How Grant, Cavs botched the Thunder's blueprint
The news of Chris Grant's surprising dismissal as general manager of the Cavaliers has been the topic du jour in NBA circles since the news was handed down Thursday.
"I was actually talking to my owner about it," said a rival GM. "We agreed that GMs should be fired way more often than they are. If you're going to fire somebody, the coach shouldn't always get the axe."
On his way out the door, one of David Stern's final declarations was that his final collective bargaining agreement would create a new era of management, in which the failures or successes of teams would revolve around the planning and execution of their front-office executives. So far three GMs have exited this season -- Glen Grunwald was fired in September by the Knicks, Gersson Rosas resigned in October from the Mavericks, and Grant was put down amid a six-game losing streak and a 16-33 start in what had been heralded by owner Dan Gilbert as a season for returning to the playoffs.
"We all know who is really running that team -- it's Dan Gilbert," said a rival executive, who believed the arrival of Andrew Bynum damaged the team socially. "It's obvious that those players don't enjoy playing together," he went on. "They're all looking around to see who the second-best player is, and each one of them thinks he's it."
The Cavs have gone 80-199 since they were abandoned by LeBron James. The curse set forth by Gilbert that night in 2010 has boomeranged against him and his franchise karmically. "Chris had one of the toughest jobs you could possibly have -- high picks in really bad drafts," said the rival GM of Grant, who was hired to replace Danny Ferry in that lost summer of 2010.
Like so many rebuilding teams, the Cavaliers tried to follow the example of the Thunder, who continue to be one of the most-copied and least-understood franchises in the NBA. The formula of Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti has been boiled down to the first-round picks he made in three successive drafts:
2009: James Harden (No. 3)
Those look like no-brainer picks now. But in fact, Durant was the only obvious star at the time of those drafts. There was no clear-cut choice to be made at No. 5 in 2007 when Presti settled on Green, who has turned into the third-most productive player from his draft (after Durant and Al Horford, who went No. 3 to Atlanta). Four years later, Presti would trade Green in order to create more opportunities for Ibaka and Harden.
In 2008, I could find no one in the league apart from Presti who believed that Westbrook could be a star. After being tipped off that Presti was deciding between Westbrook and Brook Lopez, I remember calling rival GMs and scouts who laughed at the idea of picking Westbrook as high as No. 4; some highly respected executives believed that he lacked the basic point guard skills to start in the NBA.
In 2009, Harden was in danger of sliding in the draft. If the Thunder had not taken him at No. 3, the Bucks were optimistic at that time that he might be available for them at No. 10 (where they wound up with Brandon Jennings instead).
Westbrook and Harden turned out to be far better than anticipated by many rival teams, but here is the neglected aspect of their rise to the top of the league: They joined a franchise that invested fully in their improvement. The staff of coach Scott Brooks, who took over 13 games into Westbrook's rookie year, has set the standard for developing young talent. Consider the long list of homegrown players who have thrived in Oklahoma City, including Durant, Green, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, and now Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. This does not happen by accident.
The Seattle SuperSonics (as they were known then) had been trying to win for two years when Presti arrived in 2007 and immediately traded All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. They endured one and a half horrible seasons before showing improvement in the latter half of 2008-09, which was the prelude to their 50-win breakthrough in 2009-10.
So many teams that are rebuilding through the draft think of their losing years as a lost time that must be suffered like a plague. For Presti and Brooks in Oklahoma City, for Larry Bird and his coaches at Indiana, and for other teams that have built up through the draft, the years of losing are not a waste of time. They become years of investment, during which the GM and coach establish, under stress, how they will behave when they are on top of the league.
It is the secret of rebuilding. If they don't focus on their daily work as if they're winning already, then they never will win.
The approach of Brooks when his team was 3-29 is the same as his approach now that they're pursuing a second NBA Finals in three years. Jackson and Lamb and rookie Steven Adams are benefiting from the same daily regimen of intensive work that made stars out of Westbrook and Harden when few saw the potential in them.
It is true that Grant had the misfortune of running Cleveland's draft in years when there was a dearth of franchise talent. It's also true that he made a terrific 2011 deadline trade to absorb the expensive contract of Baron Davis in exchange for the unprotected pick that turned into Irving. Much as Durant fell into the lap of Presti, so too did Irving arrive like a miracle in Cleveland.
Otherwise, Grant's drafting record wasn't terrific. Three spots after landing Irving, he used the No. 4 pick on Tristan Thompson. Grant could have gone instead with center Jonas Valanciunas, who slid to No. 5 to Toronto because he would be forced to finish his European contract overseas for one year; the Cavaliers could have withstood that absence. "The one I criticize the most is Valanciunas," said a rival GM. "He isn't setting the world on fire, but I was surprised they didn't go for him in that situation."
"Chris traded well, but he didn't draft well," said another GM. "Pick Klay (Thompson, who went No. 11 to the Warriors) or Valanciunas instead of Tristan Thompson."
