We had it all wrong.
For years, the Cavaliers have privately pointed to the Oklahoma City Thunder as the model franchise for small market NBA rebuilding efforts. But perhaps inadvertently, the Cavaliers jumped the tracks. They’re actually following former General Manager Kevin O’Connor’s plan in rebuilding the Utah Jazz.
Throughout the course of history, it has taken NBA teams the better part of a decade to return to relevance following the departure of a superstar. The Cavs are trying to cut that time in half.
The word relevant, of course, is rather ambiguous and open to interpretation. But even if Andrew Bynum doesn’t play a single minute this season, the Cavaliers should be playoff contenders in a top-heavy Eastern Conference that remains wide open at the bottom of the bracket.
That, to me, makes the Cavaliers relevant again.
To be clear, the rebuilding project isn’t yet complete. Even with a healthy Bynum, the Cavs aren’t yet in position to seriously challenge the Miami Heat or Brooklyn Nets for the top spots in the East. But the additions of Bynum, Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark, Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev should at least make basketball matter again in Cleveland when most folks are focused only on the NFL Draft.
There are at least two, and perhaps three, playoff spots open next season. The Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks have taken hits to their roster and appear set on rebuilding projects. The Atlanta Hawks have a few moves left to make, but a comprehensive rebuild certainly seems possible. That leaves the bottom of the East wide open.
The Bucks earned the last playoff spot last season with 38 victories, which falls right in line with the average number of wins from the East’s No. 8 seed over the last five full seasons (38.4). If 38 victories is the target, the Cavs need to improve by 14 wins over last season. That certainly seems feasible.
And a playoff return just three years after LeBron James’ departure would be quite impressive by NBA standards.
The Chicago Bulls took seven years to make the playoffs following the departures of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. They won only one playoff series in 12 years before advancing to the conference finals two years ago.
The Orlando Magic didn’t win a playoff series for 12 years following the departure of Shaquille O’Neal.
The Boston Celtics needed a decade to win a playoff series following the retirement of Larry Bird, and it took the Los Angeles Lakers seven years to return to the Western Conference finals following Magic Johnson’s retirement.
That leaves the Jazz as the only team in recent history to complete a fast rebuild. The Jazz returned to the Western Conference finals just four years after the departures of John Stockton and Karl Malone.
“You need three things,” O’Connor told the Akron Beacon Journal in 2011. “You need the ability to sign free agents, and that means money under the cap. You need draft picks and you need the ability to get lucky once in a while on players.”
The Cavs have had all three, enjoying their lucky break two years ago when an unexpected lottery pick landed a budding superstar in Kyrie Irving.
“We tried to keep our powder dry a little bit,” O’Connor said. “We didn’t overreact and sign guys that cosmetically would make us look better, but maybe for the long term wouldn’t succeed.”
Similarly, the Cavs steadfastly avoided free agency the last three years, spending a total of $7 million on guys like Joey Graham, Anthony Parker and C.J. Miles.
O’Connor found his opening during the summer of 2004. He signed Mehmet Okur to a six-year, $50 million offer sheet. Days later, when the Cavs blundered their way into allowing Carlos Boozer to become an unrestricted free agent earlier than he should have, O’Connor swooped in and stole him with a creative offer sheet the Cavs couldn’t match.
Likewise, the Cavs had the cap space to take a chance on Bynum this summer. They also pounced on Jack within hours of the Golden State Warriors renouncing his rights and added Earl Clark from a cap-strapped Lakers team that was unable to re-sign him.
In 2005, the Jazz had the extra assets needed to trade up from No. 6 to No. 3 to select point guard Deron Williams. They struck gold in the second round the following year when they drafted Paul Millsap, and by 2007, the Jazz were playing for another trip to the NBA Finals — just four years after losing both Stockton and Malone.
This fall will mark the fourth season without James, and to expect a trip to the conference finals is illogical. But expecting relevance again is fair.
Sometime during that miserable stretch three seasons ago, when the Cavs lost 36 out of 37 games in their first year without James, I was sitting in Byron Scott’s office and told him history indicated it would take the Cavs 10 years to return to relevance. He just laughed and shook his head.
“Ain’t no way it’ll take 10 years,” he said. “I don’t know how long it will take, but it won’t take 10 years.”