In the summer of 2005, when the rest of us were lining up to see Batman Begins for the 42nd time, newly named Cleveland Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry had his work cut out for him. Ferry, once the Cavs’ poster boy for transactions-gone-wrong when the team traded guard Ron Harper for the Duke standout way back in 1989, took over a roster with a lot of promise. He had, after all, a player named LeBron James, who had just wrapped up a sophomore season that saw the 2003 first overall pick average 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game.
But there was a problem: all of those numbers came during the regular season. James had yet to experience the post-season – narrowly missing out in both of his first two campaigns – and now James was getting antsy. Ferry could hear the ticking of the clock that new owner Dan Gilbert had presented to new head coach Mike Brown at his introductory press conference (as in “you are now on the…”) and he knew he was expected to do something dramatic to greatly upgrade the talent around James to build a playoff team and keep his young star happy.
In short, Ferry was already feeling the pressure. James was eligible for an extension the following summer and there was already talk around the league that he would be better off fleeing Cleveland for a bigger stage. The Cavs had to win now or risk losing James.
The Cavs had no draft picks that summer, but they did have a mess of cap space following a two-season-long purging of names like Ricky Davis, Darius Miles, DeSagana Diop and Jeff McInnis from its roster. Ferry did what seemed like his only shot at quickly adding talent to a small market franchise with $28 million in cap room: he overspent on Larry Hughes (5-years, $70 million), Donyell Marshall (4-years, $25 million) and Damon Jones (4-years, $16 million).
The result was initially positive. The Cavs made the playoffs in 2006 and James signed an extension that would keep him with the club, at least, until 2010 before the warts of the deals really started to show.
It quickly became evident that Hughes’s strength as a slasher did not make him the perfect number two in Mike Brown’s “give the ball to LeBron and get everyone else the hell out of the way” offense. Hughes struggled with injuries, frequently played out of position and even inspired one of the best named websites of all time, heylarryhughespleasestoptakingsomanybadshots.com
The pressure to keep James happy, and a nationally repeated refrain that Ferry had done a poor job surrounding James with young talent, caused Ferry to flip bad contracts for more bad contracts. He parted ways with many of the young players the Cavs actually drafted during those years (not that anyone has nicknamed Shannon Brown “The Missing Piece”), and turned Hughes and Marshall into Ben Wallace, Joe Smith and Delonte West. Flipping Zydrunas Ilgauskas for Antawn Jamison (and, later, Ilgauskas again), and Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic for Shaquille O’Neal was just more of the same.
The pressure to win, which stood in lockstep with the pressure to keep James happy with the organization, never dissipated and the Cavaliers failure to deliver under this pressure has haunted them ever since.
That is, until the summer of 2014. The Cavaliers hope that this is the off-season that finally puts 2005 in the rearview for good.
James has returned to a team that, while far from perfect, seems to cumulatively have more to offer than Davis, Miles, et al did back in 2003. Even after winter-2014 trades for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes and the early-July trade of Jarrett Jack dipped into the team’s ample reserve of future draft picks, the Cavs are still running a surplus of picks in the next few years. James even gave lip service to being patient with his new young teammates.
But even before James’s signature was put to contract – and certainly after he inked a two-year deal that allows his next max deal to take effect when the league is newly flush with its next TV deal – the refrain that the team just can’t seem to quit found new life: James is putting pressure on the Cavs to win now.
That’s not exactly what a team — who hasn’t historically been
immune Stephen Jackson to pressure — wants to hear, right?