What Went Wrong: the LeBron James Era in Cleveland
Eight long years ago a bright-eyed youngster named LeBron Raymone James graduated from St. Vincent St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio and began his NBA career. 39 miles away, fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers rejoiced that the most highly touted NBA prospect since Shaquille O’Neal would soon join their team as the No. 1 overall draft pick of 2003. Austin Carr, the first draft pick in Cavaliers history, openly sobbed when the team won the rights to draft James.
The most inept professional sports franchise in Cleveland (which is saying quite a lot) was poised to become relevant for the first time since the Mark Price/Brad Daugherty teams that always lost in the playoffs to Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Finally, a basketball superstar would be representing Cleveland. In a sport with only five starters, a talented player like James could completely change the fortunes of a franchise. The Cavaliers, above all others, were that franchise.
Things definitely changed. Within four years, the Cavaliers had gone from perennial NBA doormat to legitimate playoff contender. James' stellar performance in the 2007 playoffs against Detroit took the Cavaliers to their first NBA Finals appearance. Although they were swept by a far superior San Antonio Spurs team, the future had never been brighter for professional basketball in Cleveland. There was palpable hope that James’ broad shoulders would help carry the city to its first sports championship since Jim Brown led the Cleveland Browns to a world title in 1964.
If you’re reading this, you know how it all turned out. The Cavaliers are a doormat again and LeBron James is still chasing his first championship. Where did it all go wrong? James is immensely talented and quite possibly the most impressive physical specimen in the history of professional sports. How did Cleveland manage to squander those seven years and what could they have done differently?
I’m glad you asked.
The Boozer Debacle
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One year before they drafted James, the Cavaliers selected Duke forward Carlos Boozer in the second round of the NBA draft. After two productive years, the Cavaliers and Boozer supposedly came to a handshake agreement for a new contract that would have paid Boozer $39 million over six years. Management released him from his rookie contract (with one year remaining) so that he could sign the new deal. Instead, Boozer signed a $70 million contract with the Utah Jazz. Boozer subsequently went on to make 2 All-Star teams and one All-NBA team. In 2010-2011, he averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds with the Chicago Bulls as they attained the best regular season record in the NBA.
Although he disappointed in the 2010-2011 Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron and the Miami Heat, Boozer’s scoring and rebounding would have been exactly the sort of production that Cleveland needed to take the pressure off of JAmes in the playoffs. Whether they would have won a title with Boozer is debatable, but the fact remains that he would have been the best “sidekick” for James in Cleveland. Boozer’s presence at the power forward position also would have made the 2009 trade for Antawn Jamison unnecessary, which brings us to…
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This remains a point of contention in any discussion over James' time with the Cavaliers. At the 2010 trade deadline, the Cavs shipped Zydrunas Ilgauskas to Washington as part of a 3-team trade that brought Jamison to Cleveland. He was averaging 20.5 points with a disappointing Wizards team, and was expected to bring that scoring punch to a Cavaliers team that led the league in wins. Playing fewer minutes, Jamison averaged 15.8 points for the rest of the regular season and the opening round playoff series against Derrick Rose's Chicago Bulls. However, in the 2nd round against Boston, Jamison averaged only 11.8 points and his defense against Kevin Garnett was abysmal.
Not surprisingly, it was the last playoff series that James would play with Cleveland. Jamison is a good scorer and quality veteran, but he wasn't a difference maker that could help carry the team when James went into a funk. The reason why the Jamison trade remains a point of contention is because many people believe that the Cavaliers could have instead traded for…
There is no argument that Cavs GM Danny Ferry discussed a trade for Amare Stoudemire with Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr. Only months earlier, the two orchestrated the deal that brought Shaquille O'Neal to Cleveland for spare parts. The potential deal involved forward JJ Hickson. Stoudemire clearly had his sights set on the bright lights of New York in free agency, and would have been only a short-term acquisition for the Cavaliers. It's a fact that has created suspicion over whether Danny Ferry was willing to send Hickson and his tremendous potential to the desert. Considering that Hickson was recently dealt to Sacramento for Omri Casspi, it would seem that the Cavaliers got the raw deal by not acquiring Stoudemire in return.
At this point it seems pointless to quibble over who rejected the trade. Some sources say that Kerr was unwilling to deal Stoudemire for Hickson, and others say that Ferry was unwilling to include Hickson. Regardless of who terminated the discussions, the trade for Stoudemire didn't happen and the Cavaliers instead acquired Antawn Jamison.
Defensively, Stoudemire would not have been an upgrade over Jamison (or Boozer, for that matter). However, Stoudemire was averaging 20 points per game and is simply a force on the low block who would not have been nearly as affected by Kevin Garnett's defense in the playoffs as Jamison was. With Stoudemire leading the way, the Cavaliers may have been able to overcome James' lackluster play in game five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Boston. Stoudemire would have provided the Cavaliers with an offensive threat that could have worked one on one without a need for James to create shots for him. With James on the floor, a pick and roll between he and Stoudemire would be close to unstoppable. There was still no guarantee that they would have beaten the Celtics, but Stoudemire certainly would have helped their chances of maintaining the series lead they enjoyed after game three.
Signing Larry Hughes
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During the 2005 offseason, the Cavaliers organization understood that they needed to bring in a perimeter presence to replace some of Carlos Boozer's scoring, while giving James a sidekick to take pressure off the budding superstar. The Cavs had salary cap space and the willingness to spend money in free agency. It was the perfect situation for a team on the rise, and there were four players that fit their needs. Those players were free agent shooting guards Ray Allen, Larry Hughes, Michael Redd and Joe Johnson.
