reached their first crossroads of the season. By all accounts, they will forge ahead with this tattered army. They will march on for that elusive playoff berth because that’s what the owner declared would happen eight months ago.
But with this team floundering and blended into the pileup near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, perhaps now is the proper time to reassess the direction of the season.
Which is more valuable: aiming for the playoffs or one more trip to the lottery? Neither answer is clear and both paths carry dangerous traps.
The Cavs took their shot. They tried, but none of the moves made last summer had the desired effect. Jarrett Jack has underachieved slightly, Earl Clark’s transition to small forward has been disappointing, Anthony Bennett has been a disaster and now Bynum is headed out of town.
There are still 50 games to go, meaning there is plenty of time for all this to change. But we’ve been saying that for 30 games and nothing has worked.
It’s incredibly deflating to talk lottery when the franchise seemed headed in the right direction just three months ago, and maybe it still is. Mike Brown insists he sees improvement everywhere except the record, and the Cavs have certainly had their share of close-but-not-quite losses lately.
They entered the weekend two games out of the final playoff spot in the East, but two games ahead of the Utah Jazz for the NBA’s second-worst record.
I’m having a difficult time understanding what value the Cavs gain from staggering into the playoffs with a flawed roster, only to get crushed and eliminated quickly in four games. Sooner or later that has to happen, but is this franchise ready? Once they step into playoff waters, it’s difficult to retreat. Plunge too soon and they’ll be stuck in that 6-7-8 seed purgatory they’ve tried so hard to avoid.
Don’t be fooled by the decrepit East. It’s not often a 35-win team makes the playoffs. Just because the Cavs might be able to do it this season doesn’t make them ready for perennial trips to the playoffs.
As I’ve written on multiple occasions during this rebuild, the Cavs were trying to do something only one other team has accomplished in the last 20-plus years. The Utah Jazz returned to the Western Conference finals four years after losing both Karl Malone and John Stockton and gutting their roster.
The rapid reconstruction of that franchise was incredible because no one had ever done it before so quickly. The fact it happened in a cold weather, small market city made it even more astonishing.
It took the Chicago Bulls seven years just to make the playoffs after Michael Jordan retired and nine years to win their first playoff series. The Boston Celtics made the playoffs two out of three years after Larry Bird retired, but failed to win a series, then missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons.
The Orlando Magic made the playoffs five out of seven years after Shaquille O’Neal left, but didn’t actually win a series for 13 years. Kevin Garnett left Minnesota seven years ago and the Timberwolves still haven’t made it back to the postseason.
Few of those franchises, incidentally, purged their rosters as deep and swiftly as the Cavs did. Anderson Varejao is the only remaining member from the playoff team of 2010.
If the Cavs pulled this off and became a respectable Eastern Conference threat just four years after LeBron James’ departure, General Manger Chris Grant would’ve been a favorite for Executive of the Year. Instead, fans want him fired.
Grant was given the task of rebuilding this roster through the draft with the luxury of high draft picks. The Cavs had four top-4 picks over the last three drafts. The only problem was none of those drafts, as I’ve written multiple times, have been viewed as very good.
The draft that produced Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson was dismissed as terrible and lacking star power — Irving has far surpassed all expectations initially held for him, regardless of revisionist history. There were higher expectations nationally for the 2012 draft class, but the Cavs weren’t overly impressed and privately said at the time they preferred the little-regarded 2011 class. Anthony Davis is the only player from that class who has shown the ability of being a superstar.
And we all know how badly last summer’s draft class was viewed. As expected, it has lived down to expectations.
The Cavs have tried rebuilding this roster through three bad drafts. It seems silly to continue to demand winning now with a record this bad and a talent-rich class now six months away.
There are risks, of course, beginning with the locker room. Making moves now to succeed at this summer’s lottery can deflate, or perhaps infuriate, a team that spent all offseason preparing for a postseason push.
Irving can sign an extension this summer and it’s unclear how another trip to the lottery would affect his mindset. Then again, a strong argument could be made Irving hasn’t done enough this year to earn a max extension after the season — although the Cavs will surely offer it, just as the Wizards offered John Wall one last summer. Wall has responded with his best season and now in his fourth year has the Wizards in strong playoff contention.
Prior to this season, however, the Wizards hadn’t given Wall much reason for hope. Yet he still gladly took their max deal. Since no player coming off his rookie deal has ever declined a max contract, you’d have to expect Irving will take the money, too.
Another trip to the top half of the lottery would almost surely end any thoughts of James returning to this team next season. But then, given the record and the struggles of the season, that conclusion seems inevitable anyway.
What does any of this have to do with Bynum? Instead of using him to trade for an aging Richard Jefferson or Pau Gasol, both temporary fixes, instead of pushing the car to the finish line when it’s leaking oil, now might be the time to call a tow truck and go back to the garage.
Dangle Bynum in deals geared toward the future instead of the present. If none exist, release him and capitalize on the $6 million in cap space. Shop Anderson Varejao to a contender for future assets. Call the tight-fisted Clippers and offer to take enough salary off their hands in spare parts (less than $3 million) to get owner Donald Sterling under the luxury tax in exchange for their 2017 first-round pick (2015 is already owed to Boston).
It’s not the popular path, but long term it just might be the most prudent. Gilbert already admitted to one mistake the day he brought Mike Brown back as coach. Admitting this team isn’t yet ready for the postseason might be the next step.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. 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.