It was late last March, as a bad Cleveland winter drifted into spring, a frigid wind whipped snow outside the Cavaliers’ suburban practice facility.
Inside, the talk was of the team’s most recent nosedive. Owner Dan Gilbert had identified the season as when the team would take the step of making the playoffs but it wasn’t happening. The team had stumbled through the first 15 games after making a trade deadline deal for Spencer Hawes, losing 11 of them. It was the last attempt at a midseason-course correction, which included a trade for Luol Deng that hadn’t panned out, and the Cavs crashed to 18 games under .500.
Nobody was feeling good. The interim general manager, David Griffin, was unsure he’d keep the job. Coach Mike Brown was starting to fear, rightly, he was going to be fired just one season in. Gilbert’s patience had long since frayed and he was growing only more restless by the day.
It was at this low point — in some ways a deeper depth than that 26-game losing streak back in 2010-11, because this team had real expectations — that the Cavs’ front office huddled to consider what was, on the face of it, a ridiculous plan.
They were going to try to trade for Kevin Love.
Or, more accurately, they were going to try harder to trade for him. It was no secret Love was the next domino to fall in the disgruntled-stars-who-want-out market, following in the tradition of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.
The Cavs were on the list of teams checking regularly with the Wolves to see if Minnesota had come to terms with what most felt was inevitable from the day Love didn’t get the contract extension he wanted in 2011.
The Cavs knew, sheepishly, that they were going to be back in the lottery for the fourth straight year. The humiliation, however, came with a lottery pick the Timberwolves might want. So they began to plot more aggressive packages to offer Minnesota.
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Love was worth a lot. Getting Love, the Cavs believed, would do no less than pave the way for the return of LeBron James in free agency a few months later. And they were going to try to trade for him without using Kyrie Irving, their prized young All-Star and best trade asset, in the deal.
This would be their big three: Irving and then Love and then, so the plan went, James.
Now, with a month until the start of training camp, the Cavs have James. They still have Irving. And, after completing their long-planned deal on Aug. 23, they have Love.
The Cavs can pinch themselves all they want, they have pulled it off. But that’s not to say it went precisely as planned.
Of course, there was no chance of it happening without long-term planning. Saying it was just luck is a disservice to the Cavs’ ability to close some big deals, but there was no chance of it happening without several huge swings of fortune.
Essentially, five factors came together in a unique way that made it possible. Some of them were on the Cavs’ dry-erase boards when they came to grips with their reality last spring. Some of them were unpredictable. But the sequence and timing ended up giving the Cavs one of the most dramatic and effective offseasons in league history.
In 2010, after James walked out on the Cavs, they were so shell-shocked and unprepared that it took them a calendar year to even begin to recover. But one thing they did from Day 1 — literally the first day after James’ decision — was realize they had to get draft picks. They had only three first-round picks over the previous six years. So when they begrudgingly traded James to Miami they insisted on two first-round picks back. They kept going from there, without fully knowing what they’d do with them.
Over the next three years, then-general manager Chris Grant traded for six first-round picks, five second-round picks and two pick swaps. Also, despite some temptation, the Cavs mostly refrained from offering big free-agent deals, and the few free agents they signed mostly were on short contracts.
The result was some bad teams, a combined 97-215 record over the past four seasons. But they did have a fairly clear salary cap, a roster stocked with young prospects on cheap contracts and a load of future draft picks to use in trades, including what ended up being the top overall pick in the Andrew Wiggins draft.