Did the Cleveland Cavaliers tank the 2002-03 season to ensure a better shot at drafting LeBron James? Former Cavs coach John Lucas, who was fired during that season, said he believes that's the case, according to a published report.
"They trade all our guys away and we go real young, and the goal was to get LeBron and also to sell the team,'' Lucas told AOL FanHouse. "I didn't have a chance. ... You can't fault the Cavaliers for wanting to get LeBron. It was hard to get free agents to come there.''
The Cavaliers finished the 2002-03 season with a 17-65 record, tied with the Denver Nuggets for the worst record in the NBA. Cleveland won the NBA's draft lottery and selected James with the No. 1 pick. Lucas was fired midway through that season.
Gordon Gund, who was then the team's principal owner but is now a minority owner of the Cavs, denied Lucas' claims. He also told the Web site that the Cavaliers weren't for sale during that season. The team didn't get sold until 2005.
"You don't try to get the No. 1 pick,'' Gund told AOL Fanhouse. "That's why the lottery was designed. To not allow that. We had a young team that we were developing. ... We did not tank the season. ... To lose to get LeBron James, we would never do that. I wouldn't do that. I couldn't do that.
"In the very last game of the season, we had nothing to gain and we were in sole possession of last place [in the NBA]. But we beat [the Toronto Raptors] and that left us tied with Denver [at 17-65]. ... The chances of getting the first pick were only [22.5 percent].''
Lucas, now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers, will face his former team for the first time since being fired in 2003 when the Cavaliers host the Clippers on Saturday.
Lucas said he was ordered to play young players.
Guard Ricky Davis, who was a member of that Cavs team and is now a member of the Clippers, said that Lucas was in a no-win situation.
"It was tough on [Lucas],'' Davis told AOL Fanhouse. "They were forcing him to lose and I know it's nothing he wanted to do. It's just the position he was forced in. But it's tough. ... It worked, whatever they did [to get James] so it's hard to knock them. They got what they wanted. But it was hard on Luke.''
Lucas also questioned the trades made by the Cavaliers during that season.
"Andre [Miller] was really coming into his own and we trade him [to the Clippers] for Darius Miles, who had a bad knee, and Harold Jamison, who [was waived],'' Lucas told AOL Fanhouse. "We traded Lamond Murray, who averaged [a team-best 16.6] points, [to the Raptors] for Yogi Stewart, who was on the [injured] list. We traded Wesley Person for the 49th pick, which was Matt Barnes ... So I couldn't win.''
Gund defended the trades, which were made by then-general manager Jim Paxson.
"I agreed with the trades,'' Gund told AOL Fanhouse. "Andre was one that we really wanted but he wanted a max salary [when he would become a restricted free agent in 2002] and we didn't think he deserved a max at that time because he hadn't shown being an All-Star.
"We all liked Andre. But Lamond Murray was not a key player. He and Wesley didn't have anywhere near the seasons they had [in 2001-02] after that.''
Lucas was fired after the Cavaliers started 8-34. Gund pointed out to AOL Fanhouse that if the team was truly trying to lose games, then why would it fire Lucas?
"I just didn't think the chemistry was good. The players weren't responding to John,'' Gund told the Web site. "This is not a criticism of John. I like John.''