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Double Dealing The Cavaliers needed to make a big, daring move on draft day, and G.M. Jim Paxson had the perfect plan. Well, almost perfect

July 08, 2002
July 08, 2002

Table of Contents
July 8, 2002

Double Dealing The Cavaliers needed to make a big, daring move on draft day, and G.M. Jim Paxson had the perfect plan. Well, almost perfect

Your best player is Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a 7'3" giant with Bill
Walton's feet. He's possibly the world's nicest guy, but his
size 16s have been put back together five times by surgeons who
have inserted seven pins. You still owe him $40.5 million over
the next three years, which means 25% of your payroll is devoted
to a player who has missed 60% of his games over his six-year
career.

This is an article from the July 8, 2002 issue

Your second-best player, Andre Miller, is entering his fourth
year, has never made an All-Star team, never made the playoffs,
never had a winning season and says he deserves a maximum salary
of $10.6 million.

You've spent three years trying to rebuild the team, dumping
horrid contracts like Shawn Kemp's seven-year, $107 million
deal, but it's like trying to restructure one of the airlines.
Attendance is plunging, and the team is reportedly for sale. The
fans want hope, excitement, energy; they don't care about the
finances. They want a daring move. They want you to snap your
fingers and make all the problems go away.

Your name is Jim Paxson. You are the 44-year-old general manager
of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and you have a plan. If all goes
well, you will hatch it on June 26, the night of the NBA draft.

JUNE 13: 13 DAYS BEFORE THE DRAFT

Paxson was prowling the practice court at Gund Arena in
Cleveland alongside his coaches and Mike Bratz, the Cavs' player
personnel director. The Cavs had the No. 6 pick in the June 26
draft--their best position since 1986--and they were awaiting
the arrival of four of the highest-rated players in the draft:
swingman Caron Butler of Connecticut, guard DaJuan Wagner of
Memphis, small forward Qyntel Woods of Northeast Mississippi
Community College and power forward Marcus Haislip of Tennessee.

The workout began at 12:10 p.m. The first alarm was sounded at
12:11. All four players were having difficulties with a simple
crossover dribble drill. "Your footwork is bad, guys," shouted
assistant coach Jerry Eaves. "That's why you're having trouble."
As Woods drove to the basket, head coach John Lucas scolded him
like a grade school gym teacher: "You went off the wrong foot!"

If NBA fans could attend these predraft workouts, they would be
amazed at the scarcity of fundamental play by young men who will
be handed rookie wages of $1 million or more. The Cavs brought a
total of six players to Cleveland, and all were flawed. Maybyner
(Nene) Hilario of Brazil, the 19-year-old power forward who
would be taken No. 7 by the Knicks and immediately traded to the
Nuggets, proved to be a tremendous athlete who had no moves
around the basket. Forward Jared Jefferies of Indiana, who would
go to Washington at No. 11, didn't make a perimeter jump shot
until the 41st minute of his workout for the Cavs. Woods, who
would be taken by Portland with the 21st pick, played
listlessly, apparently exhausted after arriving at 12:30 a.m.
following a workout in Denver. "It's a grind for these guys
having to compete in all these workouts," Bratz said. "But if
you're tired from a late flight, hey, that's what the NBA is.
They have to get used to it."

The two most impressive players to audition for the Cavs were
Wagner, a 6'2" freshman, and Butler, a 22-year-old sophomore.
Though he had landed in Cleveland on the same flight as Woods,
Butler quickly elevated his level of play during an intense
77-minute workout. Paxson was hoping to find a player who could
help his team as a rookie, and nobody in range of the No. 6 pick
looked more prepared than Butler. Lucas liked Butler too, but
the coach seemed even more impressed with Wagner's basketball
IQ: When Lucas advised him on how to cover the pick-and-roll,
Wagner adjusted on the next play. "His father [Milt Wagner] was
a pro, so he's been playing with pros all his life," said Lucas,
who believes Wagner could become a star NBA point guard. "He
knows how to be a pro, he can score, he's strong, and he's 6'2"
with the arm span of a 6'9" guy."

Paxson and Lucas conducted private interviews with each player,
using different styles. Lucas asked provocative questions like,
How many children do you have? and How much marijuana do you
smoke? "When they say they smoke, I ask them, 'Can you stop?'"
said Lucas, a recovering substance abuser who runs a rehab
clinic in Houston. "If they say they don't smoke, then a red
flag goes up and I start asking people I know to find out more
about them."

Paxson's approach was more low-key. He invited the 19-year-old
Wagner into his office, sat down across a small round table from
him and asked, "What do you think you'll be able to come into
the league and do right away?"

