Cavs fans have, for the most part, exercised patience when it comes to Chris Grant & Company’s construction of the post-Lebron Cleveland Cavaliers. For the third consecutive season we have watched the postseason from the sidelines, rooting for any and every team matched up against the Miami Heat (which, I have to admit, is still kind of fun).
When Dan Gilbert’s son and Cavaliers good luck charm Nick Gilbert represented the team for the third consecutive draft lottery - a lottery that resulted in the second number one overall pick in three years - he seemed exasperated as he told a national audience that he didn’t want to attend the somber-for-everyone-except-the-Cavs event again in 2014.
While Nick’s proclamation was harmless and, franky, offset somewhat the criticized party-type atmosphere that has become the Cavs draft lottery, Dan has seemingly backed this edict and wants the Cavs in the postseason next year. Rumors have surfaced centered around the organization trading some or all of their four draft picks for proven, veteran - or, in one case, batsh*t crazy - talent.
I agree that the Cavs need additional veteran leadership, preferably a player or two with playoff experience. It does not appear, however, that a James Harden-type deal will be there for the taking. That’s why I hope the Cavs exercise patience, consolidate picks 19, 31 and 33 into a higher selection (giving us two new players in the upcoming draft) and maintain salary cap space for the 2014 trade deadline - which will be the first under the new, decidedly more rigid CBA - when one could reasonably expect deals like the Speights/Ellington/1st round pick for a D-Leaguer to be more available than ever.
Speaking of Speights and Ellington - capable NBA bench players at best - their acquisition last season led to the best stretch of basketball we have seen from the Wine and Gold in years. That stretch, which collapsed when the injury bug bit with a vengeance, showed us that the Cavs don’t need much else to play competitive basketball.
So I appreciate a sense of urgency on the players’ part. Losing can be contagious and fans don’t want a roster full of guys who tolerate and come to expect failure. I want to see Kyrie stay healthy and continue his path to superstardom. I want Dion to carry over the momentum from the latter half of his rookie season to next year. I want Tristan to improve as much from year two to year three as he did from year one to year two. I want Tyler Zeller to eat a sandwich or two.
But all of this doesn’t make me expect a playoff season.
Maybe it is the fact that next season is our last chance to show Lebron our roster is worthy of his return. Maybe it is because Dan Gilbert has no interest in coming up short on yet another "guarantee". Or maybe it is simply because we became accustomed to playing well into summer time every year with LBJ in Wine and Gold. However we developed this sense of urgency for the upcoming season, I am here to tell you that it is misguided and, frankly, unrealistic to demand a playoff team out of the Cavaliers next season. A simple look at many of the teams currently contending in the NBA can show us why.
The Thunder are regularly praised for their young and talented roster; if not for an injury to Russell Westbrook they very well could have won the West and challenged Miami in the Finals for the second consecutive season. While a certain trade involving a certain bearded man prior to this season will always leave some wondering what could have been, the fact is the Thunder built their team in a fashion that will make them competitive for many seasons to come.
Now…I am not one to sing Sam Presti’s praises from the top of a mountain. Sure, he acquired some of the picks and cap flexibility which allowed this team to be constructed. But Durant and Westbrook were no-brainers and the trade mentioned above could be interpreted politely as rushed and impolitely as completely idiotic. I guess I am just saying that, in my humble opinion, he is a little overrated as a GM.
Regardless of how you feel about the Thunder, however, they have shown the NBA how to build a relevant, sustainable and consistently competitive team in a small media market. How did they get there?
We start following the 2006-2007 season, the second-to-last in Seattle. This campaign resulted in the pick that, thanks to Portland’s affection for injury-prone big men, became Kevin Durant (they also drafted Carl Landry who was traded to Houston and Glen "Big Baby" Davis who was traded to Boston with Ray Allen in the Jeff Green deal.)
