In 2011, Dan Gilbert confused winning the lottery with winning a title (Jesse D. Garrabrant/ Getty).
Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, no matter how much good he does for the franchise during his time at the helm, will always be associated with the poorly considered, Comic Sans letter he penned to his team's fans on the night that LeBron James spurned them for the Miami Heat on national television. (Incidentally, much credit to NBA.com for maintaining the original link to Gilbert's missive.) It was the act of a man whose anger and pettiness had gotten the better of him. Very few people felt like LeBron had acted correctly during "The Decision," but Gilbert's actions made the choice much easier to understand.
The central statement of the letter came in bold and all caps: "I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE." It was a silly promise, particularly for a franchise that had just lost its best-ever player in part because it didn't surround him with top-shelf talent. Now, two years later, Gilbert is willing to admit his error. From the Associated Press:
Before the Cavs opened their season Tuesday night, Gilbert said the guarantee ''was not the most brilliant thing I've ever done in my life.''
Gilbert also said in hindsight he would have handled James' situation differently. He said the lesson learned is that ''you can not risk going into a summer and having them (a player) leave in unrestricted free agency and get nothing back for it.''
It is very easy to mock Gilbert — I've certainly done it often — but his statement of contrition deserves positive attention. Yes, it's a whole lot easier to regret a promise when it hasn't been kept (you know, because LeBron won the title in June). Nevertheless, Gilbert has clearly learned from his mistakes and intends to act differently should he have to deal with a similar situation in the future.
However, I have to quibble with the particular lesson Gilbert has learned from losing LeBron with no compensation. Although the Cavs ended up losing to Eastern Conference rivals in James' last two seasons with the team, they were the championship favorites in both years. With a few different bounces and a couple better performances by LeBron, they very well could have won two consecutive rings, which almost certainly would have kept their uber-star in town. Hindsight shows that their decision hurt the franchise in the long run, but trading LeBron would have been considered a mark of insanity at the time. No team willfully gives up a position as favorite simply because their best player might leave to take less money elsewhere. It would be a massive overreaction to the situation.
The Cavs weren't in a spot similar to that of the 2011-12 Orlando Magic, who were obviously going to lose Dwight Howard somehow and were no longer a legitimate title contender. With LeBron, the Cavaliers were really, really good. It might not seem that way now, but in 2010 there was genuine uncertainty over where James would land. It was a unique set of circumstances, and there's no use in taking too many lessons from a sample size of one.
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