Split-second turnarounds aren't dead.
Not in the NBA anyway, where the Cleveland Cavaliers have gone from clown to contender in a matter of weeks. Their about-face started with LeBron James' return and will end once Kevin Love's official-but-unofficial arrival, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, becomes totally official.
At that point the Cavaliers will have a superteam—an instant monster that, under the right circumstances, can run away within the still-licentious Eastern Conference. More important than dictating the direction and livelihood of superteam dynamics will be the abrupt end to a fatiguing four-year ordeal that watched the Cavaliers crumble and collapse without King James.
Between 2010 and now, the Cavaliers have posted the NBA's worst winning percentage (31.1). Put that way, their role reversal hasn't been instantaneous. Rather, it's been a protracted plight that is only now starting to look like something other than gnarled, cockeyed strings of failure.
Nothing about their return to contention is gradual, though. This isn't a plan four years in the making finally beginning to pay off. There's no evidence to suggest the Cavaliers watched James leave in 2010 only to deliberately embark on a four-year-long stretch of apparent mayhem that would end like this.
This dazzling ascension has been meteoric at a time when impromptu rebuilds are losing steam and appeal because successful completion is unrealistic. But these quick fixes aren't entirely dead. The Cavaliers are pending proof.
Next season they'll go from a 33-win, lottery-lost outfit to a force flirting with 60 victories and a championship parade. Not because of their patience or years-long ingenuity, but because they landed the right players, at the right time, in haste, without delay.
The Almighty Dollar
Quick and quality rebuilds have always been hard to come by.
Being positioned to execute one is rare in itself. It takes cap space or trade assets, or a combination of both. It also takes the guts to burn through such resources without the promise of success.
Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire—acquired within months of each other—didn't turn the New York Knicks into championship threats. Deron Williams, along with everyone the Brooklyn Nets have brought in since, hasn't put the franchise on the map to anywhere.
Dwight Howard and Steve Nash's arrival backfired spectacularly for the Los Angeles Lakers. Not even Chris Paul made the Los Angeles Clippers immediate title threats. Though he ended their five-year playoff drought, their contender status has been a process.
After two years of doldrums-dwelling, the Celtics went out and got Kevin Garnett. They got Ray Allen. They already had Paul Pierce. In one year, they went from winning 24 games to winning 66—and an NBA championship.
Similar flip-flops have been attempted over the years. Most, though, have been more flop this side of the parity-puffing, tax-tacking collective bargaining agreement that dissuades rapid rebuilds and their future maintenance.
It has reached the point where everything is prided on financial sacrifice. Rebuilds take stars; instant rebuilds take even more stars; multiple stars demand lump sums of cash through salary and taxes; ergo, those stars must take less money for these abbreviated restoration projects to work.
That's how rumors of Chris Bosh taking $11 million to remain in Miami, per NBA.com's David Aldridge, are born. This theory of inviolable, one-way financial sacrifice makes such commentary—however inaccurate or inane—relevant, just not realistic, as Grantland's Zach Lowe rapped about in July:
The CBA provides team-building mechanisms for everyone, even the mega-spenders, and deep-pocketed owners could always green-light tax payments when a championship window emerges. The salary rules in the NBA are so complicated that players are losing the public relations battle because it's just simpler to point to [Tim] Duncan and say, "Be like him."
But sacrifice is a two-way street, and every situation is a beehive of complex variables. No choice is easy, and the hero/villain lines are never as clear as we'd like. If it's so virtuous for a great player to give up salary, why shouldn't an owner also be called upon to lose money if it will help his team win?
Players may be inclined not to take less money if owners aren't making concessions of their own—like paying luxury and repeater taxes. But if the owners aren't willing to make those compromises, or transitioning teams play in a market deemed less than desirable, conventional, time-consuming rebuilds take precedence.
So, too, does tanking.
Franchise classifications began to change last season. There were very few teams truly in the middle. There were tankers, and there were super tankers; there were the Celtics, and there were the Philadelphia 76ers.
