Tuesday February 26th, 2008

CLEVELAND -- In his first year as owner of the Cavaliers, in 2005, Dan Gilbert used to lust after Ben Wallace. Gilbert had been a main sponsor of the Pistons, and having seen Wallace's impact, he would talk of bringing Wallace or a hyperactive center like him to the Cavs.

Now the Cavs have Wallace after acquiring him in a three-team, 11-player deal last Thursday, and no one is talking about how the owner acted on a personal whim or boondoggle. That in itself is a measure of how the Cavs' management has stabilized since that turbulent opening year that was spent chasing Larry Brown and signing Larry Hughes to a regrettable long-term contract.

Last week's trade will cost Gilbert's ownership group more than $10 million in extra salary and luxury taxes through next season, giving the Cavs the third-highest payroll in the league.

"It's a big commitment,'' Gilbert said, "but the way we try to look at these things, before we even look at the money, we say, 'Guys, let's look at what makes sense basketball-wise first. You're the experts -- [GM] Danny [Ferry], [assistants] Chris [Grant], Lance [Blanks] -- tell me what you think.' Then we look at what it's going to cost us. Risk-reward, that's how you handle it.''

Across the board in Cleveland's front office, the potential consequences of making no move were viewed as far worse than the risk of trading rotation players Drew Gooden and Hughes in the exchange for Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith. LeBron James had been pushing to acquire his new friend Jason Kidd in hopes of positioning Cleveland to upset Eastern favorites Boston and Detroit in the latter rounds of the conference playoffs. The Cavs didn't have the assets to make that trade, but the secondary deal they were able to make is an excellent transitional move.

In the short term, the Cavs upgraded their shooting by surrounding James with Szczerbiak, West and Smith. West should also improve their play at point guard. In addition, West, Smith and Wallace are obviously strong defenders who should elevate Cleveland from its current No. 22 ranking in field-goal defense.

For the longer term, the Cavs have strengthened their position. They were unable to trade for the likes of Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol or Kidd because they lacked the expiring contracts that are so attractive to rebuilding franchises. In addition, they wanted to escape their remaining commitment to Hughes. The answer for Cleveland was to exchange one headache for another -- Hughes for Wallace, who was seen as a bad free-agent signing by the Bulls. The two teams had begun discussions on such a deal two months before the deadline.

Both Hughes and Wallace will improve in their new environments. The Bulls circulate the ball more freely in their egalitarian offense, and Hughes should be better in that kind of system than he was as a spot-up shooter playing off James in Cleveland. The Cavs, meanwhile, should realize greater production from Wallace now that he is back in contention and working on behalf of James, who is having an MVP year. In his Cleveland debut Sunday, Wallace looked immediately rejuvenated in his new role of power forward. The Cavs will be tough to attack once the 6-foot-9 Wallace is comfortable playing alongside 7-3 center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, with Anderson Varejao and Smith providing support and versatility in a four-man rotation up front.

And if the Cavs want to remake their roster all over again in 11 months, they'll be entering next season with $30 million in expiring contracts after this deal. Promising options await in the near future.

"To me, it's more risky to have something that locks you in -- as I think we've seen from three years ago,'' Gilbert said, referring to the long-term commitment to Hughes. "I'd rather pay more for a short period of time than lock the franchise in for three, four, five years and then you have no flexibility.''

Gilbert was asked about the importance of making a trade to keep James happy, as he can become a free agent as early as 2010.

"We do what's right for the franchise,'' he answered. "Everybody was saying [a couple of years] earlier, 'If you guys don't win a championship, LeBron might leave.' But what happens if we win a championship the first year of his contract and we're bad the third year?'' That is the predicament haunting the bottom-dwelling Heat as they try to keep Dwyane Wade from leaving in 2010. "I don't think it's a cut-and-dried situation,'' Gilbert went on. "We just want to do what's best.''

The next two months will serve as a frantic training camp on the fly for the Cavs as they try to make sense of their new lineup. The good news is James, now in his fifth year, is more than capable of pulling the team together, even though at 23 he is the second-youngest player in their rotation (after soon-to-be 22-year-old Daniel Gibson, who is out for another month with a high-ankle sprain). It also helps alleviate pressure that the Cavs can't worry about making up their 9½-game deficit to Detroit, the No. 2 team in the East, which means they can focus on playing together and maintaining the third or fourth position in the conference with home-court advantage in the opening round.

"Hopefully we can get our feet under us with about 10 games to go, so we can say, 'OK, we've got our team,' '' Ferry said. "These next 20 games, we're going to have some ups and downs, but get it so for those last eight to 10 games we feel like we have our team and we can set ourselves for the playoffs.''

That's cutting it close, but imagine if the new formula works. If LeBron is playing his most dominant basketball with a cast superior to last year's NBA finalist, then the Celtics and Pistons will have more than each other to worry about this spring.

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