Note: The playoffs start soon, and with them a more intense social media dialogue will be ushered in. Trendy picks for casual fans to get behind in the postseason include the Warriors and Hawks. Curiously, the Cavaliers seem to have the opposite effect on many fans. Fear the Sword writers William Bohl and Kendon Luscher found themselves exploring the reasons why in an email thread, and decided to share it with all of you.
Please be aware that the points made below are not necessarily the beliefs of Mr. Bohl - he is merely postulating why some fans might dislike this Cavaliers team.
With that, let the conversation commence...
William Bohl: As we were chatting recently, I outlined a few of the reasons I believe most casual fans will be rooting (hard) against Cleveland during the playoffs. I employed a couple of stock arguments, namely, that they were bailed out by LeBron coming home, leading to a perception that the team doesn't really "deserve" such luck, as well as the feeling that this team wasn't "organically built." You took exception to both lines of rhetoric, and fired back.
Kendon Luscher: It does feel like luck when you consider the Cavs won three of four lotteries and admittedly had a geographic advantage when courting LeBron James. Just typing that out, it looks a lot like luck and seems undeserved. It seems inorganic.
But surprise, surprise, I see it another way. There are no players on the Cavs for whom the team didn't either originally draft or trade their assets. Every player on the team originated on the Cavs from the draft and trades. To me, that's a careful execution of assets.
It's the exact opposite of, say, the 2010-11 Miami Heat, who had Wade and nothing else but cap room and players colluding on Pat Riley's behalf. The Cavs didn't pull anyone away in free agency except James, who they drafted in the first place.
In what way is this anything other than cashing in on a stockpile of assets the team painstakingly collected?
Bohl: The Cavs signed Mike Miller, James Jones, Kendrick Perkins and Shawn Marion as free agents, but I cede your overall point about drafting and trading for almost all of the players on the team. However, as you said yourself, Cleveland had an unprecedented streak of luck in the lottery, which they shouldn't necessarily apologize for, but even the staunchest Cavs fan has to understand fans of every other team would be annoyed by it. If Cleveland doesn't beat long odds to win the top overall pick, no Andrew Wiggins. No Andrew Wiggins, no Kevin Love. No Kevin Love... no LeBron James?
As far as LeBron coming home is concerned, that part feels a bit inorganic to people as well, as crazy as that sounds. It looks like a marketing ploy and a matter of geographical convenience wrapped up in one. Without him, the rest of the Cavs' "assets" don't look quite as appealing; had LeBron stayed in Miami, is there any chance the Cavs would be higher than a 7 or 8 seed, even if they'd traded Wiggins for Love? I doubt it.
Luscher: I see where you are coming from with the picks, so let's break it down.
The pick that brought Cleveland Kyrie Irving was not their own. Sure, it was lucky that they got the first overall pick with it, but Jesus. It was such a savvy move on their part to turn Mo Williams into an unprotected first round pick that it goes beyond luck. Moves likes that is what asset allocation is all about. Kyrie Irving came to Cleveland as a part of Chris Grant's savvy ability at collecting assets.
And it was a move that didn't have much to do with the Cavs being good or bad, either. The framework of that move was rumored before LeBron even left Cleveland in the 2010 off-season. The Cavs didn't just want that pick. They wanted Baron Davis (especially to put next to LeBron at the time). Any time you get a top-20 player with someone else's pick, that's boo on the other team and nothing more.
The Cavs also had two fourth overall picks.
One was Tristan Thompson (and was the result of Byron Scott's superior tanking abilities and not luck). Thompson has turned out to be an awesome player and worthy of a top pick in the 2011 draft. Obviously, that's useful in and of itself. He was also drafted as a way to maintain contact with LeBron's people and keep the door open for a return. If the aforementioned Pat Riley made that move, he'd be lauded as a genius. For the Cavs, it doesn't seem to register as a move or strategy at all.
Dion Waiters was a Chris Grant mistake, but somehow he got flipped along with a single first round pick for JR Smith, Shumpert and Mozgov. I have no idea how this happened, but good GMs like Griffin know how to turn bronze into gold. Also, here the Cavs won a coin flip over New Orleans that lost them Anthony Davis. They were a coin flip away from Anthony Davis and lost it. Then got pushed back from the third spot in the draft (Bradley Beal - a perfect fit next to Kyrie) to fourth. Bad luck there.
So now we get to the last two first overall picks, who were flipped for Kevin Love.
