How it all went wrong: Jiri Welsch

August 29th, 2010 by John Krolik


Dear lord, the trade that sent the Cavs’ 2007 1st-round pick to the Celtics in exchange for Jiri Welsch was awful. Horrifying, inexcusable, inexplicable, and awful.

The Theory:

On February 23rd, 2005, the Cavs were doing pretty well. They were 31-21, appeared to be well on their way to the playoffs, and LeBron James had improved so dramatically since his rookie of the year campaign that Sports Illustrated’s cover declared him “The best 20-year old ever.”

On February 24th, 2005, Jim Paxson traded the Cavaliers’ 1st-round pick for Jiri Welsch. At the time, Welsch was averaging 7.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game on 42.8%/32.3%/77.3% shooting in 20.5 minutes per game for the Celtics. In other words, he was a replacement-level basketball player in every possible sense. To be fair to Paxson, Welsch shot 38% from deep during the 03-04 season, and was a white non-American player, so in theory he could’ve been a good shooter.

That’s who Paxson traded, in effect, two first-round picks for. That’s right, two. To ensure the trade went through, Paxson removed the lottery protection on the Cavs’ 2005 draft pick, meaning that the Cavs wouldn’t get to keep their pick if they missed the playoffs.

There are two possible explanations for this move:

-Jim Paxson was absolutely sure the Cavaliers would make the 2005 playoffs.

-Jim Paxson didn’t think he’d still be the team’s general manager at the time of the 2007 draft.

Paxson was right about one of those things; he was fired in April of 2005. That’s the issue with running a sports team — when everything is win-now and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, coaches and executives will almost always take long-term risks for short-term benefits. I suppose it’s better than the alternative (giving executives a license to make as many bad moves as possible), but there will be some issues. Paxson knew he wasn’t making the best long-term move, and he didn’t care. If the Cavs made the playoffs and did well, everyone would be happy and things would work themselves out when the 2007 draft came around. If not, he’d be working for a different team anyways.

The Reality:

Stunning, total, and almost comical failure. After the Welsch trade was made, the Cavs immediately went on a six-game losing streak. Even though the Cavs didn’t trade any players for Welsch, the basketball gods immediately made the Cavaliers inept to punish Paxson for being so foolish. The Cavaliers went 11-19 after the Welsch trade, finished the season 42-40, and missed the playoffs because the Nets held the tiebreaker for the 8th and final playoff spot.

For his part, Jiri Welsch was absolutely terrible, averaging 2.9 points on 23.5% shooting during his time with the Cavs.

The Cavs would have had the #13 overall pick, but because Paxson removed the pick’s lottery protection, the pick went to the Bobcats. Had the Cavs held onto the pick, they would likely have chosen Sean May, Rashad McCants, Antoine Wright, Joey Graham, Gerald Green, or Hakim Warrick.

As The Wine and Gold rush pointed out, the Celtics ended up trading the 2007 pick they got from the Cavs to the Suns for the 21st overall pick in the 2006 draft, which they used to take Rajon Rondo. (The Suns ended up using the 2007 pick on Rudy Fernandez.)

Since taking LeBron with the 1st overall pick in 2003, the Cavs have used their first-round picks on Luke Jackson, Jiri Welsch, Shannon Brown, J.J. Hickson, and Christian Eyenga. Six drafts, five players, one Cavaliers rotation player. I’m not saying that the Cavs would have drafted a Granger or a Rondo if they’d kept those picks, but they at least would’ve had a chance.

The draft is an inexact science — for every Scottie Pippen, there’s a Mike Dunleavy. For every Pau Gasol, there’s a Darko. For every Josh Smith, there’s a Ndudi Ebi. For every Rajon Rondo, there are three Acie Laws. For every Manu Ginobili, there are hundreds of Sergei Monias. The draft is the best way to add real talent to a team, but it’s also the riskiest. It’s hard to blame any team’s front office for not finding a Pippen-like home run pick because of how unpredictable the draft is; no matter who you are, there’s a ton of luck involved in getting the draft right. Failing to get lucky is one thing. Giving away two of the Cavaliers’ best chances to get lucky in exchange for 16 games of Jiri Welsch is quite another. Just unfathomable how disastrous this move was for the Cavaliers.