Dan Gilbert should regret the disgraceful screed he posted on the Cleveland Cavaliers Web site July 8, minutes after former franchise star LeBron James broadcasted his defection to the Miami Heat on national television.
The owner's distressed, desperate diatribe will forever live in sports infamy, and the sharp words he directed at the self-proclaimed "King James" may compel future free agents to disregard the depressed city as a viable destination. Gilbert forked up what amounts to a chump change fine for his controversial remarks. He will suffer through the real punishment come late October: no James plus thousands of fans across the country and dozens of opposing players who despise him.
Gilbert and what remains of the bombed to bits basketball operations department should not, however, mourn the risky decision to allow the Akron high school star to become an NBA bachelor. James headlined a free agent class promulgated to the point of idiocy. He owned the summer—his "Decision" special drew just two million viewers less than Major League Baseball's All-Star Game—and established himself as public enemy No. 2 in his hometown. Art Modell will prove tougher to beat than the Boston Celtics defense.
The outspoken owner need not apologize to fans for spending the money necessary to surround James with a capable supporting cast. The players former GM Danny Ferry acquired or signed to appease James—a 34-year-old Antawn Jamison, the much maligned Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, and a leaking Big Diesel—failed to deliver in the pressure-packed postseason. Bipolar Delonte West merits his own sentence.
Gilbert canned coach Mike Brown and alienated Ferry. Once called "Spurs East," the departure of Lance Blanks completed the Cavs' staggering implosion. The Cleveland boss better hire a military bomb squad to sweep Quicken Loans Arena for mines before opening night. No one there wants to see another blow-up scene.
He mishandled his reaction to James' ungraceful exit, but he did not fumble the most important lob pass of his ownership tenure. Ditto for Ferry.
Conventional wisdom says a team that might lose its star for zilch via free agency should trade him before the market opens and secure some known assets in his stead. Instead, Gilbert and Ferry slaved to construct a championship-caliber club. It does not matter now that a declining Jamison could not measure up to Pau Gasol or Kevin Garnett in a dream sequence. Effort counts.
Nothing Cleveland attempted would have pleased James. He wanted to team with his Olympic buddies and abdicate his singular star throne. Miami Heat President Pat Riley slashed his roster Freddie Krueger style and lured Chris Bosh, James, and retained Dwyane Wade in the bloodless aftermath. How can any rust belt team with a jammed, low-flexibility roster top that sales pitch?
The Cavaliers won the draft lottery in 2003 and landed the right to select a hometown, transcendent superstar in the making. Gilbert and Ferry worked to purchase the right support parts for James in those seven years. They cannot curse the results, even if the nasty divorce will yield years of misery and Secaucus sojourns.
What happened in Cleveland this summer now matters in New Orleans and Denver. Fellow Redeem Team-ers Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony witnessed the South Beach circus and now want to wear their own clown suits. The Heat just supplanted the Ringling Bros. as the greatest show on earth.
It is understandable that Paul and Anthony, fed up with first round exits and the attention paid to the two-time champion L.A. Lakers and the Three Me-Egos, would contemplate abandoning the Hornets and Nuggets. The two All-Stars need elephantine sidekicks, not the injured, lazy specimens that populate their current rosters. 'Melo and CP3 trade speculation will sizzle until the much-anticipated resolution.
Where will they go? Can Knicks exec Donnie Walsh work a basketball miracle and pair Paul and Anthony with Amar'e Stoudemire in stained blue and white?
If Anthony shuns a three-year, $65 million max extension, which has been on the table for months, he will become a free agent in 2011. A lockout, though, could hold that summer's shopping season hostage. Paul can terminate a player option in his contract and hit the market in 2012.
It says here that Denver and New Orleans must rectify their front office and ownership uncertainties pronto and disavow any transaction chatter. Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke banished GM Mark Warkentien and assistant Rex Chapman by refusing to renew their contracts when they expired. Hornets owner George Shinn's cancer bout prompted him to seek buyers. The Gulf Coast oil disaster and investor uncertainty has complicated the expected sale of the team to Gary Chouest.
Management instability does not portend a happy ending for these wannabe contenders. This, Mr. Shinn and Mr. Kroenke, is not the time to trifle. Nowhere in any law book does it require that small-market teams act as farm systems for the boys in the big ones.
