"You never want anyone to go through this," said Antawn Jamison, the Cavaliers' leading scorer. "It's one of those unfortunate things. We're all part of it and I cannot fathom having another team lose this many in row. It's the toughest thing in the world, especially on this level competing night in and night out."
I can fathom it. Because as long as NBA teams field owners whose egos outmatch their basketball wits, teams like the Cavaliers will pop up every so often. Sure, a team losing a player of LeBron James'(notes) magnitude for nothing more than a trade exception is pretty rare, but hubris and delusion are in heavy rotation in this league. And when the egos in the front office approximate the egos on the court, then you have a recipe for disaster.
Athletes are supposed to have egos. They're men in their 20s and early 30s who have to pump themselves up 90 times a year to play a kid's game, so you have to go into each of those evenings with the mindset that, holy cow, this really, really matters.
Owners? They need to be competitive as well, staying ahead of other teams in finding ways to create new revenue streams and fielding the best 10-man rotation their money can buy. But at some point, they're also supposed to know better. And because Dan Gilbert didn't know better during his time with LeBron James, his angry night following James' departure for Miami, and the season that followed, the Cavaliers are in this mess.
A big mess. Cleveland's winning percentage (.154, yikes) has the team en route to 12.68 wins over an 82-game season, which effectively means a 13-69 record. But the problem with using a percentage like that is that it takes into account Cleveland's relatively hot start to the season, when it overachieved and actually flirted with a .500 record in November. I agree a .000 winning percentage over the last 25 games is probably not the best representation of the Cavaliers' talent, but it's not far off.
Nobody seemed to know this entering the season. Why anyone thought a core of 6-2 shooting guards, J.J. Hickson(notes), Anderson Varejao(notes) and 34-year-old Antawn Jamison would be a smart thing to work with moving forward ("but we have that trade exception!") is beyond me. Cavalier backers and employees can point all they want to the team's massive injury woes, but a healthy Cavs team lost 14 of 15 games in December, beating only the Knicks at home in a close one. This team is awful, and it's not the team's fault.
It's the fault of Dan Gilbert, whose hubris and ego led him to believe that he could coddle James and get away with it for years, believing that the narcissistic superstar would give Cleveland the hometown discount in preferring Mo Williams(notes) over Dwyane Wade(notes). When James declined, Gilbert's ego led him to believe that the team that James (and Danny Ferry and Mike Brown) left behind would be worth anything on its own.
Cleveland fans should have known from the second Gilbert brought up winning a ring for the Cavaliers ahead of James' Heat squad that it was over. Nobody in the NBA should be guaranteeing rings. Not LeBron James or Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich or the GM of a team featuring nine of the 12 Western Conference All-Stars. To guarantee a championship, or to place a timetable on a championship ("before the so-called King ...") is to not understand the NBA. Too many things can happen. Too many things can go wrong. It's the epitome of naiveté, but that didn't stop the Cavs from moving forward.
They didn't rebuild. They chortled when I thought they'd lose, break it up and finish with 12 wins, and now the players have needlessly turned as embarrassing as the owner. That isn't fair to these players and fans of these players (who, to their credit, still fill that arena every night no doubt on tickets bought years ago), but Dan Gilbert deserves every bit of this. Wherever he is.
It is hard writing this without making it an "I-told-you-so" piece. The issue with it is that I didn't tell it like this, so I can't say "I told you so." I picked 12 wins for this team, but I also assumed the Cavs would break it up after two months or so, once the reality of that lacking roster hit home. They didn't work it out that way, but through injuries, the expected exodus of Williams and Varejao came through without the added luxury of actually receiving assets in return. It's the worst of both worlds, as the Cavs struggle to hit double-figure wins with the remnants of the LeBron era still dotting the roster. Suffice to say, this has been badly, badly mishandled.
That's how it goes in this league. This is what happens when summertime giddiness and ego mix the wrong way, and fan bases pay for it (quite literally, as payrolls rise) for years. The impending NBA lockout, as owners once again demand stronger restrictions to be put into place to save themselves from themselves, will only help drive that point home.
For Cleveland? LeBron James' "Decision" was a kick to the gut, even if the guy had grown up in Dallas, Texas. James went about it the wrong way, even if the guy hadn't quit on his team in the second round of the playoffs. Even forgetting LeBron's dodgy history preceding last July, this was a terrible thing.
Somehow, Dan Gilbert has overshadowed "The Decision." In real basketball terms, he's made the situation 10 times worse because his ego couldn't handle a proper reaction to losing an MVP for no return. James' Hummer may have cut Gilbert's Ferrari off in traffic, a jerk move if we ever saw one, rendering Gilbert's roadster to the scrap heap. But a real leader walks to the service station after that. He doesn't get back behind the wheel, making "vroom, vroom" noises as he tries to get the engine to turn over, and expect to get back up to 65 miles an hour. Or 65 wins, in this regard.
And we're left with Antawn Jamison, perhaps the NBA's classiest act, having to suffer an indignity he hopes no other NBA player should ever have to go through. And even with LeBron's sucker punch, it didn't have to be this way.
Things will be this way, again, as long as owners like Gilbert are around to run things as they see fit. Count on it, Antawn. There will be another team like the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers.
- Antawn Jamison
- LeBron James