Dion Waiters (No. 4 in 2012), Tyler Zeller (No. 17 in 2012 after a trade of picks with Dallas), Sergey Karasev (No. 19 last year) and especially Anthony Bennett, the reigning No. 1 pick, have been disappointing in one way or another. While the Cavs have had a pair of No. 1 picks in the last three years, it needs to be remembered that Grant tried to trade the pick last year and could find no takers because the draft was so weak.
"I still think Bennett will turn out to be a pretty good NBA starter," said a GM, in spite of Bennett's numbers (3.3 ppg, 28.9 percent shooting overall). "He'll wind up being in the top 10-15 in the league at his position."
There are two ways to look at the disaster in Cleveland. Maybe Grant should have drafted better. Or maybe -- and more importantly -- the Cavaliers haven't been focused, with discipline and perseverance, on developing the young talent they've acquired over the last few years. Would Tristan Thompson have become a better player in Oklahoma City?
The Cavaliers as they exist today are an underachieving and disorderly team. The dismissal of Grant may ultimately have had less to do with the players he chose than with the way he developed them once he had them.
Robert Sacre cannot foul out. Normal men like LeBron James or Kevin Durant suffer six fouls and that is the end of them. Not Robert Sacre. All he needs is four teammates to beat your roster of 12. He is braver and stronger and more cunning than King Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae. Give Robert Sacre four able-bodied men -- no more, no less -- and he will seize your home floor and humiliate you. Your owner will fire your GM, but you will not and cannot defeat Robert Sacre. He is invincible.
World Cup groups are drawn. USA Basketball is assembling a terrific team for this summer around returning coach Mike Krzyzewski -- featuring Kevin Durant, Paul George, James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Kevin Love and Dwight Howard -- and yet anyone who thinks this will be easy is delusional. The tournament will be held in Spain, and the hosts will approach a likely championship final against the Americans as if it's their version of the 1980 Olympic "Miracle On Ice" at Lake Placid. The age and makeup of the Spanish team will be irrelevant. The Spaniards are second only to America as a basketball power, this is their tournament, and the world will be pulling for them.
Jason Kidd and Dave Joerger named coaches of the month. These are two startling turnarounds for these rookies. Kidd, who couldn't manage his own staff at the start of the season, has the Nets ascending toward a potential No. 3 seed in the East. Joerger, who inherited the hard job of replacing Lionel Hollins, has recovered from a 15-19 start to position the Grizzlies in playoff contention in the far more difficult West (at 26-22 they would be No. 3 in the deplorable East). Both coaches have been dealt crucial injuries with no certainty they would recover. For Kidd and Joerger these are more than negligible midseason awards.
Andrew Bynum signs with Pacers. Expecting him to carry the sorry Cavaliers to respectability was too much, because Bynum is no leader. What he can be is a bullying backup whose 12-15 minutes could prove to be overwhelming to Miami in the conference finals. If Bynum has established his place within the Pacers' rotation by May, then how will the Heat overcome Indiana's domineering size?
There is only one hope for Miami. Robert Sacre.
The 7-1 center is averaging a career-best 13.5 points for the 76ers in his seventh NBA season. Hawes, 25, is the nephew of retired big man Steve Hawes, who played 10 seasons with four NBA teams.
1. His father Jeff Hawes played at Washington, as did uncle Steve Hawes. "I didn't know I was going to be this tall. But my father is 6-foot-7, and my mom is 6-1 or so, so I had a good idea I'd be in that top percentile.
"I was lucky to kind of have a dad and a family that embraced basketball and showed me the way, but never really made me feel like that was my only option, or forced me to do things I didn't want to do. They let me participate in every sport growing up, so I never really thought I got burnt out. It was nice having the support system there but not feeling like I had to be in a gym or playing basketball year-round. It was nice to be a kid.
"I was always the best player in my class. When I got to high school I was tall and goofy: I was on JV, averaging three points a game, didn't really play. I scored one point on varsity my freshman year. I kind of had a growth spurt, had to run again, and then it got easier.
"My dad was really the guy who taught me the game and the fundamentals while growing up. If we were doing warmups and I'd go right one time, he'd say go left the next time. He always stressed being versatile, being able to shoot, handle the ball - even though I was the tallest kid in the class. If we were blowing a team out, I'd say, 'Let me play point guard in the fourth quarter.' Every once in a while he'd cave, he'd let me bring the ball up. That was the coolest thing ever."
2. Having grown up in Seattle, he attended Washington and averaged 14.9 points as a freshman. "The family roots were pretty deep at UW. But as a kid you get into the recruiting and you want to experience it. Roy Williams of North Carolina came calling; then you have Stanford, and my mom got very excited about that opportunity. You want to see what's out there and get a chance to experience something outside of your backyard.
