Cavaliers Creating Their Own Thunder
When NBA teams are mired in mediocrity or futility, it isn’t long before the calls to blow the whole thing up and rebuild like the Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder did after 2006. What most complainants gloss over is just how hard it is to deliberately spend multiple seasons in the lottery, collect enough early lottery picks to make an impact, and limit your misses on draft night. However, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is showing how it can be done, if your checkbook is big enough.
Just like many of today’s rebuilding teams, Seattle didn’t actually start the process at the first signs of collapse and who could blame them. The year before, they were a 52-win team with Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis and seemed to be just one more piece away from contending. The high-risk draft of seven-foot project-center Mouhamed Saer Sene with tenth pick in 2006 that followed did not seem to be that big of a deal at the time.
Back to the lottery in 2007 and under newly-installed executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti, the rebuild went into full effect. Lewis was allowed to walk to the Magic as a free agent and Allen was swapped for the Celtics fifth pick of the 2007 draft, Jeff Green, in a multi-player deal. Seattle had finished fifth from the bottom, but lottery luck moved them up to second overall and they nabbed future all-star forward Kevin Durant. The Thunder had both an all-star to trade for a high lottery pick and a big helping of lottery luck in year one of their rebuild. Ending up with two top-five picks in a NBA draft is more than a little unusual.
Maybe Cleveland was lucky to have their rebuilding program forced upon them when former franchise player LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach in 2010 as no one had any real illusions about a quick return to playoff contention. Under new general manager Chris Grant, the Cavaliers didn’t wait long to begin blowing things up.
The biggest move the Cavaliers made in that first year was to ship former All-Star Mo Williams to the Los Angeles Clippers for a sure-fire lottery pick in 2011 and the balance of Baron Davis’ massive contract. Checkbook in hand, Gilbert amnestied Davis and the $13 million left on his deal at the first opportunity. The move paid off though as the Cavaliers hit the lottery with the eighth pick from last-place Clippers’ pick and drew first overall in 2011 to go with their own pick at four. Cleveland took Kyrie Irving, the only sure-fire future star with the first pick, and took a chance at four with the Canadian big man Tristan Thompson. After acquiring two top-five draft picks, the eerily similar first step in copying the Thunder’s model for success was well underway.
In 2008, the Thunder finished second from the bottom, but the draft lottery pushed them back to the fourth selection and they made a trade to acquire the twenty-fourth pick from the Suns. The Thunder got their point guard of the future in Russell Westbrook and a prolific shot blocker in Serge Ibaka.
In the Cavaliers second trip to the lottery in 2012, they held their own draft pick at four plus the twenty-fourth pick from the Lakers and two second round selections. At the draft they selected shooting guard Dion Waiters, but traded their three other picks for number 17 to acquire 7’ center Tyler Zeller. The original trade with the Lakers did require Gilbert to keep his checkbook open as the Cavaliers are stuck with paying $6.1 million to Luke Walton in 2012-13.
Just like the Thunder had done in their first two rebuilding drafts, the Cavaliers had acquired four first round players who they believed would form part of the team’s core going forward.
The Thunder had eight players on their rookie contracts during 2008-09 and spent one more year in the lottery where they used the third pick of the draft to select shooting guard James Harden. The young core of Durant, Green, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden led the Thunder back to the playoffs and Presti made the moves that completed the transition from doormat to NBA Finals contender.
The Cavaliers had over $20 million of salary cap space heading into the summer of 2012 and could have gone after talent that might have made them a playoff contender now, but that wasn’t the plan. The veteran Antawn Jamison scored 174 more points than anyone else on the Cavaliers last season, but the team let him walk away in free agency. After trading backup point guard Ramon Sessions to the Lakers to get the extra first round draft pick in March, the Cavaliers quickly entered a nine-game losing skid and stumbled badly the rest of the season. Currently Cleveland has two minimum salary point guards to backup Irving next season. Add in the potential for up to 11 players on their rookie contracts and it seems safe to say the Cavaliers are following closely in the Thunders’ footsteps and looking for a top five pick in next year’s draft.
After spending one more season in the lottery, Cleveland will have a young core of Irving, Thompson, Waiters, Zeller and other top draft pick to hopefully lead them back to the playoffs. Grant will only have $14.5 million of guaranteed contracts on his books, not counting options, qualifying offers and unsigned draft picks, and could be looking at a very strong free agent class depending on what transpires over the next few months.
Whether or not Grant has been able to draft as well as Presti is yet to be determined and Grant still has to prove he is as skillful at acquiring NBA talent via trade and free agency as he has been adapt at off-loading unwanted players, but so far, he has completed a pretty fair duplication of the Thunder’s successful model.
Checkbook in hand, Gilbert remains as motivated as ever to recover from the loss of James and Grant is closely following a rebuilding plan that has attracted a lot of praise. With a little luck, the 2013-14 season could be the Cavaliers’ time to create some thunder in the NBA.