Writing for ESPN.com in March, Tom Sunnergren dichotomized the uptick of tanking as it pertained to the Sixers:
But this isn't the end of the story. Sixers fans aren't merely not miserable. In the absence of dread, something else entirely has cropped up from the once-fallow imagination of Philly hoops boosters: faith. Tucked into every loss, present in every missed shot and sloppy live-ball turnover, is a good reason to think things will someday, maybe not too long from now, get better. ...
... In Philadelphia, even the losses themselves are encouraging, suggestive of an ability to build a thing that works the way it's supposed to. The Sixers aren't merely tanking -- half the league is -- they're tanking better than anyone else. They're the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls of deliberate losing. This thing is a work of art.
That tanking—inside and outside Philly—has become an art form speaks to its popularity.
First-round draft picks have never been more valuable thanks to tanking and affordability. Draft selections are cheap labor, discounted cornerstones.
They are—even for title-toting hopefuls—insurance against the punitive CBA in all its payday-deterring glory, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller stressed last August:
The rookie scale contract is one of the most glorious things in the NBA for general managers. At worst, it's two years of minimal salary for a young player; at best, it's four years of dirt cheap production, followed by relative control over the player's second contract thanks to restricted free agency. A first-round pick is a huge asset for every team. So these days—especially with the tougher luxury tax—the value is sky high. The price of a pick is sky high.
Proof of tanking isn't needed when draft picks are put in this context. Increased value is all the proof we need.
Rookie-scale contracts and the draft picks it takes to get them have become hotter commodities. Owners and general managers won't want to forfeit such assets for older, more expensive models that can cost them even more in a few years' time.
To chase instant turnarounds is to reject this logic, and to reject this logic is to defy what has clearly become popular opinion: Lengthier, cost-effective rebuilds are more faddish than the expense of potential instant gratification.
Alive in Cleveland
Why was Andrew Wiggins' availability in said Love trade a point of issue for so long?
Because of everything we just said.
Weighing potential against present-day gains has never been more difficult. Five or six years ago, perhaps this deal gets done in a heartbeat. Instead, it drags on, assaulted by questions, invaded by devil's advocates.
Why should the Cavaliers relinquish someone who projects to be a perennial All-Star? Is Love worth such a price? What if he leaves in free agency? Can the Cavaliers afford to pay him after extending Kyrie Irving and signing LeBron?
By no means was this trade a no-brainer, even if James was begging and pleading with Cleveland's brass to get it done. And by no means is the Cavaliers' situation unique. Other teams have pursued and are actively pursuing brisk revivals.
The outcome is what's different here. The Cavaliers not only bent to temptation, but they successfully turned it into something more than a pipe dream.
"If he comes aboard, I will be very excited to have him," James said of Love, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst.
Never mind process or patience—the very patience James appeared to exude in his return confessional. After four years of trying to lay a foundation—and failing—the Cavaliers built the whole damn mansion in one summer. They went from trying to brighten tomorrow to focusing on right now. And they did it within a market that couldn't four years ago.
This, to be clear, won't change everything. Teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks aren't going to follow identical blueprints. Versions of the 2010 Heat and 2014 Cavaliers won't crop up with overwhelming frequency. Candidates have to be in the right situation (market) or have ties to a certain player, like the Cavs did with James.
But Cleveland's success—even if only on paper for now—lends hope elsewhere. The Cavs kept Irving. They signed James. Mike Miller, James Jones, Shawn Marion and Love have all followed suit and joined the movement. Ray Allen could be next, which makes Cleveland a shining, hope-fortifying example for any club looking to do the same.
Think of the Knicks and Lakers, two teams still relying on offseason activity outside the draft to buttress swift rebuilds. Think of the Dallas Mavericks. Think of any team that continues to hope it can stave off years—or in some cases, years on top of already vested years—of losing, drafting, scrapping, clawing and waiting.
Next year's Cavaliers are for those squads—the ones who have seen Cleveland do what so many other teams won't, and what prevailing rationale says they can't.
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