Compared to the craziness of 2014, Cleveland Sports in 2015 came off as uneventful. The Indians failed to make the postseason—again. The Browns are perpetually a disaster on and off of the field. Nevertheless, as the year comes to a close, just as we have done the last seven years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the ten biggest sports stories to grace our local sports scene over the last 12 months. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one. Do enjoy.
The year of 2015 got off to an underwhelming start for Cleveland sports fans. On New Year’s Day, hours before the Ohio State Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, it was announced that newly returned Cavs star LeBron James would sit out for two more weeks. Because of his lingering back and knee strains he already had missed the team’s losses on Dec. 30 and Dec. 31.
At the time, the Cleveland Cavaliers were 18-14. They were only fifth in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Rumors were starting to swirl about David Blatt’s job security, the long-term upside of this Cavs roster construction, and whether LeBron could handle all of this pressure on his back. Clearly, he couldn’t. The team was spiraling downwards.
Ultimately, LeBron would miss eight straight games. He had never previously missed more than seven games in a single season in his illustrious NBA career. But by the time he returned to action on Jan. 13 in Phoenix, the season had turned around drastically. It was due to LeBron’s return to health and a pair of trades that were a long, long time in the making.
“I was very excited his name was still on the board at No. 4,” Byron Scott said to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. “I think we got a steal.”
From the rumors leading up to and then the exact moment of the 2012 NBA Draft, Dion Waiters was always a surprise member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In fact, Waiters never came to Cleveland for a workout. His camp had shut down his in-person visits with teams, presumably based on some top-eight promise. But in that Windhorst behind-the-scenes report, the Cavs organization shared the incredible amount of due diligence that went into this selection.
In the early years of Dion Waiters, there was a lot of back-and-forth. ESPN’s John Hollinger called him the “best small wing since Dwyane Wade.” By his second season, Byron Scott had plans to only play him at shooting guard — those plans barely lasted a quarter of a season. Waiters and franchise cornerstone Kyrie Irving hardly ever were healthy enough together to find a rhythm on both ends.
Over the years, Dion was tremendous fun on Twitter and we had tremendous fun about Dion on Twitter. There was the whole “BUCKETS DNT” meme. There was all of the talk of “buddy ball.” There were far too many Dion v. Kyrie debates. There was the time that Dion lost to Ben Cox in bowling. There were many ways in which you could defend him analytically. And then there were countless Vines of Waiters’ laughable on-court antics.
And, of course, there were the trade rumors. During the GM Chris Grant era, the Cavs managed to stockpile a large number of second-round draft picks. They had started to use some of these in the 2013-14 trades for Spencer Hawes and Luol Deng. But others remained and the team kept an eye on other salary cap flexibility options that could lead to convoluted trade opportunities. This included end-of-the-roster players on short-term or nonguaranteed deals.
By the time January 2015 rolled around, the Cavs were in serious trouble. Beyond just the concerns over LeBron’s back, the rest of the team wasn’t holding up its weight. Bench scoring was particularly problematic. And the team wanted to bring in an entirely new culture to fit alongside its ailing star.
The trade made sense for the New York Knicks for one specific reason: salary cap space. J.R. Smith’s $6.4 million player option for the 2015-16 season bordered on the exact amount the team needed to clear to potentially sign a maximum contract free agent this past offseason. Infamously, Smith eventually declined to use that option and later re-signed at a slightly smaller amount. But the Knicks were concerned he’d exercise that option and ruin their offseason plans.
The cost of clearing Smith’s contract off the books then just happened to be soon-to-be restricted free agent Iman Shumpert. This was similar to the Cavs needing to clear Jarrett Jack’s $6.3 million annual salary off the books in July 2014 and how that cost a decent young asset in Tyler Zeller1. Shumpert, a former first-round pick out of Georgia Tech, clearly had some value on the open market. But if the Knicks were making a big splash in free agency, they wouldn’t have room to keep him around long-term either.
The Knicks’ salary cap needs and the Cavaliers’ culture shift needs are what led to the match for the deal on Jan. 5. New York received three unguaranteed contracts — Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson and Lance Thomas — and the latter two have turned into passable role players for the team ever since. The Cavs acquired Smith and Shumpert, while sending out a 2019 second-round pick. The necessary third partner in the deal, the Oklahoma City Thunder, ended up with Dion Waiters, who was removed from that Monday’s game for trade-related purposes, just for a protected first-round pick.
