Declaration from Independence

by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

The landscapers were cutting the finely-manicured lawn around Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence when the media began rolling in early on Friday afternoon. It was sunny, in the mid-70s.

Whether the Cavaliers lost in crushing fashion and no matter how much media speculation – mostly negative – that will surround the franchise for the next few days, the grass will continue to grow. The sun will come up. And the Cleveland Cavaliers, as a team and an organization, will move onward and, hopefully, upward.

Fresh off the most recent incarnation of disappointment for a city that’s seen its share, Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Danny Ferry addressed the media on Friday, attempting to answer some of the myriad questions that have come up in light of Cleveland’s six-game loss to the Celtics.

The Cavaliers now enter an offseason of challenges and have several questions of their own to answer.

Naturally, Dan Gilbert was asked about LeBron James’ pending free agency. And obviously, re-signing the reigning MVP will be a top priority. But not the only one.

“This might sound a little hokey, but I thought about kids waking up in Cleveland, Ohio this morning, having to be disappointed,” said Gilbert. “And I’m sorry. I apologize to the fans for what happened here. Because this isn’t about money or franchise value. This is about delivery – to the fans, to the kids, to the corporate sponsors and everyone else.

“So Plan A is just one plan: to continue to get better, to rise above this, to learn from this and to deliver a Championship to Cleveland, Ohio.”

The Cavaliers won more games than any team in the NBA this season, but stumbled once the second season tipped off. Even against Chicago – who they dropped in five games – the Wine and Gold didn’t have the flow that won them 61 games.

It was as if the Cavaliers were starting from scratch once the playoffs began, and in many ways, they were. Shaquille O’Neal was inserted back into the starting lineup after missing the last 23 games of the regular season. J.J. Hickson, who started 73 games, found himself back on the bench and by the time the Boston series was wrapping up, he was an afterthought – garnering a total of 10 seconds in Game 6.

But the problems are almost too varied – and too painful – to list. In the postseason, the Cavaliers got performances that can be called “uneven” from players they’d counted on all year.

Unfortunately, LeBron was one of those players and his Game 5 performance will be discussed and dissected for weeks and months to come. Antawn Jamison never got untracked in the second half of Cleveland’s semifinal series and Delonte West – probably the Cavaliers’ second-best player over the past two postseasons – was almost a liability in Game 6.

But the biggest cause for concern came in Games 2 and 5 of the Boston series, where the league’s best home team – both in the regular and postseason – was absolutely humiliated, losing by an average of 25 points per contest.

“At the end of the year, we just weren’t playing well,” said Ferry. “And we couldn’t find ourselves, as a team. We had Shaq’s injury problem at the end of the year. We had LeBron’s elbow. We couldn’t find ourselves, and you’re not going to find yourselves playing against the Boston Celtics when they’re playing like they were. Ultimately, you have to be good enough to get through that, and we weren’t.”

Twenty-nine NBA teams will leave this season wondering what went wrong and what they can do to improve. When the anger and sorrow and sadness subside, the Cavaliers are merely one of those teams.

“It happens very quickly – less than a week ago we were up, 2-1, and looking pretty good,” lamented Dan Gilbert. “It’s a lot of factors that add up the ultimate disappointment which is losing. What you really try to do is figure out why and how and what. What you could have done differently, how could you have done it differently and what can you do moving forward to improve it.”

The Cavaliers brass has contract issues to address and there will likely be changes in the roster (and perhaps even with the coaching staff). They aren’t expected to be outside players in free agency and their first-rounder was dealt to Washington in the Jamison trade.

Once again, this will be a challenging summer for the Wine and Gold.

Cavalier fans will have no choice but to be patient as the offseason unfolds. Cleveland is obviously close to getting over the top. They’re the only club in the league that’s advanced to at least the Semifinals over the last five seasons.

But the Cavaliers are still missing that once piece of hardware that’s most elusive – the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“I’ve been here – ten years as a player and five years now as this role,” said Ferry, whose contract is also up. “I know how important winning is to Northeast Ohio. And you can trust that Dan Gilbert and the Cavs organization will always have a thirst to make sure that they try to bring (a Championship). That’s a given.”

After a weekend of licking its wounds, the franchise will have to get back on its feet and move forward. This summer, the grass will grow and the sun will come up. And in late October, the journey will start all over again.