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As history (sometimes) shows, free fall might not be the pits for Cavs

What's weird is that, at this time in 2010, the Cavs seemed likely to contend for championships for years. They had the league MVP, a guy whose name I forget but who apparently left for some warm-weather team last summer. They had a chance to acquire Amar'e Stoudemire at the trade deadline, which means they plausibly could have had two of the top candidates in this year's crowded MVP race. And even without making that move, they went on to win an NBA-high 61 games.

Now look at them. They just finished a 26-game losing streak. That's one loss for every letter of the alphabet. It's hard to fail at anything 26 times in a row. If you asked out Scarlett Johansson on a date 26 straight times, she would say yes at least once, or at least have you arrested when you hit 20, ending the streak.

Cleveland's opponents have to run their offenses while tiptoeing around the wreckage. No matter. The Cavs can't win at home. They can't win on the road. They finally snapped their losing streak last week against the Clippers, but only because they were getting a lot of attention for losing and the Clippers were jealous. That won't change the larger truth about these Cavs, which is ...

That they suck?

What -- did I mention that?

Yes, they're awful. But you know what? Given their LeBron-free plight, they are better off this way. First of all, at least they are interesting. Who wouldn't pull for this team and this town? NBA teams that are merely bad are usually boring. This team is endearing. It embodies everything that has ever gone wrong in Cleveland sports, which is saying something.

This might be the biggest riches-to-rags story in sports history. (More on that in a minute.) It seems like the ultimate worst-case scenario. But it isn't.

The Cavs are lucky they are losing so much. OK, not the players themselves. But the franchise and its fans are better off this way. Once that guy left for that warm place, the best thing the Cavs could do was the worst they can do.

What would happen if the Cavs won 35 or 40 games this year? All lousy things, that's what. They would blow their chance at a top-three draft pick in June. (It's not a great draft at the top, but never mind that -- higher picks are still better.) And their owner, the desperate-to-win, willing-to-spend Dan Gilbert, might throw a bunch of money at guys on the current roster who aren't really that good. At least now Gilbert knows he has to blow up the whole thing.

This team is terrible, but the situation is not. In the NBA, sometimes you have to be really bad before you can get really good.

We are about to take a long, deep look at many of the teams throughout history in the four major pro sports leagues that fell the hardest from one season to the next. There are lessons to be learned here.

Let's start with the NBA, because that's where the Cavs theoretically play.

Cleveland Cavaliers

2009-2010 record: 61-212010-11: 9-46 (through Feb. 15)The Cavs are on pace for the worst single-season dip in victories (for an 82-game season) and winning percentage in NBA history.

Pretty simple story, right? That Guy left for that warm place. Sure, there are other problems -- injuries, a roster constructed to take advantage of That Guy's talents that can't function on its own, and the fact that everybody on this team appears to be in a state of catatonic shock. Plus, you can always take five victories away from any team's expected win total when it plays in Cleveland.


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Chicago Bulls

1997-98: 62-201998-99: 13-37In terms of winning percentage, this is the greatest NBA dive. But it's not the worst single-season wins decline because the lockout shortened the 1998-99 season to 50 games. That Bulls team was on pace to win 21 games in an 82-game season, which would've been a record 41-win drop-off.

Hmmm. What could this team have in common with this year's Cavs? Did it lose anybody ... ah, right. At least the post-Michael Jordan Bulls were supposed to lose. Jordan had retired. Scottie Pippen had been traded to Houston. Bulls general manager Jerry Krause did not want his team to be bad, so he devised the brilliant plan to avoid that: His team would be bad before it got bad. This did not make sense at the time either.

The losing did pay off that summer, when Krause drafted two future All-Stars: Elton Brand and Ron Artest. Alas, that failed when Krause traded Brand to the Clippers and Artest to his hometown on Pluto.


San Antonio Spurs

1995-96: 59-231996-97: 20-62Win decline: -39This is the NBA's biggest win decrease for an 82-game season.

Charles Barkley accused the Spurs of tanking the 1996-97 season to improve their chances of getting the No. 1 pick in the draft. Charles says a lot of things. He can't go through a McDonald's drive-thru without saying something controversial. This is why America loves him.

The Spurs have vehemently denied tanking the season. But let's just say, hypothetically, that Barkley was right. Let's say that once injuries hit -- David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Chuck Person, all key players, got hurt -- the Spurs decided to shoot the moon. Wouldn't this be the greatest crime in plain sight in sports history?

Early in the season, general manager Gregg Popovich fired coach Bob Hill and named himself coach. The Spurs were so bad that they certainly appeared like they were trying to lose (though that is true of many really bad teams), finishing the season with the second-best odds of winning the draft lottery. They ended up with the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft, which they used on Tim Duncan, which resulted in four championships (so far), a sure Hall of Fame spot for Popovich and -- most remarkably, considering the context of this hypothetical scenario -- a reputation as the most no-nonsense franchise in sports.

