As the Cavaliers' front office unpacks the tool box in an effort to rebuild the franchise, the task ahead remains daunting. Rarely has an NBA team in recent history lost a superstar and returned to relevance within a decade.
Hope the Cavs brought big shovels.
Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen left the Bulls after their sixth championship in 1998, officially beginning the Bulls' rebuilding efforts. It took them seven years just to reach the playoffs again, and they've still won only one playoff series since Jordan retired.
Shaquille O'Neal took the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995. He left after the next season — which ended in the conference finals — and it took the Magic 13 years to return to the Finals. The Magic didn't win a postseason series for 12 years after he left.
Even the most storied franchises, like the Celtics and Lakers, aren't immune to lengthy rebuilding.
Injuries crippled Larry Bird late in his career, but he held on playing until 1992 — six years after winning his final championship. After his retirement, the Celtics made the playoffs twice in nine years, losing in the first round both seasons. They didn't win a playoff series until their 10th year without him, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Nets in 2002.
The Lakers lost to Jordan's Bulls in the NBA Finals in Magic Johnson's final full season in 1991. It took them seven years to reach the conference finals without him and nine years to return to the NBA Finals and ultimately win a championship.
Does all of this mean the Cavaliers will be trapped in NBA purgatory until 2020? Not necessarily, but it illustrates how important superstars are to the game and how difficult it is to win without them.
The only recent team to complete a relatively quick rebuilding is the Jazz, who lost Karl Malone and John Stockton after the 2002-03 season. Through good fortune, solid drafting and creative salary cap maneuvering, the Jazz were right back in the Western Conference finals four years later.
"You need three things," said Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor, who engineered the rebuilding. "You need the ability to sign free agents, and that means money under the cap. You need draft picks and you need the ability to get lucky once in a while on players."
O'Connor stressed the importance of stability within the franchise first (there was never a question the Jazz would retain Jerry Sloan, he said) and then staying patient and not making emotional, reactionary decisions that won't help the future of the franchise. Despite cries from the fan base to make some sort of move, Cavs GM Chris Grant has stressed the same level of patience, waiting for the right deal to come along.
In the wake of Stockton and Malone leaving, O'Connor extended what he felt were competitive offer sheets to restricted free agents Corey Maggette and Jason Terry. Both deals were quickly matched, but O'Connor stayed patient.
"We tried to keep our powder dry a little bit," he said. "We didn't overreact and sign guys that cosmetically would make us look better, but maybe for the long term wouldn't succeed."
O'Connor found his opening during the summer of 2004. He signed Mehmet Okur to a six-year, $50 million offer sheet. Days later, when the Cavs blundered their way into allowing Carlos Boozer to become an unrestricted free agent earlier than he should have, O'Connor swooped in and stole him from the Cavs.
They had the extra assets needed to trade up from No. 6 to No. 3 and select point guard Deron Williams in 2005. They drafted Paul Millsap in the second round the next year, and by '07, the Jazz were playing for another trip to the NBA Finals.
If a small-market city in a cold-weather town such as Salt Lake City can figure out how to rebuild relatively quickly, it at least provides Cleveland with hope.
The Cavs have good salary cap flexibility in the near future, but they lack extra draft selections. That's why Grant is feverishly trying to turn the Cavs' trade exception into at least one more first-round pick.
"Chris has been around the block. He has certainly been through the wars a little bit with (former general manager) Danny (Ferry)," O'Connor said of Grant. "I believe you've got a guy that understands it's going to take a while. But stability is the key to the whole thing. If you keep changing at the top, the wheels keep spinning."