Depending on your point of view, Chris Grant has either done a masterful job in patiently rebuilding the Cavaliers in the smoldering wake of The Decision or he has overseen a three-year stretch of historical futility while doing next to nothing to improve the on-court product.
The truth, as is usually the case, probably lies somewhere in between. Determining which end of the spectrum it is closest to, however, is important.
Grant has eschewed signing any type of impact free agent over the past three years, but Cavalier fans that lament that course of action need to understand why.
It is not enough to just look at the roster, throw up your hands and declare Grant lazy or incompetent or outclassed.
There's solid reasoning behind this—reasoning that not everyone agrees with, to be sure—but this isn't some directionless see-what-happens-next approach with no larger goal in mind.
Grant has done this on purpose. While no one in the front office has come out and said it, the plan since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach has been fairly clear: wipe all bad contracts from the books, use cap space to acquire future assets, put together a young core of talented players and have a tremendous amount of flexibility for the summer of 2014.
That's it. That's the plan.
If, along the way, the opportunity to deal some of those young players for an established star should arise? Great. Pounce on it. But if not, let that core grow together.
I think sometimes fans get locked into the idea that franchise's course is a one-way trip, like a train on a track. That's not the case here; the more apt analogy would be a ship.
The destination remains the same, but a ship can take a number of routes to reach it, often times changing its course along the way.
All you can ask of a franchise and its general manager is to have a plan, stick to it and do everything in their power to make it happen. The Cavs have been patient and have yet to waver from a plan now three years old.
Think about the conviction that takes. Cleveland decided on a course of action it believed gave it the best chance to compete for a championship and stuck to it. Right or wrong, how many franchises can honestly say that?
Whatever teams you are coming up with, odds are it is one of the elite teams in the league.
Is this plan guaranteed to work? Of course not. There's 29 other teams trying as hard as possible to make sure it definitely does not work. Just being in a position to compete for titles is a daunting task.
Compare it to what the Pelicans have done. New Orleans is in a comparable position to Cleveland. The Pelicans' best player left the team and forced it to start over.
Now, New Orleans learned from Cleveland and got something in return for the face of its franchise before he fled town, but otherwise, both teams lucked into franchise players in the draft, then went about surrounding them with talent in different ways.
New Orleans acquired Eric Gordon in the Chris Paul deal, traded for the not-cheap contract of Ryan Anderson, traded the sixth pick and next year's first-round pick in the most recent draft for Jrue Holiday and have now signed Tyreke Evans to a sizable, risky offer sheet.
That is their core going forward.
That's a nice young team, to be sure—assuming a change of scenery helps Evans return to previous form—but that's the group. Does that scream NBA title?
Today, that team is certainly better than Cleveland, will compete for a playoff spot and might even get one. But in the long run, what does that matter?
That core is not winning an NBA title. New Orleans accelerated the rebuilding process but effectively hindered any real shot at a title.
Grant could have certainly steered the Cavs' ship in that direction. There were middling but expensive moves to make a la Tyreke Evans.
A run at the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and a swift exit may have satiated the impatient faction of the Cleveland fan base, but that same group would have been up in arms when the Cavs could not get out of the first round three years from now while being locked into undesirable contracts.
The flexibility is they key point here. Cleveland's worst-case scenario is that is has four top-four picks that can grow and play together. But maybe the new CBA forces a team to deal an established superstar on the cheap and Cleveland is in position to take advantage.
Without being locked into one predetermined course, the Cavs can smoothly go in the most advantageous direction. Again, there's risk there—maybe the fabled superstar never materializes.
But the alternative of overpaying for risky free agents is a sure-fire way to immediate but shallow improvement and long-term mediocrity.
And really, what was the giant opportunity Grant has missed out on the last few seasons?
Was there a near-signing or trade that has come back to haunt them? There have been more bullets dodged than anything else.
Grant is far from perfect. His handling of Cleveland's two second-round picks this year was borderline irresponsible. He's made three-straight questionable draft picks and has not found any "diamond in the rough"-type players on the cheap.
He may have a need to win deals so lopsidedly that he misses out on some genuine opportunities. No general manager is perfect, Grant included.
If, after the summer of 2014, Cleveland is still mired in the bottom third of the league, then that is undeniably on Grant.
Every move he has made so far has been to set Cleveland up for the next 12 months. If he is going to be judged on anything, it will be the next year.
Everything—the patience, the planning, the collecting of assets—is building up to that.
Grant has shown he is capable of long-term planning. The big question now: Is he able to make the transition from planning to action? His shrewdness so far suggests that he is, but there is reason for doubt, as well.
Either way, Grant has put himself in a position to succeed, and at this point, that is really that he can be judged on.
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