"Whatever the coach tells me to do," Wagner said uncomfortably.

"What about a girlfriend?"

"Nah," whispered Wagner.

"Basketball's your girlfriend," Paxson said, smiling. "What
about when you're in the NBA and you're making money and stuff,
do you think that will change you at all?"

"No," said Wagner. "I just love the game."

After Wagner left, Paxson said, "This kid is 6'1" [without
shoes], and if you take a 6'1" guy at Number 6, you'd better be
right. But I'm not down on the kid. I like the kid. He loves to
play, he plays all the time, and those kids get better. And"--he
paused for dramatic effect--"he wants to come to Cleveland."

JUNE 23: THREE DAYS TO GO

Here's what Cavs fans wanted Paxson to accomplish, to judge by
what was being written in the Cleveland-area papers.

--Re-sign Miller, or if he goes, get equal value in return. Paxson
was working on that.

--Re-sign 22-year-old small forward Ricky Davis, a restricted
free agent who had shown signs of becoming a star last season.
The fans didn't know it, but Paxson had already made room on his
payroll to keep Davis by agreeing to trade 31-year-old Wesley
Person, who had two years and $14.7 million remaining on his
contract, for a second-round draft choice and Nick Anderson, who
had one year left at $6.1 million.

--Sign some decent free agents. Paxson and Lucas had recently
met for four hours with team owner Gordon Gund, examining the
rosters of the other teams in the league, searching for valuable
players who might become available by trade or as free agents.
Such meetings are especially long in Cleveland, because Gund is
blind and can't see tapes of prospects.

--Don't draft a stiff. The Cavs put together a database of 353
potential picks, all of whom had been scouted personally by the
team's four scouts in the U.S. and Europe. In addition Paxson
hired private investigators to check the backgrounds of players
he thought he might take at No. 6. His goal was to be as
thorough as possible, with the understanding that little happens
as planned in the NBA. Losing has tortured Paxson. "We haven't
done as well as I'd like since I've been in charge, and there
are a lot of factors involved in that," said Paxson, who has two
seasons remaining on his contract. "But ultimately I'm
responsible, and at some point you've got to start showing some
progress no matter what the circumstances are."

JUNE 25: ONE DAY TO GO

While Paxson met with Gund, the four coaches met with Bratz,
head scout Darrell Hedric and scout Don Donoher in the team
locker room at Gund Arena at 10 a.m. to begin rating the top
players by position. They touted Wagner as the top shooting
guard in the draft, Butler as the second-best small forward
(behind Mike Dunleavy) and Chris Wilcox, the 6'10" sophomore
forward from Maryland, as the No. 2 power forward (behind Drew
Gooden).

When Paxson entered the locker room at 1:40, he told his staff
that the team was going to trade Person. He also let them know
that the Los Angeles Clippers were interested in trading for
Miller.

They discussed a few rumors--that Dunleavy was headed to Golden
State as the No. 3 pick, that Denver might take Wagner at No. 5
and that Woods was sliding because of a question mark in his
medical reports. Then they moved on to the business of ranking
the top 50 players, regardless of position. This would form the
definitive list that they would use in the draft.

They listed Yao Ming as the No. 1 prospect. Paxson then
nominated Jay Williams of Duke as the No. 2 player on the board.
"If Jay Williams slipped to six, would we take him over Wagner?"
Paxson asked.

Lucas said, "No."

Paxson asked for all opinions. "If we have Andre, then I'd take
Wagner," one said. Another agreed. Two others voted for Williams.

Assistant coach Ron Ekker changed the subject. "I'm a little
concerned about this talk of trading Andre," he said. "That
can't be a basketball decision."

Paxson explained that he, Gund and Lucas had agreed that they
wouldn't trade Miller unless they received two promising young
players. "There's a 90 to 95 percent chance that Andre's going
to be on our roster on Thursday morning," Paxson said. "But if
we have the chance, let's collect young players we like who are
under contract.

"We're not going to trade Andre because he wants the max. We
know Andre. We aren't winning with him. Nobody's coming to our
building to see Andre Miller play. I'm not putting Andre down.
It's just a fact. You say it's not a basketball decision, but in
the future it is. We're only going to trade him if we can get
two young players and Wagner and build for the long term."

"That's if we are part of the future," Ekker said. "You may put
us in a position where we are not part of the future."

Instead of boiling over in frustration at this challenge, as
many G.M.'s would have done, Paxson continued to reason with
Ekker. "Gordon Gund doesn't want to win 35 games," Paxson said.
"He's willing to go this route. You have to trust that."

