Welcome to Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries and will continue into the 2017 NBA Finals if necessary. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time these events took place.
In Chapter I, we take a closer look at the summer of 2014, one that saw Cleveland and Golden State change head coaches after disappointing seasons the year before. The biggest move of the summer, though, did not take place on the bench but rather in free agency.
Here is Chapter I of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.
The date is May 3, 2014. The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers are set to face off in Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
This first Saturday in May is the epilogue to one of the craziest weeks in the history of the NBA. Five of the eight first-round series go the distance in these playoffs, but that isn’t the main story in the league at this time. The real headline-grabber in league affairs is newly-minted commissioner Adam Silver’s lifetime ban of Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had been revealed by a TMZ-obtained audiotape on April 25 to have made racist and incendiary remarks to a mistress by the name of V. Stiviano. Sterling was upset at Stiviano for posing for a picture with Lakers legend and African-American Magic Johnson; the conversation was believed to have been recorded in September of the previous year.
The Clippers and Warriors play in Game 4 of their series on April 27, just two days after the tape was published on TMZ’s website. The Clippers wear their warmup uniforms inside-out to avoid association with their owner and make the statement that they play for themselves and not an organization run by an apparent racist. Both teams wear black armbands in solidarity and unity against the statements made by Sterling. However, a clearly distracted Los Angeles squad gets pummeled, 118-97.
Two days later, Commissioner Silver holds a press conference at the league’s New York City offices and announces in an unprecedented move that Sterling has been banned for life from the NBA, effective immediately. The move is praised by many both inside and outside the league, but some wonder whether or not the league overstepped its bounds in punishing Sterling after the release of a privately-recorded conversation. Teams such as the Clippers and the Kevin Durant-led Thunder, which had floated the idea of boycotting games, continue on with the playoffs as usual. The Clippers and Warriors split the next two games, leading to a deciding Game 7 in Los Angeles on the first Saturday in May.
The game is competitive throughout, but Golden State holds a 64-56 lead at halftime. The Clippers come back in the second half and outscore the Warriors 70-57 in the second half to win the game by five. A balanced Clipper offense sees four players (Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick) score 20 points or more. Steph Curry leads the Warriors with 33 points while Draymond Green chips in another 24. A Golden State team that had reached the second round of the NBA Playoffs the year before is clearly not quite ready to contend for an NBA championship, even with one of the most talented rosters in the league and one of the best jump-shooting backcourts in NBA history.
So, for those reasons and also for fostering a dysfunctional atmosphere with the organization, the Warriors’ front office decides to move on from head coach Mark Jackson. Jackson, who had reached the playoffs in two of his three seasons at the helm of the Warriors, is, from the outside, respected for his ability to turn the organization around and turn Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson into two of the best players at their positions in the league. However, this nugget from ESPN’s Zach Lowe, which speaks about Warriors center Festus Ezeli, would suggest otherwise:
When Ezeli was injured last season, Jackson and his staff told the healthy players that Ezeli was cheering against them — so that he would look good, according to several team sources. Players confronted Ezeli in a meeting, and he wept at the accusation — which he denied.
That series of events, as well as several others, likely led to the demise of Jackson as an NBA head coach. The Warriors are said to prioritize two candidates in their search for a new coach: former Heat and Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy and TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who also worked as general manager of the Phoenix Suns from 2007-2010. Their search quickly zeroes in on Kerr, who has no coaching experience before being pursued by the team in the offseason. There’s one problem: the New York Knicks are also interested in Kerr for their head coaching vacancy. In order to ensure that Kerr, who maintained relationships with Warriors owner Joe Lacob and president Rick Welts, both colleagues of his from his time in Phoenix, the front office offers him a 5-year, $25 million contract, which he accepts on May 15. It is later reported that the Knicks lost out on Kerr because owner James Dolan only offered him three years and $13 million. Another purported influence on Kerr’s decision to spurn the Knicks and head west? Marv Albert. Yes.
The Warriors have a rather quiet summer, bringing in Nets guard Shaun Livingston as their only major player acquisition. But how were things in Cleveland, Ohio, at the same time this was happening?
Answer: very different. A team that used the number one overall pick on relatively-unknown UNLV product Anthony Bennett in the 2013 draft is expected to take a step toward contention behind point guard Kyrie Irving and second-time Cavalier head coach Mike Brown. Instead, the 2013-14 Cavs do the exact opposite, going 33-49 and firing Brown after just one season in his second stint as head coach. 14 different players start a game for an injury-riddled team that starts the season 4-12 and never gets within four games of .500 after December 13. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert fires Brown on May 12. In a critical move, though, Gilbert retains embattled general manager David Griffin, who was heavily criticized for drafting Bennett, who would average just four points and three rebounds per game in what would be his only season with Cleveland.
The Cavaliers would need to fill their coaching vacancy after one of the more disappointing seasons in franchise history. They do receive good news on May 19, as the franchise surprisingly wins the NBA Draft Lottery for a second straight season. They do so behind good luck charm Nick Gilbert; the son of the Cavs’ owner represents the team at the Lottery and has a condition called neurofibromatosis, which permits tumors to form in his brain and other parts of his nervous system. Nick has represented the Cavaliers at the Draft Lottery every year since 2011, including a stretch in which the franchise gets the number one pick in three of four drafts (2011, 2013, 2014). With the top pick, the organization closes in on Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, who is regarded much more positively in league circles than the aforementioned Bennett. With that decision just about predetermined, the team focuses on its head coaching search. As it turns out, they take an unconventional route that is similar to the Warriors’.
