- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The Cleveland Cavaliers have a general manager who found a taker for Shawn Kemp and his bloated contract. The GM later convinced Pat Riley to trade him Ricky Davis for Chris Gatling. Last June's draft haul was good, too, after two bad drafts: Dajuan Wagner in the lottery, Carlos Boozer in Round 2.
Jim Paxson isn't responsible for the Cavaliers' 8-34 record. Far from it. The team he has assembled is impossibly young, and the parts don't snap together just so, but it's my favorite bad team in the league. They've got guys you want to watch, even if they don't know how to play yet.
Of course, it's also true now that Paxson has hired two coaches in less than four years and had to fire them both. First, it was Randy Wittman and Monday, mired at 8-34, it was John Lucas. The dismissals will stand out on Paxson's resume more than the Chris Mihm draft, or the DeSagana Diop draft, which is why Paxson will undoubtedly reach this summer for a coach of proven veteran stock.
Mike Dunleavy is the name we're hearing already, since Paxson knows he can't expect more than one more chance to make the right hire. Dunleavy is a more likely Cavs candidate than Jeff Van Gundy, next summer's No. 1 coaching free agent, but the challenge either way will be getting owner Gordon Gund to spend for a name coach in the face of persistent speculation that he'd rather sell.
In the interim, it was unquestionably time for a change, if not necessarily permanent. Keith Smart will be given a chance to impress over the next 40 games, and he can start by restoring order. Since training camp, the Cavaliers have been beset by in-house discord on an almost-daily basis. The disputes -- player-player and player-coach -- outnumber the wins so far, and it became draining for everyone to keep dealing with the distractions.
"Circus" and "zoo" were the words used Monday by veteran guard Bimbo Coles. The mood around the team has steadily deteriorated, and Paxson and Gund voiced concern about that trend in a conference call with Lucas before Cleveland's recent 1-5 trip.
"At this point in the year, we should be showing more progress," Paxson said by phone Monday afternoon. "That just hasn't been the case. I didn't see any real direction and structure in place to give me any reason to think it was going to change.
"I think we have talent on this team, and I think we have a good group of guys. My sense based on some of the comments that have been made by John over a period of time is that I'm not sure how much he really believed these guys could win games for him."
It didn't help Lucas' chances that the Cavaliers, since dispatching Andre Miller before they had to pay him, don't have a point guard more accomplished than Luke himself to organize things. It's a void doubly disconcerting when someone mentions that the Cavs declined to sign Ohio native Earl Boykins, the 5-foot-5 dynamo who continues to be one of the season's surprises.
Yet, under Lucas, Wagner and Miles have regressed some since working through protracted injury absences. Common sense says the Cavaliers will eventually have to move one of those guys -- since both probably can't play alongside the emerging Davis -- but they're both too young and skilled to be backsliding.
With Davis threatening to make the East All-Star team in spite of all the losses and Zydrunas Ilgauskas looking healthier than he has in years, the Cavs are in better position to blossom than, say, the Knicks or the Heat. Paxson, growing weary of waiting for the signs, addressed the team Monday morning after firing Lucas to reiterate that management wants more wins, in hopes that they might attract at least a few fans to an empty building.
The Cavs have sunk to afterthought status in their own town and Paxson is well aware that the worst record in the league guarantees no more than a 25 percent chance of winning the LeBron James lottery in May. James is obviously the Ohio native the Cavs really want, but Paxson also knows that the team with the worst record hasn't actually scored the No. 1 pick since 1990.
"We are not trying to lose on purpose," Paxson said. "I told the players that today -- we aren't trying to lose games. We expect to start improving and winning. Not every game, not 50 percent of our games for the balance of the season, but we should start to win and develop some identity as a team.
"We have the worst record in the NBA," Paxson continued, "and I don't think our talent level warrants that."
The GM has done OK with the talent. Better than OK. It's the pesky coach part that Paxson has to solve.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
The Cavaliers need a coach to cultivate their young talent. Someone like Mike Dunleavy Sr.