Welcome to “how it all went wrong,” a breezy romp through the ways the Cavaliers managed not to build a solid “core” around LeBron James during his time in Cleveland. This is an idea I came up with during the free agency process, but never really got around to it. Since I did, LeBron signed with Miami, who built their team this off-season in an audacious, unprecedented, and possibly pre-planned turn of events. Because of that, I realize that some people might say the Cavs’ failure to build a core around LeBron ultimately turned out to be a moot point, but I still think there’s value in taking a look how the Cavs were more or less forced to build with LeBron and duct tape during Cleveland’s competitive years.
One other thing: this is not a “this was all the front office’s fault” thing. Because LeBron made the Cavaliers so good so fast, they only had a few chances to make the move or draft pick that would have given him a true running mate or set of running mates. Due to a series of circumstances both within and beyond management’s control, the moves they made didn’t work out. Without further ado, the tale of Luke Jackson, the Cavs’ only lottery pick in the LeBron era.
Things were looking good for the Cavs after the 03-04 season. LeBron won rookie of the year and was well on his way to becoming a superstar, the Cavs finished the year strong after dropping Ricky Davis and Darius Miles, Carlos Boozer had shown promise as a potential running mate before his contract situation got more and more dire, and basketball was cool in Cleveland. All good things, and the Cavs had their sights set on building on the momentum they’d gained and making a playoff run.
With the #10 overall pick, Luke Jackson was the fairly obvious choice. Thanks to LeBron, high school/young player mania was in full effect, and the draft was full of risky picks: 8 of the first 20 picks were either in high school or too young to have attended a year of American college.
Furthermore, the Cavs knew who their star was, and didn’t see the need to take a risky player: they knew they were going to compete for a playoff spot next season and run the offense through James, so they wanted a player who would be able to contribute right away and would be a good fit next to LeBron. Again, Luke Jackson was the only thing approaching a “safe” pick at the #10 spot. Here were the players taken after Jackson:
#11: Andris Biedrins, a horrifyingly raw center (the Cavs still had Z) who was actually younger than any of the high schoolers in the draft
12: Robert Swift, a high school center and that year’s recipient of the Sonics’ scholarship fund for raw centers who didn’t know how to play basketball
13: Sebastian Telfair, who was considered a huge reach at 13 and most people were sure would be a bust (and who the Cavs would later GIVE AWAY. RIGHT AS THEY WERE BUILDING A RUNNING TEAM. A RUNNING TEAM FOR BASSY. I can’t talk about Bassy without ranting about my love for a short point guard who can’t shoot or finish inside. I apologize.)
14: Kris Humphries, who is Kris Humphries
15: Al Jefferson, high school big man
16: Kirk Snyder, who went to college and is now serving a three-year prison sentence. Currently working with Maurice Clarett on a book about how age limits keep players from making bad life decisions.
17. Josh Smith, high school player then considered a shooting guard, albeit one who couldn’t shoot or dribble with his right hand. Bilas predicted that he would be the bust of the draft.
18. J.R. Smith, high schooler, three-point gunner, neck-tattoo enthusiast
19. Dorell Wright, high-schooler
20. Jameer Nelson. I’m telling you, this was an ass-backwards draft. How ass-backwards?
21. Pavel Podkolzine “Pavel Podkolzine went one pick behind Jameer Nelson” ass-backwards.
Then Russian Teammates Viktor Khryapa and Sergei Monia were taken before Delonte West, Tony Allen, Kevin Martin, Sasha Vujacic, Beno Udrih, David Harrison, and Anderson Varejao were taken with consecutive selections. Making a bad pick in the 2005 draft was like making poor health choices in Mad Men times. I mean, look at the players taken before Jackson:
#1: Dwight Howard: Okay, he would’ve been nice.
#2: Emeka Okafor: I mean, kinda meh. Good player, but not a franchise savior. How much better would he have been at his contract number than Varejao at his, considering Varejao and LeBron’s chemistry?
#3: Ben Gordon: Would’ve been a nice pickup/player. No Scottie Pippen, to say the least.
#4: Shaun Livingston: (Shakes fist at absent God)
#5: Devin Harris: Would’ve been nice, but he was raw and seemed like a reach. Jury’s still out on whether he’s a star — very little talk about the power of a LeBron/Harris pair this summer.
#6: Josh Childress: Played LeBron’s position. Went to Greece.
#7: Luol Deng: Played LeBron’s position. LeBron was unexcited by the possibility of Deng being the fourth-best player on LeBron’s new team.
#8: Rafael Araujo: Probably a very nice man.
#9: Andre Iguodala: More on that later.
Furthermore, Luke Jackson really should have worked on paper. The dude averaged 21.2/7.2/4.5 in his last year at Oregon, on 48.8%/44%/86.2% shooting, had good size for his position, and wasn’t supposed to need athleticism because the Cavs had LeBron to create most of the plays anyways.
My basic “the team really screwed this pick up” rules are as follows: the correct choice has to be within five picks of the team’s actual choice, and not have been considered a huge risk or bad fit at the time — it has to be plausible that the team actually would have made the pick. No “Oh, the Grizzlies and Cavs passed on Amar’e for Drew Gooden and Dajuan Wagner.” Other than Jameer, there’s no player who wasn’t a huge unknown behind the Jackson pick, and Jameer went at 20. Here’s the scary part: if the Cavs had the #9 pick and a choice between a raw-as-hell, similar to LeBron, averaged 13 points in college Andre Iguodala, which player would have seemed like the more logical choice? That one would have looked terrible in hindsight, but even then the Jackson pick would be justifiable.
Unfortunately, Luke Jackson struggled with not being injured and not sucking throughout his NBA career. He played a total of 46 games for Cleveland, never averaging more than 8.9 minutes per game. After Cleveland got rid of him, he bounced from the Clippers to the Raptors to D-League and international ball. I saw him in Summer League this season, and he didn’t look like he belonged there. I don’t know if it was the injuries, but Luke Jackson never resembled an NBA role player.
Thanks to the Jiri Welsch debacle and the Cavs’ subsequent success, Jackson was the Cavs’ only lottery pick. No Durant/Westbrook/Harden for the Cavs, thank you. Just LeBron and Luke Jackson for Cleveland. Good hindsight is always fun, but for to fix this one you might have needed a DeLorian and a case of St. Joe’s DVDs. Sigh. Just because something was nobody’s fault doesn’t make it suck less in the end.
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