Durant’s rookie season – the final in Seattle – ended with only 20 wins. Oklahoma City continued to build through the draft following that year, selecting Russell Westbrook at four and using a pick acquired from Phoenix to add Serge Ibaka.
Now with two superstars in the making, Oklahoma City was clearly on the rise but suffered through one more season – their first in OKC – with a losing record. With the third pick in the 2009 draft the Thunder selected James Harden. They also used an extra pick acquired previously to trade for defensive ace and starter Thabo Sefelosha.
I would feel a lot more confident in a playoff run next season if the Cavs enjoyed the same luck that the Thunder did in terms of talent available at the top of those drafts, but even several breaks and a couple of All-NBA players required a three year period of losing before their current run of playoff contention began.
Cleveland’s favorite team over the past few weeks has been to the postseason three consecutive times now, going from losing in the first round to losing in the conference semifinals to losing in the conference finals. This is clearly a team on the rise.
However, prior to this ascent, the Pacers missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons from 2007 to 2010 as they moved on from the Reggie Miller era:
You won’t find a player currently on the Pacers roster that was acquired after the 2006-2007 season (they already had Danny Granger). Following the 2007-2008 season they drafted Jared Bayless, who they eventually traded for Jarrett Jack, who subsequently left via free agency. They then acquired newly minted All-World Center and general badass Roy Hibbert in a trade with the Raptors.
After the 2009-2010 season they drafted Paul George and Lance Stephenson. And so a pest to the Miami Heat was born - after four seasons of losing.
Mark Jackson’s second season as head coach was quite a success as the Warriors were one of the best stories of the 2012-2013 season. They finished the campaign with 47 wins and made some noise in the playoffs by beating Denver and not getting completely demolished by the eventual Western Conference Champion Spurs. For purposes of this examination we will ignore the fact that this was only their second postseason berth in the last 19(!!) seasons and focus on the construction of their current roster.
You should remember 2006-2007 Warriors: They upset the Dallas Mavericks as an eight seed (42-40 in the regular season) before losing to the Utah Jazz in the semifinals. The next season they actually improved their win total to 48 but, somehow, that wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs. We will, of course, disregard that very fluky season in this exercise because, well, 60% of the time, 48 wins will get you into the Eastern Conference playoffs every time.
After the 2007-2008 season the Warriors started a stretch of four consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs:
The 2008-2009 season netted the Warriors the number seven pick in the draft, which they used to select current face-of-the-franchise point guard Steph Curry.
The 2009-2010 campaign resulted in the Warriors picking number six in the 2010 draft, which they used to select Ekpe Udoh. They also traded multiple players – including Anthony Randolph – to the Knicks for David Lee. The Warriors, I’m sure, regret not selecting Greg Monroe, Paul George or Larry Sanders with their lottery pick. Udoh was eventually traded to Milwaukee – along with Monta Ellis – in the Andrew Bogut deal.
2010-2011 did not bear postseason fruit, but it did provide the Warriors with the draft pick that they used to select shooting guard Klay Thompson. The aforementioned Andrew Bogut deal also occurred following the 2010-2011 season.
While it could be argued that the Udoh pick set the them back a season, the construction of their current playoff team was not completed until they suffered through four consecutive losing seasons.
The Nets lost in the first round of the playoffs this season to the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls. It was their first appearance in the postseason since Jason Kidd led them to a 41-41 record and a loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2007. That is a five year playoff drought:
Following the 2007-2008 season the Nets selected current center Brook Lopez with the 10th overall pick (other deals occurred, but no one wants to talk about Keith Van Hornin 2013). Subsequent drafts saw them make selections that were eventually shipped to Utah to acquire Deron Williams.
Still in a hurry Cavs fans? Had the Nets built via the draft they could have a core of Lopez, Derrick Favors, Damian Lillard and a few other young players. Instead they have two max players in Joe Johnson and Deron Williams who are no longer max-type talents and no financial flexibility to improve after a disappointing first round exit.
