Posted: Wednesday February 16, 2011 11:29AM ; Updated: Wednesday February 16, 2011 6:31PM
Michael Rosenberg
Michael Rosenberg>VIEWPOINT

As history (sometimes) shows, free fall might not be the pits for Cavs

Story Highlights

The Cavs are in the midst of one of the worst single-season falls in sports history

Many NBA teams that went from riches-to-rags rebounded in short order

The '94 Oilers, '15 A's and '07 Flyers had three of the worst collapses ever

Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
Cavaliers: From first to worst
Source: SI
SI.com's Joe Posnanski looks at the state of the Cleveland Cavaliers and discusses whether there has ever been another team that has fallen so quickly.

The Cleveland Cavaliers stink like old diapers dipped in sewage. They are so bad they lose their practices. (Average score: Starters negative-12, Backups negative-38.) They aren't just bad, they're toxic. When they watch Hoosiers, Hickory High loses.

What's weird is that, at this time in 2010, the Cavs seemed likely to contend for championships for years. They had the league MVP, a guy whose name I forget but who apparently left for some warm-weather team last summer. They had a chance to acquire Amar'e Stoudemire at the trade deadline, which means they plausibly could have had two of the top candidates in this year's crowded MVP race. And even without making that move, they went on to win an NBA-high 61 games.

Now look at them. They just finished a 26-game losing streak. That's one loss for every letter of the alphabet. It's hard to fail at anything 26 times in a row. If you asked out Scarlett Johansson on a date 26 straight times, she would say yes at least once, or at least have you arrested when you hit 20, ending the streak.

Cleveland's opponents have to run their offenses while tiptoeing around the wreckage. No matter. The Cavs can't win at home. They can't win on the road. They finally snapped their losing streak last week against the Clippers, but only because they were getting a lot of attention for losing and the Clippers were jealous. That won't change the larger truth about these Cavs, which is ...

That they suck?

What -- did I mention that?

Yes, they're awful. But you know what? Given their LeBron-free plight, they are better off this way. First of all, at least they are interesting. Who wouldn't pull for this team and this town? NBA teams that are merely bad are usually boring. This team is endearing. It embodies everything that has ever gone wrong in Cleveland sports, which is saying something.

This might be the biggest riches-to-rags story in sports history. (More on that in a minute.) It seems like the ultimate worst-case scenario. But it isn't.

The Cavs are lucky they are losing so much. OK, not the players themselves. But the franchise and its fans are better off this way. Once that guy left for that warm place, the best thing the Cavs could do was the worst they can do.

What would happen if the Cavs won 35 or 40 games this year? All lousy things, that's what. They would blow their chance at a top-three draft pick in June. (It's not a great draft at the top, but never mind that -- higher picks are still better.) And their owner, the desperate-to-win, willing-to-spend Dan Gilbert, might throw a bunch of money at guys on the current roster who aren't really that good. At least now Gilbert knows he has to blow up the whole thing.

This team is terrible, but the situation is not. In the NBA, sometimes you have to be really bad before you can get really good.

We are about to take a long, deep look at many of the teams throughout history in the four major pro sports leagues that fell the hardest from one season to the next. There are lessons to be learned here.

Let's start with the NBA, because that's where the Cavs theoretically play.

Poll
When will the Cavs have a winning record again?
Next year
Within three years
Within five years
It's going to be a while

Cleveland Cavaliers

2009-2010 record: 61-21
2010-11: 9-46 (through Feb. 15)
The Cavs are on pace for the worst single-season dip in victories (for an 82-game season) and winning percentage in NBA history.

Pretty simple story, right? That Guy left for that warm place. Sure, there are other problems -- injuries, a roster constructed to take advantage of That Guy's talents that can't function on its own, and the fact that everybody on this team appears to be in a state of catatonic shock. Plus, you can always take five victories away from any team's expected win total when it plays in Cleveland.

***

bulls-floyd.jpg
Tim Floyd (right) was left to pick up the pieces after the Bulls' dynasty broke up.
Walter Iooss Jr./SI; AP

Chicago Bulls

1997-98: 62-20
1998-99: 13-37
In terms of winning percentage, this is the greatest NBA dive. But it's not the worst single-season wins decline because the lockout shortened the 1998-99 season to 50 games. That Bulls team was on pace to win 21 games in an 82-game season, which would've been a record 41-win drop-off.

Hmmm. What could this team have in common with this year's Cavs? Did it lose anybody ... ah, right. At least the post-Michael Jordan Bulls were supposed to lose. Jordan had retired. Scottie Pippen had been traded to Houston. Bulls general manager Jerry Krause did not want his team to be bad, so he devised the brilliant plan to avoid that: His team would be bad before it got bad. This did not make sense at the time either.

The losing did pay off that summer, when Krause drafted two future All-Stars: Elton Brand and Ron Artest. Alas, that failed when Krause traded Brand to the Clippers and Artest to his hometown on Pluto.

