30 Years Under the Wheel: An Oral History Pt.2 (1995-Present)

January 17th, 2014 by Robert Attenweiler

Click here for Part 1.

The Cavaliers came into the 1995-96 season with plenty of good feelings. Larry Johnson seemed fully recovered from his nagging back troubles, there was still hope within the organization that center, Sean Rooks, could regain his promising rookie form and the addition of point guard Damon Stoudamire, while continuing the team’s trend toward the undersized, had just wrapped up a stellar senior year at Arizona and finally gave the team some “out” in their attack to balance out the “in.”

Stoudamire did not disappoint, logging 19 points and over nine assists a game as a rookie in a staggering 40.9 minutes a game. Johnson had a bounce back year going 20.5/8.4 while, more importantly, playing in 81 games that year, and the Cavs, despite Rooks continued decline into the doldrums, grabbed the seventh seed in the East. They lost in six games to the Penny Hardaway-led Boston Celtics, but were slotted for another high pick, number six overall, in 1996 and, after all, LJ was back. Stoudamire was legit. Things looked good…

And didn’t look much worse after that sixth pick became Antoine Walker, the multi-talented power forward out of Kentucky. A team with a core of Stoudamire, Johnson and Walker could be a real threat come playoff time, it seemed. And it probably would have. It just didn’t work out that way.

The next season, Johnson was a shell of his former self. Robbed of his once jaw-dropping explosiveness, he only managed 12.8 points and 5.2 rebounds. The teams two most recent picks, though, were able to pick up the slack. Stoudamire water-bugged his way to over 20 points and 8 assists a game and Walker gave the Cavs a second straight strong rookie season putting up 17.5 points to go with 9 rebounds. The performances of those two young players beside even a diminished Johnson had the Cavs looking like a team on the rise. Johnson, Coach Paul Westphal insisted, was the perfect veteran leader: supportive, vocal and accepting of his lessening role in the team’s success.

Westphal could insist it all he wanted but, behind the scenes, Johnson was not happy. He was only 28 years old at the end of the 1996-97 season. He should be in the thick of his prime years. Instead, as his production slipped, so too did his desire. “I can’t do the same things as I could when I was a rookie,” he told the Akron Beacon-Journal’s Terry Pluto. “Sometimes that’s okay. I can’t do those things, but I can do different things. But sometimes… well, sometimes it’s like my body’s not made for this game. Not anymore.”

Johnson had become a distraction and a poor example. Walker’s ego grew and grew — shimmies down the court following made threes were a frequent sight at Gund Arena — and, while his on-court production was always strong, there were some very public doubts voiced about Walker’s ability to lead a team. The more public the doubts were made, though, the more Walker shimmied. Stoudamire’s production fell once his body was no longer to play the same crazy number of minutes as he logged in his early years. All the players were good. Kinda. They were all kinda good. But kinda good doesn’t get you any action come playoff time. It just gets you that comfy chair at home to watch the guys who do get the action.

No help followed. In the four drafts following the Walker pick, the Cavs only managed Minnesota’s John Thomas at 25, Tyronn Lue at 23, William Avery at 14 and Jerome Moiso at 11. The team had cornered the market on short point guards and below-average big men. By 2001, when the time finally came for the team to get its crack at another high pick, the second overall, the Cleveland Cavaliers had been the league’s worst team two of the three previous years. They needed a new star with their second pick. Someone who could right the ship and give a beleaguered fan base hope that excitement about the Cavaliers was not just a 20th century phenomenon.

And with the second overall pick in the 2001 draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected 7 footer Tyson Chandler out of Dominguez High School in California. Big men take time to develop, though, and Chandler was no exception. Chandler was little more than a reserve big man averaging single digits over his first five seasons. There is patience and then there is the type of patience that had to be displayed by the Cavs organization. Even when Chandler secured himself as a starter and burgeoning defensive anchor in his sixth season, there was always one very loud question: Is Chandler a once-in-a-thirty-years selection? If you were a team on your run of picks from 10-20, absolutely. But how does your organization rebound when everyone knows it’s five years away from another top five selection? How can you tell an organization to have patience? More importantly, how can you sell that to the fans?