I’d be willing to bet that any GM in the league would take the Cavs’ roster and cap situation over that of the Nets.
The Bulls have been a postseason staple of late, reaching the playoffs for five consecutive years and eight out of the last nine.
However, they missed the cut six consecutive times after a guy by the name of Michael Jordan retired. Is there a better comparison to Lebron leaving Cleveland? While Jordan rode off into the sunset and Lebron rode off to South Beach, both teams were left to completely rebuild their franchises. For the Bulls, thanks to a few bad draft picks, it took over half a decade to get to the playoffs again. This is not an ideal comparison for the Cavs given the gaffes along the way, but it is worth mentioning.
Their win totals in those losing seasons: 13, 17, 15, 21, 30, 23.
So far it would appear the Cavaliers have handled the departure of their franchise player more efficiently.
Reached the postseason for a sixth consecutive season in 2013. Prior to this run, however, the Hawks missed out on the playoffs for eight seasons in a row from 2000 to 2007.
To be fair, there are a few franchises that don’t rebuild, they reload:
Question: How many losing seasons have the Rockets had since the 2002-2003 season?
Answer: One (2005-2006, 34-48)
While combing through all of these teams, the Rockets surprisingly stood out as a consistently
competitive franchise. Through the semi-glory days of T-Mac, Yao Ming and others the Rockets really haven’t had to "rebuild", per se, in the last decade. Their recent acquisitions of James Harden, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin form a great foundation for the future and while they missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons from 2009 to 2012, they never finished under .500 in the always competitive West.
They also didn’t have their franchise player, who also happened to be the best player on the planet, unceremoniously take a dump on their entire franchise. So good for them, but I am not losing sleep over their success when compared to the Cavaliers.
The last time the Spurs missed the postseason, "Return of the Mack" was the #4 song in the country. They stunk for a year, lucked into Tim Duncan and the rest is history.
But when you look at the franchise history of the Spurs that feat isn’t the most impressive. Even more amazing is the last time they missed consecutive postseasons:
That’s right; you can go all the way back to the ABA days of the Dallas Chaparrals (I googled it, and I still have no idea. Land? Boots?) and their 1967-1968 season and you will not find two consecutive years without a playoff berth for this franchise. San Antonio is the bizarro Cleveland. Moving on.
Since George Mikan was manning the middle for the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1948-1949 season, the Lakers have missed the postseason a total of five times. Five. In 63 seasons. Being the biggest show in LA has its advantages, apparently. Nothing to see here.
The 2012-2013 Knicks finished second to the Miami Heat with 54 wins. Their path to this point,
however, is not one the Cavs are following. Rather than building through the draft the Knicks opted to sign big name free agents and, eventually, pull off a monster trade for Melo to become something resembling a contender.
Before you whine about missing the playoffs three straight times make sure you look around for a Knicks fan - they had a losing record for six consecutive seasons from 2004 to 2010.
We won’t dive deeper, however, because of the difference in strategy (i.e. Chris Grant is smart, Isiah Thomas is not.)
It could be worse...
Charlotte Bobcats: One playoff berth since 2005 (a first round loss) and not many expect them to compete anytime soon.
Toronto Raptors: 2013 marked their fifth consecutive playoff-less season.
Sacramento Kings: 2013 was their seventh consecutive season without a playoff berth.
So what does this tell us? Well, first of all, it tells us that missing three straight postseasons is far from an indication of organizational ineptitude. It tells us that patiently positioning yourself, as Chris Grant and the Cavs have done, as a team with young talent, draft picks and cap flexibility can result in years of playoff relevance. It also tells us that, when compared to other franchises, the Cavs are anything but behind schedule.
You don’t spend 6 hours slowly and patiently cooking a beef brisket only to become so hungry that you finish it up in the microwave.
As for the Cavs, leave this team in the smoker and in a year or two - maybe even sooner - the meat will be falling off the bone.