***

tim-duncan-draft.jpg
The Spurs' NBA-record 39-win decline -- and a little lottery luck -- enabled them to land Tim Duncan with the first pick in 1997.
Andy Hayt/NBAE via Getty Images

San Antonio Spurs

1995-96: 59-23
1996-97: 20-62
Win decline: -39
This is the NBA's biggest win decrease for an 82-game season.

Charles Barkley accused the Spurs of tanking the 1996-97 season to improve their chances of getting the No. 1 pick in the draft. Charles says a lot of things. He can't go through a McDonald's drive-thru without saying something controversial. This is why America loves him.

The Spurs have vehemently denied tanking the season. But let's just say, hypothetically, that Barkley was right. Let's say that once injuries hit -- David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Chuck Person, all key players, got hurt -- the Spurs decided to shoot the moon. Wouldn't this be the greatest crime in plain sight in sports history?

Early in the season, general manager Gregg Popovich fired coach Bob Hill and named himself coach. The Spurs were so bad that they certainly appeared like they were trying to lose (though that is true of many really bad teams), finishing the season with the second-best odds of winning the draft lottery. They ended up with the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft, which they used on Tim Duncan, which resulted in four championships (so far), a sure Hall of Fame spot for Popovich and -- most remarkably, considering the context of this hypothetical scenario -- a reputation as the most no-nonsense franchise in sports.

Meanwhile, Hill resurfaced as the coach of the SuperSonics ... and got fired right before they drafted Kevin Durant. Hill just barely missed out on coaching two ridiculously talented, totally unselfish, franchise-defining superstars. But on the plus side, when your name is Bob Hill, you don't have to change it when you go into hiding.

Again: We're not saying Charles was right. But the part of us that roots for the smart-aleck bad guys kind of wishes he was.

***

Houston Rockets

1981-82: 46-36
1982-83: 14-68
Win decline: -32

Let's see. So far our NBA collapsers (EDITOR'S NOTE: That is not a word) all have something in common: They lost or played most of the year without a Hall of Fame talent from the previous season.

These Rockets had traded Moses Malone, who was the league MVP the year before. This may strike you as a wee bit COMPLETELY INSANE, since there is no athlete in sports more valuable than the best player in the NBA, and Moses was only 27 and healthy. But the early 1980s were a strange time in the NBA -- as I recall, nobody was making any money and everybody was doing cocaine, but perhaps I romanticize it. Anyway, the Malone trade seems like a crazy thing that would never happen today ... except that a) Malone wanted more money; b) he was unhappy with Houston management; and c) the Rockets got a No. 1 pick that originally belonged to the Cavs, which means Cleveland wasn't even involved in this deal and got screwed anyway. So really, it's not that different from what happens in the NBA today.

Malone went on to lead the Sixers to the championship in his first year in Philadelphia. The league-worst Rockets ended up selecting Ralph Sampson, who seemed like a sure Hall of Famer at the time, and Rodney McCray with two of the top three picks in the 1983 draft. Then, the next year, the Rockets stunk again, got the No. 1 overall pick and drafted Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon, who led them to the 1986 Finals and two championships in the 1990s. So in the long term, it helped to suck.

***

San Francisco Warriors

1963-64: 48-32
1964-65: 17-63
Win decline: -31

So the Warriors had the exact same roster and ... no, wait, that's not what happened. They traded Wilt Chamberlain midway through the 1964-65 season. But then they got Rick Barry with the No. 2 pick, and by 1967 they were in the NBA Finals. Are you noticing a common thread here?

***

webber-nelson.jpg
Chris Webber's clashes with Don Nelson helped set back the Warriors for years.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Golden State Warriors

1993-94: 50-32
1994-95: 26-56
Win decline: -24

On draft night in 1993, the Warriors traded Penny Hardaway (the third selection) and three future first-round picks to the Magic for the rights to the No. 1 overall pick, the ridiculously talented Chris Webber. (Even now, I don't think people appreciate how gifted Webber was -- he was 6-foot-10 with the athleticism of an All-Star shooting guard and had the best post-passing skills you could ever want to see. What a freak.) Webber was known as a stubborn, sensitive type, and the Warriors decided to a) give him a chance to opt out of his 15-year, $74 million deal after one season, leading to a contract dispute, and b) have coach Don Nelson bicker with him that entire first year.

Shockingly, this did not end well. In November 1994, the reigning Rookie of the Year was traded to Washington for Tom Gugliotta and three future first-round picks. The Warriors have not been heard from since, except for their historic playoff upset of Dallas after Nelson returned.

That sums up our NBA portion of the proceedings. As you can see, losing a superstar is never good in the short term. But being absolutely horrible can actually be good in the long term.

Photo Gallery: Worst declines in NBA history

 
SI.com
Hot Topics: NBA Playoffs NHL Playoffs NFL schedule LaMarcus Aldridge Michael Pineda Phil Jackson Tiger Woods
TM & © 2014 Time Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you. Read our privacy guidelines, your California privacy rights, and ad choices.
SI CoverRead All ArticlesBuy Cover Reprint