Cleveland’s head coaching search is far more methodical than Golden State’s, and it essentially boils down to three candidates: Clippers Associate Head Coach Alvin Gentry, Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue, and ex-Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt. Ultimately, Blatt wins the job, beating out Lue and Gentry. Gentry takes an offer to become the top assistant on Kerr’s bench in Oakland, a position that was offered to Blatt before he took the job in Cleveland. In a strange caveat, Lue, the runner-up in the Cavaliers’ coaching search, is hired by that same organization as Blatt’s top assistant. His contract of four years and $6.5 million makes him, at the time, the highest-paid assistant coach in NBA history.
Come draft time, Griffin and the Cavs front office surprise no one and take Wiggins with the top pick. The team’s fans and the organization are invigorated with the possibility of pairing Irving and Wiggins, two explosive playmakers who could make an immediate impact on the franchise’s recent misfortune. But the Cavaliers are not necessarily thinking about that in their selection of Wiggins.
They’re thinking about luring LeBron James, the best player in the league, back to his home state to play in Cleveland.
James played for the Cavaliers from 2003-2010 and grew up in Akron, Ohio, a mere 45 minutes away from downtown Cleveland. Under his leadership, the team went to the NBA Finals in 2007 but was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. LeBron never again reached the Finals in his first stint with the Cavaliers, and after a disheartening second-round exit in the 2010 NBA Playoffs, the superstar became a free agent. James had narrowed down his free agency decision to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat, and decided to announce his future in a 75-minute ESPN special titled “The Decision”. He chooses Miami over Cleveland, leading Cavalier fans to riot and burn his jersey in the streets of the city and surrounding suburbs. Gilbert writes a letter, engraved in Comic Sans font, on the Cavaliers’ website. The letter is written and published with very little thought; Gilbert accuses James of “deserting” Northeast Ohio in going to Miami and calls the television special, which raised $2.5 million for Boys and Girls Clubs of America, “narcissistic” and “self-promotional”. This, though, is the climax of the letter, as well as its least-thought-out statement:
You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.
You have given so much and deserve so much more.
In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight:
“I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE”
You can take it to the bank.
James wins titles with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013 and also appears in the NBA Finals every year from 2011-2014. The Cavaliers go 96-216 in the same time span. Essentially, both sides reject the notion of burning bridges in favor of the thought of napalming them. James stuns and disappoints his home state while Gilbert angrily immolates James mere hours after he leaves and sets the franchise up for massive failure without him.
But after all that, the Cavaliers feel they have a legitimate chance to pry the best player in the game away from South Beach. More importantly, they have the cap space to offer him a short-term contract that would offer him more money than the league’s max with increased leverage for James as the salary cap is expected to increase in the next couple of seasons. This leverage would be used not to leave Cleveland again, but rather to squeeze more money out of a front office that would have more room to work with under an expanding salary cap. The hypothetical had been foreseen by the Cleveland organization and became a legitimate possibility to the rest of the public with just one tweet:
Cleveland has replaced Miami as my frontrunner to land LeBron James…
— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) July 7, 2014
The choice is simple for The King: stay with an aging cast of characters, including the injury-plagued Dwyane Wade and somewhat inconsistent Chris Bosh, or join a younger group in Cleveland with Irving and Wiggins (or another superstar) with a better chance to compete in the long run.
James also happens to be hosting a basketball clinic the same week he is to decide his NBA future, and while Broussard reports that Cleveland is his favorite, Miami still seems to make more sense; after all, James was not exactly given a hero’s sendoff upon leaving Cleveland and many thought that the wounds cultivated in “The Decision” had not yet healed in the span of four short years.
Ultimately, on July 11, 2014, five days after Broussard’s initial report, James put the speculation to rest and announced where he would be spending the next years of his life and possibly the final years of his NBA career:
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.
With James suddenly back in the fold and the Cavaliers suddenly thrust into the title hunt, the team looks at other ways to improve their team. With three number one picks on the roster (Irving, Bennett, Wiggins), the team has plenty of chips to use to acquire a star via a trade. Sure enough, the front office, which had given Irving a max extension ten days before James returned, closes in on Kevin Love, the Minnesota Timberwolves star power forward who has the ability to opt out of his contract in the summer of 2015. The teams work on a trade until Minnesota agrees to send Love to Cleveland in exchange for Wiggins and Bennett. Additionally, a third team, the Philadelphia 76ers, agrees to send Thaddeus Young and a trade exception to the Timberwolves.
With the trade finalized, the Cleveland Cavaliers have their “Big Three” and a serious chance at ending the 50-year championship drought for the city of Cleveland. The Golden State Warriors have a new head coach and new philosophies, but not much seems to have changed in Oakland. Will the changes in both organizations be enough to lead them into contention for an NBA championship?