Let's just say it. Bennett doesn't factor into this. He doesn't. He was a contract. The Cavs could have replaced him in that deal with a different contract if they needed to do that. For all practicality, he wasn't a first overall pick in that awful, evil draft. Winning the 2013 draft was closer to bad luck than good luck. The Cavs got all the scrutiny of having a first overall pick without the benefit of any player in the draft being worth a first overall pick. They picked the guy everyone said was the most NBA ready. The most sure-thing. A safe pick. And it still backfired. That's all nothing but bad luck. He became nothing but an expiring contract to trade.
So now we get to the Wiggins pick. Okay, that was lucky. So one pick out of five fourth-overall picks is lucky. I'm okay with that. It happened to be the last one, so it looks extra bad. It happened to get the Cavs Kevin Love, so it looks extra bad. They weren't the first team to "luck" into the first overall pick. Chicago recently did it when they got Rose, and nobody calls that situation lucky or inorganic. Before that, the Spurs were a really good team that had an injury plagued year and got TIM DUNCAN. The best power forward of all time. That was about the luckiest bit of luck any team has ever lucked. It lucked them into five championships they probably wouldn't have won without that. So I'll take my lumps for this one. Wiggins was lucky.
For me, the LeBron return comes down to one moment from the 2009-10 season. He said he wasn't going to stop until he brought Cleveland a championship. Then he choked in the 2009-10 playoffs. Then he left. To me and to the rest of Cleveland, that was a promise. And yes, it was from a local sports hero. Yes, that made the promise matter more and hurt more. But it was a promise regardless of LeBron's hometown. So for me, his return is an attempt to fulfill that promise.
Bohl: Let's put all the cards on the table, shall we?
I began by saying that I'm merely outlining why the casual fan will be rooting against Cleveland. Most casual fans don't know or care to know the (slightly slanted) history you outlined above. To them, it looks like this:
1. Summer, 2004 - summer, 2010: The Cavs win the lottery, employ LeBron James for seven seasons.
2. Summer, 2010. LeBron leaves for Miami, in hopes of winning a championship.
3. 2011-2013. The Cavs win the lottery twice in three seasons, have two other top-4 picks, are still very bad.
4. June, 2014. The Cavs win the lottery AGAIN.
5. July, 2014. LeBron signs with Cleveland, hoping to build a championship team along with Kyrie Irving, former lottery prize.
6. August, 2014. The Cavs package their past two top overall picks to Minnesota for a third superstar, Kevin Love.
Granted, everything that's been done to the roster since August has been a masterstroke in team-building. The trades David Griffin executed for both Mozgov and the Smith/Shumpert duo were positively flawless. There was no luck involved with either of them; that was just impeccable management. The players, particularly LeBron (for sticking with it and leading the team), Kyrie (for making huge improvements on the defensive end) and Love (for adapting to his new role and playing through pain) deserve enormous credit for their success since January 15th. No matter how they were built, the way they've come together has been both fun and admirable.
However, it does look like LeBron deciding to return was a bailout. Granted, the pieces were in place to make the move enticing, but without LeBron, they're just floating pieces without a center of gravity. And while that's nothing for the Cavs to apologize for, you have to understand why opposing fans, or even just casual fans, would roll their eyes at Cleveland's fortune. Especially when some moribund franchises (Minnesota, for instance) HAVE NEVER MOVED UP IN THE DRAFT LOTTERY. NOT ONCE. NOT EVEN FROM FOURTH TO THIRD, OR ANYTHING.
Lastly, I don't know if free agency is the new shortcut to team building. I think having an owner willing to take on long-term money by paying the tax is the new shortcut to team-building. What's the best way to do that? Owning the bird rights to as many players as possible, provided you want them to stick around. How do you do that? If drafting them doesn't work, trade for them. Of course, the Cavs had to have the assets in the first place to make the Mozgov, Shumpert and Smith acquisitions possible, but they'll have some very interesting decisions to make on extending them this summer. Throw in new deals for Love and Tristan Thompson, and suddenly we could be looking at a team with a $100 million payroll and $50 to $100 million in tax payments over the next two seasons. Fair or not fair, some people will never equate that kind of money with a team built "organically."
Luscher: When I take my biased glasses off, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle between my rose-colored opinion that the Cavs were only lucky once in winning the lottery three out of four years and the national perception you just outlined.
I admit that it could have been less lucky for the Cavs. They put themselves in the position to get lucky, which is half the battle. The other half is actually getting lucky. So I'll give you that if only because I just know our commenters are going to put me on blast if I don't mention it. So there's that.
I don't know what this team looks like if LeBron doesn't come back. I imagine they would have kept Wiggins. I can't imagine Dion Waiters would survive, but I have no idea what would have become of him. Pieces floating in space? Maybe. Griffin has been a very talented and underrated GM so far who cares about fit. I can't really guess what they would have done.