Not helping matters were the low picks that came the two years after the Cavs took Chandler (you’re seeing the theme here, aren’t you?). Steve Logan and Dahntay Jones came at 29 and 20, respectively. Logan never played in the league and  while Jones showed some flashes, especially on the defensive end, statistically he was never more than an average NBA player.

But, however painfully slowly, the Cavs got it right with some players and started forming a watchable foundation. In 2004, the team drafted high schooler, Josh Smith. To Smith’s intriguing multi-talented game and Chandler’s steady climb, the team added F/C Channing Frye out of Arizona with the 8th pick in 2005. 2006 saw the Cavs make the head-scratching selection of Duke’s Shelden Williams. Was Williams a project like Chandler that the fans would, one day, see pay off? Or was he another low-ceiling post player, like Jones, Thomas or Moiso before him?

If you said “low-ceiling post player” you got it right! Still, with the Cavs attention to building a versatile front court, Williams was only their fourth big on a good day. The Cavs clogged the lane with the best of them. The Cavs routinely out-rebounded their opponents. This team had rim protectors and rim rattlers. But they were forced to rely on Smith and Frye for their offense, which was a role neither player was quite ready for.

The Cavs finally addressed their back court in the next two drafts. In 2006, they got hoped to recapture some of that good ole Damon Stoudamire magic by drafting “6-0″ point guard Aaron Brooks. 2007 saw the team strike mid-round gold again, grabbing shooting guard Courtney Lee.

The following season, 2007-08, was a fun one. The Cavs had their best starting five since 1997-98, running a still-improving unit of Brooks/Lee/Smith/Frye/Chandler. Smith averaged 17.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and nearly three blocks a game. Chandler averaged nearly 12 and 12. The Cavs were back in the playoffs, but still didn’t have the guard play to do much once they were there.

The 2009-10 season saw Brooks break out for 19.6 points a game and the Cavs pushed the eventual champion Boston Celtics and LeBron James (wait… the Celtics got Penny and LeBron?? Yep. Did the figures. Sorry.) The selection of Austin Daye the previous summer was little more than a blip and when they took Paul George at 10, many rolled their eyes.

Fast forward to today. Turns out that George picks wasn’t half bad. The 2013-14 season is the first one in the 30 years of The Wheel that the Cavs are considered a legitimate title contender. George started to blossom last year and the Cavs finally have a weapon that can match up with the Celtics’ James. Oh, yeah, and the team got promising big man, Enes Kanter, with the third overall pick (in a weak draft… I know) and used their subsequent later picks to grab enticing projects, Perry Jones III and Gorgui Dieng. Credit the scouting team assembled by GM Craig Ehlo who was hired in 2010. Now, this is a team worth rooting for: tough, physical, big, talented. And I smell title this year.

[Considers the fact that, sure, 1/3 of Wheel-iverse Cavs teams were awful. But, hey, they’re pretty damn good right now.]

Maybe, The Wheel’s all right, after all.

[Note: What started as an admittedly confection-y project grew into a little more for me. I was motivated just to see what (if any) good player the Cavs would have gotten under The Wheel draft system. But, in chronicling the (mis)adventures of these alternate players, I couldn’t help but start to root for these fabricated rosters and imagine how my current rooting interests may have wound up very different. I started to like that year where Larry Johnson, Damon Stoudamire and Antoine Walker were good together (it sure beat the Brevin Knight / fat Shawn Kemp teams the Cavs were running out in the real world at that time. As fans, our relationships with players can sometimes be no more real than this. We root for guys who are on our fantasy teams or who we’ve assembled on a video game. Well, I guess it’s good for the Cavs that fandom is not always the product of real life players on the floor.]