Danny Ferry is leaving the Cavaliers

Kelly Dwyer
June 4, 2010
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The team he put together had won more games than any NBA team over the last two seasons.

To hear his best player (LeBron James(notes) is still under contract, mind you, for the rest of the month) tell it, his team had an "edge" to re-sign the biggest free agent since Michael Jordan's 1996 fake-flirtation with the Knicks. He's been trusted by the ownership, for years, to steer the course of James' NBA future, and owner Dan Gilbert's massive NBA investment.

And Danny Ferry, apparently, wants nothing to do with it.

Johnny Ludden is reporting that Ferry, the Cavaliers general manager since 2005, is leaving the team.

Ferry's contract is up this summer, along with James', and the former NBA reserve and son of longtime NBA executive Bob Ferry apparently lost heart once former Cavalier coach Mike Brown was let go last month.

Ferry came to the Cavs with plenty of promise. Not only did his father do fine work as the personnel boss behind the then-Washington Bullets, but Ferry played his last years in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, before moving on to a front office position with the team. Observing the inner-workings of the Gregg Popovich/Sam Presti-led squad allowed Ferry to move quickly up the league ranks, enough so that Gilbert (in his fifth month as Cavalier owner) hired the NBA vet just two years removed from his playing career.

It was a loaded gig, from the beginning.

Ferry was taking over a Cavalier team that had missed the playoffs in James' first two seasons, but he was also taking over an outfit with cap space enough to max out two free agents, along with the luxury of getting to steer the next few years of James' time in the NBA. Former Spurs assistant Mike Brown, who had coached Ferry from 2000 to 2003, had already been hired by the time Gilbert inked Ferry (along with assistant GM Chris Grant, who will be taking over the reins of the Cavaliers with Ferry's departure) to a five-year deal.

Though James was just 20 at the time of Ferry's hiring, it was clear that a solid core around the burgeoning superstar could result in extended playoff trips, even if James was nearly a decade away from his prime. With this in mind, Ferry listened to James' pleas and re-signed Cavalier mainstay Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) to a massive contract extension that summer, one that Big Z more or less earned, despite nothing having the flashiest stats toward the end of the contract.

Ilgauskas' abilities on the glass, his penchant for winning jump balls (don't laugh, this was a key), and perimeter touch were a perfect fit with James. Three other Ferry-signees were assumed to work just as well, on paper, but in the end the free agent acquisitions of Larry Hughes(notes), Damon Jones(notes), and Donyell Marshall(notes) doomed Ferry's legacy in Cleveland.

All three should have worked. Marshall and Jones had just come off of incredibly efficient seasons spreading the floor in Toronto and Miami, respectively, and Hughes (at age 26) was expected to be entering his prime, while coming off an All-Star season.

Hughes, especially, was the linchpin. A do-it-all guard that could handle the ball, score for stretches, get to the line, and create havoc defensively; he was expected to be the Scottie Pippen to LeBron's Michael Jordan, if only for the years leading up to LeBron's prime. The problem that Ferry and the rest of the Cavaliers eventually figured out was that James was more like Scottie Pippen than he was Michael Jordan.

That's not a criticism. James is a ball-handler more than a scorer, like Pippen, and he needed people to pass to. Hughes was not and is not a catch-and-shoot player, and with James dominating the ball, Hughes developed bad habits, such as an over-reliance on low percentage perimeter tries. In reality, Hughes was sort of a mini-LeBron James at the time, and with regular-LeBron James running things, Hughes' game fell apart.

Marshall and Jones' shooting also dropped off significantly, for whatever reason. Despite scads of open looks over the next few years. And with the cap filled up and the team winning games (keeping it from high lottery picks), the Cavaliers were set. For better or worse.

Set well enough to go seven games into the second round in 2006 (James signed a contract extension the following offseason), and great enough (relying almost solely on James' all-around gifts) to make a Finals appearance the next season, but never potent enough to be accurately called a championship contender.

As the Cavaliers tailed off, and the James' 2010 free agency dateline looming, Ferry scrambled to do something with the capped-out supporting mess he'd assembled. Hughes was sent to Chicago in a massive deal for Ben Wallace(notes), one of the league's worst contracts for another, but the Cavaliers were out in the second round again in 2008. A masterful deal to realize Mo Williams'(notes) underrated play brought the former Buck guard in over that offseason (almost immediately making Williams overrated), and the Cavaliers (with James continuing to improve by leads and bounds) secured the NBA's best record in 2008-09.

The team's rotation was still limited, beyond James. Wallace could not keep up with Rashard Lewis(notes) in the Conference finals that season, and the Cavs were out in the third round.

With 2010 growing closer and closer, Ferry did what he could with no salary cap room, and turned Wallace's expiring contract into Shaquille O'Neal(notes), in a last-ditch effort to match up with Orlando's Dwight Howard(notes), and make one last grab at the ring before LeBron's free agency hit. Around the same time, Gilbert had more or less made his decision on Mike Brown's usefulness as coach, and only Ferry's voice kept the 2008-09 Coach of the Year, it should be emphasized, around past the 2008-09 season.

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After a slow start, the O'Neal acquisition worked a charm, though it was LeBron's astonishing contributions that made it so the Cavaliers again owned the NBA's best record for most of the season. During trade deadline season, rumors abounded that Phoenix big man Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) would be available in a deal, and though the Cavaliers likely pressed (offering Ilgauskas' expiring contract as bait), the Suns relented, and hung onto their free agent forward.

Looking to cash in on Big Z's expiring deal, the Cavs sent him to Washington for a stretch power forward in Antawn Jamison(notes). Not only did the Cavaliers not have to give up solid backup J.J. Hickson(notes) in the process, they were also more or less assured that the Wizards would immediately waive Ilgauskas, allowing for Cleveland to re-sign their longtime center a month after his release. It was an absolute sweetheart deal.

And it didn't matter. James' curious play and the matchup advantages of the Boston Celtics knocked the Cavaliers out of the playoffs in the second round, and with James' non-commitment to his coach looming large, the Cavs dumped Brown a few weeks after their season ended.

This was likely the last straw for Ferry. Though James had played the biggest role in every move of his tenure, it was Gilbert's growing influence that made it so he didn't want to run the team that he used to play for, working with the staff he'd put together and the roster he'd acquired.

And Ferry's time in Cleveland is a cautionary tale. Sure, he'd been given the game's best talent, cap space, and five years to work with; but his entire time running the Cavaliers was shaped by one two-month span in the summer of 2005.

Every move Ferry has made since was a reaction to the re-signing of Ilgauskas, and the acquisition of Hughes, Marshall, and Jones. Sound moves at the time, the worst case scenario came through in spades with Hughes, Marshall, and Jones, and despite a Finals trip and the best record in the league over the last two seasons, Ferry's Cavaliers just couldn't recover.

What does this mean for the Cavaliers?

As it's been since 2003, it's up to James. If he sticks, then the team moves forward, tinkering and working around his brilliance. If he splits, it's all over.

That permanence, with James gone, wasn't what drove Ferry away from re-signing with the Cavaliers. Make no mistake, it was Gilbert's growing influence.

And the owner, as it was when he took over the team in 2005, has what he wants. A cleared slate, in order to win James back. We'll see how that works for him.