For two seasons or more now, the buzz around the NBA has been that LeBron James is going to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA Championship.  There was good reason for this buzz.  He carried a downright crummy team to an NBA Finals appearance in 2007.  He had shown himself to be a dominating force both in regular season and playoff games.  He displayed a mix of talent and unselfishness that is rare in the world of basketball.

And yet while he projected an aura of invincibility… reality never caught up to that perception.  His imposing physical stature and tremendous athletic gifts made him seem at times like a man among boys.  LeBron James was so clearly great so quickly, that it seems to have taken a handful of years for observers to really figure out where he stands on the NBA landscape.

One thing is clear now as we stand in the shattered remains of Cleveland’s 2010 title hopes.  The Cavs made change after change to appease their young superstar and entice him to stay.  They resigned players like Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson.  They added free agents like Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker.  They traded for known entities like Shaq, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison.  What did it get them in the end?  Certainly no satisfaction.  Instead they’re left standing on the precipice, wondering what else they could have done to cement this team into a championship winning group.

While I can’t remember a team that was supposed to be so great failing quite this way, I can remember a team constructed in a similar fashion that in the end failed just as badly.  I’m talking about the Toronto Raptors.  Back at the beginning of this decade the Raptors had one of the leagues premiere young players in Vince Carter.  He was one of the most popular basketball players on the planet, known for his creative and ferocious dunks.  He carried what was quite frankly a pretty ordinary Raptors club to the seventh game of the second round against Philadelphia, where they lost when he missed a shot at the buzzer.  Carter was just 24 then, and looked to have a bright future ahead of him in Toronto.

Following the season, Vince signed a huge contract extension with the club worth over 90 million dollars.  He was told by management that the team was going to spend money and keep their good players together.  The end result of this was outrageous contracts for Antonio Davis, Alvin Williams, Chris Childs, Jerome Williams, Michael Stewart and other such NBA studs.  After two-plus disappointing seasons with the same nucleus, Vince voiced his frustration and disappointment about the team built around him.  He was ultimately traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2004.

Conveniently forgotten during Carter’s exodus was that he was the one demanding a competitive roster in the first place.  His demands for a competitive team placed the Raptors in the position of having to put a lot of money into questionable assets.  Even with Vince Carter on the roster, Toronto was not a free agent hot spot.  They felt that they had to shell out the cash needed to keep their existing core intact, and in the end that cost them long-term flexibility and made it impossible to build a true contender around Carter.  Cleveland seems to have reached a similar place with LeBron.  He signed that three-year extension a few years back with the intent on winning a title in Cleveland.  The Cavs tried to appease him by bringing in a variety of veterans and signing big extensions with the likes of Anderson Varejao and Booby Gibson.

They have now amassed a collection of veterans with clear limitations, and yet at the same time have removed almost all flexibility from their roster.  They seem to have finally realized that during this season when they refused to send J.J. Hickson out of town to bring in more high-priced talent.   Unfortunately for Cleveland fans, they may have realized it too late.  The Cavs are financially tapped out, unless they can get a team to take Jamison or Williams off their hands.  They gave up their #1 pick in the Jamison trade.  The ways for them to improve for 2010-2011 are extremely limited.  It would appear to be trade or bust, and that’s simply going to lead to them taking on contracts that are just as bad as the ones they already have, or perhaps even worse.  I’d love to be in the room to hear Danny Ferry pitch the Cavs to LeBron come July 1st, because on the surface it would seem that their biggest addition this offseason will be the subtraction of Shaq and Z.

Perhaps the Cavs have learned their lesson.  They are clearly at their best as a running team with athletes and shooters and defenders on the floor.  Now the question for the Cavs is how can they build that kind of team with no cap space, and a limited window of opportunity before LeBron can breeze right out of town.  At least in Toronto the fans had already long turned on Vince before he was traded to New Jersey for a ham sandwich.  The mistakes the Cavs have made could cost them Ohio’s most beloved sports hero since Jim Brown.

It’s been a busy last 24 hours or so in the NBA trade market. Teams are not waiting for the draft itself to get deals done, in hopes of achieving whatever their goals for 2009-2010 might be with an early start. Contenders like San Antonio and Cleveland are attempting to add missing pieces while bottom-feeders like Milwaukee and rebuilding teams like Phoenix attempt to dump parts that no longer fit their vision.

Spurs, Bucks and Pistons Swap

Richard Jefferson to San Antonio.  Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Amir Johnson to Milwaukee.  Fabricio Oberto to Detroit.

An interesting three-way deal.  The Spurs come out the best obviously, picking up a 29 year-old Jefferson who can score 20 a night and play good all-around basketball.  He can shoot the three with ease, and will be more than capable at swinging the ball or getting it inside to Duncan.  He also does a good job getting to the line, and is a passable rebounder and defender.  He’s probably exactly what the Spurs need given the fact that they can’t depend on the health of Manu Ginobili. They also dump some aging and little-used talent, which doesn’t hurt for a team that has appeared short on athleticism at times.

