It’s quiet time in Cleveland at the moment. That’s a good thing for it means the Browns’ season and attendant drama is behind us, the Indians season is still a little too far away to get excited about and the Cavs, well, they just keep on winning.
But just as losing brings a whole set of issues, so too does winning. Perhaps the biggest issue at the moment is whether the Cavs should try to improve their odds by further deepening an already deep team.
To do that, though, requires all sorts of manipulation with the current roster because of the intricacies of the NBA’s salary cap. Just know, though, that most scenarios involve parting with Zydrunas Ilgauskas because he has an expiring contract that is attractive to teams looking to build for the future and needing the salary cap space to do it.
That’s a major hard spot for almost any Cavs fan, and I include Danny Ferry in that statement. Ferry hasn’t said much but cutting ties with Ilgauskas would likely be the most difficult decision, by a large margin, in his front office career. Ferry and Ilgauskas were teammates at one time. Beyond that, Ferry has great respect for Ilgauskas and made signing him to his last contract a priority.
Then, of course, is all the internal politics of what an Ilgauskas-less Cavs team really means. Owner Dan Gilbert has repeatedly said that he is “all in” for this season, meaning he’s willing to do what it takes to bring a championship and, by extension, convince free agent to be LeBron James that this is the place where he wants to finish his career. But exactly what does “all in” really mean?
Ilgauskas is certainly still a valued contributor to the Cavs. But at this stage in his career and, objectively speaking, there are others out there, some of whom are available, that can potentially make a larger impact in the stretch run.
But Ilgauskas brings the intangibles of history and association with him. He has seen every high and low in his 12-year career with the Cavs. He’s been on 17-win teams and 66-win teams. He’s packed early for the offseason and also stayed late. He’s fought injuries, some career threatening, and worked as hard as any athlete you’re ever likely to meet to rehabilitate. His jersey will hang from the rafters at the Q no matter what happens.
In a city where this kind of devotion to one team is rare, Ilgauskas stands out the same way Andre Thornton did. He may be a player on the last lap of his career but he’s not exactly hanging from the bottom rung physically or emotionally just yet. His minutes are still meaningful. Cavs finds still identify with and respect him greatly.
Then there is the issue of how parting with Ilgauskas could affect how people view James or even how James views himself. Whether fair or not, if Ilgauskas is traded James won’t be able to escape responsibility for it because if done it will be in the name of winning a championship now and not as most of these kinds of partings are done--in some sort of late season salary dump.
Theoretically every team is in it to win a championship. But the urgency in Cleveland stems from James’ contract status. Thus, the decision on whether to trade Ilgauskas becomes as much moral as practical. What do the Cavs and James stand for?
Most of this would probably be moot if James had already committed to the Cavs beyond this season. But that isn’t going to happen. Something that could happen would be for James to meet privately with Ferry and Gilbert immediately and tell them that Ilgauskas needs to finish out the season here. James has to let them know that he believes the Cavs, with Ilgauskas, can win now and that he won’t hold them responsible if it doesn’t quite work out that way. That would give everyone involved the right level of cover should the Cavs ultimately fall short in June.
That course of action ultimately is also the safest. As the Cavs have seen in the past, late season trades aren’t necessarily the answer anyway. Fitting new players into a team in late February in the NBA is far more difficult than fitting new players into a team in late July in major league baseball.
Baseball is a team sport in name only but functions more as a group of affiliated individuals. Cliff Lee pitched just as effectively for Philadelphia as he did in Cleveland and it didn’t really much matter who else was on the field. An NBA team on the other hand, is most effective when the players are working as a team. Allen Iverson is a great individual talent but he really didn’t make the Denver Nuggets a better team.
A NBA team, particularly one legitimately vying for a championship, already has a chemistry built by the time a deadline trade gets made and it generally doesn’t respond well when disrupted even with players that may objectively be better.
Indeed, the Cavs are a prime example. It’s not so much that their late season trades have set the team back in that season. It’s just that most of these trades worked in the subsequent year better, after an intervening training camp.
That’s why I was so unsure of how the Cavs would have fared last season had they made the trade for Shaquille O’Neal in February instead of the off-season. O’Neal was having a good season in Phoenix, but he’s not exactly a hand-in-glove fit for every team. It’s taken nearly half of this season to truly find O’Neal’s niche as it is.
The one sense of comfort you can get from all of this is that it’s the Cavs dealing with this issue and not either the Browns or the Cavs. In fact, that holds true for the even bigger iceberg heading their way with James in the form of what will surely become known, for good or worse, as “The Decision.”
There may be a Cleveland curse when it comes to sports but much of that curse is traceable to raging competency within the ownership and front offices of those two franchises for all these years. The Cavs used to be in that same boat, of course, but then Gilbert bought the team and systematically went about changing all of that, proving that it can be done.
That doesn’t guarantee that the decisions the Cavs will make will be right, but what it does guarantee is that the decisions being made will be made on the best information at the time, which is all you can ever ask and more than fans usually get.
Just remember, though, that even with having the best information at hand, it’s a huge gamble with an uncertain outcome. But if the Cavs really are in an “all in” mode, they knew that already.