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Tuesday, July 13, 2010
The method to Dan Gilbert's madness

By Henry Abbott

The Cavaliers' organization got a lot weaker on Thursday. LeBron James' departure was the first part, and the immolation of Dan Gilbert's credibility as an owner and leader was the second.

I could go on and on about how the NBA is built on relationships, and the way Gilbert handled this will crush some important ones.

However, when I criticized Gilbert the night of his letter, there was one wrinkle to the story I had not yet appreciated: It got Gilbert a whole bunch of draft picks.
Here's the thing: Even though it's blatantly better roster strategy for a team to sign-and-trade a departing star, it's a move that can make you look terrible with the fans. Before all this happened I wrote about why I didn't think James would be traded:
There is a ton of blame out there, but only an ounce or two of all that is aimed at the franchise as a whole, owner Dan Gilbert or current general manager Chris Grant. And that's more or less how it's going to stay, even if James leaves.

However ... if they trade James? Then call up the statue makers, and make room in your Hall of Cleveland Sports Horrors. (By the way, they should really make that.) Because as history will remember it, these two bozos just took LeBron stinking James -- the greatest player in the history of the basketball, the local hero who wrote a book about how much he loved his home town, the luckiest thing that ever happened to Ohio -- and traded him for Hamady N'diaye (or whomever that pick turns out to be).

Through all the bitterness of that departure, there may not be a ton of interest in the details of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Those basketball fans walking around downtown Cleveland half-drunk and angry are not going to want to hear much about how Sam Presti got Byron Mullens.

And what fans thinks matters. For one thing, the depth of their devotion to the team is a key measure of the franchise's value. For another, Gilbert has poured his heart and his millions into the Cavaliers. It would be a shame if, after all that, one day his obituary includes a line about how he broke the hearts of every basketball fan in the state by putting the Cavaliers on the wrong end of the most lopsided trade in NBA history.

That letter, though ... while it did a lot of bad things for Gilbert, it completely inoculated him from anyone ever saying that he traded away LeBron James. He cemented his place as the betrayed, which gave him carte blanche to take part in a sign-and-trade, because everyone knows without a shred of doubt that Gilbert didn't ship James would leave town. That this was Gilbert's idea is officially crazy talk, now.

And in the ten-year analysis, the Cavs' haul from that trade will prove to be more than a little meaningful. The Cavs got two first-round picks, in the 2013 to 2017 range. They also got 2012 second-round pick that originally belonged to New Orleans and another from Oklahoma City, as well as the right to swap first-round picks with the Heat in 2012. Any good front office will be able to derive some real value from all that, and now none of it hurts Gilbert's profile in Cleveland, either.

All that said, I don't think Gilbert's approach was the smart one. But it did have this non-trivial benefit.