About an hour west of Cleveland, nestled along a shared Lake Erie shore, sits the grand dame of American amusement parks, Cedar Point. The site has long been northern Ohioans' go-to for sugar-drenched fried dough and Berenstain Bears “live shows,” while lines for its murderers' row of record-breaking roller coasters -- this one’s the tallest ... this one’s the fastest -- snake on and on for hours.
The first ride you’d encounter after passing through the turnstile was the Demon Drop. From 1983 to 2009 (when it was traded to a Pennsylvania park for something called the “Ocean Motion” and a ride to be named later), the 131-foot steel tower would clatter carriages of four riders at a time up its vertical tracks. At the top, the car would pause before inching forward, pausing again, then dropping its riders 60 feet down in a free fall that could top 55 mph.
Take away the part that sounds like any fun and that’s what it’s been like to be a Cleveland Cavaliers fan the past four years. The frustration Cavs fans feel is not for a lack of possibility -- possibility, the Cavs got. It’s that every season since 2010-11, whenever things seemed ready to turn the corner back toward respectability and beyond ... well, the bottom dropped out, cruelly and suddenly.
We got Kyrie Irving! ... DROP. ... OK, well, at least we have all of these high draft picks. ... DROP. ... Another No. 1 pick! ... DROP. ... Mike Brown (again)! ... DROP. ... We signed Andrew Bynum! ... DROP, DROP, DROP.
So, when most fan bases would be ecstatic to win the top pick in arguably the most stocked draft in years, it’s not a shock that Cleveland fans, rather than high-fiving their way toward a rack of Andrew Wiggins jerseys, found themselves stuck in a moment of anxiety-riddled silence before finally muttering to their friends, “They’d better not screw this up.”
The Cavs are now tasked with somehow breaking this vicious cycle, but it won’t be up to Kyrie Irving to do it. Or LeBron James. Or whomever the team picks with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2014 draft.
Since having the “interim” removed from his title following the season, general manager David Griffin has been on a real hot streak. A well-respected basketball mind widely regarded as more than ready for his first shot at running a team, Griffin, who took over when Chris Grant was fired in February, has made a real impact on the public’s perception simply by soldering his own personality -- an infectious optimism made palatable by a steady drip of frank pragmatism -- to a team that still has yet to fashion its post-LeBron identity. Gone are the vague corporate platitudes of the Grant/Brown era (and, even, the stone-faced silence of the Byron Scott era), when everything was explained away as part of a “process.” Griffin has been straightforward in assessing the team’s needs in much the same way as anyone else who had the relative misfortune of watching the 2013-14 Cavaliers play with any regularity: They need to shoot better, get tougher, get bigger, play smarter and fit together better.
That process started in earnest at the place that brought about one of the biggest messes of the previous regime. A year after sending a rowdy posse to the draft lottery and proclaiming, loudly, that it would be their last trip there, the Cavs, after slumping to 33-49 in a dreadful Eastern Conference, nominated Griffin to fill their spot on the podium. Despite holding just a 1.7 percent chance at the top pick, the new GM walked away with the first overall selection, the second straight year and the third time in four years the Cavs won the lottery. It wasn’t an instant ticket to the postseason -- not after Cleveland bungled last year’s top pick -- but the team at least had something.
Griffin then turned his attention to an exhaustive coaching search, ultimately settling on former Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach David Blatt last week. Now, you’d expect a fan base used to being spurned by top-tier choices to be skeptical about a new coach who has no NBA experience and has coached overseas for the past 20 years. But Cavs fans just want to see winning basketball, and Blatt, while an outside-the-box choice, has a reputation as a sort of Gandalf of offensive basketball (and, by all accounts, a pretty good defensive coach, as well). Even if consistent success is still some work away, basketball that does not come at the eyes like Oedipus wielding a broach will do.
It has been a two-month process of Griffin drawing back the blinds and letting a little bit of sun and fresh air into a franchise that often seemed determined to turn its fans mole-blind. Leading up the draft, Cleveland fans had stopped worrying about the rumors of Irving’s unhappiness, of Dion Waiters’ surliness, of Dan Gilbert’s Comic Sans-ness, of the triumphant return of a certain former player. Bright days were ahead.
At least until Joel Embiid hurt another body part. The Cavs have been through this before with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, whose own struggles with a navicular bone injury turned everyone in the fan base into Dr. James Andrews. Have a question about a foot issue? Well, here’s literally thousands of Cleveland fans who can talk you through it. Drafting Embiid, though still a possibility, now seems out of the question, especially with a recovery (four to six months) expected to drag into a season for which Gilbert again has high playoff hopes.
Which begs the question: Was this the drop? Was missing out on Embiid -- who was not only the player with the highest consensus upside but also far and away the best fit for this young, center-starved team -- the axe blow to the knees for the nascent goodwill forming between Cleveland fans and the universe? Or is the very fact the Cavs are picking first and not ninth enough to keep spirits bright, still evidence of more charm than curse?
Ultimately, whether this draft is viewed in Cleveland as the second coming of 2003 or 2013 will come down to Griffin. It will come down to the first draft pick this GM has ever made and whether all the good feelings Cleveland fans have already invested in him will be repaid, in turn, with the Cavs fielding a competitive professional basketball team again.
If not, the ride remains the same.