Your best player is Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a 7'3" giant with Bill Walton's feet. He's possibly the world's nicest guy, but his size 16s have been put back together five times by surgeons who have inserted seven pins. You still owe him $40.5 million over the next three years, which means 25% of your payroll is devoted to a player who has missed 60% of his games over his six-year career.
Your second-best player, Andre Miller, is entering his fourth year, has never made an All-Star team, never made the playoffs, never had a winning season and says he deserves a maximum salary of $10.6 million.
You've spent three years trying to rebuild the team, dumping horrid contracts like Shawn Kemp's seven-year, $107 million deal, but it's like trying to restructure one of the airlines. Attendance is plunging, and the team is reportedly for sale. The fans want hope, excitement, energy; they don't care about the finances. They want a daring move. They want you to snap your fingers and make all the problems go away.
Your name is Jim Paxson. You are the 44-year-old general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and you have a plan. If all goes well, you will hatch it on June 26, the night of the NBA draft.
JUNE 13:13 DAYS BEFORE THE DRAFT
Paxson was prowling the practice court at Gund Arena in Cleveland alongside his coaches and Mike Bratz, the Cavs' player personnel director. The Cavs had the No. 6 pick in the June 26 draft—their best position since 1986—and they were awaiting the arrival of four of the highest-rated players in the draft: swingman Caron Butler of Connecticut, guard DaJuan Wagner of Memphis, small forward Qyntel Woods of Northeast Mississippi Community College and power forward Marcus Haislip of Tennessee.
The workout began at 12:10 p.m. The first alarm was sounded at 12:11. All four players were having difficulties with a simple crossover dribble drill. "Your footwork is bad, guys," shouted assistant coach Jerry Eaves. "That's why you're having trouble." As Woods drove to the basket, head coach John Lucas scolded him like a grade school gym teacher: "You went off the wrong foot!"
If NBA fans could attend these predraft workouts, they would be amazed at the scarcity of fundamental play by young men who will be handed rookie wages of $1 million or more. The Cavs brought a total of six players to Cleveland, and all were flawed. Maybyner (Nene) Hilario of Brazil, the 19-year-old power forward who would be taken No. 7 by the Knicks and immediately traded to the Nuggets, proved to be a tremendous athlete who had no moves around the basket. Forward Jared Jefferies of Indiana, who would go to Washington at No. 11, didn't make a perimeter jump shot until the 41st minute of his workout for the Cavs. Woods, who would be taken by Portland with the 21st pick, played listlessly, apparently exhausted after arriving at 12:30 a.m. following a workout in Denver. "It's a grind for these guys having to compete in all these workouts," Bratz said. "But if you're tired from a late flight, hey, that's what the NBA is. They have to get used to it."
The two most impressive players to audition for the Cavs were Wagner, a 6'2" freshman, and Butler, a 22-year-old sophomore. Though he had landed in Cleveland on the same flight as Woods, Butler quickly elevated his level of play during an intense 77-minute workout. Paxson was hoping to find a player who could help his team as a rookie, and nobody in range of the No. 6 pick looked more prepared than Butler. Lucas liked Butler too, but the coach seemed even more impressed with Wagner's basketball IQ: When Lucas advised him on how to cover the pick-and-roll, Wagner adjusted on the next play. "His father [ Milt Wagner] was a pro, so he's been playing with pros all his life," said Lucas, who believes Wagner could become a star NBA point guard. "He knows how to be a pro, he can score, he's strong, and he's 6'2" with the arm span of a 6'9" guy."
Paxson and Lucas conducted private interviews with each player, using different styles. Lucas asked provocative questions like, How many children do you have? and How much marijuana do you smoke? "When they say they smoke, I ask them, 'Can you stop?' " said Lucas, a recovering substance abuser who runs a rehab clinic in Houston. "If they say they don't smoke, then a red flag goes up and I start asking people I know to find out more about them."