On July 8, 2010, LeBron James announced he will be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and joining the Miami Heat on his "The Decision" television special broadcast on ESPN. Just a few hours later, Cleveland Cavaliers majority-owner, Dan Gilbert, penned his now infamous "open letter" to Cavs fans and posted it on the official Cavaliers website, creating a firestorm of media attention and changing the course of the Cavaliers' LeBron-less future forever.
The reaction to Gilbert's letter depended largely whether one was a resident of Cleveland and/or a Cavs fan. For those loyal to the team, Gilbert's letter struck an emotional chord and resonated in fans that felt LeBron's leaving was a cowardly and disloyal act. They embraced the letter and Gilbert for giving a voice to their discontent, and for bringing optimism and hope to those that wished to believe the leaving of LeBron was not the end of the Cavs' championship hopes.
For the media and fans outside of Cleveland, however, Gilbert's letter was a regrettable action by an owner that despite understandably feeling disrespected and betrayed by LeBron, should have taken the "high road" instead. They pointed out Gilbert's use of the "comic sans" font as an example of his immaturity, and his claims that the Cavs "will win an NBA championship" before LeBron as delusional and insincere. They emphasized that despite Gilbert's strong criticism of LeBron, that he had tried everything in his power to re-sign LeBron to the Cavs to a maximum contract, which they felt was a sign of hypocrisy and "sour grapes". Rev. Jess Jackson Sr. went as far even claiming Gilbert had a "slave master mentality", and the New York Times opinioned that Gilbert's letter "only validated James’ decision to leave Cleveland."
Whether the sentiments and declarations in Gilbert's letter were valid is up for debate. One thing that is certain, however, is by virtue of defining Gilbert's character as an owner, rightfully or not, the letter will have a profound impact on the Cavalier's future for years to come.
The longest-lasting repercussion of Gilbert's letter will be how it affects the Cavs' ability to attract free-agents. By publicly criticizing LeBron in such a harsh manner, and attacking both his professionalism and his character, Gilbert gave birth to the idea amongst players in the NBA that he was an ungrateful owner who was prone to trashing his former players once they left the team. Despite any fault of LeBron's, he was unquestionably responsible for earning massive profits for the Cavaliers organization and Gilbert himself, to the tune of hundreds of millions during the years that he played for the Cavs. LeBron was so lucrative for the franchise that Gilbert made plans to open a casino across from the Quicken Loans Area to capitalize on his popularity.
Long-time Cavs supporters and the Northeast Ohio media will claim that Cleveland has never been an attractive location for free-agents, and they are correct for the most part. With its harsh winters, lack of a cosmopolitan nightlife, small media market, and tradition of being unable to win a national championship in any of the three major American sports since 1964, Cleveland remains one of the least attractive cities to play for in the NBA.
However destitute Cleveland's reputation might have been with NBA free-agents, Gilbert's letter did not help things. With LeBron on the team, the Cavs were at least able to sign free agents such as Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones, Dwayne Jones, Scot Pollard, David Wesley, Devin Brown, Cedric Simmons, Tarence Kinsey, Jamario Moon and Lorenzen Wright.
While none of these players made a significant impact on improving the Cavs, other than arguably Devin Brown, and more often than not they created more problems than solutions for the team, it's important to note that at the time of their signings, many of these free agents were coveted by other teams and instead chose to sign with the Cavs. Even Shaq, who was traded by the Suns to the Cavs, gave his blessing for the team to deal him to Cleveland.
While of course it can not be discounted how much being able to play with LeBron James and to be on a championship-contending team came into contention. Most likely, it was a huge factor, but it goes to prove that free-agents are willing to come to Cleveland if they believe the team is headed in the right direction.
This summer, the Cavs have not been able to land any quality free agents, despite having a $5.8 million mid-level exception. The only free agent they have managed to sign is Joey Graham, who averaged 4.2 points and 2 rebounds in 12 minutes per game for Denver last season. The Cavs also signed rookie Christian Eyenga, who the Cavs owned the draft rights to being that Eyenga was the team's first round pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, having been selected 30th overall.
