NBA Free Agency: Cleveland Cavaliers Smart Not to Make Big Moves Right Now
There is a general perception among Cleveland sports fans that the general managers of the three professional teams in town have some sort of allergic reaction to signing any "big name" free agents.
This was never more evident when the Browns this offseason passed on big names in positions of need like Randy Moss, Chad Ochocinco and Mario Williams but instead signed Frostee Rucker. The Indians also passed on signing players such as Josh Willingham to re-sign Grady Sizemore for $5 million and oh-by-the-way he hasn't played in a single game this year because of injury (shocker of all shockers).
And now is the time of year where the Cavaliers follow suit by sitting back and watching Steve Nash go to the Lakers, Ray Allen to the Heat, Joe Johnson to the Nets and Jason Terry to the Celtics. But you want to know what's crazy? I'm actually okay with it.
Make no mistake about it, I expect the Cavaliers to start building this team to win games starting now. We all understood the past two years of sucking because that's how the NBA works. But two years of terrible basketball and three picks in the top four is enough for us to say "let's start winning some games."
However, those kinds of free-agent signings are not what you want to see the Cavs doing. Those moves won't help the team in the long run. Neither does spending crazy money on guys like Omir Asik, a career backup, who got a ridiculous $25 million contract over three years from the Rockets or Brook Lopez who's getting a max deal (four years, $60 million) from the Nets because he's seven feet tall.
Suddenly Anderson Varejao's contract looks like a steal. (Okay, Lopez is actually a good offensive center, but he doesn't play good defense and is a bad rebounder for a player his size and position. So he's still overpaid, and I'd still rather have Varejao.)
The core of the team must be built through the draft while other pieces can be supplemented through smaller signings, like Jonny Flynn as a backup point guard. Those are the kinds of moves that you can expect from the Cavs this offseason, if any at all.
The time will come when the Cavs will be in position to make a big trade for a star player or spend big money on a top free agent, but that time is not now.
Most of the players available this summer aren't worth spending on anyway. The majority of the restricted free agents who have signed offer sheets have had their contracts matched by their original team (Jeremy Lin, Roy Hibbert, Nic Batum and Eric Gordon, most likely).
The rest of the players who would even be considered by the Cavs, such as Chris Kaman (one year, $8 million to Mavericks), Spencer Hawes (two years, $13 million to stay with the Sixers) or Michael Beasley (three years, $18 million to the Suns), are not transcendent players who would have a profound impact on the team.
Even a guy like Mr. Kardashian himself, Kris Humphries, is a nice productive player but really isn't worth the money that it would probably take to get him (somewhere in the $8-10 million a year range, I'd guess).
There are currently two models in the NBA that are seeing success. There is the Heat/Celtics model of gathering a few stars through free agency or trades and then hope that the cheap pieces you fill in around are good enough to win with. The Knicks did this as well to minimal success, and the Nets are currently trying to assemble a "big three" as well, but it's not as impressive as the trendsetters.
The other model is to build through the draft and supplement those picks with savvy free agent signings of inexpensive players that fit the system and some trades.
This is the model employed by the Spurs and Thunder and has had sustained success. It does require you to get lucky in the draft (Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant), but it is a proven model nonetheless. This is what the Chris Grant and the Cavs are trying to do in Cleveland in the post-LeBron era.
(There is another model—we could call the "Laker model"—which is basically that you have a team Los Angeles and are always able to convince the best players to join your team. I don't know what else to say about the way the Lakers do it, but somehow they're always good.)
What the Cavs want to steer away from is what Jim Paxson and Danny Ferry did during the LeBron era in Cleveland. Let's take a quick look back at the major acquisitions during those years, not including the draft:
2003-04—Ira Newble, Jeff McInnis, Kedrick Brown, Eric Williams, and Tony Battie
2004-05—Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, Eric Snow, Sasha Pavlovic, Lucious Harris, and Jiri Welsch (for a first-round pick, I might add)
2005-06—Larry Hughes, Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall, and Flip Murray
2006-07—David Wesley, Dwayne Jones, and Scott Pollard
2007-08—Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace, and Delonte West
2009-10—Shaquille O'Neal, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker, and Jamario Moon
There was not one star player in his prime that acquired via trade or free agency in the entire LeBron James era in Cleveland. Probably the best deals were to bring in Hughes (albeit for a bad contract), Mo Williams, West and Shaq. (You could count Varejao too if you want, but he was a throw-in as a draft player in the trade that brought Drew Gooden to Cleveland.)
Many of the moves that Paxson and Ferry did during this time were moves just for the sake of making a move. The best season the Cavs had regular season-wise was the 2008-09 season, which you'll notice was the year where they made the fewest moves.
(That season was derailed, of course, in the conference finals by a poor matchup against the Magic, Mike Brown getting out-coached by Stan Van Gundy and Rashard Lewis being on performance-enhancing drugs.)
There were some unfortunate happenings and other questionable moves that led to the Cavs' problems during those years. Dajaun Wagner, the first-round pick in 2002, suffered from a variety of injuries and illnesses that cut his career short. Luke Jackson, the first-round pick in 2004, suffered from back issues and never really showed any promise.
The Cavs' first-round pick in 2005 was traded to the Bobcats for Sasha Pavlovic...a terrible trade. They then traded their 2007 first-round pick to the Celtics for Jiri Welsch...one of the worst trades ever.
After getting the star player in LeBron James, the general managers of the Cavs threw away picks and acquired players at a ridiculous rate and had very little success because of it. Whether Cavs fans want to admit it or not, the success during those years was almost solely because of LeBron James.
(They did have considerably impressive success drafting players later in the first and early in the second round with Carlos Boozer, Daniel Gibson, Shannon Brown and JJ Hickson.)
The point I'm trying to make in all this madness that the Cavs do not want to repeat the failures and mistakes of the past.
They already have Kyrie Irving, who is a star. They also have Dion Waiters, who they believe will be a star as well. Tristan Thompson is the other key piece, and it is yet to be seen how good he will be, but they believe that he has very good potential. And Varejao is a more-than-capable center.
The Cavs still need a starting small forward. Alonzo Gee, who most likely will be back next year, is a nice player and will be a serviceable starter this season, but he's not what you want long-term. Gee will be better served coming off the bench.
Unless you want a player in his mid-to-late 30s in free agency to fill that hole this year, you're looking at Courtney Lee (restricted and more of a SG than SF), Mickael Pietrus (who I actually wouldn't mind for the right price even though he is 30 years old) or the triumphant return of Sasha Pavlovic.
Look, you can't rebuild a team in one season, and it's very unlikely that you can do it two either. Just know this: In Kevin Durant's rookie season, his team was 20-62. In year two, they were 23-59. In year three, they were 50-32 and made the playoffs. In year four, they were 55-27 and lost in conference finals. In year five (this past season), they were 47-19 and lost in the NBA Finals.
The Thunder did this by building through the draft and not rushing the process. The only major move they did was a trade that brought them Kendrick Perkins in exchange for Jeff Green, who was drafted the same year as Durant.
They didn't build the team by throwing money around at free agents every summer to try to get good quick. They developed a plan and stuck to it. So far it's worked pretty dang well.
I'll take the Cavs following that model over what they tried to do during the last regime. It takes time and requires patience, but rest assured that the process works and is best for the future success of the franchise.
You can follow Benjamin Flack on Twitter @ClevelandFlack.
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