By: Rajan Nanavati
LeBron James having one foot out of the door of the Cleveland Cavaliers organization the very second they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 NBA Finals was one of the worst-kept secrets in the NBA.
You’d think that, after watching James leaving Cleveland once already, and rebuilding the team through a multitude of high draft picks (not to mention watching a team like Philadelphia do the same), Cleveland would understand what they need to rebuild the team in the next post-James era.
So, the fact that, through 13% of the 2018-2019 NBA season, the Cavaliers have won exactly one game out of the 11 they have played shouldn’t be too terribly surprising. What is surprising is the completely disjointed way they’re approaching the future of this team.
The dirty secret of this organization is that owner Dan Gilbert— he of the infamous Comic Sans-font letter in the newspaper after “The Decision” in 2010— secretly wanted to publicly spite James again. This time, by assembling a team that, in his mind, could still compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Gilbert’s way of sticking it to James was to show that the former could build a playoff team that wasn’t so dependent on the latter.
Ironically, that’s what led to the exact “bottom-of-the-NBA” circumstances the Cavaliers find themselves in right now.
Instead of deliberately trying rebuild around a core of top pick Colin Sexton and guys like Larry Nance Jr, Cedi Osman, and David Nwaba, they’re trotting out Kevin Love (at least until he went down with an injury), JR Smith, and Kyle Korver. Collectively, those guys were winners when they could rely on James in the lineup. Now? They’re just expensive veterans on a lottery-bound team, as opposed to guys who could still carry the Cavaliers’ carcass into the postseason.
The question has been asked often on sports talk shows of various nature: how many wins is James alone worth?
Aside from the menagerie of spare parts added to the team, that’s why many people believed the 35-win Los Angeles Lakers of 2017-2018 could seriously challenge the 50-win mark this season. The thought was that James and four guys from the local YMCA could probably eek out 35 wins on their own (if not more), so imagine what James could do with even a reasonable supporting cast.
The historical precedent tells us that the dropoff is steep. The year after Michael Jordan retired (the second time), the Chicago Bulls went from 62 wins to a franchise-low 13 wins without Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Given what the Cavaliers are going through right now, 13 wins would actually be a refreshing number. With a .091 winning percentage, Cleveland is on pace to finish with somewhere between seven-to-eight wins.
And it’s not like they’re rife with assets which they could suddenly use to acquire extra draft capital. At this point, Cleveland is just better off standing pat and hoping for yet another top lottery pick, and maybe the chance to draft Zion Williamson for Duke.
If nothing else, at least everyone can agree on the fact that the lofty expectations set by Gilbert for this team were nothing but a desert mirage.