Thursday, February 18

The Last Piece of the Puzzle

We should start calling Cavs GM Danny Ferry “Danny Ocean,” because he just pulled off yet another heist. Antawn Jamison is a name that’s been on the Cavaliers’ trade radar for two years, and he’ll finally be wearing wine and gold.

On Thursday evening, the Cavs finalized a three-team deal with the Washington Wizards and the Los Angeles Clippers which brings Jamison and injured guard Sebastian Telfair to Cleveland. All the Cavs had to give up was Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ expiring contract and their first pick in this summer’s draft, which will likely be the 29th or 30th pick.

The Wizards will probably negotiate a buyout with Ilgauskas, giving him the opportunity to return to Cleveland after 30 days. In spite of reports that other teams will be interested in Z, it’s tough to envision him going anywhere but Cleveland. George Costanza once told Yankees boss George Steinbrenner, “I think I may have found a way for us to get Bonds and Griffey, and we wouldn't have to give up that much.” This Jamison deal feels a lot like that, except it’s not a sitcom. This, folks, is reality television.

As the trade winds swirled at cyclonic speeds around the Cavs this weekend, Danny Ferry was in hot pursuit of four players: power forwards Amar’e Stoudemire, Antawn Jamison, and Troy Murphy, and swingman Corey Maggette. Unnamed sources within the organization suggested that the Cavs ranked the four players in that same order of preference, but there was a contingent within the Cavs organization who actually preferred Jamison.

The fan base was also split on which player to pursue. You know things are going well when half of your fan base is at least mildly disappointed by filling a hole in the starting five with a veteran who has averaged 18 points per game in 11 of his 12 seasons. Did I mention that all the Cavs really gave up was a first round pick?

The Cavs had put a trade package together with the Suns that likely included Ilgauskas, promising young forward JJ Hickson, Danny Green, and at least one first rounder. Phoenix was lukewarm on such a deal, as they were obviously getting shortchanged talent-wise. Phoenix wanted to wait and see if a better offer presented itself in the eleventh hour, so the Cavs pulled the trigger on Jamison. After Suns GM Steve Kerr balked at trading Shaquille O’Neal to the Cavs at the trade deadline last year, Danny Ferry wasn’t going to let the indecisive Kerr dictate whether or not he upgraded his Cavs. After being stood up last February, Ferry had clearly learned his lesson.

What is so remarkable about this trade is that a month ago the Cavs would have been thrilled to add Jamison for Z’s expiring contract and Hickson. Instead, the Cavs essentially swapped Hickson out for an extremely low first round pick – a pick which is worth far less than Hickson, who has displayed vast potential.

Danny Ferry had to make a move before the deadline. Sure, the Cavs have the best record in the NBA, but the way their payroll is constructed prevents them from making significant additions in free agency for the next couple of summers. Unless something bizarre were to occur, the only way the Cavs could add a significant piece to their club over the next few seasons is via trade, and the best way to do that is to use expiring contracts to give poorly-performing teams some cap relief in exchange for talent.

With that in mind, Ferry had to use Ilgauskas’ expiring contract to either add a player who could be a significant piece for the next few seasons (e.g. Stoudemire or Jamison), or acquire a player whose contract would expire next season (e.g. Troy Murphy), essentially rolling over the expiring deal into next season to give himself a chance to add a piece over the summer or before next year’s deadline. The fact that Murphy could have helped the Cavs would have been a bonus.

Ferry was able to pounce on Jamison, who should seamlessly slide in the Cavs starting five, relegating JJ Hickson to the bench. Jamison will turn 34 in June, and his main goal at this point in his career is to win a title. As such, he quietly asked the Wizards to trade him, and LeBron James and the Cavaliers were waiting with open arms. His veteran leadership, professionalism, and focus on winning his first ring will all be welcomed in Cleveland.