"I've always been kind of a momma's boy, a hometown guy. I remember when I took the visit to Carolina, (his AAU) coach Jim Marsh told me to look down over every state when you fly by and count them. Two flights is a long way, and he obviously knew my personality and how much I love Seattle and being at home. I remember my mom said, 'Roy Williams is on the phone,' and I was trying to run away. 'I don't want to tell him, I don't want to tell him.' It worked out alright.
3. He was picked No. 10 by the Kings in the 2007 draft at age 19. "My rookie year I didn't play very much, so you hear all the outside chatter -- 'Was it the right decision?' It kind of forces you to grow up a little quicker. I needed to get away and be on my own in basketball and life in general. It was a tough decision, but I'm pretty analytical, and I knew if I went back, I wasn't going to be the number one pick (one year later). You had the opportunity to fulfill your dream, that's something I was going back to. I had the opportunity to play in the NBA the next year. As a kid, I was always looking up to my dad, and that's what I always wanted to do."
After going 4 for 21 from the three-point line as a rookie, Hawes is now converting at 41.1 percent (76 for 185) for the 76ers. "I think it's the way the game is evolving, and the systems. You have coaches like Brett (Brown, who coached in Australia), and obviously the international experience demands a different skill set. I'm not the biggest guy -- not a two-dribble, drop-step kind of guy. It's like anything else: You'd like to be ahead of the curve as opposed to being 240, 245 pounds and guys are beating you up down there every game."
Quote of the Week
"I felt great just to play in the NBA again and be out there with my teammates. -- Steve Nash
To watch Nash play throughout his entertaining years with the Mavericks and the Suns was to see a star driven by his love for basketball. No player has loved to play more than Nash. His passion gave him the energy and ingenuity to make the most of his talents, and at his best he played like the greatest musicians of jazz, deviating from the notes in order to improve upon them.
Now we are seeing his joy for the game in another way. This season is lost, his team is hopeless and he'll never regain his MVP level, but he is fighting through the pain of his injuries all the same. Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Garnett, even Dwyane Wade at 32 -- all of these stars can see the end coming and they don't want to let go. They can all relate to Nash and his love for the game.
"They'll make the playoffs, because they're the classic do-more-with-less team. Joakim Noah has shown he's the most important defensive player in the league. What he does is what they're built on. He's not LeBron James -- he can't guard 1-through-5 -- but he can switch and stay in front of 1s when he has to.
"Their guys are filling roles, and they don't know who's going to be the scorer each night. They've empowered D.J. Augustin to have one of his better years. They need him to shoot the ball well, and so far he is.
"Jimmy Butler is what they've come to expect, even though he hasn't shot it as well from three as he has done at times in the past. Mike Dunleavy has filled some needs because he can make threes and he runs the lane. Taj Gibson has been important because their bench is pretty slim. But the main thing is Tom Thibodeau is still depending on the starters for 33-36 minutes.
"Tony Snell should have stayed in college. He's intriguing because of his length, but he does everything just OK. You'd say they didn't expect him to have to play when they drafted him. It was going to be a developing year, and they took him based on his potential - and now he's having to play with the trade of Deng. He's a good corner three shooter who can put the ball on the floor and slash in transiton, but he's feeling his way through. He'll foul because he's getting used to where he needs to be and fighting through screens, and he's learning that he can't stay in front of a guy just because he's got length.
"They can't expect Butler or Snell to give them what they had. Deng is 6-9 and he'd been through the wars. Jimmy Butler is closer to 6-6, and his best position is the 2 instead of the 3. He has the heart and will do whatever is asked -- he showed that by playing 60 minutes (in a triple-OT win at Orlando last month). game hell do whatev is asked. But if you ask Butler to fill in at small forward, then you're taking away from his ability to defend the opponent's 2 guard.
"Deng was the one guy that could consistently guard LeBron within their team concept and make life hard for him. He's a great midrange shooter who did a lot of stuff for them.
"It's kind of surprising in a lot of ways that the Bulls are still fighting after losing their top two players (Derrick Rose and Deng), but obviously they have respect for Thibodeau, I guess, except for Carlos Boozer. They're fighters and grinders.
"But as great a piece as Jimmy Butler is, until he improves his 3-point shot, he's not going to be a 20-points-plus guy. He's a good player for Thibs because he's a guy that just plays. Then Kirk Hinrich is breaking down all the time, and he's an important part of their group. Augustin has played well in a short sample size, but over the big sample size in the past he's proven he isn't the same kind of player."
The frustrating part of picking an All-Star ballot this year was recognizing the discrepancy of talent between the two conferences. With that in mind, I created a team of players made up of the Eastern All-Stars and the Western snubs. How many "second-tier" stars out West are superior to those playing for the East? I came up with five:
F: LeBron James*
F: Paul George*
G: Dwyane Wade*
G: Goran Dragic
F: Carmelo Anthony*
F: Joakim Noah*
G: Mike Conley
G: Ty Lawson
G: John Wall*
G: DeMar DeRozan*
* = Eastern All-Stars