THREE HOURS TO GO

In the late afternoon of Gund's 18th draft as owner of the Cavs,
he met with Paxson. They went over the scenarios again and
again. If they could take Wagner at No. 6, they would try to
make a deal with the Clippers. Gund would negotiate by phone
with Donald Sterling, owner to owner, which is routine in big
trades. The Clippers were the only club with enough high draft
picks (Nos. 8 and 12) and young players to make a bid for
Miller. None of the draft's top teams--No. 1 Houston, No. 2
Chicago, No. 4 Memphis, No. 5 Denver, not even No. 3 Golden
State, which was desperate for a point guard--were interested in
trading their picks for Miller, which Paxson took as further
proof that Miller is not yet worthy of a max contract. "I hope
like hell that if Andre's here, he has an unbelievable year and
we win," Paxson said. "Because we will pay him what he's worth."

ZERO HOUR

The war room was on the sixth floor of Gund Arena. Eighteen
members of the organization sat around a long table, with Gund
seated at the head. A live telecast of the draft was playing on
a TV at the far end of the room; a speakerphone blared
occasional messages from draft headquarters in New York City.
Paxson and Bratz sat next to each other with a pair of phones
between them, answering and making last-minute calls. Lucas,
hopping with nervous energy, walked in and out of the room
before plopping into a chair next to Gund. "I've put out so many
lies about us, nobody knows what we're doing," he said,
laughing. "I said we're taking Butler, I said we're taking
Wilcox, I said we're taking [Nickoloz] Tskitishvili,
Wagner--nobody has any idea."

The first four picks went as expected: Yao, Williams, Dunleavy,
Gooden. Now it was Denver's turn. This was the one team the Cavs
feared would take Wagner. "Come on Denver, do the right thing,
do the right thing," Lucas said, pacing the room.

When Denver took Tskitishvili, a highly skilled 19-year-old from
the Republic of Georgia, everyone in the room cheered except for
Paxson, who immediately dialed Clippers VP of basketball
operations Elgin Baylor to tell him that the Cavs would be
taking Wagner. Paxson believed this would surprise the Clippers,
who also coveted Wagner, and he wanted to give them as much time
as possible to regroup and adjust their offer for Miller. Next
Paxson called in the pick of Wagner, making it official. He then
made a lap of the table, shaking hands to congratulate everyone.
"I want to see you smiling," Paxson jibed at Ekker. "You like
this guy."

At 8:01 p.m. Cleveland's pick was announced. At 8:04 the phone
rang. Paxson held out the receiver to Gund. "It's Sterling."

The television was muted, and everyone in the room went silent.
Paxson, who had been as calm as an insurance broker, jumped to
his feet, hands in pockets, shoulders thrust back, face drawn
tight. Gund settled into a chair with his red-tipped cane folded
across his lap and declared calmly and pleasantly, as if he were
on a Sunday morning stroll, "Hi, Donald, how are you?"

After a brief exchange of pleasantries Gund declared his gambit:
"Darius Miles and Number 8 for Andre Miller."

This should have come as no surprise to Sterling. Paxson and the
Clippers had been discussing the trade for three weeks, but
Sterling now complained that Miles was too sensational to give
up. "Well," answered Gund, "we know what Andre is, and he led
the league in assists this year ... and he's just the right
player for your team."

In the middle of the conversation it was announced in New York
that the Knicks had used the No. 7 pick to acquire Hilario,
leaving Wilcox available. Within seconds Sterling told Gund that
the Clippers wanted to keep their No. 8 pick to grab him.

Gund held the phone to his chest and leaned toward Paxson. "How
would Miles and 12 do?"

"Yes," said Paxson.

"Don," said Gund, returning to the phone, "we'll take Miles and
12, and you take your guy at eight."

Sterling said no. He would not trade Miles. The Cavs now had less
than four minutes left to salvage a deal.

Gund asked Sterling, "Would you do [Lamar] Odom, eight and 12?"
Gund listened for a moment, then put the phone to his chest and
asked Paxson, "Odom and eight?"

"Yes," said Paxson.

"Yes," Gund told Sterling. Gund and Paxson thought they had their
deal.

"He wants to know who we want [with the eighth pick]," Gund said
to Paxson.

"Caron Butler," Paxson said.

Sterling said he'd have to put Gund on hold for a moment. The
people in the Cavs war room began to celebrate--they were going
to get their two favorite players in the draft as well as the
6'9" Odom, a 22-year-old capable of averaging 20 points, eight
rebounds and six assists. If Odom didn't want to stay in
Cleveland when his contract expired after next season, the Cavs
could fetch something good for him in a sign-and-trade. In the
meantime they would have a young, exciting team, and the
Clippers would have a point guard capable of leading them to the
playoffs. It made sense for everybody. So why had Sterling put
Gund on hold?