Jamison is an excellent jump shooter with range – exactly the type of “stretch four” the Cavs have been seeking. The North Carolina product is also a terrific scorer, and can create his own shot if called upon. So far this season Jamison is averaging 20.5 points per game, shooting 45% from the field, and 34.5% from downtown. Expect his scoring to decrease, and his shooting efficiency to increase as he should find plenty of open looks as the third or fourth option with LeBron James, Shaq, and Mo Williams.

I was on the fence during most of the Stoudemire/Jamison debate, but in the last day or two I found myself starting to favor Jamison. There is no doubt that Amar’e is a talented player and that the Cavs’ ceiling would be higher with him on board, but he has several warts that make him a much riskier acquisition than the dependable Jamison.

Stoudemire has been plagued by knee problems, and has played 55 games or fewer in 3 of his 8 professional seasons. In 2005 he underwent microfracture surgery to repair damaged knee cartilage, and he played in only three games during the 2005-2006 season. Knee problems for NBA big men are a major red flag.

Last season Stoudemire only played 53 games after his season was ended by a detached retina suffered on February 19th. Stoudemire’s eye has healed, and he now wears goggles for protection, but a stray finger in the eye could end his basketball career.

Call me risk averse, but I’m not doing back flips over giving a guy with that kind of injury baggage upwards of $20 million a year for 5 years. The fact that the Suns – even with their legendary training staff – weren’t comfortable giving Stoudemire a max contract should tell us a great deal about what a huge injury risk he is.

Off the top of your head, where would you set the odds of Stoudemire missing at least half a season due to injury if he played in Cleveland for five years? Twenty percent? Twenty-five? Marrying yourself to Amar’e through much of LeBron James’ prime is an awfully big risk when you consider those odds. Of course the eye injury is a freak injury, but there are some guys who are for whatever reason snake-bitten and injury-prone. Amar’e may very well be one such player.

We can certainly have a spirited debate involving Amar’e Stoudemrie injury speculation, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is questioning the fact that Antawn Jamison is a better fit for the Cavs this season. Considering the kind of shape Jamison keeps himself in, and that he’s shown no signs of diminishing skills over the past few years, you can probably make a compelling argument that Jamison might be a better fit next season, too.

Amar’e definitely could be the better long-term solution, but if Jamison gives the Cavs a better chance to win in the next season or two, that can’t be taken lightly. If we assume that LeBron James isn’t going anywhere, then we can safely say that at age 25, he has maybe 10 seasons (give or take) during which he can play at the level he’s at currently. If adding Jamison instead of Stoudemire gives you a better chance to win a title in one or two of those seasons, then that’s a significant variable. The fact that an injury to Amar’e – freakish or otherwise – could take the Cavs out of contention for a season or two also should be considered.

On a personal note, I’ve never been totally comfortable with Amar’e. I’m a big believer that winning cures most illnesses, but it also makes me very uncomfortable when guys are grumbling about shots and stats on winning teams. Stoudemire supposedly was one such player on a winning Phoenix Suns team.

We should at least acknowledge that such behavior could be problematic given that Amar’e can become a free agent this summer and that he would be the third or fourth option on a very good Cavs team, thus seeing a dip in his shot attempts and scoring. I’m far from convinced that character issues would have caused problems for Amar’e in Cleveland but given his history, Stoudemire’s character is much closer to a “con” than a “pro.”

The bottom line is that the Cavs are a much better team today than they were yesterday. It might not quite be the Pau Gasol trade, but Danny Ferry has once again flipped something insignificant for another piece of his championship puzzle. The Cavs have made their bed with Antawn Jamison for at least the next two seasons, and Jamison’s arrival probably means that Shaquille O’Neal will return for at least one more season, as well.

If everyone can stay healthy, the Cavs look like the prohibitive favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy not only this season, but next season. We haven’t heard the term “prohibitive favorite” attached to a Cleveland team since the juggernaut Indians teams of the 1990s. We don’t get these chances very often. June can’t get here fast enough.

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