Remember LeBron’s first tenure with the Cavaliers?
That was a fun time. Watching him rise up from young starlet to bonafide NBA superstar from 2003 to 2010 was a sight to behold. It’s a shame that even when LeBron was playing at his absolute, the Cavs never came away with a championship. It’s an even bigger shame that they absolutely could have if they had played their cards right.
The peak of LeBron’s first go-round in Cleveland came during his last two seasons when the Cavs during that era were at their strongest. Despite Cleveland finishing with the East’s best record from 2008 to 2010, they wound up getting eliminated by both Orlando and Boston in the postseason.
Both years, the Cavs had the opportunity to get substantial upgrades at the trade deadline for cheap, which they passed up. Hindsight bias is obviously a factor here, but in 2009, the team had the chance to acquire Shaquille O’Neal – who would have been really nice to combat Dwight Howard – but they passed it up. The team made up for it when they acquired Shaq that offseason, but that could have made all the difference against Orlando.
The following season, the Cavaliers had a rare opportunity to acquire Amar’e Stoudemire at the trade deadline but passed on that as well because they refused to include JJ Hickson, believing in Hickson’s potential. Again, hindsight is 20/20. The team settled on Antawn Jamison, who was fine, but Stoudemire was in a contract year and could have given Cleveland so much more.
Both years, Cleveland was believed to be the favorite in the East it seemed as though everything was going fine, so it didn’t want to mess with something that was working. Both times the Cavs played it safe, and they wound up regretting it in the end.
It’s true that acquiring big names at the deadline can put things out of sync, but they can also vault you up to the next level. The Cavaliers squandered their opportunities to get better, and as a result, they fell short of expectations, which persuaded LeBron to head to South Beach for greener pastures.
The lesson to take from the Cavs is that if your team has a championship window on their hands, you take every opportunity to keep that window both alive and strong for as long as possible. If a title is in the realm of possibility, you swing for the fences. There were three teams who took that to heart this season: The Bucks, the Sixers and the current Eastern Conference Champions, the Raptors.
All three of these teams went all in this season because they knew that they had a rare chance to improve their ceiling. They didn’t care about what they could potentially lose. All they cared about was performing to the best of their abilities. They all went all in and in different ways too.
For Philadelphia, they went all in by cashing in on their assets to acquire stars for cheap.
It didn’t take long for the Sixers to decide that they weren’t satisfied with their opening night roster. Just 15 games into the season, the team made some major changes when they traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler.
Normally, trading for an excellent player like Jimmy Buckets would cost a lot more than just those two without any picks, but when the opportunity showed itself, Philly got a great player – warts and all – on a discount. The fit was a little awkward since the Sixers’ struggle was three-point shooting and Butler couldn’t solve that by himself.
Clearly, Butler wasn’t enough to Philly management, so they acquired Tobias Harris. Harris may have come at a more expensive price than Butler did, as they traded Landry Shamet and multiple first-rounders to get him. That’s a lot for Harris, but the man garnered All-Star consideration in the superior conference and is probably better than anyone else in that deal.
They didn’t get the happy ending they wanted, but they gave the Raptors all they could handle. As heartbreaking as it is to see your season end on the most ridiculous buzzer beater ever seen, they at least went down swinging. The risk, of course, is that Butler and/or Harris may leave this season, but Philly knew the risk and did it anyway because they knew that those two could bring much more to the team than Saric, Covington or Shamet among others could.
For Milwaukee, they went all in by putting the best team they could around Giannis while also securing flexibility long-term.
The Bucks finally got the right team around the Greek Freak this season – whether they have is enough is a question that will be hanging over their heads – when they added more floor spacing with Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova plus a coach who knew how to utilize it in Mike Budenholzer. Having the extra shooting proved to be a plus, but they couldn’t stop there.
Even with everything that was going well for them, the Bucks understood that Lopez, Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon weren’t going to come back cheaply this summer, so they planned ahead accordingly.
Jon Horst traded the team’s deadweight in Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson for George Hill and his almost entirely unguaranteed contract next season even if it cost a few first rounders. Giving up good draft picks is not an easy sacrifice, but in the Bucks’ case, they wanted to make sure that they can secure the players who they know have panned out well for them. They basically admitted their past mistakes by having to attach assets to get Henson and Delly off their payroll, but at least they’re making sure they don’t make more when free agency comes along.
They even followed the Sixers’ example by acquiring talent for cheap. Much like Philly, in no normal year should Nikola Mirotic cost only Thon Maker and a couple of second-rounders, but since Mirotic was on an expiring contract, that was all it took.
They also didn’t get the final result they wanted. Milwaukee has faced a fair amount of skepticism since being eliminated by the Raptors. Lucky for them, this is the only year one of their new era of basketball. They’re probably not going to be able to retain all of the players they added this season, but they have a better idea as to what will help Giannis play at his best. There’s a chance Cleveland could benefit from those first-round picks. As long as Milwaukee gets a title in the near future, then that won’t matter.
For Toronto, they went all in by trading players with rapport for upgrades.
It can be a cold business in this league. If your team has proven consistently that it’s not capable to taking it up a notch, and you have the chance to acquire an elite talent that could immediately change everything for the better, you’d be stupid not to pass that up.
Trading DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, two players who have been with the Raptors since they rose through the ranks, must have been difficult from an emotional standpoint. DeRozan went out of his way to talk about how betrayed he felt by the franchise who he stood by for all this time.
Even so, making those moves got playoff vets Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol on the Raptors. By doing this, this is inarguably the greatest Raptors team ever assembled. Because of those two among other things, the Raptors have finally risen to the occasion. By getting over their dreaded playoff woes, Toronto is in the middle of its first finals berth. From the way they’ve played, it looks like we’ve got a series on our hands.
There is a solid chance that the Raptors not only lose to the Warriors, but they also may lose Leonard and Gasol this summer. That shouldn’t matter to them because it was clear that they weren’t going anywhere with DeRozan and Valanciunas on the roster. Would you rather make upgrades to your roster even if they wouldn’t stay long, or would you keep your team the way it is knowing that they weren’t going anywhere?
Masai Ujiri showed that he meant business this season. Even if the risks he took fail, he made the right choice.
If you don’t think going all in can blow up in your face, look at the Boston Celtics. They pushed almost all of their chips in 2017, acquiring Kyrie Irving, signing Gordon Hayward and acquiring enough assets to make a push for Anthony Davis. Two years later, Hayward’s still recovering from an injury, the outlook on Kyrie’s return is not promising and it doesn’t look like Anthony Davis’ next destination is going to be Boston.
The worst-case scenario has become a reality in Boston, but every one of those moves they made in 2017 was correct. Bad luck is what has really ruined them. There is a chance that if you go all in, you can wind up like the Celtics right now.
Most importantly, when was the last time a team won the title by playing it safe from the start?
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