I semi-accidentally triggered a “why are the Cavaliers THIS BAD?” discussion with my last post. In the comments, there was a lot of talk about how the Cavs’ epic futility has occurred because they built their team around LeBron, and the team is now hopelessly rudderless without him.
There is a grain of truth in that. The Cavaliers arranged their talent around LeBron, because that was the best/only option really available to them. However, that glosses over the fact that LeBron prevented the Cavaliers from accumulating talent. He did not do this by being evil or failing to commit long-term to Cleveland in order to convince Trevor Ariza to join the team. He did this by making the Cavaliers significantly better very fast, and very good for a number of years. This gave the Cavs fewer chances to add real talent through the draft, and the Cavaliers blew the chances they did have.
Think of team-building as a very basic mathematical concept. Trades are made when each team is getting something of theoretically equal value — therefore, a trade can only rearrange the overall talent level of a team to best suit its goals. Free-agency is nice, but big free-agency opportunities are few and far between — remember that Shaq is the only max free-agent signing to have won a championship with the team that signed him. (To date, that is. Yes, the Heat have a chance of joining the Lakers as the only team to craft a dynasty through free agency. And remember that they got Caron and Odom in the Shaq trade, traded Caron for Kwame, and flipped Kwame’s contract for Gasol — the initial capital all came from that Shaq coup.)
And as I’ve said before on this blog, teams that spend money in free agency are the ones that already have solid talent “cores” — teams are not good because they spend money. Teams spend money because they are good. The Cavs’ big post-LeBron acquisitions were Mo Williams, Shaq, and Antawn Jamison. They got those players for almost nothing, because the teams those three players played for did not feel they were worth paying the remaining value of their contracts. There are reasons for that.
On a fundamental level, the only real way to really and truly add talent is through the draft. This is a fairly basic concept. If you do not have good players or prospects, other teams will not trade you good players or prospects. If you do not have good players or prospects, it makes little sense to spend money on free agents. The only reliable way to acquire good players or prospects is through the draft.
Even a team like the Celtics, which was seemingly built on trades, relied on the draft. They drafted Paul Pierce, bought the draft rights to Rondo, traded a top-5 pick for Ray Allen, and traded Al Jefferson (considered an all-time steal at #14) for KG. With very, very, few exceptions, team-building always comes back to the draft. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who the Cavaliers have used their post-LeBron draft picks to acquire:
2003: Jason Kapono, pick #32 overall. Lost to Charlotte in the expansion draft.
2004: Luke Jackson, pick #10 overall. For more on that, read my full writeup.
2005: No picks. (Effectively) traded their 1st-round pick for Jiri Welsch (click here for more) and their 2nd-round pick for Anderson Varejao.
2006: Shannon Brown, pick #25 overall. Eventually traded away as a throw-in to the Ben Wallace trade. Daniel Gibson, pick #42 overall. With Andy out for the year, Boobie is the best player on the team. This was a great pick.
2007: THIS FIRST-ROUND PICK WAS ALSO TRADED FOR JIRI WELSCH.
2008: J.J. Hickson, #19 overall pick. That’s been a roller-coaster ride.
2009: Christian Eyenga, #30 overall pick. Starting to look like a rotation player, maybe. Team also got Danny Green, who they later cut.
2010: Pick traded for Antawn Jamison.
Note: if anyone has an easy way to keep track of where all the Cavs’ 2nd-round pick went, I’d appreciate it, because it’s hard to keep tabs on exactly what the Cavs spend their 2nd-rounders on. Also, I am aware that the Cavs still have the rights to Sasha Kaun.
I mean, yikes. Eyenga, Gibson, and Hickson are the only rotation players the Cavs have managed to draft post-LeBron, and Jamison is the only rotation player, current or former, that the Cavs managed to get for a traded pick. That’s a miserable showing for six years of drafting. Oh, and the Cavs took their big free-agency shot at Larry Hughes.
Again, part of this is because LeBron made the team too good to fast. The Thunder got to rebuild with four top-five picks in three years, starting with the Durant draft in 2007. If the Cavs had the #3 pick in 2005, they would’ve gotten Chris Paul or Deron Williams. In fact, lets’ do this exactly (no CP3 over Deron): The Thunder drafted Jeff Green #5 in 2007: if the Cavs had the #5 pick in the 2003 draft, LeBron and Wade would’ve been Cavaliers from day one. And Deron Williams would have joined them when they drafted him 3rd overall in 2005. (Shaun Livingston in 2004 would have been a tough break, but no cheating.) Think about that for a while. By not carrying his team to a respectable record for the first two years of his career, Durant prevented himself from having to make an uncomfortable exodus to greener pastures later on. He really has done everything right, hasn’t he?
If they’d sucked in 2004, they might have actually snagged Dwight Howard. Now that’s the kind of young core that would have kept LeBron here forever. Instead, their success forced them to have to look for a Kobe-like minor miracle in the late lottery or full-blown Ginobili miracle in the later picks, and those aren’t easy to come by.
Why do the Cavaliers suck? It’s not because they built around LeBron. It’s not because they didn’t build around LeBron. The Cavs acquired an asset who wouldn’t have fit around LeBron without having to give up significant talent this off-season. His name is Ramon Sessions. You have been basking in his glory. The Cavaliers suck because the draft is the best way to acquire significant assets, the Cavaliers acquired one significant asset through the draft in the last seven years (Boobie is maybe .5 of a significant asset — what teams would give up a #1 pick for him? Consider that the #15 draft pick is an average 1st-round pick), and that significant asset left last summer. That’s why this team is historically terrible. That’s the story here, folks. Nothing less, nothing more. Until next time.