LeBron & The Ghost Of Cleveland’s Offseason Past

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?

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At least, that’s what a lot of Cavs fans were saying as the team’s rumored pursuit of All-Star forward Kevin Love moved from rumor to credible to, as reported now, a question not if, but when? Gilbert can’t help but be of reminded 2005, of his team’s last hasty ditching of future flexibility in exchange for a bump in immediate competitiveness, when thinking seriously about trading for Love and the prospect of his payroll carrying three $20 million/per players as early as next summer.

None of this is to say that Love isn’t a great player. He is easily a top-15 talent in the league – never something that was said about the Cavs 2005 free agent troika – and trading for him would cement the Cavs in the top-three in the Eastern Conference. It was just as important for the Cavs, though, to keep an eye on their future flexibility if they wish to fully exorcise 2005 rather than repeat its organizational handcuffing. The reported deal – Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first round pick, with Love now agreeing to resign with the Cavs this off-season – does just that.

Trade scenarios have topped out at the Cavs including Dion Waiters, multiple first round picks and a heap of non-guaranteed money in addition to headliner Andrew Wiggins and likely throw-in Anthony Bennett (Ed. Note: this was written before this morning’s report by Yahoo). This would leave the Cavs relying on contributions from aging veterans like Mike Miller (and possibly Ray Allen and/or Kevin Martin) on the wing, in much the same way that James sought help from past-their-primes Wallace and O’Neal in the post during his first go-around with the team. The 2013-14 Miami Heat are the most recent example of when relying on an aging supporting cast, many of whom have taken league minimum deals to play on a contender, can eventually become the pressure that breaks the geriatric camel’s back.

Does this mean the Cavs should break off talks to acquire Love in order to hold onto Waiters? Or Bennett? Or a 2017 heavily protected pick? No, but it is to say that the Cavs need to act less from a place of pressure (that thing they do not make “Love” to) and continue the smart roster manipulation that has been Griffin’s calling card since he took over the team back in February. Just shoving all of its assets on the table in a play for Love only increases the risk of dealing for the Timberwolves’ all-star power forward.

And, make no mistake, there is very real risk in dealing what could amount to five first round picks and change for a player who, by all reports, will still choose to become a free agent after next season. That uncertainty alone should cause the Cavs to build more protection for themselves going forward into any deal for Love. After all, two of the most valuable assets in allowing a team to maintain its future flexibility are first-round picks and players on rookie-scale contracts. Even if the Cavs are able to re-sign Love next summer, the all-in deal above, once Tristan Thompson is extended as expected, would leave the Cavs without any players of consequence still playing on their rookie deals. This would handcuff the team to a “three max and league minimums” roster that limits their options at roster improvement going forward (see: Heat, Miami).

There are ways of making a deal for Love that will finally put an end to thoughts of the summer of ’05 (and, along with it, Gwen Stephani’s song of that summer, “Hollaback Girl”), but they will require the Cavs to view this more as a strategic opportunity to be better for many years and not a deal, as many reports have painted it, that they’ll just be happy to be able to make. They need to get James the supporting talent to deliver the city of Cleveland its first major championship since 1964 while not busting the metaphorical farm system to do so. This reported trade for Love does just that.

Robert Attenweiler is a playwright and screenwriter living in New York City. His writing as appeared at ESPN.com, The Classical and at Cavs: The Blog, where he’s a staff writer.

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