Is the LeBron situation really a tale of two brothers?

June 28th, 2010 by John Krolik


Well, about 10 minutes before I hit “publish,” Stephen A. Smith reported that he believes LeBron James is going to Miami to team up with Bosh, Wade, and Pat Riley. Not confirmed, obviously not official, but it’s foolish to assume this won’t dominate the discussion in the comments anyways.

When the Jordan/Pippen Bulls were winning championships, now-infamous Bulls GM Jerry Krause’s favorite refrain pissed off just about everybody. Krause didn’t like to give Jordan, Pippen, or Phil Jackson the lion’s share of the credit for Chicago’s six championships. Instead, Krause loved to say that organizations (meaning Krause), not players or coaches, were the ones who really won championships.

Of course, after Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson all left the Bulls, Krause promptly rendered the Bulls irrelevant with a series of ill-advised draft picks and trades, making his claims look even more foolish than they did at the time. Krause fancied himself a basketball savant whose hoops acumen was the driving force behind the Bulls’ dynasty. The truth was that Krause simply caught lightning in a bottle, and subsequently convinced himself he could control where it would strike next.

It wasn’t Krause and his organization winning those championships; Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler made that plenty clear. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson were the ones winning the championships. Krause was just the guy lucky enough to have them on his team.

There’s a reason I’m bringing all of this up. More than a decade after the last Bulls dynasty and seven years after Krause’s resignation as general manager of the Bulls, Chicago may be poised to start another dynasty. And this time, the organization actually will deserve most of the credit.

Regardless of how the rest of this summer plays out, there’s no doubt that the Bulls have done absolutely everything right up to this point. Thanks to patience, a series of savvy moves and picks, and more than a little bit of luck, the Bulls are in position to add LeBron James and Chris Bosh to an already-solid young core. Instead of tanking for draft picks/cap space or mortgaging their future, Chicago consistently put a quality team on the floor while leaving room for the team to improve.

Every other franchise’s team-building strategy made the summer of 2010 into either the starting point or the day of judgement. Because Bulls GM John Paxson realized that the summer of 2010 can be the middle phase of an actual long-term strategy instead of an all-or-nothing roster apocalypse, he’s looking like the smartest guy in the room right now.

Meanwhile, the Cavalier franchise is not in the best shape. Any or all of Danny Ferry’s moves can be Monday Morning Quarterbacked to death, of course. But the bottom line is that for the past few seasons, Ferry and Co. did a great job of taking the assets they had and turning them into players with a better chance of helping LeBron win. For example, were Shaq and Mo Williams perfect acquisitions? Absolutely not. But how much better could the  Cavs have done, considering they traded Damon Jones, Ben Wallace, and Sasha Pavlovic for Shaq and Mo?

Ferry’s team-building strategy has always been to surround LeBron with quality role players and veterans nearing the tail end of their productive years. That strategy can be criticized, but it was really the only legitimate option Ferry ever had. You can say Ferry should have been more patient in trying to find LeBron his Pippen or Gasol, but the truth is that any chance the Cavs ever had at building a dynasty-like team was gone before Ferry took over in the first place.

A good rebuilding process generally takes 2-3 years. Those are the years where you get lucky enough in the draft to snag a superstar and pick two or three other young players to grow with him, forming the “core” of the franchise. “Core” players are generally lottery picks, although there have been some later-draft miracles as well. (I’m thinking of San Antonio here.) Think about how Oklahoma City has built its team, Rose and Noah on the Bulls, Nelson and Howard on the Magic.

(By the way, a book could be written on this; all of the above is an admittedly rough paraphrase.  Quickly: The Kobe/Shaq Lakers were the first draft+free-agency dynasty, the Celtics turned their lottery picks into Ray Allen and KG, Shaq——>Caron Butler—>Brown’s expiring contract—>The Immaculate Salary Dump—>New Laker Dynasty)

When a rebuild is successful, the team is now in contender mode. When a team has a real chance to make a deep playoff run, they cannot afford to think in the long-term; NBA championship windows are too small. Moves can be made, even significant ones, but the chances of adding a “core” piece are extremely slim when a team doesn’t have lottery picks any more. Considering that winning a championship with only one “core” player is nearly impossible, it’s important not to screw up the chance to get some “core” guys during the rebuilding years.

Well, the Cavs screwed up their chances of building a young core around LeBron. They screwed them up very, very badly. Here’s a quick list of all the moves that destroyed the Cavs’ chances to build a bona fide young core around LeBron (note: all of these will be getting their own post)

— Trading Andre Miller for Darius Miles*

— Trading Ricky Davis at the absolute nadir of his value

— Taking Luke Jackson with the #10 pick in the 2004 draft

— Trading the #14 pick in the 2005 draft for Jiri Welsch

— The Carlos Boozer Debacle**

*May be exempt from criticism, as it helped the Cavs win the lottery

** I realize that much of said debacle was the fault of then-owner Gordon Gund.

*** Larry Hughes will get his own post as well. I have not forgotten his evil.

The Cavs made one lottery pick after drafting LeBron, and he never averaged three points per game with the team. Davis and Miles, who were supposed to be LeBron’s running mates, held LeBron back more than they helped him. Boozer left with the Cavs getting nothing in return. Those mistakes were what kept LeBron from ever having a real running mate, and may be the mistakes that drive LeBron to Chicago.

Here’s the craziest part: All of the Above Moves Were Made by John Paxson’s Brother. Who now works as a consultant for the Bulls. I’m not saying this as a conspiracy guy, although it is kind of a fun notion. (Seriously, though, I hate conspiracies.) I’m saying it as a “this is a seriously strange world we live in” guy.

There’s been plenty of talk about why LeBron will or won’t decide to stay in Cleveland. If he does leave, this might be the biggest reason: at critical junctures in the histories of their respective franchises, one Paxson brother made all the right moves while the other one made all the wrong moves.