- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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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.
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.
The Cavs won the 2011 lottery with a 2.8 percent chance on a pick they got in a deadline-day deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. In 2013, they won with their pick when it had a 15.6 percent chance. In 2014, their pick won again with a 1.7 percent chance. What is the math on that? About a 0.05 percent to win all three or, put another way, about one chance in 1,900.
That's how they ended up with not only Kyrie Irving, but also Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the heart of the deal that finally got the Wolves to relent on trading Love.
Just for perspective, add in winning the 2003 lottery when they drafted James with a 22.5 percent chance at the top pick, and the Cavs won the lottery four times in 12 years. The odds were 0.01 percent of the Cavs winning those four lotteries with the odds they were given. One hundredth of a percent.
The fall of the Heat
Within days of James' decision to sign with the Cavs the rumors of long-term conspiracies started popping up, especially in whispers out of Miami. As for James' intention to play for the Cavs again some day, that one was right out in the open. But the "when" part quickly became a debate.
However, it could have been no debate at all. Had the Heat won the NBA Finals to become one of the historic teams to three-peat, there is almost no doubt James would have returned for at least another season to attempt to win four in a row. Not to mention there's no sensible reason for a star player to walk away from the chance to defend a title; the historically conscious James never would've passed up a chance to do something that hadn't been done since Bill Russell and a feat neither Michael Jordan nor Kobe Bryant pulled off.
When the Heat and San Antonio Spurs were tied 1-1 in the NBA Finals and Miami had homecourt advantage heading into Game 3, the Cavs' dream scenario looked rather shaky. Especially with talks with the Wolves gaining no traction despite their No. 1 overall pick being in play.
Then the Spurs turned it on and the Heat withered as the Finals fizzled for Miami. When it was over so was the Heat's time as champs, and James, with free agency suddenly upon him, had a legitimate reason to consider other options.
Other suitors backed off
In theory, the Cavs could've made this same trade with the Wolves in June but they didn't. The reason: This exact deal wasn't being offered. The Cavs badly wanted to get Love in the fold by July 1 to help with pitching James on a return to Cleveland. But offering the past two No. 1 overall picks and a future first-rounder for Love, a player who could leave via free agency in a year, was light on guarantees. So the talks around the draft died.
In all, more than 12 teams reached out to the Wolves to make some sort of offer for Love. Some were non-starters, some were legit. The Golden State Warriors got the closest and could've removed the Cavs from the equation before they ever were able to make their best offer. But the Warriors and Wolves couldn't find a deal and neither could anyone else, buying the Cavs what turned out to be some extremely valuable time.
The James contract
In the hours after James released his letter to announce his return to Cleveland there was euphoria and insanity in the Cavs' offices. So many people called trying to buy tickets and sponsorships that the entire phone system crashed. James' agents, Rich Paul and Mark Termini, had trouble getting through just to start the process of negotiating the contract and it had to be hammered out using cell phones.
Ultimately, the process was short. James could name his terms. It was one year at the maximum salary followed by an option year at the max salary. This was unexpected -- the Cavs were thinking James would sign for longer, but they were willing to give him his terms. They had no problem paying him as much as possible and if doing it this way helped him get more money they were fine with it and willing to trust him.
By that Friday afternoon the paperwork was on its way to Florida to be signed by James before he took off for a promotional trip to Brazil for Nike.
Before that weekend, the Cavs had been reluctant to offer the rights to Wiggins in a deal for Love. While they offered packages involving the pick prior to the draft, they were excited about Wiggins after drafting him. They saw him as a wing with good defensive instincts they could pair with James if they got James in free agency.
If Love wanted to play with James, as had been communicated to the Cavs through various channels, the Cavs felt like they could wait for their dream big three and figure out a way to add Love via free agency in 2015. But with James only technically committed for one season and with his desire to play with Love as soon as possible made clear to the team, the priorities had changed quickly.
By the time James was back in the U.S. following a weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Wiggins had been put on the table. Within just a few days, a meeting between Love, Gilbert and other Cavs officials had been arranged with the permission of the Wolves. It was communicated that Love would not sign an extension or pick up his option for next season following a trade to the Cavs but that he was committed to playing alongside James for the long term.
Shortly thereafter the parameters of the deal for Love were essentially in place after talks that involved Gilbert and Wolves owner Glen Taylor. The Cavs had the pieces the Wolves wanted or were at least willing to take in a forced trade. Gilbert and the Cavs badly wanted to complete their big three and felt now was the time, making them willing to give just about anything if it didn't include Irving. James' strong statement with his contract and private talks to win over Love proved to be the final grease to the skids.
Everyone just had to wait for Wiggins to be eligible to be traded, 30 days after he signed his contract, even though he effectively had been traded before officially signing with the Cavs.
It has long been said that chance favors the prepared. Add these events to that file. The Cavs were prepared and received a remarkable string of fortunate events, none of which overshadowed that the best player in the league was born just down the road.
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