"Oh the times, they are a'changin'"
A funny thing happened when the Cavaliers sucked this year and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years...I re-discovered how much I love the NBA Playoffs.
They make up two of the best months of the year, piggy-backing on all the hype and excitement of March Madness and the NCAA Tournament. The basketball is fantastic with the best players in the world on display and, with only a couple exceptions, no crappy teams.
And this year's playoffs have been awesome. Whether it was the Pacers giving the Bulls all they could handle for five games; or a (even though it was a sweep) still-compelling Celtics/Knicks series; or the resurgence of Chris Paul; or the reincarnation of Brandon Roy; or the emergence of Grizzlies; or the end of the road for the Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics; or Dirk Nowitzki's validation as a superstar; or the Heat looking a champion; or the Bulls looking mediocre...the story lines are endless.
I can't get enough of the NBA right now.
But sadly, the playoffs have reminded me of what we had in Cleveland the past five years. It reminded me of how we (or at least me, I really can't speak for everyone) took it for granted.
Five years of relevance... then the bottom of the abyss.
Oh, to be back on top...
Unfortunately, the climb to the top won't be quite as easy this time as it was the last.
There are three ways to build a winner in the NBA:
1. Draft smart, sign smart, coach smart, and hope it falls in line at the right time.
2. Live in a sexy city, run your organization with common sense and talk superstars into coming.
3. Get lucky.
Whether we want to admit it or not, Cleveland got good the third way. LeBron James fell into our lap with the winning of the Draft Lottery. We could have ended up with Darko Milicic. (People like to rag on Joe Dumars for drafting Darko over Carmelo Anthony, and it was a dumb move. But what we forget is that all the scouts loved this guy. Everyone said he'd go No. 1 in just about any other draft.)
The Cavaliers have already struck out on the luck portion of that scenario in this rebuilding cycle (for the most part).
First, they inexplicably blew the worst record in the league, costing them valuable ping-pong balls in the draft lottery (to be announced on May 17).
Second, several of the top college players elected to return for more school, severely depleting an already lackluster draft stock. This is probably one of the worst years to hold two picks in the lottery.
The Cavaliers are also without the distinction of playing in a sexy city. If you live in Cleveland, chances are you love it for what it is...home.
But top-flight free agents are not lining up to "take their talents to the shores of Lake Erie." In the seven years of the LeBron era, the Cavs were constantly passed over by the top free agents and ended up eventually losing King James himself to the glitz and glamor of South Beach.
So the recipe for success for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011 is the first option: Draft smart, sign smart, coach smart, and hope it falls in line at the right time.
This is obviously easier said than done... otherwise there would be a lot more successful franchises in the NBA.
But there a few franchises on display in this year's playoffs that are very good examples of how to build a competitive NBA team.
There are other teams as well that are providing elements of what it takes to be successful and I'll touch on a lot of that coming up and hopefully I can do it in a way that is coherent and logical and easy to follow that makes a lot of sense and is educational and ultimately helpful........... phew!
First thing I want to do is point out something that should be obvious but I'll say it anyways: You don't win with really old teams.
The Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs had their day... and it's over now.
Dallas is playing well for an "old" team but they are also infused with some youthful players. I'm also not sold on them as "champions" just yet. I want to see how they stack up against their Conference Finals opponent.
I really have no idea how this team swept the Lakers. Their lineup would be scary if it was 2005. I mean seriously...Shawn Marion? Peja Stojakovic?
I could be totally wrong on all this and the Mavericks could end up winning it all. But the basic premise remains the same; you don't want to build your team with a bunch of old guys in critical positions.
What is winning in the league right now is youth and athleticism. You can't tell me that Eric Spoelstra out-coached Doc Rivers. Or that the Hornets gave the Lakers all they could handle because Monty Williams had Phil Jackson figured out.
I would dare to say that the only thing keeping LA, Boston, and San Antonio going this year was their coaches.
The Miami Heat were able to roll through the Celtics with only 2 and a half legitimate players because those 2 guys are among the five best players in the league at the peak of their primes.
The Memphis Grizzlies dominated the Spurs because they were younger (and ultimately better) at every position.
Youth, and more importantly athleticism, wins in the NBA.
I've spent a lot of time talking about the good teams in the league for a reason. They provide the blueprint for success.
These teams don't sign old players at the end of their careers expecting them to play a crucial role on a championship team. Just look at how things worked out for the Celtics by relying on the O'Neals.
These teams don't overpay for mid-level talent. They pay players what they are worth and not a penny more.
If a guy thinks he's worth more than he is, then let him go be over-paid somewhere else where they're willing to cripple their salary cap on a dime-a-dozen player.
These teams build through the draft and through savvy trades and signings. Case in point, the Thunder. Check out their roster and see how it was put together. I won't take the time to break it all down here, but it's pretty impressive.
(The constant exception to all these "rules" is the Miami Heat. Conventional wisdom says that they should not be able to win with only 2 1/2 guys... but they're doing it. It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out but right now they look better than anybody. It just goes to show just how good LeBron James and Dwayne Wade really are. Chis Bosh? Eh... let's not get carried away.)
Another key element that makes these teams contenders is that they have multiple players who can create their own shot. Winning teams have more than just one guy who can get you a bucket on his own in a bind.
Miami has LeBron and Wade. OKC has Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Memphis has Zach Randolph, OJ Mayo, Mike Conley, and (even though he's out right now) Rudy Gay. Dallas has Nowitzki and Jason Terry. Atlanta has Joe Johnson and Jamaal Crawford.
Chicago has Derrick Rose and... well, no one really. And that is why I think the Bulls won't make it out of the East. They just don't have enough besides Rose to compete. They are the Cavs of the past two years.
Great team defense stemming from defensive minded coaches, decent role players, but only one "can get his own shot" guy. During the regular season, you can get by with this. But in the playoffs, you are exposed to the world for what you are... and that's a one-man team.
In summation, let's look at what the Cavs have to offer this winning formula.
Sadly, it isn't much.
As for elite athletes there are only two guys: Christian Eyenga and J.J. Hickson. Both players have loads of potential and upside. But they also both have a ways to go before they can be considered a reliable option on a winning team.
Get your own shot guys: Baron Davis and Ramon Sessions... and unfortunately they both play the same position, which also happens to be a position generally reserved for facilitators.
One thing the Cavs do have that I didn't mention earlier is a big who can defend and rebound. And that player is obviously Anderson Varejao. He is the type of player every championship team needs. And he's also one of the best at what he does. So we have that going for us.
The road back to the top will be a long and very tough one for the Cavaliers. It isn't going to happen over night and likely won't happen for several years. It will require patience and dedication coupled with smart drafting and savvy transactions.
GM Chris Grant will be put to the test to try and rebuild a franchise that is down and out right now. Let's all hope that he has a little luck.
One thing he does have though: Dan Gilbert... an owner with deep pockets who isn't afraid to spend whatever it takes to have a winner.
And that never hurts.
Quick Note: Leading up to the NBA Draft on June 23, I will be doing 2010-11 season reviews of each of the Cavs players. Each of them will have the grand distinction of having their season labeled with a title of one of this summer's movies! So that should be fun (at least I hope so). Check back often for that exciting series!
You can follow me on Twitter @ClevelandFlack