Armed with four top-four picks in a three-year span, a veteran-laced offseason haul and an old coach who had helped carry this franchise as far as it had ever been, the Cleveland Cavaliers entered the 2013-14 season with plans of doing better.
Those plans quickly became mere hopes, and those hopes eventually turned into pipe dreams. Cleveland's dismissal of general manager Chris Grant on Thursday, first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, may have been the smoke signal that even those pipe dreams have been extinguished.
With the Cavs (16-33) sitting closer to the East's second-worst record (Orlando Magic, 14-37) than its No. 8 seed (Charlotte Bobcats, 22-28), Grant's firing feels more like a first domino than a clean break. If Cleveland goes the housecleaning route, it may not be long before head coach Mike Brown hits the chopping block:
Yesterday I was told by two people when Cleveland fires Grant, Mike Brown would be next.— Brett Poirier NBA (@BrettNBA) February 6, 2014
You could make the argument—and a compelling one at that—that Brown should have been the first to go.
That preseason optimism wasn't born out of blind loyalty. Grant found this group pieces to snap its three-year playoff drought. Out of five ESPN.com panelists polled on Cleveland's playoff chances before the season, all five predicted a postseason appearance.
Grant's draft history is rocky—Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson have yet to look like former No. 4 picks, Anthony Bennett as a top pick could be a reach of historic proportions—but the problems with his picks stem more from chemistry issues and redundancies rather than a lack of talent.
Could Grant have fared better with his picks? Absolutely.
Did he give this team skilled players to work with? Again, absolutely. The pieces haven't exactly fit as Grant initially envisioned them, but that doesn't necessarily fall on his shoulders. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert recognized the problem—it's hard to miss a massive pile of flaming hot garbage—but he might have missed its actual source.
"Perhaps Gilbert is blaming Grant for drafting too many divas, but it is up to the coach to mold those divas into a team," Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote.
It's hard to argue against Grant's removal, and I'm not trying to fight that battle.
But Brown should've shared a plane ride out of Cleveland with Grant.
The growth Cavs fans were supposed to see hasn't happened. If anything, this team has regressed under Brown's direction.
"The players don't play hard for him," Jim Ingraham of the News-Herald wrote. "His reputation as a defense-first coach is empty, unsupportable hearsay...The offense? Mostly it’s five guys selfishly playing one-on-one."
Brown's lauded as one of the finer defensive minds in the game, but you would never guess that by watching this team perform. The Cavs are 22nd in defensive rating, allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Last season, under Byron Scott, Cleveland sat tied for 26th in the category and surrendered 106.9 points per 100 trips.
"The defense is broke," Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote after the Cavs suffered an embarrassing 119-108 loss to the injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. "That’s evident. And it’s broke because guys can’t be bothered to extend any effort."
The offense, never one of Brown's specialties, has been an unmitigated disaster. Somehow, he's managed to take the offensive weapons he had at his disposal and transform them into inefficient wrecks.
Kyrie Irving's shooting percentages have slipped to career lows across the board (.426/.354/.844 slash). Jarrett Jack lost more than five points off his field-goal percentage from last season (40.1, down from 45.2) and another three from beyond the arc (37.4, down from 40.4). Luol Deng, a career 45.9 percent shooter, has converted just 42.5 percent of his shots since coming over from the Chicago Bulls last month.
"No one should have expected miracles from Brown," Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer wrote. "But he was supposed to make a significant difference over what we have watched in the last few seasons. So far, that has not been the case, and his problem with offense is a big part of the reason."
Bad offense and bad defense? That's almost the perfect recipe for a midseason axing.
The only thing missing is that ominous vote of confidence from ownership. Not too worry. Thanks to Gilbert, that kiss of death has already been planted:
Gilbert on Brown's job: We’re going to see Mike Brown succeed this year. I think he will be able to do good things in the next 30 games.— M.S. Boyer/J. Valade (@PDcavsinsider) February 6, 2014
Nothing screamed out from the center of a tire fire should be given much validity.
Plus, you have to consider the source. Words and actions don't often relate in Gilbert's world:
Dan Gilbert said he likes the team as constructed, says "We have what we need." Then he fired the guy who built the team.— Jason Lloyd (@JasonLloydABJ) February 6, 2014
Sometimes, his words can't even coexist.
After apparently praising the pieces Cleveland has in place, Gilbert followed that up with this gem, via Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Plain Dealer:
I think we’ll be aggressive at the trading deadline -- historically we have, anyway. I think we will and we potentially have a lot of opportunity there. We’re looking forward to working with David Griffin, and whatever it takes, 24 hours a day for the next two weeks. Hopefully we’ll find opportunities.
So, he loves the team he has, but really hopes to build a different one over the next two weeks. Got it.
He can see his franchise crumbling, but has no problem with the foreman of the demolition crew. Of course.
What Gilbert really sees are all those zeroes at the end of Brown's paycheck. You know, the five-year, $20 million one the old Cavs coach accepted last summer to become the new Cavs coach:
When coaches sign contracts, length is so much more important than $. Mike Brown got spared yesterday because of the 4 years on his deal..— Brian Geltzeiler (@hoopscritic) February 7, 2014
That, more than anything, gives Brown some breathing room for the next couple months. No matter what your bank statements look like, it will never be easy giving someone $16 million to not do the job they were brought in to perform.
Once the offseason hits, though, all bets are off.
Whether acting general manager David Griffin retains his job or Gilbert tasks someone else with cleaning this mess, Brown won't be able to escape the coaching carousel. At the very least, Griffin or his replacement should have the option of handpicking his coach.
According to FOX Sports Ohio's Sam Amico, Cleveland's eyes are already wandering:
Phil Jackson & George Karl on #Cavs' radar, sources say, but David Griffin & Mike Brown to get every chance to keep jobs in final 33 games.— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) February 7, 2014
None of this bodes well for Brown's future, but now's not the time for him to worry.
Besides, other people are already looking into the matter. They're already searching for the coach who can make the kind of impact that Brown has not, cannot and will not.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com.