The Cleveland Cavaliers dropped the ball drafting Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 pick, flopped with the free-agency addition of Andrew Bynum, then blamed their disastrous 2013-14 campaign on Mike Brown.
Brown, fired by the franchise Monday for the second time in four years, was asked to fight an uphill battle with no tools for ascension. His defensive philosophies and offensive roster mixed like oil and water. The results were predictably problematic: 23rd in offensive efficiency, tied for 17th at the opposite side.
The Cavs finished 22nd in winning percentage (33-49, .402), 10th in an anemic Eastern Conference. They missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season. While Brown didn't have the weapons needed to end that drought, he may have never been the one to change their fortune:
I was more surprised with Mike Brown being hired again by Cavs than him being fired again by Cavs.— Israel Gutierrez (@IzzyESPN) May 12, 2014
Firing the coach reeks of scapegoat strategy, a reactionary move by an organization that declared itself done with the draft lottery moments after historically whiffing on the top selection. Removing David Griffin's interim tag as the team's general manager puts a Band-Aid over the wounds opened during Chris Grant's reign of terror, but bandages can't mask the need for surgical procedures.
The Cavaliers are worlds removed from relevance and have no obvious path back to that point. When the city's newest quarterback is its greatest source of basketball hope, that speaks volumes about where this franchise is at and where it's headed:
#Browns Manziel on if he'll try to lure LeBron James back to Cleveland: (smiling) "I don't think I can do that.''— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) May 9, 2014
The roster isn't devoid of talent, but the bar isn't nearly where it should be for a team that made four top-four selections in a three-year span.
Among those four picks, only one (Kyrie Irving) posted an above-average player efficiency rating this season (20.1). Of course, the 22-year-old also appears headed in the wrong direction as his PER, field-goal percentage (43.0) and three-point success rate (35.8) all dropped to career lows in 2013-14.
A volume contributor on offense and overly generous defender, the top pick in 2011 is hardly a risk-free franchise face. That's the role Cleveland will ask him to play, though, as Bob Finnan of The Morning Journal reports the team is "expected to offer Irving a five-year, $80 million maximum extension on July 1."
On the merits of play alone, one could argue (quite effectively, by the way) Irving is not a max-contract player. He gives back a lot of what he gets at the defensive end, and his charitable contributions aren't nearly as clean as they used to be.
With obvious ability (20.8 points, 6.1 assists) and the potential for growth, though, he's tantalizing enough for someone to make that type of financial commitment. Cleveland, however, shouldn't be that someone.
The phrase "by all accounts" often gets thrown around too loosely in the media, but it feels as if it applies perfectly to Irving's reported discontent in his current city.
ESPN.com's Chad Ford said during a January chat that "Irving has been telling people privately he wants out." In February, ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst wrote, "It's no secret that Irving's camp has been making it known for years now the point guard would like to be elsewhere long term."
During an April interview with Cavs: The Blog's Robert Attenweiler, Windhorst expanded on the topic:
The truth is [Kyrie’s] camp has been putting out there for years – years – that he doesn’t want to be in Cleveland. That they don’t want him in Cleveland. He doesn’t like Mike Brown. He didn’t like Chris Grant. He doesn’t like Dion Waiters. He’s already gotten a General Manager fired. He might get Mike Brown fired.
Irving, for what it's worth, has tried to contain this smoke before it becomes a raging inferno. He doesn't necessarily say the reports from behind closed doors are false, but rather asks everyone to simply stop looking:
Sick to my stomach with all these rumors and accusations. Can I play without media guessing at my life and putting B.S out for headlines.— Kyrie Irving (@KyrieIrving) April 5, 2014
When he's had the chance to pledge his loyalty to the franchise, he's declined to do so.
"Twice I've given Irving the opportunity to say he'll sign a max contract with the Cavs — once last summer and once in January," Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote. "Both times, he avoided the question."
To reiterate here, the franchise player isn't a fan of the franchise. There's a reason so many assume the Cavaliers' biggest recruiter is now Johnny Football—the Cleveland Browns' QB.
If Irving isn't the one reeling in big fish, who then would it be?
Certainly not Dion Waiters.