Detroit gets a capable big body which they definitely need.  The Pistons only have one other roster player taller than 6’9, and that’s Kwame Brown.  With Rasheed Wallace off the books and probably gone, they have plenty of money to spend on replacement bigs.  Oberto isn’t a world-beater but he’s a servicable interior player.  They lose a nice role player in Johnson but the Pistons had pretty much decided to cut bait with him at this point.

As for Milwaukee… uhm… yeah.  Last year they traded Yi “The Chairman” Jianlian a year after picking him 6th overall to get Richard Jefferson.  Not a bad move for a team in need of scoring on the wing.  Especially considering The Chairman kind of sucks.  A year later, they traded Richard Jefferson for Amir Johnson and two expiring contracts.  Why?  Apparently they need cap space to keep restricted free agents Ramon Sessions and Charlie Villanueva.  Building around Ramon Sessions and Charlie V?  I think we might have pinpointed why the Bucks have struggled to find traction in the standings in recent years.

Minnesota, Washington Deal

Randy Foye and Mike Miller to the Wizards.  Etan Thomas, Darius Songalia, Oleksiy Pecherov and the 5th overall pick to the Timberwolves.

Seems like a no-brainer for Washington.  They get Foye who’s at least shown he can play in the league, which is more than you can say for anyone in the draft.  The only guy I personally would want to hold on to that pick to take is Stephen Curry, but rumor has it now that he’ll be gone before the 5 spot.  The Wiz also get three-point shooter Mike Miller, giving them a pair of new outside threats and making them one of the leagues more potent offensive clubs.  Are they going to have enough shots for Arenas, Butler, Jamison and Foye?  Probably, but it will be interesting to watch them mesh.  The Wiz at least have themselves another starting-quality NBA guard to pair with Agent Zero, something they’ve lacked in recent years.

Minnesota meanwhile trades away the reminder of their terrible Brandon Roy-Randy Foye trade a few years back, and gives themselves the 5th and 6th picks in the draft to go with their two other later first rounders.  The T’wolves actually have a lot of cap room and dead salary (Thomas, Brian Cardinal, Mark Madsen) that they could use to actually acquire some good talent.  Will they do that?  Who knows what the new Minnesota regime will do.  If they really want to shed their image as a franchise that’s screwed up for 15 years, they could display some competence.  We’ll see.

Phoenix, Cleveland Deal

Phoenix gets Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a conditional draft pick (2nd round) and cash.  Cleveland gets Shaquille O’Neal.

A smart move for both teams, but not as big as the press coverage makes it seem.  Phoenix saves some money and looks even stupider for their Marion-Shaq deal two years ago.  They just were not a good fit for Shaq, despite the best effort on all sides this past season.  They need to give their young bigs (Lopez, Dudley) some burn anyways. If Wallace retires they save even more money, and that’s apparently all Robert Sarver cares about.

Cleveland improves here no question, but not in leaps and bounds.  They have three legitimate bigs, which is something that most teams in the league can’t say.  Of course two of those bigs are slow, old and have injury histories.  But I digress.  Shaq can still score in the paint in bunches, and clog the lane.  He’s a definite upgrade over Wallace, and they got him for basically nothing.  As long as he’s just the start of their offseason moves, it’s a nice step.  But he is not a solution alone.

Mid-Day Update…

New Jersey, Orlando Swap

Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson to Orlando.  Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston and Tony Battie to New Jersey.

Jersey continues to tear down their old nucleus, getting a nice young talent in Lee and a pair of expiring contracts.  The Nets save around 16 million in cap space for that magical 2010 summer, and picked up a player who emerged throughout the playoffs as a guy who can make big plays.  They’re going to be pretty bad next season, but at least they’ll be young.

Orlando continues to demonstrate their commitment to winning.  Adding Carter to an already impressive lineup makes them the favorite to repeat as Eastern Conference Champions.  The question they will have to answer is about their depth.  They just gave up three rotation players to get one, and must still re-sign Hedo Turkoglu to prevent this from being a lateral move.  Anderson should be able to give them some post minutes, provided he can shoot better than 39 percent.

This could be an opportunity for Carter to answer a lot of questions about his motivations over the years.  One thing he has never shied away from is taking the big shots and the Magic definitely need more players willing and able to score when the chips are on the line.

Hot Trade Hopper

A ton of names and trades still percolating out there.  Guys like Vince Carter, Amare Stoudamire, Corey Magette, Rajon Rondo… so on and so forth.  We’ll see what becomes of it as the draft unfolds and beyond.  It’s interesting that a lot of the trades seem to revolve around teams fixing salary issues caused by past dumb trades.  A lot of clubs are going to learn that two dumb trades doesn’t equal a good one.