The day started all smiles. With all the pomp and circumstance of a Presidential Inauguration, the Cleveland Cavaliers officially welcomed Shaquille O’Neal to the team Thursday. It was supposed to go down as a great day in Cavalier history, the day the franchise coronated the prince who would help deliver the “Ring For The King”. Ultimately, though, as these things so often do in NE Ohio, Thursday turned into a nightmare for the Cavaliers.
While Danny Ferry was sitting on a stage in Cleveland watching owner Dan Gilbert present gimmick boots and a snow shovel to Shaq, and laughing as Shaq displayed an unflattering picture of Ferry and Shaq from Ferry’s playing days, most Cavalier fans were joining in on the fun, reveling in all the humor, joy, and excitement Shaq was sure to bring to Cleveland. But while the Cavaliers’ brass were laughing it up on stage, other GMs were busy working on improving their teams.
News broke early Thursday evening that Ron Artest was going to be signing with the Lakers. Shortly thereafter came word that the Cavaliers backup plan to Artest, Trevor Ariza, would be signing with the Houston Rockets.
It’s hard to know where to place the blame for the way this offseason has started, but one thing is clear: once again, teams all around the league are making impact free agent signings, while the Cavaliers continue coming up empty handed. It would be easy to blame Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry for this. After all, while he was smiling and beaming like a proud papa over the arrival of Shaq, Daryl Morey was on a plane to Las Vegas to meet with Trevor Ariza in person, a move which ultimately led Ariza to sign with Houston for the Mid-Level Exception. At the same time, Jerry Buss and Phil Jackson were sitting down with Ron Artest and securing one of the biggest coups in this year’s free agency period. And while all that was happening, in Detroit you had Wyc Grousbeck, Danny Ainge, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce all meeting with Rasheed Wallace to try to convince him to go play for Boston.
While it’s certainly true that there were reports that LeBron had met with Artest to recruit him to Cleveland, it’s hard to ignore the eerie parallel of the Cavaliers taking an afternoon off from free agency while players were signing all around them with Cleveland’s rivals for the throne.
This is really par for the course for Cleveland, though, and shame on us for getting our hopes up that this year would somehow be different and that players would actually want to come play in Cleveland for once. Since signing Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, and Damon Jones four years ago, the free agent market has been less than friendly to the Cavaliers. In the ensuing offseasons, the only free agents the Cavaliers have managed to secure have been Dwayne Jones, Scot Pollard, David Wesley, Devin Brown, Cedric Simmons, Tarence Kinsey, and Lorenzen Wright. The only one of those players to even make a serious impact on the team at all was Devin Brown, and even that was short lived.
So what’s the problem? Why is it the only way the Cavaliers can get good players to come here is to trade for them so they don’t have a choice in the matter or else pay them 3 times what they are worth (Hughes, Marshall, Jones)? We all say every year that the Cavaliers have the best potential free agent magnet in the world in LeBron James. “Who wouldn’t want to play with LeBron,” we say. Well, evidently, not many people. Not in Cleveland anyway.
The Cavaliers have some of the best facilities in the NBA, they have an owner who spares no expense whatsoever for the franchise and his players, they have a locker room that is out of this world and fit with every modern advancement, they have some of the loudest fans in the NBA who create an electric atmosphere to play in front of every night. The Cavaliers have everything you would think a free agent would want. A chance to play with an all time great distributor and playmaker in LeBron James, and a chance to compete for the NBA Championship, to go along with all the previously mentioned amenities. But despite all this, the Cavaliers simply cannot attract free agents. Perhaps it’s the media’s portrayal of the city itself, perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps it’s the economic climate of the city, or perhaps it’s all of the above. Whatever the reason, it seems like no matter what the franchise does and no matter how successful, NBA players simply do not want to come lakeside.
It’s tempting to say that this is an overreaction, that at the end of the day it’s simply a matter of teams having more cap space to offer free agents more money. That sounds good, but the problem is in the case of Artest and Ariza that’s not really true. If reports are accurate, Artest is getting the MLE and Ariza is getting the MLE (estimated $5.8 million). The Cavaliers have the same MLE to spend, so in this case, both Artest and Ariza took basically the same amount of money to go play elsewhere.
I’m trying not to get too down here, but with Artest in Los Angeles, you’re looking at a roster of Fisher, Kobe, Artest, Gasol, Bynum, Odom, Vujacic, Farmar, Walton, Brown, and Morrison. It’s a talented team, and it’s a deep team. And it’s a team the Cavaliers even with Shaq can’t really match up with. With LeBron only under contract for one more year, this is precisely the kind of disaster the Cavaliers could ill afford.
So what now for Cleveland? The latest rumors have the Cavaliers actively pursuing Anthony Parker and Linas Kleiza, while another rumor has them quietly talking to Shawn Marion. Quite a far cry from the earlier talks of Charlie Villanueva, Rasheed Wallace, Ron Artest, and Trevor Ariza. Kleiza is a restricted free agent and it’s unclear if Denver would match an offer for him with their efforts instead going toward Chris Andersen. If the Raptors renounce Parker’s rights in order to clear cap space to get Turkoglu, then the Cavaliers would no longer be competing with the Raptors for his services. Parker and Kleiza are both decent enough players, but neither one is much more than minor role players. Marion has a lot of talent, but he is surrounded with more question marks regarding his desire and attitude.
When I initially heard about Artest and Ariza signing elsewhere, I briefly thought that with Anderson Varejao still unsigned as well, that perhaps the Cavaliers should consider not using their MLE at all and not bringing back AV and just bite the bullet and throw everything into getting Chris Bosh next year to play here with LeBron. Then I realized the foolishness of that line of thinking. After all, as we’ve seen, good players aren’t exactly lining up to come play with LeBron. Heck, if Trevor Ariza would rather play for equal money in Houston for a team with an unknown future regarding their franchise player in Yao Ming than come compete for a title with LeBron and Shaq and Mo here in Cleveland, then why on earth would Chris Bosh want to come to Cleveland either?
Lets just hope that Danny Ferry has one more trick left up his sleeve and he can still pull off another trade out of the blue similar to the Mo Williams deal last year. We know the Cavaliers already made their big move by acquiring Shaq, and there’s no question the Cavaliers are better for doing so. The issue here, though, is how much better the Lakers just got Thursday night. For a team that has no choice but to win the Championship this year or else face the prospects of staring into the abyss of the summer of 2010 with nothing to show for it, this offseason was set to be the most important one of our lives. After all the talk before July 1st about how active the Cavaliers were supposed to be, and how all these players would be willing to take the MLE and take slightly less money to play with LeBron and play for a contender, these last 48 hours have been a trying and disheartening period for anyone who bleeds Wine and Gold. Here’s to hoping a nice relaxing holiday weekend brings happier days for the Cavaliers. Happier days, as in the kind of day Thursday was supposed to be all along.