Dismal season is what Cavs needed
The Cavs have lost 18 straight, five away from tying the record for longest skid
A terrible record will ensure a high draft pick, which Cleveland needs to rebuild
Other topics: Some All-Star snubs, Derrick Rose's MVP worthiness, Lakers 'ifs'
The success of last year ricochets back upon the Cavaliers today. Last year, they were 34-11 and headed for the league's best record, and now they're 8-37 on their way to No. 1 in the lottery. One year ago, they were running off 13 straight victories, and now they've suffered 18 straight losses and a franchise record of 22 in a row on the road.
This is the best thing that could have happened to them.
When LeBron James said his goodbyes to Jim Gray instead of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert last July, the Cavs' run ended like the final episode of The Sopranos. The screen went black, leaving their fans to wonder what they should make of it all. Now they understand. They know they need to reinvent the team, and that there can be no recapturing what they had.
Once James was gone, Shaquille O'Neal -- their second-best performer in the second-round loss to Boston -- was out the door, too. Even if they had re-signed Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West and kept Anderson Varejao healthy and hadn't had to do without Mo Williams for a dozen games so far -- that's a lot of talent to lose in addition to LeBron -- and if as a result they'd been able to remain in playoff contention at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they still would have had to start over someday. There was no bridge player on last year's team. All of James' former teammates had been hired to complement him; none could ever replace him.
Threatening the NBA record of 23 consecutive losses in a single season (a low shared by the 1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies and 1997-98 Denver Nuggets) is likely to have a more positive impact on the franchise than if the Cavs were now limping toward a respectable 39-win season. Now the Cavs and their fans know exactly who they are and what they need to do. They're going to earn a high pick in the draft, and that choice will represent the team's first meaningful long-term step following The Decision.
A lot of franchises are treading water this season in waiting for the financial relief of a new collective bargaining agreement. At least the Cavs can claim to be a league leader in terms of maximizing their revenues, and the opening of his downtown casino this year across the street from his arena will empower Dan Gilbert and make him as powerful in Cleveland as any other NBA owner is in any other city. He can also claim that the last several years taught him how to -- and how not to -- build a contender.
The term the Cavaliers are embracing today is sustainability: They want to eventually contend for and ultimately win championships, which means building a team that will endure, which means accepting it will take years to build. The harsh results of this season have focused everyone on that lesson.
Gilbert, known in his early years of ownership for trying to win ASAP in hopes of keeping James happy, is said to have realized the need for patience. He'll need wisdom, as well as good luck in the draft, which is not to accuse the Cavs of trashing everything from their lost LeBron era. Even now they are working to remember how they carried themselves and the work they put in as winners just one year ago. They are trying to view themselves as they were while insisting they'll return to that level of play someday.
"From an organizational standpoint, we know we have to start over," first-year coach Byron Scott said before the Cavs' 112-95 loss in Boston on Tuesday. "But that's not the message I'm giving those guys in there. We're trying to win games and we're trying to instill that in the players we have here, because that's the type of culture we're trying to build around."
Scott insists he won't sacrifice that winning culture to improve Cleveland's ranking in the lottery.
"We're going to play it till the end," he said. "We're going to play every game to try to win, and April 13, if that's our last game, we're trying to win that game.
"This franchise already has that that winning attitude, so we're going to keep that. We're not going to sacrifice that for anything right now. No matter what else is going on, we're still trying to win, we're still going to give an effort. We're not going to not play guys to try to tank it to get the extra Ping-Pong balls. That's not us."
Do organizations win championships? The answer is yes, they do -- but only if the right players arrive in the draft. In this counterintuitive NBA world that rewards losers at the expense of also-rans, Scott can afford to maintain a standard of hard play because his devastated roster lacks the talent to win. The departures and injuries have seen to that. Gilbert made it clear the night of James' departure that nothing less than a championship is his goal, and so each loss brings him closer to that goal. It makes no sense in other sporting leagues around the world, but that's how it works here.