Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Count me in as one of those who laugh at the notion that LeBron James needs a "bigger market" than Cleveland to accomplish all of his ambitions—both on the court and off it.
But do not count me in as one of those who believes that James' re-signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers is all but a foregone conclusion. That would be just as absurd as suggesting that the size of the city, especially in today's day and age, has anything to do with it.
The Cavs still have a problem. Believe it or not, those problems—along with the good times—started rolling as soon as James took the floor for his rookie season.
That is because the Cavaliers became a good team almost immediately. This impeded their ability to add more players of James' age through the draft. Instead of building a nucleus around their franchise cornerstone, the Cavs added veterans and journeymen role players to build around a superstar who was barely 20 years old. In short, they were stuck playing for the present instead of the future.
When your franchise player is barely old enough to legally buy his own drink at the bar or club, surrounding him with 30-somethings is never the best strategy to take.
To further stack the deck against the Cavs' ability to build for the future around James, former General Manager Jim Paxson recklessly traded away first-round draft picks in 2005 and 2007 for, of all people, Jiri Welsh. However, neither one of those picks would have been in the top 10. And although gems are found in the draft outside the top 10, players picked in the lottery tend to be far more of a sure thing than players taken after it.
As a result, the Cavs became a one-man team with a supporting cast overflowing with interchangeable parts. One year the team is going to the NBA Finals while surrounding James with Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall, and Damon Jones. Just 24 months later, they are winning a league-best and franchise-record 66 games with Mo Williams, Delonte West, Ben Wallace, and Wally Szczerbiak calling themselves members of King James' court.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, with General Manager Sam Presti, provide a good blueprint for how the Cavs should have built around James. When the Thunder (then the Sonics) drafted Kevin Durant in 2007, he—like James—was only 18 years old. But Presti immediately worked the draft to find deals and landed Georgetown's Jeff Green, a 20-year-old swingman whose versatility would work perfectly around a flexible cornerstone like Durant, with the fifth overall pick in that very same draft.
After the franchise struggled mightily during its last year in Seattle amidst a very young roster, Presti again found himself in the draft lottery in the summer of 2008. That is when he took UCLA combo guard Russell Westbrook, an explosive scorer who was just two months younger than Durant.
Today, Presti has gone on to add former Arizona State shooting guard James Harden, a year younger than Durant, to his growing nucleus. It is a core that basketball fans can expect to grow together and blossom into one of the more exciting teams in the NBA. The alignment of their career symmetries will assure the fact that these guys can play together for the rest of their careers if they so choose.
It makes the prospect of just plugging veterans in and out around Durant unnecessary. It also makes the thought of Durant giving serious thought to leaving Oklahoma City, a market much, much smaller than Cleveland, extremely laughable.
With the Cavs, LeBron is from Northeast Ohio, a fact which has afforded the franchise a lot less sleepless nights than what you would expect if that was not the case. But now, seven seasons into the career of a player who has quickly emerged as the best in the game, the Cavs have still failed to give him young All-Star caliber "sidekicks" that would increase his sense of loyalty and commitment for the long term.
With James just five months away from officially becoming an unrestricted free agent, the Cavs have one last chance to add that kind of a player before their future is out of their hands. February 18th is the NBA trade deadline, and given the Cavs' willingness to take on salary combined with the number of teams looking to dump payroll, expect Cavs GM Danny Ferry to be extremely active for the next two to three weeks.
And that's the very least he can do.
Cleveland has been linked to players such as Andre Iguodala (26) and Amar'e Stoudemire (27) along with David West (29). Considering that LeBron just turned 25 a month ago, you can expect players like Iguodala and Stoudemire to "grow old with" James and spend their careers together for as long as they wish.
The Cavs and their fans thought they had their man in Mo Williams last year when Williams made the All-Star team for the first time in his career at the age of 26. Williams' 17.8 points per game were the most averaged by a Cavs player not named LeBron in James' entire career. However, as the playoffs proved, Williams was probably a good third option being miscast as a No. 2 scorer, and the Cavs paid dearly with their loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals.
A player like Iguodala would be perfect since he is just a year older than James and has spent just one year less in the league than LeBron. Their career symmetries would align perfectly, and Iguodala—given the fact that he is also entering the prime of his career—could quite possibly be the best player the Cavs have ever given LeBron to play with during his career.
The same goes for Stoudemire, who is just about two years older than James. But Stoudemire's decorated career leaves little doubt that he is one of the elite players in the game, as the perennial All-Star would form a lethal combination with LeBron if the two decide to re-sign simultaneously with Cleveland this offseason.
But those are the lines along which the Cavaliers have to be thinking. Right now, allegiance to his hometown is the overwhelming reason LeBron, the odds-on favorite to win his second consecutive MVP award this year, has to stay with the Cavs. Only one player—the 34-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas—has been with the Cavs since LeBron's rookie year, symbolizing the massive upheaval that the roster has undergone every few years.
James does not really have to go anywhere else and start a new life in a new city if he does not want to, but any team he signs with becomes a contender overnight. He has proven that fact by singlehandedly lifting the Cavaliers to the top of the league despite the musical chairs that is being played by his supporting cast.
Cleveland's ascent to the top of the league through the years has been linked directly to James' ascent as a player, although the Cavs have done a good job surrounding him with role players that fit around him.
But those role players are replaceable for the most part. Giving James a young star—possibly superstar—increases his allegiance to the organization even more. And it reduces the number of sleepless nights that Ferry, team owner Dan Gilbert, and the three million residents of the Cleveland/Akron metropolitan area have to endure between now and July 1, 2010.
February 18, however, is the date they will have to worry about first.