Lakers fans have suggested that Anthony maneuver himself to L.A., where he could festoon his legacy with titles. Those spoiled spectators would pine for a pot of gold if one was sitting in front of them. Denver owes nothing to L.A.
New York's still shabby roster does not boast enough attractive assets to keep any sane GM on the phone with Walsh after the introduction.
"Hey, this is Donn--" Click.
Forget expiring contracts and cap space. Forget the looming sting should Paul and Anthony say "see ya'" in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
The Hornets and Nuggets owe it to their fans and themselves to keep their franchise stars as long as the rules will allow. Teams spend years, even decades, trying to unearth ballers on the level of Anthony and Paul. Why trade them now, when neither player has significant leverage?
Highlight the following sentence and remember it for the next year. If the Hornets deal Paul, Shinn should disband or relocate the franchise. Stern should force the Nuggets to incorporate "minor league" in the team name. If that bold statement aggrieves you, reconsider your position.
If no trade partner will offer Denver and New Orleans a package of equal value, say LeBron for 'Melo or Deron Williams for CP3, it makes little sense to pull the transaction trigger in August. If the Nuggets or Hornets net draft picks, future cap space, and a trade exception, they will use all of the above to seek replacements. History says they will fail.
Why should Dell Demps wait for a future Paul when he employs the real thing now? Why should Denver's brain trust embrace fatuity and donate Anthony to the Big Apple or Hollywood? Because Lakers and Knicks fans say so? Because Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith would welcome Paul alongside Dwight Howard?
The rampant rumor mongering should give these franchises a clue. Everybody wants Anthony and Paul. DO NOT trade them. I write this helpful suggestion as a Rockets fan. No GM sits in a better position to make an impact deal than Daryl Morey.
I hate the idea of three or four competitive teams and 26 other dogs. The NBA is far from that, but premature meltdowns in Denver and New Orleans would shove the league further in the wrong direction. It would announce failure in the worst way.
Think about it: Why should the Hornets stay in business if they cannot force Paul to honor a contract he signed on his own accord? If Demps ever found another Paul, he would encounter the same cost-conscious dilemma then. Blockbuster exits will not fix anything.
Gut-check time has arrived in Louisiana and Colorado. The front offices and owners should do everything short of kidnapping to snatch the right complementary pieces. They will need to get creative. Fielding a title winner in Denver and New Orleans, with other proven champions still loaded for bear, might prove impossible.
The Hornets and Nuggets must try, and commit to spend whatever it takes (I should note that Kroenke paid the luxury tax for four straight years, when Denver could not buy a second-round appearance). If Paul and Anthony, by no means malcontents, owe their best effort on the court, the executives upstairs owe the same off of it.
Anthony, once considered a petulant punk, prospered alongside Chauncey Billups and in Beijing. Paul has been a gentleman and a sterling competitor throughout his career. They might welcome prospective roster changes enough to stay put. Paul does not oppose New Orleans, and Anthony does not detest Denver.
They hate losing. If the Hornets and Nuggets bite now, they will come to loathe defeat and admit it, too. What kind of message does that send to future free agents?
They couldn't make it work with CP3 and 'Melo. Why should I expect different results?
If the Hornets and Nuggets spend lavishly but efficiently and their stars bolt anyway, they will know they made a valiant effort for a title. Players will also see that hard work as a reason to ponder New Orleans and Denver as landing spots. Any winning athlete should fancy a front office confident it can succeed. Nothing screams self-belief like keeping Paul and Anthony until the buzzer sounds.
The Nuggets need more size and players willing to exhaust themselves on the defensive end when it counts. The Hornets cannot dump choke artist extraordinaire Peja Stojakovic soon enough. With roster deficiencies abound, the word "difficult" does not begin to describe the test these franchises must ace.
Gilbert could not convince James to hang around this summer and voiced his displeasure in ludicrous fashion. His basketball operations employees did not err in the lead up to July 1.
Denver gets one more year to placate Anthony. New Orleans gets two more with Paul.
Trading them now would amount to breaking the clock before it ticks to zero. Giving in will not prevent devastation. If Paul or Anthony splits, whether through trade or free agency, the wounds will run deep.
If Demps and Nuggets bosses fail as Gilbert did in Cleveland, at least they can do so with boxing gloves glued to their hands and intrepidity stapled to their souls.