It's hard to think of the last NBA team to be as devastated by the free agency process as the Cavaliers were this summer. It's tremendously rare that a max-level free agent opts to leave a team that is hoping to re-sign him, and it's rarer still when that team is one of the top outfits in the league. The best comparison is probably when Shaquille O'Neal left the Magic in 1996 after getting swept out of the Conference Finals by the Chicago Bulls (they were one year removed from making it to the NBA Finals against Houston), but even after Shaq left the Magic still had an All-NBA talent in Penny Hardaway and they finished at or above .500 for the next two seasons. Looking up and down this Cavaliers roster, it's hard to envision them duplicating that success.
In a dizzying descent that took all of a single one-hour TV special to complete, this Cavs team now sits at the bottom of the rebuilding ladder after spending two years as the winningest team in the NBA (during the regular season, at least). This unexpected turn of events means that the club is left with a mish-mash of talent that they are forced to field while they figure out what the next step they want to take as a franchise is. There are basically two routes this club could follow going forward, and while hubris could lead them down one road, the smart money would be on rationality taking them down the second.
The first road is the one many fear they will tread after this summer's highly publicized defection. Owner Dan Gilbert swore that his team would win a title before Miami did, regardless of the fact that they didn't have the horses to get it done, and that left many wondering what lengths he would go to to try and make that happen. Gilbert is known to push for things to happen his way, and if he's determined to restock this club with veteran talent to compliment Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams, he has the means to do it. This club received a $14.5-million Traded Player Exception this summer, allowing them to wholly absorb that much salary from another team in a search for proven talent. They also have about $7-million in expiring contracts belonging to Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and Leon Powe, giving them even more flexibility as it relates to taking on other people's overrun. If they wanted to push to take on onerous contracts like those belonging to Andre Iguodala, Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins, Boris Diaw or Vince Carter, they could probably get it done.
To what end, though? Would any of those guys really push this team into the upper-reaches of the Conference? Probably not. It would simply keep them mired in mediocrity from year to year, when right now is the perfect time to just tear down and rebuild the old-fashioned way.
That would be the way of Portland, Oklahoma City and Sacramento: with draft picks. The Cavs could basically use their available money and assets to take on other people's garbage in exchange for draft picks. In effect, you agree to take on Burdensome Contract A and B, but in return you want that team's first-round pick. So long as the team focuses on burdensome contracts that are only two years in length (you just want to rent out your cap, not kill it for the future), they could have things turned around quickly with some positive decisions on draft night.
Right now, though, it's impossible to tell exactly what direction this team is going to be taken in. They are peddling the lottery team staple that they'll be a running club this season, but that's about all the organization is willing to divulge as it pertains to their immediate future. They're not bad enough to be the worst team in the league, but for a club in need of star power in the draft even that might not be such a good thing.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – MO WILLIAMS
Former GM Danny Ferry spent years trying to get a floor-spacing point guard to Cleveland and he finally managed it two summers ago. While Williams fit the role well during the regular season, he was a train wreck in the Playoffs. He shot just 40.9% in two Playoff runs and he was never able to provide that consistent helping hand of offense needed to keep the defenses honest against penetration or double-teams. He's been exposed somewhat during his time in Cleveland and it might be hard to move the three-years remaining on his contract (at $26.3-million still owing) to any team with legit Playoff aspirations. It looks like he'll be running the show in Cleveland for at least another couple of years.
SG – ANTHONY PARKER
Unlike Williams, several Playoff outfits will be calling Cleveland with offers for Parker. He's a class-act in the locker room, a lights-out three-point shooter (41% last season) and he's playing on $3-million expiring contract. While his aging legs keep him from being much of an all-around impact for a team, any NBA club looking for reliable outside shooting (which is just about every club) would do well to look Parker's way.
SF – JAMARIO MOON
While the Cavs could look to start Jamison here, with an eye towards also starting Varejao and J.J. Hickson, Jamison was by far at his least effective when lining up at small forward last season, so expect the club to continue with Moon here for the time being. Moon is a funny case because he only came onto the NBA scene three years ago, so many see him as a young guy, but he actually turned 30 this June. For a club like the Cavs, which was unwittingly thrust into a rebuilding phase, Moon doesn't really hold a lot of usefulness in their development cycle. With young guys needing reps like Christian Eyenga and Danny Green dotting the roster, too, one has to wonder how many minutes Moon will actually be logging by the time the season ends for the Cavs in April.
PF – ANTAWN JAMISON
Jamison must feel like he can't catch a break in the NBA. After suffering through five painful years in Golden State he finally gets traded to a Playoff outfit in Dallas, only to be sacrificed the next summer so the team could acquire Devin Harris. He then plays four years in Washington, surrounded by knuckleheads and injury-prone stars that prevent the club from ever making any serious noise in the post-season. He Then ends that run with a trade to the best-in-the-East Cavaliers, only to see their best player leave five months later, casting a dark cloud over yet another of Jamison's organization. Ever the dutiful teammate, Jamison will bring his steady play to yet another dead-end season, but at this point he's got to be wondering what he ever did to deserve such a cursed professional career.
C – J.J. HICKSON
Hickson is probably the lone bright spot on this Cavaliers team, and the club has made no secret of the fact that he'll be a featured contributor to the team this season. He started in 73 of his 81 games last season, and he was an effective energy guy in the mold of Taj Gibson or Amir Johnson, but the Cavs believe he can offer more. They are pledging to run more as a team because it suits his style of play best. They brought him to the Vegas Summer League this July so that they could see how he handled a starring role (he went for 19-and-6 and shot 58% from the floor). While it would be premature to expect stardom from Hickson this year as his skill set is still a work in progress going into his third season, the Cavs will give him a chance to shine that he probably wouldn't get with any other organization. So while many within the Cavaliers family spent this summer mourning the loss of The Chosen One, Hickson was privately smiling at his good fortune because he is the key beneficiary of the worst day in Cavaliers history.