On a warm July evening in 2010, the current era of the Cleveland Cavaliers dissolved in an instant. It happened so quickly and complete that the NBA and its fans are still coming to grips with what transpired that night.
Cavaliers fans started that day as loyal followers of the best team in the league for two years in a row. Their world had changed somehow by the time they went to bed that night.
They were still the same people who had to wake up and have the same life as before with the same personal problems, yet their world was a bit dryer, a bit darker.
Parents had to explain to their children why their hero wanted to be somebody else's hero. Grown men became irrational and videotaped themselves burning sports memorabilia. Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert reacted hastily and published the ultimate foot-in-mouth letter, complete with Comic Sans font, addressed to "Cleveland, All Of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers Supporters."
And somewhere, deep within the minds of Cavs fans across the world lived the knowledge that this team wasn't just going to be bad, but very bad.
With no pick in the 2010 NBA draft and the first week of free agency past, the chance to start rebuilding had to wait and expectations for the following season had dwindled to near zero.
Reality, it seems, was intent on playing a crueler joke than anybody could have imagined. With a depleted roster that not only was lacking LeBron James, but also Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West and ultimately Mo Williams, the Cavs limped to a record of 19-63, at one point losing 26 straight.
While the team was stumbling, Cavs' GM Chris Grant slowly attained assets by dissecting and trading away pieces. Fans saw the first real step in the rebuild when the Cavs struck gold by winning the draft lottery to couple with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft.
These draft picks turned into rookies Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, respectively. Irving exceeded all expectations by winning the Kia Rookie of the Year award, 2012 NBA All-Rookie First Team and Rising Stars Challenge MVP, and establishing himself as one of the top crunch-time players in the NBA.
Thompson did not fare quite as well, but did make the NBA All-Rookie second team, and has the potential to be a 15-point, 15-rebound power forward as he continues to mature and learn the game.
Still, the 2011-2012 Cavs were littered with remnants of an era that doesn't want them anymore. Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao and Daniel Gibson contributed to a team under construction while Anthony Parker, Ryan Hollins, Christian Eyenga and J.J. Hickson hung around the necks of a franchise like a brick in the ocean.
The recent strike-shortened NBA season wasn't much easier on the Cavs than the year before, as they tied for the third-worst record at 21-45 and ultimately the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft.
For weeks rumors swirled that the Cavs would make a major deal on draft day to ensure they were able to choose Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Florida guard Bradley Beal. If that deal couldn't happen, then the Cavs were certain to draft North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes.
Instead, for the second year in a row, the Cavs stunned their fans by going against the grain at No. 4 by drafting Syracuse guard Dion Waiters. Shell-shocked fans attending the Cavs' draft party at Quicken Loans Arena booed the selection.
Weekend warriors and bloggers instantly mocked the pick. Waiters did not work out for the Cavs and skipped most of the pre-draft events after ESPN's Chad Ford reported Waiters received a commitment from another lottery team (via SLAM).
How could the Cavs draft this guy at No. 4 that they didn't work and and wasn't even a starter at Syracuse?
Over the next 24 hours, Waiters and Zeller flew into Cleveland, met the staff, posed for pictures, and answered questions for the media.
It was immediately apparent that a roster filled with high-character good guys suddenly had some attitude.
When asked to describe his game during a conference call (from the Plain Dealer), Waiters asserted, "Physical, athletic, competitive. A lot of confidence. I play with swagger. I don't have any weaknesses in my game... I'm a scorer, with a scoring mentality. I'm a guy who likes to get the crowd involved and feed off the energy. A guy who's dedicated to winning."
A guy who's dedicated to winning and likes to get the crowd involved is the perfect remedy for a sometimes-lethargic Cavaliers team.
Waiters is a tremendous, loyal talent, but is also the perfect complement to Kyrie Irving. Irving is modest; Waiters is brash. Irving will give the politically correct sound bite; Waiters will give the reporters the edgy statement they seek. Irving will run the offense exactly as called, Waiters will put the team on his back when the play breaks down.
This is team chemistry at its core, and the reason Waiters was the correct pick.
Most importantly for fans, Dion Waiters will give the Cavaliers an identity to which they can relate. Kyrie Irving is the talent, but the personality of the team will belong to Waiters.
For the first time since the disaster in July 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers are a team that isn't clinging to the past. The current incarnation has all the elements coming together of a lovable team such as the Price, Daugherty and Nance squads of the early 90's. The LeBron era was a fun team to watch, but not relatable to most fans.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are building something special with the final act still to come. They may not win a lot of games this coming season, but the Cavs will be one of the most exciting young teams in the league.
A team where "loyalty" is more than just a tattoo.