The Cleveland Cavaliers are on the clock.
Given a reprieve by heartbroken fans after the epic collapse of 2010, the Cavs have taken their time and meticulously assembled assets without concerning themselves with wins and losses.
It's a good thing that winning hasn't been a priority because the team currently has the third-worst record in the NBA at 22-47. It is limping toward its third draft in a row with a top-five pick.
In three years of rebuilding, their winning percentages have been .232, .318 and .319, respectively. Despite the lack of wins, however, there is excitement about the future.
It is difficult to know how competitive the current squad is. Anderson Varejão went down with a leg injury on December 18 and later developed a blood clot in his lung after the surgery, which has sidelined him for the remainder of the season. At the time of his injury, Varejão was leading the league in rebounds.
Kyrie Irving, an All-Star in just his second season with the Cavs, had already missed 14 games this season before spraining his left shoulder against Toronto Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas. Technically, he is out for three to four weeks, but it is likely that he will not play again before the end of the season.
Most recently, Dion Waiters has been inactive with loose cartilage in his left knee. He is scheduled to rest and undergo treatment for a week, but there is an outside chance that his knee injury could require surgery.
Potential aside, the Cavs have been a bottom-feeding, inconsistent team that cannot stay healthy. The upside of this futility is another year in the lottery and another high draft pick to complement their talented young core.
The elephant in the room for the Cavs has been the upcoming free-agency class of 2014. As much as most fans would love to see the team move on from LeBron James, he has been as intimately linked to the Cavs since his departure as he was during his tenure in Cleveland.
A reunion felt impossible three years ago. Mistakes were made from both LeBron and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert during the days and months following The Decision. If the organization didn't fully burn down the bridge, then the fans blew it up on LeBron's first return to Cleveland.
Despite the opinion of LeBron James from fans in northeast Ohio, his return to the Cavaliers would propel the team to instant title contention.
One thing is certain: LeBron is not leaving sunny Miami to play in Cleveland for a team with a winning percentage hovering around .300.
If the Cavs want to be serious contenders in the LeBron sweepstakes in 2014, they need to start winning games. The time for rebuilding needs to end on draft night, and next season must produce a playoff-caliber team.
Otherwise, the only LeBron reunion the Cavs will see in 2014 is another triple-double in a Miami Heat uniform.
For those fans—and there are many—who are strongly against the Cavaliers pursuing James next summer, here is a dire warning.
Irving will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2014. At this time, the Cavs can offer him a five-year maximum contract, which they will almost certainly do. If the Cavs are still lottery-bound, then he may decline this offer. Under this scenario, the Cavs would have an option on Irving as well as the right to match any offer made by another team.
Tristan Thompson is more complicated. The options on Thompson are the same as with Irving, and he has shown future star potential in the second half of this season but his developing game still has a long way to go.
The Cavs would like to keep their explosive power forward in Cleveland, but if he continues to develop, he may become too expensive to retain—especially if LeBron rejoins the team. Then again, if the Cavs have not improved, Thompson has the option to decline an extension and play out his rookie contract.
The nightmare could continue the following year, as talented shooting guard Dion Waiters will face the same contract decisions.
Granted, this is a cataclysmic scenario, but if one domino falls, the rest could go down with it. These players aren't going to be happy playing for a losing team their entire career.
The future isn't as far away as it appears, and the time is now to turn the corner. The summer of 2014 is bigger than LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It will also be the first opportunity for Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson to show the organization how pleased they are with the direction of the team.
On draft night, deputy commissioner Adam Silver will exclaim, "The Cleveland Cavaliers are on the clock."
Truer words have never been spoken.
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