Seven years and this is what Dan Gilbert came up with?
Cleveland’s last win came a week before Christmas. In a league where “February” and “effort” are rarely conjoined, and a conference in which at least one sub-.500 team will likely make the playoffs, that sort of extended futility is not easy to achieve.
If you don’t recognize these Cavs it’s because for most of the last decade they were called something else: "LeBron James’ supporting cast."
Now, with James and his Miami teammates chasing the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the ragged band of role players he left behind is struggling through a season from hell. It was impossible not to feel for forward Antawn Jamison, a consummate pro, as he struggled to articulate his motivation before Tuesday night’s record-breaking defeat.
But Cleveland’s historic ineptitude matters for more than rubbernecking.
After James’ inelegant departure, a popular strain of criticism—joined by no less an authority than Michael Jordan—held that real superstars do not “team up” with other stars, but work to elevate existing teammates to championship caliber.
That’s a noble concept, but one made infinitely simpler when your teammates already include Hall of Famers.
Jordan’s comment at the time: "There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry (Bird), called up Magic (Johnson) and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team.”
But why call Larry or Magic when Scottie Pippen is your wingman? And why would Magic—surrounded by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and a host of other borderline stars—bother to take the call? Forget Bird, whose best Boston teams could hardly run a play without multiple Hall of Famers touching the basketball.
Looked at another way: When Jordan shocked the sports world with his premature retirement in 1993, the Pippen-led Bulls recovered to win 55 games in his absence, and came within a Hue Rollins call of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.
After Magic announced he had contracted the HIV virus in 1991 and would be forced to leave the NBA three games into the new season, his Lakers finished 42-37, losing a first-round playoff series to the eventual conference champion.
The Celtics suffered a fifteen game drop-off from the prior season when a bad back limited Bird to just six games in 1988-89, but the club still managed a winning record and a playoff berth.
In each of these cases, the star’s exit came as a shock during or on the cusp of the season, but revealed a franchise and roster far sounder than Gilbert's outfit. If anything, Gilbert had more time to anticipate the departure of his superstar.
To be fair, these Cavaliers have been ravaged by injuries, including season-ending ankle surgery for Anderson Varejao and an assortment of maladies that have held Mo Williams out of 40% of the team’s games.
Still, unearthing a contending lineup from this roster is like trying to compete in Scrabble using only consonants.
None of this excuses the manner of James’ exit. With ESPN riding shotgun, James and his amateurish entourage conjured a media circus culminating in the star’s public humiliation of the city that helped raise him, inflicting enough damage on LeBron’s brand that Phil Knight is still trying to reassemble the pieces.
But it should redirect some last summer’s fire away from James and toward the Cleveland owner. Gilbert famously fired off a scathing e-mail to the club’s fans, revealing roughly equal parts jilted lover and savvy businessman.
Gilbert’s missive went viral and helped fuel an anti-James fervor that spread far beyond Cleveland.
Overlooked at the time was that the Cavs had already demanded season ticket holders pay their invoices for this season. As a result, the Cavs rank third in the NBA in attendance. In effect, Gilbert bought an extra year of LeBron-generated revenue—only without LeBron.
One wonders now if James had a private vision of this coming train wreck, and correctly suspected that only an unlikely aligning of the planets would ever enable his Cleveland teams to reach their ultimate destination.
Continue to curse him for bailing if you like, but perhaps it's time to silently concede the point.
There remains a glimmer of hope for some of the men James left behind. If the rumor mill proves accurate, Jamison at least will be taking his talents elsewhere before this month's trading deadline.