From Oklahoma City’s perspective, Waiters was being acquired nearly for free. That pick was top-18 protected in 2015, guaranteed to stay in OKC unless the team made a furious rally to a top-seven seed from a terrible run of injuries. The pick is also top-15 protected in 2016 and 2017, meaning it is very likely to transfer this season, albeit in the form of a late first-round pick. For a contending team like the Thunder, you can’t typically find high-upside young players for that cost. Even one as volatile as Waiters.
Although the Cavs already had transformed Waiters, two benchwarmers and a four-years-away second-round pick into two better wing players and a first-rounder, they certainly weren’t done yet. A bigger need still existed in the frontcourt. And that deal required even more engineering.
Late first-round picks are not necessarily that valuable to contending teams. That much was proven clearly by Oklahoma City’s willingness to part ways with a protected such pick for Dion Waiters. They are somewhat like less interesting lottery tickets. Yes, you can occasionally find a valuable rotation player at that point in the draft. But more often, the player is a lower-end rotation player who might not find the playing time to develop for a contender. And such a pick can simply be the cost of doing business for a contending team with precious few other movable assets.
Only three days after the Knicks trade, the Cavs were lining up another move. This time around, the target was a center. And a team that had expected to compete for a playoff spot was simply looking for some of those potential first-round tickets. The Denver Nuggets already had committed to Kenneth Faried with a long-term contract. They also had just taken two intriguing European big men, Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic, in the 2014 NBA Draft. That made expendable 28-year-old Timofey Mozgov, a part-time player who struggled with foul trouble and didn’t fit the team’s long-term outlook.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, in the aftermath of this second deal on Jan. 8, broke down step by step how the Cavaliers turned $1.6 million of salary cap space into a $5.2 million trade exception. That exception, created through the creative acquisition — via several future second-round picks — and then trade of long-time veteran Keith Bogans, then was used to absorb Mozgov’s $4.65 million contract in this deal.
For Mozgov, the Cavaliers parted ways with the Oklahoma City protected first-round pick and the Jon Leuer-originated Memphis Grizzlies protected first-round pick. The Grizzlies pick remains 1-5 and 15-30 protected in 2016. It is 1-5 protected in 2017 and 2018, then unprotected in 2019. With that franchise’s recent struggles, that could turn into a mid-to-late lottery pick shortly. Many criticized how the Cavs traded two first-round picks for a part-time player. But those protected picks asset and that uncertainty didn’t carry as much value for Cleveland as it did for a rebuilding Denver organization.
Again, new GM David Griffin performed wizardry with the team’s precious few tradeable assets. With the foundation left by Grant from years prior, Griffin was able to make two complicated moves that provided just as much of a shot to Cavs’ championship hopes as the shot received by LeBron James. The stars were aligning for a new look for the rest of the season.
As LeBron sat and the three new players adjusted to Cleveland, the losing ways continued. The team had been 18-11 before a brutal loss at home on Dec. 28 against Detroit and the start of LeBron’s absence. The Cavaliers managed to win just one game over the banged-up Charlotte Hornets before the trades.
J.R. Smith went scoreless in his Jan. 7 debut against Houston, another loss. Timofey Mozgov appeared in the next game, Jan. 9, a blowout loss at Golden State. Iman Shumpert, who was recovering from a separated shoulder at the time of the trade, remained out and didn’t return to action until later in January. The team then lost by double-digits again on Jan. 11 in Sacramento, falling all the way to .500 at 19-19.
That is what set the stage for LeBron’s first game back to action on Jan. 13 in Phoenix. It was the day after Ohio State’s National Championship victory. The tide was starting to tide for Ohio sports momentum. And although the Cavaliers fell short, you could tell in LeBron’s 33-point, 7-rebound, and 5-assist performance that he was back to normal. Yes, he was somewhat rusty with five turnovers and a few missed shots late, but J.R. Smith added 29. The Cavs had new reinforcements that fit with LeBron’s game.
After falling to 19-20, the Cavs went on a 32-7 run until resting during the final few games of the regular season. During that stretch, they outscored opponents by over 10.5 points per game. Not only did the new players contribute heavily, but the Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love started to jive much more cohesively on both ends. Just as many expected, this was an offensive juggernaut with the potential for more.
While the Cleveland sports world just missed out on that sought-after championship last year, if the Cavaliers organization does win one soon, it’ll be remembered that a two-week period in January 2015 set the stage for a revitalization. The Cavs and their superstar were wounded. They needed fresh blood. And ever since, times have been much rosier for basketball in Cleveland.