The Cleveland Cavaliers have a decision to make.
After three seasons of gunning for the lottery—mission: accomplished—and almost aggressively avoiding the free-agent market, is now the time to make a serious playoff push?
Re-hiring Mike Brown seems to indicate that the Cleveland front office thinks that it is. If Chris Grant and company wanted one more year of chasing ping pong balls, giving Byron Scott his "fair chance" with a healthy roster would have been the savvy play.
There is solid logic behind that line of thought: Nab one more high-lottery pick, then instill Brown's proven, defense-first scheme with a talented, young nucleus. In Kyrie Irving, the Cavs already have a true superstar in place, plus a bevy of top-five draft selections. If the Cavs mature out of their defensive apathy, there is almost too much talent on the roster not to make the playoffs, especially in the Eastern Conference where the Milwaukee Bucks qualified after losing six more games than they won.
The playoffs seem like a reasonable, attainable goal in 2013-14. But beyond that, are the young players on the roster right now—including the two incoming draft picks—going to mature into a title-worthy core? Is this a young Pierce-Garnett-Allen? A fledgling Duncan-Paker-Ginobili? Even a poor man's LeBron-Wade-Bosh?
Hey, maybe. But probably not.
If the Cavs are determined to make the playoffs this season, they can probably do it, minus any serious injuries (which, with Irving and Anderson Varejao as their two best places, is far from a given). But just in case Dion Waiters doesn't morph into Dwyane Wade 2.0, Cleveland should take all the precautions it can.
And that means tanking for one more year.
For Cavs fans, that's painful. The last three seasons have been brutal to watch, and while a playoff run this season might help to temporarily alleviate some of that pain, it'd likely be a short-term salve. Another season's worth of discomfort could make all the difference for the next decade.
Cleveland isn't in the position to acquire a high-priced free agent, no matter how much cap room it has. There will always be another team with a max-salary slot, and the odds are that it is a much more attractive locale than northeast Ohio. I'm also dubious Cleveland can use that cap room to acquire a second star to pair with Kyrie Irving: James Harden doesn't become available every offseason.
While the "Thunder Model" may call for three years of tanking and then letting that core mature, it also calls for drafting three of the top 10 players in the league. Cleveland doesn't have that luxury.
With little to no shot at acquiring an established superstar, Cleveland is forced to rely on the draft. It has to push one step beyond the Thunder Model, as uncomfortable as that may be. The 2014 draft is shaping up to be particularly loaded, so while wasting another 82 games is undesirable, the reward for doing so is likely more valuable than the past two seasons.
The two biggest fears would be, in order: upsetting Kyrie Irving and establishing a losing culture.
Let's deal with the second fear first: Losing cultures are overrated. You know what reverses a losing culture? Good players.
The Golden State Warriors have been atrocious forever, and they tanked egregiously last season. But then they got good players, and look what happened. Instantly, no more losing culture. Talent cures that almost instantly.
And when that happens, Kyrie's happiness will take care of itself. Luckily, this isn't a contract year for Uncle Drew, so the Cavs have time on their side. Remember: While the Cavs have been awful for three season, Irving has only been here for two.
Dan Gilbert has displayed remarkable patience over the last three years. He has been genuinely committed to rebuilding this franchise the correct way. It has not been an easy pill to swallow, but for the Cavs to truly contend, he may need be able to stomach it for one more year.
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