Meanwhile, Hill resurfaced as the coach of the SuperSonics ... and got fired right before they drafted Kevin Durant. Hill just barely missed out on coaching two ridiculously talented, totally unselfish, franchise-defining superstars. But on the plus side, when your name is Bob Hill, you don't have to change it when you go into hiding.

Again: We're not saying Charles was right. But the part of us that roots for the smart-aleck bad guys kind of wishes he was.


Houston Rockets

1981-82: 46-361982-83: 14-68Win decline: -32

Let's see. So far our NBA collapsers (EDITOR'S NOTE: That is not a word) all have something in common: They lost or played most of the year without a Hall of Fame talent from the previous season.

These Rockets had traded Moses Malone, who was the league MVP the year before. This may strike you as a wee bit COMPLETELY INSANE, since there is no athlete in sports more valuable than the best player in the NBA, and Moses was only 27 and healthy. But the early 1980s were a strange time in the NBA -- as I recall, nobody was making any money and everybody was doing cocaine, but perhaps I romanticize it. Anyway, the Malone trade seems like a crazy thing that would never happen today ... except that a) Malone wanted more money; b) he was unhappy with Houston management; and c) the Rockets got a No. 1 pick that originally belonged to the Cavs, which means Cleveland wasn't even involved in this deal and got screwed anyway. So really, it's not that different from what happens in the NBA today.

Malone went on to lead the Sixers to the championship in his first year in Philadelphia. The league-worst Rockets ended up selecting Ralph Sampson, who seemed like a sure Hall of Famer at the time, and Rodney McCray with two of the top three picks in the 1983 draft. Then, the next year, the Rockets stunk again, got the No. 1 overall pick and drafted Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon, who led them to the 1986 Finals and two championships in the 1990s. So in the long term, it helped to suck.


San Francisco Warriors

1963-64: 48-321964-65: 17-63Win decline: -31

So the Warriors had the exact same roster and ... no, wait, that's not what happened. They traded Wilt Chamberlain midway through the 1964-65 season. But then they got Rick Barry with the No. 2 pick, and by 1967 they were in the NBA Finals. Are you noticing a common thread here?


Golden State Warriors

1993-94: 50-321994-95: 26-56Win decline: -24

On draft night in 1993, the Warriors traded Penny Hardaway (the third selection) and three future first-round picks to the Magic for the rights to the No. 1 overall pick, the ridiculously talented Chris Webber. (Even now, I don't think people appreciate how gifted Webber was -- he was 6-foot-10 with the athleticism of an All-Star shooting guard and had the best post-passing skills you could ever want to see. What a freak.) Webber was known as a stubborn, sensitive type, and the Warriors decided to a) give him a chance to opt out of his 15-year, $74 million deal after one season, leading to a contract dispute, and b) have coach Don Nelson bicker with him that entire first year.

Shockingly, this did not end well. In November 1994, the reigning Rookie of the Year was traded to Washington for Tom Gugliotta and three future first-round picks. The Warriors have not been heard from since, except for their historic playoff upset of Dallas after Nelson returned.

That sums up our NBA portion of the proceedings. As you can see, losing a superstar is never good in the short term. But being absolutely horrible can actually be good in the long term.

Houston Oilers

1993: 12-41994: 2-14Win decline: -10In terms of winning percentage, this is the greatest decline in the four major pro sports (.750 to .125 for a difference of .625).

People don't remember this collapse very well, probably because the Oilers never made the Super Bowl. But it was epic. The Oilers had made six straight playoff appearances and tied for the best record in the NFL in 1993. Then, in order: They lost a home playoff game to the Kansas City Chiefs; traded 37-year-old Warren Moon to the Minnesota Vikings in a money-saving deal; put their offense in the hands of Cody Carlson (who would get hurt) and Billy Joe Tolliver; discovered Moon did not age like most humans do (he would throw for more than 4,000 yards in each of his first two years with the Vikings); and discovered Billy Joe Tolliver was Billy Joe Tolliver.

They did find a very good head coach, Jeff Fisher, who replaced Jack Pardee in November 1994. They also found another state to call home. The Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997.


Chicago Bears

2001: 13-32002: 4-12Win decline: -9

Do you remember the great Bears team of 2001? Me neither. It finished 13-3 through some combination of defense, luck and proper voodoo-doll pin placement. It won two games in overtime. It went 11-2 with Jim Miller as a starting quarterback. (Miller was 4-10 the rest of his career.) From 1997 to 2004, the Bears won 4, 4, 6, 5, THIRTEEN!, 4, 7 and 5 games per season. This wasn't a decline. It was a return to reality.