"Two minutes," the speakerphone voice declared.

Within 30 seconds, Sterling came back on the line and said the
trade was off, that they'd run out of time, that the Clippers
had drafted Wilcox.

ONE HOUR LATER

Paxson, Gund and Bratz stood in a corner of the room trying to
piece together what had gone wrong with their deal. For one
thing, they realized, Sterling apparently had not been in the
war room with Baylor, which had made communication difficult.

When Sterling had come back on the line and told Gund that it
was too late to do the deal, that was clearly not true: There
were still about 90 seconds on the clock, plenty of time to
complete the trade. Did the Clippers stall and then pretend to
botch the deal in order to back away, believing they could make
a better trade later this summer? It's hard to imagine. They had
continued to behave as if a mistake had been made and they
wanted to rectify it. Barry Hecker, the Clippers' player
personnel director, called Bratz to say they were trying to
trade Wilcox to Phoenix for the No. 9 pick or to Miami for No.
10 so the Cavs could get Butler, but Paxson was sure that
neither deal would go through. He told the Clippers the only way
they could get Miller now was to hand over Miles and the 12th
pick. But that wasn't going to happen.

With the No. 10 pick, the Miami Heat selected Butler. "We're
out," Paxson said.

FOUR HOURS LATER

So close. Paxson and Lucas sat behind a table at a press
conference for the media in the basement of Gund Arena. They had
drafted the player they wanted, but they knew how close they had
come to the one bold move that changes everything. "Butler is, I
mean Wagner is, a guy who can really help us," Lucas said.

They answered a lot of questions about Miller. Then Paxson rode
the elevator upstairs. He went into his office and sat at his
desk. "Jim had the whole thing planned perfectly," Bratz said,
waiting in the office next door. "We were so close."

Near midnight an exhausted Paxson reappeared from his office
with bottles of beer, which he passed around. Looking out a
window at the darkness, he nodded slowly and said, "DaJuan is
going to bring us a lot of energy next year."

COLOR PHOTO: TODD BIGELOW PRIVATE SHOWING Paxson and Bratz went to a gym in L.A. to scout Butler in May.COLOR PHOTO: TJONATHAN DANIELCATTLE CALL Cleveland's brain trust sawall its prospects at the NBA predraft workout. COLOR PHOTO: TCHUCK SOLOMON SHOWDOWN The Cavs' top prospects, Wagner (left) and Butler, faced off in Cleveland. COLOR PHOTO: TDAVID LIAM KYLE DRESS REHEARSAL The Cavs' staff gathered the night before to rank the top 50 prospects.COLOR PHOTO: TBILL FRAKES THE PROPOSAL After picking Wagner,Paxson (left) hoped as Gund talked trade with L.A.COLOR PHOTO: TBILL FRAKES POSTMORTEM Lucas (left) and Paxson explained their moves to the Cleveland press. COLOR PHOTO: TBOB ROSATO THE TOP PROSPECT Wagner was impressive in his workout and interview.COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN THE SECOND CHOICE Butler was deemed most likely to help immediately.COLOR PHOTO: TBOB ROSATO THE BAIT Miller seemed to be a perfect fit for the Clippers.COLOR PHOTO: TTHOMAS WELLS/NE MISSISSIPPI DAILY JOURNALTHE QUESTION MARK Woods was crossed off the list after a lackluster workout.COLOR PHOTO: TBOB ROSATO THE TOP GUARD The Cavs liked Williams but were sure he'd go at No. 2.COLOR PHOTO: TJOHN BIEVER THE REBOUNDER Gooden was ranked the top power forward in the draft.COLOR PHOTO: TAL TIELEMANS THE SMALL FORWARD Dunleavy also figured to be gone before the Cavs picked.COLOR PHOTO: TMANNY MILLANTHE SWITCH The Cavs wanted Butler at No. 8, but L.A. took Wilcox.COLOR PHOTO: TJOHN BIEVER THE KEEPER Paxson cleared room on his payroll to re-sign Davis.COLOR PHOTO: TROBERT BECK THE OBJECT OF DESIRE The Cavs thought they had Miles, but Sterling balked.COLOR PHOTO: TJOHN W. MCDONOUGH THE SUBSTITUTE When offered Odom instead of Miles, the Cavs said yes.COLOR PHOTO: TBILL FRAKESTHE NEW CAV Paxson's grand plan fell apart, but he did get Wagner.