By Ian Thomsen
January 27, 2011

The success of last year ricochets back upon the Cavaliers today. Last year, they were 34-11 and headed for the league's best record, and now they're 8-37 on their way to No. 1 in the lottery. One year ago, they were running off 13 straight victories, and now they've suffered 18 straight losses and a franchise record of 22 in a row on the road.

This is the best thing that could have happened to them.

When LeBron James said his goodbyes to Jim Gray instead of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert last July, the Cavs' run ended like the final episode of The Sopranos. The screen went black, leaving their fans to wonder what they should make of it all. Now they understand. They know they need to reinvent the team, and that there can be no recapturing what they had.

Once James was gone, Shaquille O'Neal -- their second-best performer in the second-round loss to Boston -- was out the door, too. Even if they had re-signed Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West and kept Anderson Varejao healthy and hadn't had to do without Mo Williams for a dozen games so far -- that's a lot of talent to lose in addition to LeBron -- and if as a result they'd been able to remain in playoff contention at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they still would have had to start over someday. There was no bridge player on last year's team. All of James' former teammates had been hired to complement him; none could ever replace him.

Threatening the NBA record of 23 consecutive losses in a single season (a low shared by the 1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies and 1997-98 Denver Nuggets) is likely to have a more positive impact on the franchise than if the Cavs were now limping toward a respectable 39-win season. Now the Cavs and their fans know exactly who they are and what they need to do. They're going to earn a high pick in the draft, and that choice will represent the team's first meaningful long-term step following The Decision.

A lot of franchises are treading water this season in waiting for the financial relief of a new collective bargaining agreement. At least the Cavs can claim to be a league leader in terms of maximizing their revenues, and the opening of his downtown casino this year across the street from his arena will empower Dan Gilbert and make him as powerful in Cleveland as any other NBA owner is in any other city. He can also claim that the last several years taught him how to -- and how not to -- build a contender.

The term the Cavaliers are embracing today is sustainability: They want to eventually contend for and ultimately win championships, which means building a team that will endure, which means accepting it will take years to build. The harsh results of this season have focused everyone on that lesson.

Gilbert, known in his early years of ownership for trying to win ASAP in hopes of keeping James happy, is said to have realized the need for patience. He'll need wisdom, as well as good luck in the draft, which is not to accuse the Cavs of trashing everything from their lost LeBron era. Even now they are working to remember how they carried themselves and the work they put in as winners just one year ago. They are trying to view themselves as they were while insisting they'll return to that level of play someday.

"From an organizational standpoint, we know we have to start over," first-year coach Byron Scott said before the Cavs' 112-95 loss in Boston on Tuesday. "But that's not the message I'm giving those guys in there. We're trying to win games and we're trying to instill that in the players we have here, because that's the type of culture we're trying to build around."

Scott insists he won't sacrifice that winning culture to improve Cleveland's ranking in the lottery.

"We're going to play it till the end," he said. "We're going to play every game to try to win, and April 13, if that's our last game, we're trying to win that game.

"This franchise already has that that winning attitude, so we're going to keep that. We're not going to sacrifice that for anything right now. No matter what else is going on, we're still trying to win, we're still going to give an effort. We're not going to not play guys to try to tank it to get the extra Ping-Pong balls. That's not us."

Do organizations win championships? The answer is yes, they do -- but only if the right players arrive in the draft. In this counterintuitive NBA world that rewards losers at the expense of also-rans, Scott can afford to maintain a standard of hard play because his devastated roster lacks the talent to win. The departures and injuries have seen to that. Gilbert made it clear the night of James' departure that nothing less than a championship is his goal, and so each loss brings him closer to that goal. It makes no sense in other sporting leagues around the world, but that's how it works here.

Now, on to your questions from the mailbag (and Facebook) ...

So, how am I to take this LaMarcus Aldridge All-Star snub? You put two forwards from losing teams ahead of Aldridge? With Brandon Roy out for most likely the season, L.A. has only managed to average more than 25 points and 10 rebounds in January, and overall he's led his depleted team to four games over .500. So glad that the other two guys (Kevin Love and Blake Griffin) have helped their team succeed.-- Garett, Gresham, Ore.

