The recent reports of the Cleveland Cavaliers speaking to the Houston Rockets about a potential trade for Russell Westbrook has stirred up the hornet’s nest (no pun intended) among the Cleveland faithful.
There is a consistent divide within the Cavs fanbase between those who think that the team should pursue a long, drawn out Philadelphia 76ers-style rebuild, and those who believe the Cavs should get back to respectability as quickly as possible.
I am in the latter camp. It’s not that I’m against rebuilds in general. I just don’t believe that extremely long rebuilds are successful most of the time.
When the “perpetual rebuild” crowd defends their position, they almost always point at the Golden State Warriors and 76ers as examples of what can happen when that course of action is taken. “It’s the only way to build sustainable success” they say.
The problem is that the same crowd often refuses to acknowledge the many examples of teams who tried and failed at the same strategy. Teams like the Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Hornets (among others) should be proof that long tank and rebuild jobs are not the panacea that people paint them out to be.
Furthermore, you have teams like the Miami Heat, who refused to do a traditional rebuild and rode the wave of respectability back to championship contention.
Short term (keyword: “short”) rebuilds can work in some instances. We’ve seen teams like the Boston Celtics do a lite-rebuild and return to respectability quickly. The difference is in a word that matters more than fans like to admit: “Culture.”
In a short-term rebuild, a team can accumulate assets that it needs while still keeping a winning culture somewhat intact. In long rebuilds, that winning culture slowly gets replaced with a losing one, and when the stink of L’s is attached to a team, it’s hard to get it off.
Former GM Chris Grant attempted to flip the switch and return the Cavs to playoff contention after years of rebuilding in the post-Decision era. It didn’t work, because the players didn’t know how to win. That is one of the consequences of the perpetual rebuild.
One of the other consequences is apathy. Hardcore fans of any sport always tend to think that their view is the majority view, that most of the fanbase feels the same way that they do. In the real world that is not true. There are far more casual fans than hardcore fans of any sport, team or player. These casual fans are far more interested in playoff positions than they are in draft positions.
Casual fans will often tolerate short-term rebuilds. But the longer that it continues, the more casual fans that a team begins to lose. Few teams are more in danger of becoming victim to this phenomenon than the Cavs.
BAD FOR BUSINESS
The Cavs have been riding on a wave of goodwill ever since ending the Cleveland sports “curse” in 2016. But that championship team is now long gone (only two players remain on the Cavs) and the team has to fight for relevance in the NBA and in Cleveland. The resurgence of the Browns has a direct impact on the Cavs.
If both teams were winning at the same time, the city would be on fire for both. But in a football-first town, the worst thing for the Cavs is for them to be bad while the Browns are good. I fear that a perpetual rebuild in this current Cleveland sports environment puts the Cavs in real danger of becoming irrelevant in their own city.
The competitiveness of the Cavs also has real world implications beyond the basketball court. Ask the restaurants and other venues around Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse if they would rather have a Cavs in playoff contention or one that’s “building through the draft.”
After the economic beating that these places have taken as a result of COVID, the last thing they need is to have one of their biggest draws continue to stink for the next 4-5 years. People in Cleveland should demand competitiveness out of all of their teams. It impacts real people in real ways in this city.
You can’t continue to rebuild year after year after year. If you try to win and fail, that’s different. But you have to try. Selling fans on draft picks that you may not hit on (or who may not stay around long enough for the grand plan to become reality) is not a strategy.
Cavs fans have been through a perpetual rebuild once before, in the not-too-distant past. It’s too much to ask for them to tolerate another one so soon.
At some point, enough has to be enough. At some point, you have to try to win.
Darvio Morrow is co-host of The Outlaws Radio Show on iHeartRadio. Follow him on Twitter @DTheKingpin.