Cleveland's summer of discontent threatened to drag on into fall. Forward Chris Mills turned his free-agent back on the Cavaliers and hightailed it to the Boston Celtics. Cleveland's other top-priority free agent, guard Bobby Phills, scurried off to the Charlotte Hornets. Seeking replacements, the Cavs front office, about $10 million under the salary cap, tried to give greenbacks away. But Celtics swingman Rick Fox turned down a four-year, $20 million offer from Cleveland to play for the Los Angeles Lakers for one year at $1 million. Sacramento Kings forward Brian Grant spurned the Cavs' $8.6 million-a-year offer and joined the Portland Trail Blazers for—you guessed it—less guaranteed money: $8 million a year. Cavaliers fans (what remained of them, anyway) implored their team to do something. Anything.
Last Thursday the Cavs obliged, acquiring disgruntled five-time All-Star forward Shawn Kemp from the Seattle SuperSonics and veteran point guard Sherman Douglas from the Milwaukee Bucks in a three-way swap that sent Cavs All-Star point guard Terrell Brandon, forward Tyrone Hill and Cleveland's 1998 first-round pick (providing it's not a top 10 selection) to the Bucks, who in turn shipped their All-Star forward, Vin Baker, to Seattle.
Thus Cleveland president-chief operating officer Wayne Embry obliterated what was left of his starting lineup during the 1996-97 season (in which the Cavs went 42-40 and missed the playoffs) and kicked off efforts to revamp a team whose excruciating down-tempo game left most of the league punching the snooze button last season. The Cavaliers are a natural fit for the Reign Man because they are one of the few teams in the NBA that have enough room under the cap to give him an instant raise. (Embry said he would soon begin negotiations with Kemp's agents.) "When you are trying to reestablish yourself as a contender, you need a cornerstone to build around," Embry says. "We have ours."
Seattle thought it had a cornerstone when Kemp and point guard Gary Payton led the Sonics to the 1996 NBA Finals. But when the club followed up that success by making off-season changes, including the signing of free-agent center Jim McIlvaine to a seven-year, $35 million contract, all the good feelings vanished. Kemp, who made $3.3 million last season on a contract running through 2001-02—which he had already renegotiated and which contained a clause precluding further renegotiation until this fall—briefly held himself out of preseason camp to protest McIlvaine's bigger salary. In '96-97 a simmering Kemp averaged 18.7 points, down from 19.6 the year before, and 10.0 rebounds, a drop from 11.4. He spent the season in a highly visible sulk, which was almost certainly a factor in the Sonics' dismissal by the Houston Rockets from the Western Conference semifinals.
In June, Kemp vowed he would not report to training camp if he was still Seattle property. He cut off all communication with the team, even refusing to answer repeated phone calls from teammates Payton and Nate McMillan. Amazingly, the Sonics were able to extract equal value for their unhappy superstar. The reason: Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl, who is fond of Baker as a player and a person, finally came to grips with the need to trade him.
It had become apparent to the Bucks, who finished 33-49 last season, that they needed to alter their team chemistry. Baker and Milwaukee coach Chris Ford clashed during the team's slide in the second half of '96-97, while Douglas openly questioned the leadership of Baker and his frontcourt mate, Glenn Robinson. Yet the Bucks were reluctant to move Baker—until a recent meeting with him and his agent, David Falk. While Baker did not ask for a trade, he and Falk declared that in 1999 he would exercise his right to opt out of his contract.
At one point, sources said, there was discussion of a Baker-for-Brandon swap, but Cleveland had concerns about keeping Baker beyond 1999 and coveted Kemp anyway. Giving up Brandon and Hill will undoubtedly hurt Cleveland in the short run. The Cavaliers will settle on Douglas at the point while rookie Brevin Knight learns the NBA game. With Kemp, Knight, rookie guard Derek Anderson and third-year guard Bobby Sura expected to play major roles, the Cavaliers should at least depart from their Sominex style. It will take some time, however, before that translates into wins. Embry is optimistic about how Kemp will fit in with the Cavs. "Actually, we look at it as a fresh start," Embry says. "I don't anticipate any problems with Shawn."
The Sonics were not going to deal Kemp unless they could remain championship contenders. Seattle president and general manager Wally Walker decided he would not trade for a player in the final year of his contract. That eliminated Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen, Denver Nuggets forward Antonio McDyess and Golden State Warriors forward Joe Smith. The Toronto Raptors had cap flexibility and trade bait in forward Marcus Camby, but the Sonics were not enamored of the former UMass star. Baker was the man they wanted, and though they gambled by taking a player who could walk away in two years, Walker feels it's worth the risk.
"He sounds enthused to be here," said Walker after talking with Baker on the night of the trade. "That's a refreshing change." The rap on Baker has been his inability to step forward as a leader, but he will not be called upon to play that role in Seattle, where Payton is more than happy to do the honors. In 1996-97 Baker's numbers (21.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game) were better than Kemp's. He has already been told by Sonics coach George Karl that he needs to work harder on playing both ends of the floor.
The prospect of having a stronger defensive team is one reason Milwaukee is happier this week. In Brandon the Bucks get the point guard they have long sought, and in Hill they get a no-nonsense, hardworking power forward. Though they've lost a valuable offensive weapon in Baker, Ford feels his team too often got bogged down dumping the ball into him in the post. Milwaukee will become a perimeter team with one of the most promising young backcourts in the league: Brandon and second-year shooting guard Ray Allen. Team chemistry, meanwhile, has improved immeasurably. "We're a basketball team now," says Ford. "Honestly, I think this is one of those rare times when the deal really worked for everybody."