Atlanta Falcons

1998: 14-21999: 5-11Win decline: -9

Oakland Raiders

2002: 11-52003: 4-12Win decline: -7

As far as I'm concerned, these were the same team. The Falcons made the Super Bowl after the 1998 season thanks largely to a veteran quarterback who did not seem Super Bowl-worthy (Chris Chandler), lost to coach Dan Reeves' former team (the Broncos) and then, with injuries playing a role, completely fell apart (three consecutive losing seasons). The Raiders made the Super Bowl after the 2002 season thanks largely to an overachieving veteran quarterback who did not seem Super Bowl-worthy (Rich Gannon), lost to their former coach (Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden) and then, with injuries playing a role, completely fell apart (seven straight seasons with five victories or fewer).

This may sound like revisionist history, but I think you could see both collapses coming. The NFL is an up-and-down league -- unless you have an All-Pro quarterback or a brilliant general manager, your ups will usually be followed in short order by downs. And if you overachieve, then suffer a severe decline in quarterback play ... well, that is how you end up on this list.


San Francisco 49ers

1998: 12-41999: 4-12Win decline: -8

I remember how weird this seemed at the time. For pretty much my entire life, the 49ers had been good, and to a sports fan, whatever happened when you were a kid seems like the only thing that ever happened. Especially if, like me, you are a narcissist. And if you are, I don't want to hear about it. We're talking about me, not you.

The 49ers had won at least 10 games for 16 straight seasons. Then they got old and started playing lousy defense. Steve Young suffered concussions, which prepared him for appearing on cable talk shows but limited him to three games in 1999. The Niners actually made it back to the playoffs two years later thanks to the happy love triangle of Steve Mariucci, Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens, but, of course, that blew up when T.O. implied that Garcia was gay, Garcia responded by marrying a Playboy Playmate and Mariucci ended up working for Matt Millen. I think we can safely say Garcia made out best in that scenario.


Denver Broncos

1998: 14-21999: 6-10Win decline: -8

We are going to retroactively diagnose the 1999 Broncos with several ailments:

1. Double Super Bowl Hangover (they were two-time defending champs).

2. Superstar Voiditis (John Elway had retired and Terrell Davis, who looked like he was on his way to the Hall of Fame, played only four games in '99 and averaged 3.1 yards per carry).

3. We're Not So Good Anymore Syndrome. This is actually an offshoot of No. 1. Teams that know they are on the way down tend to go down quickly, because they know that whatever effort they put in, the result will not be as cool as what they did the year before.

This also began the Broncos' era of being pretty good but never winning playoff games (except for one, in the 2005 season), an era that ended when they brought in Josh McDaniels to get rid of all their good players. Surprisingly, that failed too.

Philadelphia Athletics

1914: 99-531915: 43-109Win decline: -56In terms of number of wins, this is the worst decline in sports history.

The A's lost a bunch of players to the upstart Federal League and collapsed (they sunk even lower in 1916: a 36-117 record and .235 winning percentage, the worst of the modern era). This was traumatic at the time, but I'm going to take a wild guess here and assume you are over it. But anyway, I think it is great that a league trying to compete with the American League and the National League called itself the Federal League. Those were some patriotic times, my friends. The Federal League ultimately failed when it decided to follow the national anthem with a public reading of the entire Declaration of Independence before the first pitch, alienating fans. I'm counting on you just trusting me on this instead of looking it up online.


Florida Marlins

1997: 92-701998: 54-108Win decline: -38

Hmmm. How interesting: The Marlins, like those Philadelphia A's, lost their players over money. After winning the 1997 World Series with a top-10 payroll of nearly $50 million, the Marlins, in the offseason and early the following season, unloaded Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou and Al Leiter, among others, amid an unsettled ownership situation. Yup: two guys linked to performance-enhancing drugs, a whiner, a guy who peed on his hands and Al Leiter. You can see why Marlins fans were heartbroken.


Montreal Expos

1994: 74-40 (strike-shortened)1995: 66-78 (strike-shortened)Montreal had a six-game lead in the NL East when the work stoppage began on Aug. 11, 1994. After the rest of the season was wiped out, play resumed the following April 25. The Expos finished the 1995 season in last place, 24 games behind the division-winning Braves.

Hmmm. What did this team have in common with the '15 A's and '98 Marlins? Oh, hey, here it is: They lost prominent players over money. In the case of the Expos, who sought to trim a payroll that was the second lowest in baseball in 1994 ($18.6 million), they let cleanup hitter Larry Walker leave as a free agent for Colorado. They also traded closer John Wetteland to the Yankees, top starter Ken Hill to the Cardinals and leadoff hitter Marquis Grissom to the Braves -- all in a span of three days! The Expos were so cheap they tried to stuff all three of them into one taxi.