The free agent that the Cavs most coveted was swingman Matt Barnes, who played for Orlando in the 2009-10 season. Despite offering him a guaranteed $7 million deal for two years to be their starting small forward, Barnes instead took a veteran's minimum deal of $3.6 million for two years from the Lakers to play a reserve role behind starter Ron Artest.
While it can be argued that Barnes choose the Lakers being that he is a California native, having played for UCLA in college, and the Lakers' offering him an opportunity to be play on a championship-contending team, Barnes has also had a journeyman career, having played with the Clippers, Kings, Knicks, 76ers, Warriors, and Suns, besides the Magic, so it's doubtful that playing in his home state had much of an effect on his decision. Barnes had earlier in the summer also agreed to a $9 million deal for two years with the Toronto Raptors, hardly a championship-contending club and about as far away from California as possible for a NBA team, before the deal fell apart due to the Raptor's lack of salary cap space.
The fact is that Barnes took about half the salary that he could have earned to not play in Cleveland. It's been reported that Barnes wanted the Cavs to match Toronto's deal in order to agree to sign with them, but being that the Cavs were already the highest bidder left for Barnes' services, they decided not to outbid themselves and refused to bulge on their $7 million, two-year offer, which resulted in Barnes playing for far less money in Los Angeles.
How much of Barnes' decision was affected by Gilbert's letter has not been discussed by Barnes himself, but ESPN's Chad Ford and John Holliger reported that various agents of players around the league had expressed that their clients don't want to play in Cleveland because of how Gilbert treated LeBron. So it's not unlikely that Gilbert's letter had an effect on Barnes' decision, and LeBron himself issued a statement that "Dan and whoever his partners are have to look themselves in the mirror and understand what he may have done may have cost them in the long run”, alluding to the same sentiment.
Some Cleveland media and fans have offered that Kyle Lowry signed an offer sheet with the Cavs earlier this summer as proof that Gilbert's letter had no effect on free agents wanting to come to Cleveland. It's worth noting, however, that Lowry was a restricted free agent, and that his team, the Houston Rockets, had the option match the Cavs' offer. And given that Houston's general manager, Daryl Morey, had stated earlier in the summer that he intended to match any offer given to Lowry by another team, in which he was true to his word, it's very likely that Lowry only signed the Cavs' offer sheet in a bid to increase the value of his contract, with no real intention of ever playing for the Cavs.
So while it might seem that Gilbert's letter and its crippling of the Cavaliers' ability to sign free agents might have hurt the team, the truth is that it has helped the team tremendously.
The major reason why Gilbert's letter has helped the Cavs is because signing free agents this summer would not have benefited the team, and instead, would have been detrimental to the team's prospects in the long-term. After LeBron left, and with the subsequent losses of Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Cavaliers are bound for the lottery. They are a team of role players that was built around a superstar. Without that superstar, they do not have an anchor that can keep the team in contention or even make the playoffs.
If Gilbert did not write his letter and the Cavs had a better chance of attracting free agents like Matt Barnes, what they would have done is only prolong their time in mediocrity. A player like Barnes is a good fit on a team like the Lakers, adding a solid role player with good defensive skills on an already championship-contending team. With or without Barnes, the Lakers would still be an excellent team. Adding Barnes to the Cavs, however, would only be adding a role player to a team already filled with role players, and would not have improved the team significantly. What the team needs is another star player to replace the departed LeBron James, someone that can lead the team back to championship-contender status.
The only way for the Cavs to find such a player in the immediate future is through the draft. By not being able to sign any worthwhile free agents this summer, the natural course for the Cavs is to miss this season's playoffs. And by missing the post-season, the Cavs put themselves in a better position to land a star player in next year's draft.
