Thursday, December 8

How Jim Paxson Lost LeBron

On October 29, 2003 at the Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento, California, the Cleveland Cavaliers took the floor with the starting lineup of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Carlos Boozer, Ricky Davis, Darius Miles, and a rookie out of Akron, Ohio named LeBron James. The Cavs would go on to lose the first game of the 2003-2004 campaign 92-106 to the Kings, but the hype surrounding LeBron James and the Cavs was chiseled in stone until LeBron departed for brighter lights.

Fresh off of a 17-win season and tying the Nuggets for the worst record in the NBA, the Cavs were revered by local and national pundits alike as a team in full rebuild mode with little to no help for LeBron.

Store that away for a few minutes...

The reality with the NBA, moreso than any other sport, is that one superstar can completely turn a franchise around from pathetic to perennial playoff contender. This doesn't necessarily translate to championships - particularly in the era of superteams - but it does end the cycle of lottery picks.

A sudden injection of superstar talent to a lottery team presents a problem. Usually the team drafting a superstar rookie has a top-three pick. Often it is because that team was really bad the previous year. And almost always the lucky team will progressively earn a lower draft pick with each passing year as its record improves.

What all this means is that unless there was an injured or underperforming star already on the team the previous year (see San Antonio, Tim Duncan), an endless cycle of "pretty good" emerges that the team cannot escape until its superstar leaves to join his buddy elsewhere.

The 2002-2003 Cavs were built to lose, and lose they did. On July 30, 2002, the Cavs traded their best player in point guard Andre Miller to the Clippers for Darius Miles and Harold Jamison (footnote - Bryant Stith was also included in that trade from the Cavs).

It wasn't that every player on the 2002-03 Cavs team was horrendous. In fact, the Cavs had just drafted an exciting rookie guard who had once scored 100 points in a high school game. They had also drafted a forward out of Duke in the second round that they hoped could fill some minutes. But this team wasn't being built for the present, it was being built for the future. Sure they only won 17 games in the 2002-2003 season, but Jim Paxson and the Cavs were finally doing something right…sort of.

Jump back to LeBron's opening night in Sacramento.

Much of the Cavs roster was the same from the team that won 17 games the previous year. However, a close examination of that roster is somewhat surprising.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas - Two-time NBA All-Star who went on to become the Cavs all-time leader in games played and blocks. His re-emergence was a welcome surprise for the Cavs as Ilgauskas had been injured for much of his career until this point.

Carlos Boozer - Two-time NBA All-Star and 2008 All-NBA Third Team. Though he has had trouble with injuries, Carlos is considered a top-flight power forward when healthy.

Ricky Davis - Nobody ever accused Davis of making smart decisions, but the truth is that he averaged 20.6 points, 5.5 assists, and 1.6 steals per game the year before LeBron joined the team. Those are near All-Star numbers.

Darius Miles - At the time, Miles was a big deal. He was the third overall pick in the 2000 draft and was the first player coming straight out of high school to be named as First Team All-Rookie. His story has an unhappy ending, but in 2003 Darius Miles was still a top prospect.

Dajuan Wagner - Don't laugh. Dajuan Wagner was so good that he once scored 100 points in a high school basketball game and his college coach, John Calipari, actually revoked his scholarship to force him into the NBA draft. The Cavs drafted him 6th overall in the 2002 NBA Draft and expected Wagner to be a stud for years. Unfortunately for he and the Cavs, Wagner had debilitating health problems that hindered his career from the start and he never met the expectations surrounding him. Still, it's difficult to consider Wagner a bust in the traditional sense in that he didn't suck on his own accord.

Jason Kapono - While not an All-Star, the guy is a crazy-good shooter. He was a contributor on Miami's championship season in 2006 and actually shot over 50% (51.4% to be exact) from three-point range during the 2006-2007 season.

LeBron James - Is this even necessary?

That list contains a legitimate starting center, power forward, and small forward (Davis), most at the onset of their careers, starting alongside one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived. That's a young team with a solid core of pieces to grow together. Without overturning the roster, the Cavs had the opportunity to add a point guard and depth over the next two years and be a powerhouse for the following ten.

Then this happened...

On December 15, 2003, just fifty-four days into LeBron James's career, the Cavs traded Ricky Davis and his potential 15-5-5 stat line to the Boston Celtics along with Chris Mihm, Michael Stewart, and a second-round draft pick for Eric Williams, Tony Battie, and Kedrick Brown. The Celtics had a record of 12-12 at the time and the Cavs were 6-17 and riding a 33-game road losing streak. By the time the Cavs finally made the playoffs in the spring of 2006, none of the players acquired from the Celtics were with the team.

At the conclusion of the 2003-2004 season, Carlos Boozer was released by the Cavs as a restricted free agent with the understanding that he would re-sign a six-year, $39 million deal. Instead, the Utah Jazz offered Boozer a six-year, $70 million deal and Boozer raced to Salt Lake City to sign the contract.

The Carlos Boozer incident was perhaps the worst move by a general manager not named Isiah Thomas or Ted Stepien in the history of the NBA. If Boozer had stayed in Cleveland, the Cavs certainly would have faced harsh penalties from the league for striking their "handshake deal". This was a consideration that Paxson should have anticipated. They were screwed no matter what the outcome. If Boozer re-signs with the Cavs for $39 million, then they would have been answering to David Stern - possibly even giving up their rights to Boozer. If he goes elsewhere, then the Cavs just let a 2nd-round gem walk (or sprint) out of Cleveland for nothing - which is exactly what happened.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the Cavs chose to leave Jason Kapono unprotected for the expansion draft and he was snatched up by the expansion Charlotte Bobcats.

One year after LeBron's first game in Sacramento, the Cavs opened the season at home against the Indiana Pacers with a starting lineup of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, LeBron James, Lucious Harris, and Jeff McInnis. Stacking the two lineups side-by-side clearly shows that the Cavs didn't just regress, but lost two potential cornerstones of their roster during, or shortly after, LeBron's rookie year.

With Cleveland not being one of the coveted "large markets" with Madison Avenue, movie stars, or year-round bikini-clad groupies, the only way the team was going to pair stars with LeBron was through the draft. While the 17-win 2002-2003 Cavaliers campaign was an abomination of the sport, it did present the team with three critical pieces of information: Ricky Davis could play ball as long as his head doesn't get in the way, Carlos Boozer was the steal of the 2002 draft, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can make it through a full season and still produce at a high level.

Drafting LeBron was the 4th piece to a young, up-and-coming team that everybody knew was going to take time to figure out how to play with one another. Instead, Jim Paxson allowed two of those pieces to walk out the door with very little in return.

The Cavs were too good from there on out with LeBron to get a high draft pick. All of the building now needed to be done through trades and free agency. The pieces that should have already been on the team from when they were bad had skipped town, and all that remained was a team that could never compete for a championship, despite the best efforts of Danny Ferry and Dan Gilbert.

Thanks to their previous regime, the current Cavs ownership was dealt a losing hand, and no amount of money could fix it.

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