And if we abandon my explanation that LeBron made a promise, I guess that LeBron was born and raised near Cleveland is lucky. But it's also the first location advantage Cleveland had ever had. You're a Minnesota fan first, so you know how that is. And Cleveland doesn't even have The Hold Steady! Or Rehab Addict! Or a city wide tunnel system that sounds pretty awesome.
My point is, first of all, Minnesota sounds nice and I'd like to visit it again someday. Second of all, we don't hear people complaining about the location advantage other NBA cities consistently have. The Cavs have an advantage with one player, and suddenly the location advantage comes up as a negative. I'll concede that it's lucky, but fans of teams in desirable locations like New York, LA and Minnesota (apparently) can't complain about this location advantage. Fans of traditionally undesirable markets still can. I guess.
What gets me about the money thing is fans complain about teams willing to spend a lot on players who are making market value. Then they flip the switch and applaud teams like the Spurs and Mavericks who use their cult-like mind voodoo on players to take far below their market value. If anything, the team who pays a bunch of guys market value is the more noble, organic team than the teams paying guys under market value. I suppose there are bonus points for thriftiness, but it amounts to the same thing. A loaded team.
So fans being okay with one and not the other doesn't register to me. What is it that makes what the Cavs are doing, using trades and bird rights to go over the cap, worse than what similarly stacked but thrifty teams are doing? Stacked is stacked in my book.
I don't want to back away from what I said before, but I understand nobody outside of Cleveland will buy what I was selling. I'll give you the point about the draft because if a fan isn't buying that, there's no way to convince that person otherwise. And that's fair. I can't rationally argue against that. What I don't understand is what makes Cleveland having a market advantage (in one instance, but still) and a money advantage so much worse than other teams with similar advantages. What has Cleveland done that's so different from, say, Golden State?
Bohl: Most of the best teams in the league drafted their biggest stars. Al Horford, Jimmy Butler, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, Dirk Nowitzki - all of those guys remain with the team that drafted them. The few notable exceptions are guys who were acquired via trade, such as Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, Marc Gasol and James Harden... then there's LeBron, who signed as a free agent. That's the main difference. That, to some people, seems inauthentic, the success somewhat cheapened, for both the Cavs (who'd built up a supporting cast prior to his arrival, which we've covered, but lacked an elite player to lead them to the playoffs) and LeBron (who bailed on Miami to become something of a hired gun).
We haven't even touched on the subject of Cleveland's rumored (and probably exaggerated) quasi-dysfunctional inner workings. Drama sells. It keeps people interested. And some people will root against a team with a lot of baggage just because they're sick of hearing about them. If it sounds insane, that's because it is, but that's just how fans can be sometimes.
I'd like to reiterate, again, that I don't necessarily agree with all the points I'm raising, nor do I care about debating them ad nauseam. But I think it's important that Cavs fans at least understand why so many people will be rooting against them over the next few months. It's not just "they hate us 'cause they ain't us." Should Cleveland fans apologize for any of it? Hell no! But they should at least be aware of it.
Luscher: I can't argue against your last batch of points, and it's for a sadder reason than you being right.
You say LeBron coming back makes the Cavs' success cheapened to people outside of Cleveland. As happy as we are that he came back, it feels cheaper to us, too. We are never going to feel the same this time around as we did last time around. We are excited and championships change everything, but the magic is lost. It sucks because this is a much, much better team than even his 60+ win teams during his first stint.
We can't expect everyone else to be more okay with how LeBron returning feels than we are, and I suppose that's the biggest knock against my whole argument. I never brought it up because to me, it's a reason to feel sympathy for Cleveland fans, but that's not really what this is about either.
It's not about the fans, exactly. It's about this team. But it's one of those, "We can say it, but you can't situations." LeBron coming back can feel like an uncanny valley version of what happened last time, but we want to be the only ones who notice.
When it comes down to it, and this is the thing I also didn't want to admit until the end, I am okay with any reason opposing fan bases have for hating another team. As long as it isn't something like making a blog post about why another city and its people suck (a far fetched example because that would be insane), everything is game. Rivalries make sports fun.
So ultimately, I'm okay with any flak this Cavs team is getting. I'm okay with it, and I will passionately argue against it. Like you said, Cleveland fans don't need to apologize for anything.
Although, we'll be too busy in-fighting about the Wiggins/Love trade to notice anybody hates our team anyway. Wait a second... That's REALLY why people hate the Cavs, isn't it? The daily fights about Love?
I think we have this all figured out.