Commentary

Why the Cavs have sunk so low

Originally Published: February 8, 2011
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

LeBron JamesSteve Mitchell/US PresswireNew Cavs coach Byron Scott has struggled to find answers with a roster tailored for LeBron James.

Dan Gilbert is quite familiar with incurring and then paying off debt. It is his primary business as a wealthy mortgage broker. The Cavaliers' owner and his organization, though, didn't plan for the balloon payment they're being forced to swallow in what has become a miserable winter in Cleveland.

The Cavs have officially reached "historically bad" status, their 25-game losing streak setting the mark for the worst run in NBA history. And it's actually worse than that, it's really 35 losses in 36 games in what has turned into a 10-week run of futility.

It has been a difficult descent to reality for the team and especially Gilbert. He got a lot of attention for predicting his team would win a championship before the Miami Heat after LeBron James signed there last summer. That was mostly just brash talk based on the emotion of the moment, even if critics will use it to horsewhip the team for years to come.

What Gilbert was truly confident about was that this year's team would make the playoffs, or at least seriously contend for them, and send a message around the NBA about the team's will and talent level.

In the days after James' departure, the Cavs had chances to deconstruct their roster further. There were offers for some of the remaining frontline players; not especially good offers, but options to begin a full-scale rebuilding project.

Gilbert, who is a staunch optimist, had no such intentions. And his plan to compete right away seemed to make sense when the Cavs, fueled by emotion, played fairly well early in the season -- they beat the Celtics in their opener and stood at a respectable 7-9 record after the season's first month.

Then their grand hopes crashed.

During training camp coach Byron Scott did smell a little trouble, but he rationalized the situation by saying the Cavs had more talent than the past two coaching jobs he'd walked in to. That was a 26-win New Jersey team in 2000-01 and an 18-64 New Orleans team in 2004-05. Scott, like Gilbert, didn't see this coming.

The common reaction these days is that James certainly must have been more valuable than anyone realized. In fact, Forbes reported the franchise lost a quarter of its value with James' departure.

But the cost of losing LeBron goes beyond this season's wins and losses, and beyond franchise value. The greatest cost, as has been well-documented, has been to the emotions and psyche of the team and the city.

Furthermore, going forward, the team has to cope with the costs it incurred while attempting to keep James. Decisions made in the spirit of keeping the victory machine churning in fear of July 1, 2010, have come back to haunt the Cavs -- not as much as James' decision, true, but in ways the franchise might feel for years.

Most notably, it must be pointed out that the Cavs didn't lose only James from the team that won 61 games last season. The team elected not to re-sign centers Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. They traded Delonte West (technically a moot point because he had a partially-guaranteed contract the team did not intend to pick up after his troubles in Cleveland). Then Anderson Varejao went down with a season-ending ankle injury just after New Year's.

(Some background: The ankle hadn't been healthy since August, when Varejao hurt it playing for Brazil. Now, after delaying surgery to evaluate his options weeks after the Cavs hoped he'd get it fixed, he has scheduled his ankle surgery for Friday at a clinic in Charlotte.)

Mo Williams didn't show up to camp in shape for the demanding workouts Scott had planned, though the team hasn't discussed this publicly. He's missed three weeks with a groin injury, one of a series of upper leg and abdominal muscle strains. Some of the issues may be traceable back to LeBron's move -- Williams has admitted he fell into a bit of a depression over the summer after learning James was leaving.

Pile that all together and the team that's been trying to avoid history is basically only a cloudy shadow of last year's No. 1 overall seed. The lack of reinforcements is one of the reasons the Cavs feel like they are paying back some old debts.

In the seven drafts the Cavs had while James was a member of the team, the team had only four first-round picks. When James left, there were only two players on the roster who had been drafted by the Cavs, Daniel Gibson and J.J. Hickson.

Through the years, the Cavs traded away picks and prospects to help them rent veteran players in efforts to stay near a championship level. The team had almost no players under development except for Hickson, who they staunchly had refused to give up in trade talks with the Phoenix Suns that potentially would have landed them Amare Stoudemire last February.

That left them entering the season as a split team. There were veterans, like Williams, Varejao, Antawn Jamison and Anthony Parker, who'd become used to being on a title contender. Now they were facing playing out their contracts in a bad-weather city on a team transitioning to the future. And there were young players like Hickson and rookies Christian Eyenga, Manny Harris and Samardo Samuels, who weren't prepared to compete at the level the team needed.

Among all of them, there were also no natural leaders. Jamison, Williams and Parker had the experience, but never had been asked to take that role while James' personality dominated the Cavs' universe.

None of them were up to speed on Scott's Princeton offense except for Jamison, who played it under Eddie Jordan in Washington. Starting from scratch, Scott drilled away, trying to teach the rotations and responsibilities. The progress was sluggish because the roster wasn't built for the Princeton equal-opportunity style offense, it was built for a great playmaker to set them all up. This is a collection of spot-up jump shooters and pick-and-roll players, not creators and slashers.

While Scott tried to fight that fact, the diminished attention to the defensive side showed up instantly. As Scott has increased the focus on the defensive end, he has battled players who have reverted to the Cavs' old defensive schemes during games, creating more confusion.

As a result, most stats rank the Cavs as not just the worst offensive team in the league but also the worst defensive team. That's how they average 11 points a game fewer than their opponents. Simply speaking, the average Cavs game is a blowout.

Somewhere along the way, the Cavs and their fans have come to grips with just how big of a hole they're in and how long it will take to climb out. There are no more false pretenses.

In a January letter to season-ticket holders (of which the Cavs still had more than 10,000 going into the season) asking them to renew their tickets, Gilbert was frank. The pain from July may have dulled, but the optimism from October is long gone.

"Now that 2011 has arrived, the mission ahead has become clear" that the team will have to rebuild.

"How long will it take?" Gilbert wrote. "You know I would be misleading you if I attempted to answer that question. The only honest answer is: As long as it takes."

The letter, like Gilbert's missive last July, was written in Comic Sans. The sense of humor is admirable -- the Cavs and their fans are going to need it.