Monday, June 25, 2007

Lebron James' Cavs, Vince Carter's Raptors

In the immediate aftermath of the Spurs’ sweep of the Cavaliers in the finals, I read a number of columns about how the Cavs needed to improve the team and win a championship before Lebron becomes a free agent so that he doesn’t decide to sign elsewhere. On one level, the statement is innocuous enough—after all, the goal is to win championships, and the NBA Finals demonstrated that Cleveland still has a ways to go before it can be considered a top-tier championship contender. On another level, these columns really bothered me.

First things first—you don’t win championships to keep Lebron James around; you keep Lebron James around to win championships. Somehow, this basic point keeps getting lost in all the talk about improving the Cavaliers.

Second, and related—making personnel moves with the goal of keeping a player, as opposed to as part of the larger plan for creating a contender, can end up hurting a team in the long-run (and even not so long-run).

What do I mean? Well, just look at the Cavaliers. In the June 25, 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum mentions that the Cavaliers have several cumbersome contracts—those of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jomes—that will be tough to unload. These contracts, seemingly by consensus, are the obstacles to bringing in the appropriate talent to surround Lebron so that he will choose to stay in Cleveland three years from now.

But wait a minute. All four of these players were signed in the summer of 2005 (Ilgauskas- 5 years, $50 million; Hughes- 5 years, $60 million; Marshall- 4 years, $22 million; Jones- 4 years, $16 million). And why were they signed? Well, the basketball reason was that the Cavaliers wanted to surround Lebron with scorers to prevent teams from collapsing on him, but the Cavaliers were also thinking about Lebron’s impending free agency in the summer of 2006. Making all of these moves was meant to keep Lebron from seriously exploring free agency. Now, only two years later, the contracts given to these four players are considered a major hindrance…to keeping Lebron from seriously exploring free agency.

In all fairness, I think these signings were better than the current conventional wisdom paints them. After all, they did convince Lebron to resign with the Cavaliers and three of these players (Ilgauskas, Hughes, Marshall) played an important role in getting the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. However, without the desire (need?) to make a case to Lebron during the summer 0f 2005, there’s a decent chance the Cavaliers would have exhibited more patience and have put themselves in a better position to get the players they need to be top-tier championship contenders, not just top-tier Eastern Conference contenders.

If you want another example, look at Vince Carter’s Raptors. To convince Carter to resign in the summer of 2001, the Raptor’s signed Antonio Davis for $64 million over five years, Jerome Williams (seven years, $41 million), and Alvin Williams (seven years, $42 million), not to mention acquiring Hakeem Olajuwon ($17 million). And it worked…sort of. Carter signed an extension, theoretically keeping him in Toronto until 2008. Yet a few years later the Raptor’s were swooning as the age and health of these signings became a burden, Vince was dogging it, and eventually the Raptors were forced to trade him for 50 cents on the dollar (if that!) to the New Jersey Nets.

The moral of the story? Don’t panic if your superstar is approaching free agency. Sign the right players for your team; don’t just sign players that will convince your superstar to stick around in the short-run. Explain what you’re doing to your superstar, and count on him to understand. Otherwise, you’re mortgaging your chance to actually put together a team that can compete. And when the short-run fix becomes a long-run drain, the superstar can always find a way to force himself out of town, leaving the franchise to deal with the mess that’s been left behind.