You make fair points, Garett. Aldridge has been terrific, especially since Roy has been sidelined. But Love is assembling the best rebounding season (15.6 per game) in 14 years -- serious blue-collar work -- and he's averaging 21.4 points and 2.6 assists to go with it. Griffin is fourth in rebounding (12.9) and 12th in scoring with 3.5 assists (which is No. 2 among NBA power forwards), and his Clippers have gone 12-5 around him lately. Every year, a couple of deserving players are left out, and this year Aldridge is the victim despite all he is doing for his team.

I don't understand the MVP hype for Amar'e Stoudemire. Yes, he's putting up great numbers and, yes, he has the Knicks back in playoff contention. But at the end of the day, his team is barely above .500 in a conference with only five good teams. The idea of placing him above the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Deron Williams -- to name just a few -- is preposterous. If he were playing for any team other than the Knicks, nobody would be touting him as an MVP candidate.-- Joel, Kingston, Jamaica

Over the first two months there was no player more valuable than Stoudemire. He was posting huge numbers that were translating into victories for a franchise that hadn't shown life for a number of years, and his leadership was a revelation. But it will be interesting to see how this Knicks story plays out over the second half of the season. If they wind up a game or two above .500, then you'll be right -- he will fade behind the prolific stars who are leading at the highest level.

How can you not include Dirk in a discussion of the MVP race? Yes, I know Caron Butler getting hurt hit the Mavs hard as well, but compare them with Dirk (even on one leg) to without him. Dirk was always way ahead of Amar'e in New York. So the Knicks had the sixth-best record in the pathetic East? The Mavs had the best record in the league.-- Jason, Columbus, Ohio

This is an open MVP race that is going to be decided over the next three months, and Nowitzki may yet win it. Will he be able to regather his Mavericks after his own injury and the loss of Butler? I'd rate LeBron as the favorite right now, but a strong second half could be decisive for leaders like Nowitzki, Bryant and others.

I am always puzzled by MVP voting, especially this year. Is the MVP most valuable to his team, to the league, to himself? Looking at Miami: While LeBron James clearly does lots for the team, take away LeBron, does Miami fill that gap with different players and still contend because of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade? You probably know where this is going, seeing my hometown as Chicago, but isn't Derrick Rose more worthy of the MVP than James? Without Rose, the Bulls are not even close to the same team (apologies to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah). And without Rose, the Bulls have no backcourt at all.-- Loren, Chicago

I try to vote for the player who is most valuable to his team, while taking into account the level of his team's play: The hardest of all things is to win at a championship-contending level. Rose is on the short list of candidates, and his candidacy improves as the Bulls continue to move up. He could be MVP at the end of the year, but I'll be surprised, because this is his third NBA season and he'll be contending against more experienced team leaders down the stretch.

Should the All-Star rosters expand to 15 players per team, as is the case with the typical NBA team roster, in order to give deserving players a chance to get rewarded for their play?-- Qumar (via Facebook)

I don't think so. I like it being so competitive that some deserving players are left off every year. That competition ultimately gives greater meaning to the race and the game itself.

Plus, there would still be people writing in to complain about this or that player being left off the team. Those arguments make it interesting. I say the more exclusive it is, the better.

It sure seems like you have stated a lot of "ifs" for the Lakers to boldly declare they are rounding into the team to beat. Seems like the Laker-loving media are conveniently ignoring the fact the Lakers are one of the oldest teams in the league.-- Dave, San Antonio

I didn't hear a lot of the "Laker-loving" talk last June when I was picking the Celtics to beat the Lakers (even after Boston lost center Kendrick Perkins in Game 6). But I've been picking them this year because of all of the matchup problems created by their size.

Can you name me a team that doesn't face a number of "ifs" on its way to the Finals? The league-leading Spurs can win if they stay healthy -- a big if given their history in recent years -- and if their defense continues to improve as it has lately. The Celtics, Heat, Mavs and Magic all must answer important questions over the next three months, with no assurance they'll be answered in a positive way. Assuming all of the contenders are at full strength, the Lakers have to be the favorite -- they've earned the league's third-best record without breaking a sweat.

(Incidentally, they have two old players -- Kobe and Derek Fisher -- and everyone else is in his prime years.)

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