The Golden State Warriors were built methodically and brilliantly. When Joe Lacob's management team took over in 2010, the Warriors already had Stephen Curry, but little else in the way of long-term building blocks. Lacob's group was afforded some patience by a low-expectations roster and a relieved fan base was just glad to be finally rid of Chris Cohan. Trading Monta Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut to clear the decks for the Splash Brothers was met with considerable derision -- people love watching Monta, and he was the only real link back to the We Believe! Warriors -- but otherwise, Golden State's moves in those years between the takeover and the rise were painless.
Lacob told the New York Times Magazine recently that everything was "extremely thought through," and it shows. This team looks tailor-made to dominate the league.
Of course, fate intervened a few times to keep the Warriors on track. The Clippers matched the $40 million offer sheet the Warriors threw at DeAndre Jordan in the abbreviated free agency period just months before the Ellis-Bogut trade. David Lee, the initial marquee move of Lacob's regime back in 2010, got injured before the 2014-15 season, opening a path for Draymond Green. Mark Jackson bought into the tanking plot of March and April 2012, allowing the team to keep its pick and grab Harrison Barnes. The Warriors were only able to sign Andre Iguodala because Dwight Howard -- Dwight Howard! -- rejected their advances in 2013.
Imagine that team for a second. Dwight Howard and David Lee up front, with Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry rounding out the starting five. Imagine a Steph Curry-DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll 25 feet from the hoop. Imagine David Lee as your small ball five. Imagine if Jackson hadn't given the Warriors enough behind-the-scenes drama to fire him. Remember how much backlash there had been to Lacob's decision to cut Jackson loose after he helped restore the franchise to rare glory? Imagine that didn't happen.
This was all extremely thought through, but fate intervened often, and it almost always broke in the Warriors' favor.
Fate intervened in Cleveland, too. After four dreadful seasons mired in a failed rebuild, LeBron decided to come home. The Cavaliers were prepared but they also weren't ready. They had the decks cleared in order to accommodate James' salary just in case he returned in 2014, but the team hadn't been built with him in mind.
Frankly, it's difficult to understand whether the team was built with anything in mind. There was no consistency, no vision, no plot evident in the 2013-14 Cavaliers. They had Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, all top-four picks on rookie deals. In wild attempts at relevance, they swung a deal for Luol Deng, they re-hired Mike Brown. While the Warriors were targeting players that fit with the Splash Brothers and occasionally being saved by luck, the Cavaliers were drowning in losses and a lack of hope.
Do you remember the Cavaliers' 2014 offseason? Cleveland hoped to recruit Gordon Hayward, then a restricted free agent. The Cavaliers had no hopes of landing Hayward -- the Jazz were going to match any offer sheet. This was the Cavaliers' grand plan at achieving relevance in 2014: hope LeBron decides to make a babyface turn, or somehow pry Hayward from Utah. Two Hail Marys; one worked. And it changed the course of the franchise's near-term future.
The Cavaliers also lucked into Andrew Wiggins that offseason. So much attention is paid to the trade sending Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love, along with the Warriors' decision to not trade Thompson for Love earlier that summer. The two decisions are linked by the common denominator: a once-gaudy scorer and rebounder who has disappointed as the third wheel in Cleveland. It's the declined trade for Love that points to the Warriors' management team's vision. That's the standout moment that set this franchise on the path to where they are now.
For the Cavaliers, there was no apparent vision when that decision was made. Bennett was not an NBA player at that point (and may never be), and Thompson's offense wasn't going to be leaned on heavily. GM David Griffin had been in Cleveland since 2010, but had only taken over the top spot that spring. There'd be little to credit anyone over the previous four years beyond trade-of-the-decade in landing Irving in a Clippers cap dump. But it's hard to know what role Griffin had played in the general vision-setting and blueprint-writing leading up to GM Chris Grant's 2014 firing.
The Cavaliers traded Wiggins for Love because LeBron had come home, and that meant Cleveland needed players who could contribute right away. Love was the best player by far on the trade market that summer. Griffin and the Cavaliers had little choice. When they landed LeBron, they had a new vision immediately: win now, no matter the cost. That new vision led to the deals for J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov, too. It led to the Cavaliers paying out the nose to keep Tristan Thompson this past summer.
The Cavaliers are not extremely thought through because they couldn't be planned. Everything changed when LeBron sat down with Lee Jenkins and got ready to tell the world he was coming home. That was 23 months ago. There's only so much a franchise can do to go from there to where they need to be on a short time frame.
LeBron is criticized as the de facto GM of the Cavaliers, but that's not fair to him or Griffin. This was a very difficult situation. That Cleveland has won the East twice in two years is an actual accomplishment, no matter what you think of the East.
The Cavaliers aren't prepared to beat the Warriors because they couldn't be more prepared than the Warriors. Golden State had years to build and a pragmatic plan to achieve a vision set long ago. Cleveland is tweaking an expensive, powerful roster on the fly to match up with what has become one of the three best teams of the modern era. There's no shame in falling short of that standard, just as there would have been no shame in the Warriors had they landed Howard or Jordan or traded for Love and missed their shots at the title, at eternal glory.
When we ascribe brilliance to the lucky and stupidity to the unfortunate we do a disservice to all. The world is not black and white. Pretending it is so drags us further from understanding what drives success, not closer.
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