The second-year combo guard might be more unhappy than Irving himself. Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling reported in December that Waiters "wants out" of Cleveland, just weeks after ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard had detailed a hostile team meeting involving Irving, Waiters and Tristan Thompson:
Irving called the meeting after the game, and every player spoke. When Waiters was given the floor, he criticized Thompson and Irving, accusing them of playing "buddy ball'' and often refusing to pass to him. Thompson took umbrage with Waiters' words and went back at him verbally. The two confronted each other, but teammates intervened before it could escalate into a fight.
Lloyd reported in February that Waiters' "act has worn thin on his teammates and various members of the organization" and "Irving's behavior has also irritated teammates and other members of the organization." These two players, remember, are supposed to comprise Cleveland's backcourt of the present and future.
This dyad has more than just chemistry concerns. These players simply haven't performed well together.
|FG%||3P%||Off Rtg||Def Rtg|
|Waiters w/ Irving||42.6||35.5||100.4||106.6|
|Waiters w/o Irving||43.9||38.0||102.1||100.6|
|Irving w/ Waiters||41.9||33.1||100.4||106.6|
|Irving w/o Waiters||43.9||37.7||102.6||106.9|
Taking everything into account, it's hard to imagine the Irving-Waiters backcourt ever finding a rhythm. Even when the pair declare themselves the best of friends in front of the cameras, there's only so much weight one can put into words. It was just last summer, remember, that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said he was correcting "a mistake" by bringing Brown back to the franchise, via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt and Sam Amick.
Still, this problem pairing might continue logging empty minutes alongside one another.
"Irving and Waiters are what the Cavs have right now until further notice," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote. "You can argue that one or the other should be dealt, but Waiters isn't going to land you a star via trade and Irving's contract situation could diminish his market value as well."
The Cavaliers are stuck keeping their two best players on the team. Does it get any more toxic than that?
Actually, it just might in Cleveland. When veteran Luol Deng arrived in January, he reportedly detailed a grisly account of what he found to a close associate.
"The stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago," Deng told a friend, via Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News. "It’s a mess."
I guess we can rule out Deng, now an unrestricted free agent, as Cleveland's talent recruiter. Does Jarrett Jack have any pull after a 9.5-point, 4.1-assist season?
This much is clear: The Cavaliers need more talent. They already have a design for how they want to play next season:
David Griffin comes out of the Suns system and wants to play faster, shoot more 3-pointers. Mike Brown was always ex-GM Chris Grant's guy.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 12, 2014
The pace can (and should) increase given this team's youth and athleticism. The Cavs averaged just 95.68 possessions per 48 minutes, 18th in the NBA. That's a shame considering what Irving and Waiters are capable of in the open floor.
The triples will be harder to incorporate. It's not as if this roster is brimming with long-range snipers. Cleveland's 35.6 three-point percentage checked in at 18th, nestled between defensive powers the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies.
It's hard to take flight without competent pilots. While the Cavs have several avenues available to add talent (another lottery pick, substantial cap space), their bargaining power with potential targets is limited at best.
Top-shelf talents prefer one-way flights with Cleveland, and not the ones touching down at Hopkins International. With current players reportedly plotting their escapes, how can anyone believe there are elite-level athletes hoping for a spot inside?
The Cavaliers promised change last summer.
Bennett, Bynum and Brown (who, by the way, received a five-year, $20-million-plus contract to return) were supposed to be the difference-makers. When those moves didn't pan out, a desperation deal for Deng became the attempted miracle cure. That didn't work, either.
A miraculous offseason may be the only way to end this post-LeBron James playoff drought. It's just hard to compensate for landing one premier player with four high-end draft picks. Rookie contracts are tremendously valuable under the current collective bargaining agreement, but only if the players on them are significantly outplaying their salaries.
Irving is, but he's not happy doing it. Waiters should have a raise in his future but perhaps not a significant one. Thompson (11.7 points, 9.2 rebounds) isn't worth much more than he's making. Bennett is one more disastrous season from this contract potentially becoming his last.
With coaching changes both this summer and last, the Cavs can't sell longevity to their next play-caller. They can't offer an overly talented roster, either, or even a group of players happy to be there.
Maybe they can find someone who wants a challenge, a dream-big candidate with visions of taking this team from nothing to something. With so many wasted years washed up along the southern shore of Lake Erie, this mess won't be mopped up in a single spring cleaning.