At the time, I wanted them to sign Ray Allen, who was clearly the best fit for a team that desperately needed a scorer that could shoot three pointers. He had just averaged 23.9 points per game for the Seattle Supersonics. Michael Redd was also a star who fit the needs of the Cavaliers perfectly and would have made for an excellent second option to James. He made a free agent visit to Cleveland but left without signing a contract. Redd eventually re-signed with Milwaukee for 6 years and $91 million. He had several productive seasons before knee injuries derailed his career. Ray Allen followed a similar path, re-signing with the Seattle Sonics for 5 years and $80 million. Both players would have been difference makers for the Cavaliers, although there are certainly no guarantees that they would have helped bring a title to Cleveland.
The one player on the list that the Cavaliers didn't pursue was Joe Johnson of the Phoenix Suns. A restricted free agent, he was coming off of a season in which he averaged 17 points, 5 rebounds and shot a career high 48 percent from behind the 3-point arc. Johnson's shooting and scoring ability, especially his ability to create shots for himself, would have made him a perfect fit as James' sidekick. The Suns eventually completed a sign-and-trade deal that sent Johnson to Atlanta on a $70 million contract. Johnson averaged over 20 points for the next 5 seasons with the Hawks, providing the kind of scoring punch that the Cavaliers desperately needed during that time. He would easily have been the best sidekick James had with the Cavs and could have been counted on to be the consistent second option that Cleveland needed. His play would have been particularly helpful during LeBron's final season as a Cavalier, when Johnson made the All-NBA third team.
As is often the case with Cleveland sports franchises, however, the organization ended up settling for a player who was not at the top of their list. Larry Hughes was coming off of a good season with the Washington Wizards in which he averaged 22 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. He also made the All-Defensive first team. Although he was not a proficient outside shooter, he would definitely have been an asset if he could have provided similar production for the young Cavaliers. When the Cavaliers signed Hughes to a $70 million contract, they expected him to be a prolific scorer and defender.
His career as a Cavalier started with promise, as the team ran out to an 18-10 record with Hughes averaging 16.2 points and playing the sidekick role for James. However, a finger injury limited him to 36 games. His scoring output decreased over the next two seasons with Cleveland, and his final season in Washington remains his best season as a professional. Hughes averaged only 11 points in 27 playoff games with Cleveland on 33% shooting. Needless to say he didn't develop into the potent scorer, defender, or second option that the Cavaliers paid him to be. The Cavaliers were never able to sign a big name free agent to fit that particular role.
Daniel Gibson and Dajuan Wagner
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I lump these two together because they're both undersized scoring guards that peaked in their first seasons and never reached the potential they displayed as rookies. When Dajuan Wagner was drafted sixth overall by the Cavaliers in 2002, he was described as "Allen Iverson with muscles;" a talented guard that could create his own shot and score at will. During his rookie season, he demonstrated the ability to get to the basket virtually whenever he wanted. Although his shooting ability was suspect, his 13.4 points per game as a rookie were a sign that he had all the tools to be a prolific scorer in the NBA. Subsequent seasons saw Wagner afflicted with a variety of illnesses and injuries, including ulcerative colitis, and he was out of the NBA by 2005. After having his colon removed, he had a brief and unsuccessful stint in 2006 with the Golden State Warriors.
Had Wagner's career not been derailed by injuries and ailments, he may have developed into a potent scorer in the mold of Monta Ellis. Of course, he may have never improved his jump shot and ended up more like Ramon Sessions. We'll never know. Current stars like Caron Butler, Nene and Amare Stoudemire were all drafted within the four picks following Wagner. All three of them would have improved the Cavaliers more than Wagner did.
Daniel Gibson was a similar case who totally disappointed the Cavaliers for different reasons. While Dajuan Wagner's body failed him and derailed the potential he showed as a rookie, Gibson was simply fool's gold. Gibson came out of nowhere in the 2007 playoffs against Detroit, famously scoring 31 points (still his career high) and hitting five of five behind the three point line in the series-clinching game 6. His heroics in that game helped send the Cavaliers to their first Finals appearance in history. His 31 points were the most scored by a rookie in a series-clinching playoff game since Magic Johnson scored 42 in the 1980 NBA Finals. The diminutive Gibson even added 6 rebounds. In case you believe he was simply a one-game wonder, the rookie also scored 21 points in game 4 on only six shots. Although they were eventually swept in the Finals, the Cavaliers had clearly found their point guard of the future. The outlook was bright in Cleveland.
Since his rookie campaign, Gibson's career has been uneven at best. He played well in his 2nd season, but since then he has started a grand total of 25 games for the Cavaliers. He has never come close to making the impact he made as a rookie in the playoffs, despite numerous chances to do so. He has still not developed a mid-range game or the ability to drive to the basket. Gibson has demonstrated only one above-average basketball skill and that is three-point shooting. Since his solid sophomore season, however, he has only managed to shoot a paltry 30% on threes in 19 playoff games. "Boobie" Gibson has simply been unable to recapture the magic he displayed as a rookie. In James' last season as a Cavalier, Gibson was relegated to the third point guard role by Coach Mike Brown.
The Cavaliers eventually traded for Mo Williams, a superior point guard on every level. Unfortunately, while Gibson has had one great playoff performance, Williams to date has had none. If Daniel Gibson had ever lived up to his rookie season, the Williams trade would have been unnecessary.
It is impossible to say whether the Cavaliers and James would have won a championship if any of these situations had played out. Carlos Boozer has never demonstrated himself to be a great defender or playoff performer, and we'll probably never know if Ray Allen, Michael Redd or Joe Johnson could be the 2nd scoring option on a championship squad. Would Amare Stoudemire have been enough to boost the Cavs when LeBron struggled against Boston? Could Dajuan Wagner or Daniel Gibson have been significant starters on a championship team?
Like the prayers of Cleveland sports fans, these questions remain unanswered.