You know, in retrospect, it's almost like the 1994 work stoppage didn't really solve anything. It's a good thing they didn't cancel the World Series when Montreal had the best record in baseball or anything.


Boston Braves

1934: 78-731935: 38-115Win decline: -40

What happened? Among other things, the Braves, competing in the eight-team National League, went from lucky to unlucky. In 1934, they were outscored by 31 runs yet somehow finished five games over .500. In 1935, their expected record was 50-103 but they actually stunk worse than that and finished 38-115, the second-worst record of the modern era. (Their best starting pitcher, Ben Cantwell, went 4-25 with a 4.61 ERA.) It is possible that they were upset nobody was watching -- they played one July home game in front of just 95 people.

No wonder owner Emil Fuchs, with his team reportedly close to bankruptcy, had brought in a 40-year-old drawing card named Babe Ruth before the 1935 season. But the Braves got only 28 games out of Ruth, who batted .181 with six home runs. On May 25, 1935, a week before retiring, Ruth hit three homers, including the 714th and last of his career. Despite getting only 72 at-bats that season, Ruth still ranked second on the Braves in home runs, trailing only Wally Berger, who hit 34 and had 130 RBIs to finish sixth in the NL MVP balloting for a 115-loss club.


Chicago White Sox

1920: 96-581921: 62-92Win decline: -34

The 1921 White Sox put an interesting twist on the whole lose-your-players-because-you-won't-pay-them bit. The players decided to make a little freelance money fixing the 1919 World Series, which, of course, resulted in the famous Black Sox Scandal, which first affected the team in the final week of the 1920 season and really hit hard in 1921. Key players got banned from baseball and 62-92 happened.

The baseball section is actually a pretty interesting list, because money was a factor in every single decline. You could argue that the outsized influence of money on the fortunes of teams has been the one constant in the history of baseball. But if you want to be a real baseball writer, you'd have to make that argument in the form of a poem.


Philadelphia Flyers

2005-06: 45-26-11 (101 points)2006-07: 22-48-12 (56 points)Points drop: -45This is the biggest points decline in NHL history.

The Flyers had 11 straight winning seasons, collapsed for one, then immediately resumed winning big again. So what transpired after that first-round playoff ouster in 2006? A combination of turmoil (general manager Bobby Clarke and coach Ken Hitchcock were gone before anybody realized it was hockey season) and a poorly constructed roster hampered by questionable goaltending and the shortcomings of a big, slow defense that was vulnerable in the NHL's new era of speed. The Flyers recovered quickly because general manager Paul Holmgren did a top-flight job overhauling the team.


Detroit Red Wings

1969-70: 40-21-15 (95 points)1970-71: 22-45-11 (55 points)Points drop: -40

This was the start of the Dead Things era in Detroit (it would be 13 seasons before the Wings began winning again). New coach Ned Harkness lost the aging team from the moment he got the job and was kicked upstairs to be GM after only 38 games, which included a franchise-worst 13-0 loss to Toronto. Once in the front office, Harkness began trading players such as future Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich, who was 33, but still playing well.

Those Red Wings did put one interesting twist on the typical collapse story: They lost their biggest star after they collapsed. In 1971, the 42-year-old Gordie Howe retired after 25 seasons with Detroit (though he was back playing again two years later, with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association.)


Pittsburgh Penguins

2000-01: 42-28-9-3 (96 points)2001-02: 28-41-8-5 (69 points)Points drop: -27

In the 2001 offseason, the financially strapped Penguins traded five-time scoring champion Jaromir Jagr to Washington for prospects. Their other star, Mario Lemieux, played only 24 games in '01-02 because of injuries.

I don't want to say the Penguins collapsed simply because they lost Jagr and Lemieux. But Jagr and Lemieux had combined for 87 goals in 2000-01. Lemieux scored six in 2001-02, and, of course, Jagr was gone. That is a net loss of 81 goals. The team went from 281 goals to 198. So ... uh, yeah, that was pretty much it.

The Pens finished last in the Atlantic Division, out of the playoffs. That postseason drought would run for another three seasons, including a league-worst record in 2003-04. But the eventual grand prize for their suffering (after the lockout-canceled season of 2004-05) would be getting lucky in the draft lottery and landing Sidney Crosby with the first pick in the 2005 draft.


You know what? After going through all these collapses, I really think the Cavs' is the worst. You have to factor in everything -- the hope invested in the team before this year, the fact it hadn't won a title, the history of the city's teams, and how bad this year's team is. But if there is a lesson from all these collapses, it's that being lousy doesn't last forever. Except when it does.