While the NBA Draft has always been hit-or-miss, both in the quality of the draft class in any given year, and also a team's chances to land a high lottery pick, the fact remains that this is really the only way the Cavs can hope to land a superstar player in the near future. It's worthwhile to note that LeBron, of course, came to the Cavs through the 2003 draft. And next year's draft does offer some promising players, including Harrison Barnes from North Carolina and Perry Jones from Baylor, that might well blossom into future franchise players.
Another problem of signing someone like Barnes is that it would eat away precious cap space for the future. If and when the Cavs do sign a promising player in the draft, they will need cap space in the future to keep him. The Cavs front office learned this the hard way when they drafted Carlos Boozer in 2002. They had signed him for a two year rookie deal with the third year being a team option. After Boozer showed great promise in the 2003-04 season, averaging 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds in his second year, the Cavs decided to release him into restricted free agency rather than exercise the team option for another year.
The reasoning for doing this was they hoped to sign Boozer to six-year extension at $39 million, rather than keep him another year on his rookie contract at $695,000 and risk losing him to another team in free agency or having to pay more by matching another team's offer the next year. Instead of re-signing with the Cavs, however, Boozer agreed to an offer sheet of $70 million over six years from the Utah Jazz, which the Cavs were unable to match due to the salary cap.
Besides keeping their own free agents, the Cavs need to save their salary cap space for any superstar free agent opportunities that present themselves in the future. If the Cavs are able to draft a star player that shows that he can lead the team back into contention, that will make Cleveland a much more attractive destination to play for, despite Gilbert's letter. And if we're talking about being able to offer a maximum contract, that could be the difference in landing a player the caliber of Amare Stoudemire, when the Knicks were the only team this summer to offer him a max deal.
In addition to conserving precious salary cap space for the future and building the team through the draft, the Cavaliers also need to make their best efforts to trade away their most expensive players in exchange for expiring contracts and draft picks.
There are opportunities every February before the trading deadline when title-contending teams are looking to fill in gaps in their rosters which they feel will put them one step closer to winning the championship. One such player is Antawn Jamison, who was traded to the Cavs last season for exactly this reason, and has two years left on his contract and due to be paid over $13.3 million for this upcoming season and $15 million the season after. Jamison proved disappointing in the playoffs, averaging just 11.8 points and 7.3 rebounds with 1 assist in the Celtics series, and now with LeBron gone, there is even less reason to keep him.
Other players the Cavs should consider trading include Mo Williams, who will be paid over $9 million for the 2010-11 season and his contract not ending until 2013, and Anderson Varejao, who signed a six-year, $42.5 million extension in 2009. Whether these players deserved their large contracts was debatable even at the time of their signings, and it makes even less sense now for the Cavs to keep them with the team bound for the lottery.
If the Cavs are able to get rid of these large, non-expiring contracts, they put themselves in a position to land a superstar free agent in the summer of 2011, such as Carmelo Anthony or even Tony Parker, however unlikely that scenario might be.
More likely is the Cavs will continue to be a lottery team until at least 2012, and if they were successful in drafting a potential franchise player in the 2011, coupled with a high draft pick that summer, would make them a more attractive destination to sign a superstar free agent such as Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Deron Williams, who will all be unrestricted free agents in 2012.
The truth is none of these scenarios are guaranteed and at best, it will be at least three years at the earliest before the Cavs will make it back to the playoffs. However, by building the team through the draft and conserving their salary cap space, the Cavs will avoid a scenario that has plagued the New York Knicks for years, who have tried assembling their team through free-agency by over-paying for has-been stars and glorified bench warmers, resulting in making the playoffs only once since the 2001-02 season.
Rather, they will position themselves closer to the Portland Trailblazers, who have rebuilt their team through the draft with players such as Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden after suffering years in the lottery, and making the playoffs the past two years and looking to contend for years to come.
So by writing his now notorious "open letter", with the unintended effect of keeping away free agents from Cleveland in the immediate future, Gilbert has put his team on the right track for the inevitable rebuilding of his team, and on the fast track to bringing the Cavaliers back into championship-contention.