LeBron leaves Cavs with limited options

LAS VEGAS -- Southern Nevada is hot, flat and crowded with the NBA at this time of year. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, there's no place to hide.

As the team formerly known as a championship contender slips from the shock stage to acceptance of what happened last week, it is having to do it publicly and painfully in the glare of attention at the Las Vegas Summer League.

In the midst of trying to pick up the pieces, the Cavs are suddenly staring at one of the league's toughest conundrums, one that nearly every franchise faces once a decade or so. How can they rebuild? How should they rebuild? How can they sell the rebuilding process?

The questions are unpleasant and the answers are complicated for reasons the Cavs can't control and reasons they can.

The anger stage of LeBron James' departure was no doubt the sharpest in Cleveland.

Even before the first batch of burning James jerseys had cooled or the giant Nike Witness mural started to come down, team owner Dan Gilbert's stinging open letter to fans hit the media. The attack of James' character in the hours after he announced his intention to sign with the Miami Heat was the most prolific moment.

But the true low point for the team was hearing and then reading about how James was actively recruiting free agents for his new team: putting the full-court press on friend Mike Miller, meeting Derek Fisher at the airport and calling up to tug Mr. Cavalier Zydrunas Ilgauskas to South Beach.

The Cavs had privately been disappointed over the last two years about the lack of intensity James put into their free-agent processes, last year feeling like they lost out on Trevor Ariza because James refused to commit to the future when Ariza called to ask him about it. In fairness, James was just telling free agents the truth even if it was costly to his team in the short run.

Then there was waiting the eight days for James to announce his plans. As information has slipped out, it now seems James wasn't wrestling with the decision as much as he was in talks with a production company and a talent agency about when his primetime special could be scheduled.

The Cavs spent that first week of free agency attempting to set up plans for the team when James re-signed. They were in the mix to sign Miller, they were involved in sign-and-trade talks to add complementary pieces. Yes, there was a backup plan, but it was not in action. The Cavs were moving forward believing James was going to be with them.

And then he was gone.

Eight days into free agency the Cavs suddenly had $12 million in salary-cap space they weren't planning to have. But by then most of the top 15 free agents in the mega class, especially the guy everyone considered No. 1, were committed elsewhere.


That wasn't the part of Gilbert's letter that got him in trouble with NBA commissioner David Stern and cost him $100,000. Stern was more upset with the "cowardly betrayal" and "shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown 'chosen one' sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn" lines.

But that was the core reason of why fan groups actually attempted to start campaigns to pay the billionaire's fine for him. His willingness to fire back with confidence won him supporters in the franchise's, and the region's, time of crisis. It was something to cling to and there's reason to believe it -- Gilbert has backed up nearly everything he's promised since buying the team in 2005.

In the unrelenting heat of Vegas, though, reality is here. The Cavs see it as they watch their summer league team attempt to install new coach Byron Scott's running offense, a system for which they don't have the personnel right now. They hear it when they talk to agents about their clients and the troubles recruiting them to what is left of the team. They feel it in the glares of other executives as they know teams see them as desperate.

The Cavs' first attempt at a roster addition came the same day Ilgauskas ended his career in Cleveland by signing with Miami, as they signed Kyle Lowry to an offer sheet. A defensive specialist who would fit in Scott's system, it seemed like a good way to start. Until the Rockets matched the deal roughly 12 hours later.

The truth, whether the team and its fans are prepared to admit it, is the Cavs cannot rebuild quickly or on the fly. They will not be competing with the Heat for the championship this season and more than likely not next season either. After being one of the focus points of the NBA since making the Finals in 2007, the national television games and late postseason runs are done for now.

The first step in this admission was agreeing to a sign-and-trade deal with the Heat for James, giving him the contract he wanted because the four draft picks and the $14.5 million trade exception were badly needed assets. The deal was done by new general manager Chris Grant, who put it together knowing he's got to be more interested in the development of assets and draft picks than winning games right now.

Even as the team looked at its options -- from signing Josh Childress to trading for Al Jefferson -- none seemed to be correct for what was needed. That's a retro-fitting that promises to be painful especially as James racks up his numbers in Florida.

It isn't yet clear if Gilbert is going to be willing to buy into it. His venomous letter and his all-out attempts to win by spending massive amounts on payroll over the last three years being the prime examples.

He's often said that it "costs more to lose than it does to win" in defending his spending. But to win, the Cavs may have to lose for a while and rebuild through the draft and trade market.

Just like the summer's hot sun, there doesn't seem to be any clear way to avoid it.

Brian Windhorst covers the Cavs for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.