Hard Wood 

Chris Grant is at the helm of the Cavs' rebuilding process

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So far, most seem to agree that the Cavs have gone about rebuilding the right way. They tanked last season in a most extraordinary fashion, at one point losing an NBA-record 26 games in a row en route to one of the league's worst records. Grant admits stretches of unparalleled fecklessness are always hard to watch, but in the next breath points out the upside of two months spent on the wrong side of The Diff: Role players like point guard Manny Harris and forward Samardo Samuels got valuable playing time.

He doesn't mention the biggest upside, which is that the time-honored tradition of bottoming out in the standings for the sake of a top draft pick was a crucial next stop on the train back to competitiveness.

"They did the right thing in going to the bottom last year and not spending money in free agency, being disciplined," says Windhorst. "They could have gotten someone who would have gotten them four or five extra wins, but that's not the move to make."

"As a whole, big picture, Grant has done a good job so far," the agent agrees. "And I think he has a clear vision of the team he wants to build."

That's a verdict delivered largely because of Kyrie Irving's performance so far. But Irving is a Clevelander only by virtue of good fortune, because Grant — in a single move that revealed virtually all you need to know about his skill, his philosophy, and Gilbert's pockets — was able to persuade the L.A. Clippers to take underachieving guard Mo Williams and role-player Jamario Moon last year in exchange for Baron Davis and an unprotected first-round pick.

That pick ended up being No. 1 overall, and that No. 1 ended up being Irving — a no-brainer by almost any estimation.

Irving has lived up to the hype and more, averaging more than 18 points and 5 assists a game, while winning the conference's first two Rookie of the Month honors. He shows an uncanny and — in Cleveland — unfamiliar gene for clutch play at the end of games, and he's building a résumé that stat geeks will tell you is comparable to or better than the rookie numbers of such notable names as Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

It's all the more remarkable considering that Irving's senior year of high school was separated from his NBA debut by only a handful of games during his lone injury-shortened year at Duke.

Tristan Thompson, a lanky and energetic project from Texas, is making Grant's selection of him at No. 4 look good so far, averaging just 6 points a game but showing flashes that he will be much better soon. Both will be centerpieces for whatever title run may someday loom.

But who joins them and how is the next question.

In the front half of the season, the Cavs were hanging around the outer edge of the playoff picture, scraping out a win or two for every couple of losses that mounted. If that had continued, they would have aligned themselves for a first-round playoff matchup against the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls ... and a pitifully middling selection in the all-important upcoming draft.

As if on cue, things began to unravel after the All-Star break, in part when Varejao broke his wrist. It's ironic good news for everyone, save for Varejao and kids sporting Irving jerseys at The Q.

"This is not something that they would announce as their position, but the worst thing you can be is in the middle," says Windhorst. "It's a well-worn NBA axiom. You really need another player as good as Kyrie to get this thing in gear."

Talent of that ilk is not likely to be found late in the first round or the second. And as surgically devastating as Grant has demonstrated himself to be in the trade market, acquisition there depends on a bucketful of factors beyond his control. Which is why the Cavs look forward with unspoken hope of landing back in the NBA lottery one more time.

"Of course they can't say it, but it's true," says one NBA agent.

Whether those picks actually turn into anything is on Grant himself, and his record in that arena isn't spotless.

Though he wasn't the final decision-maker in Atlanta, he contributed to the franchise's respectable returns with high first-round slots, including Joe Smith, Boris Diaw, and Pau Gasol. The do-over the Hawks wish they had was passing on All-Star point guard Chris Paul in 2005. Instead they took the unspectacular Marvin Williams, and Grant took a job with the Cavaliers.

Unlike in Atlanta, drafting in Cleveland has been the land of reaches and gut selections, since the team's gaudy records with LeBron James left them scrambling for low-pick scraps on draft day.

One such reach was 2009's selection of Christian Eyenga, a Congolese big man who wasn't even listed in the draft guide. Now in his third year, Eyenga remains as virtually unknown to fans and those who cover the team as he was the day his name was called.

Only two of seven picks between 2004 and 2010 — Boobie Gibson and J.J. Hickson — made any particular impact, and only Gibson remains, in a backup role. The team sat idle during the 2010 draft after trading away its pick to acquire creaky forward Antawn Jamison the year before — one of three times in six years they twiddled their thumbs through the first round because Ferry had shipped off their picks via trade.

Grant isn't likely to let that happen again. He knows that he will prove himself or flop based on how he handles upcoming drafts.

Flexibility — a word he mentions time and time again — will be a huge asset. Flexibility in how much Gilbert will hand over to spend, flexibility in Cavs players coveted by other teams, flexibility in contracts that expire at the end of this season, and flexibility with salary-cap space in the offseason.

With a fairly high first-round pick likely awaiting them this summer, plus a healthy chunk of money to spend in accordance with the league's salary cap, the expiring contracts of aging veterans like Jamison — and a possible first-round pick from Sacramento, depending on how they finish — the options are plentiful.

Grant will be looking for players to complement Irving's brilliance: a shooting guard or small forward to pile in buckets, and some formidable size and talent down low.

In a league beset with cheap owners, superstars demanding trades, and teams stuck with players' bloated contracts, Grant is content to sit back and plot his long-term play.

He is asked about his plans A through Z for the foreseeable future, then for his plans AA through ZZ.

"I don't think I'm smart enough to put that many plans together," he says. "We probably have some guys that could, but not me."


For now, Grant is excited about what's on the floor — and he's got legions of Cleveland fans who agree. Nobody wants to watch a team lose 26 games in a row, but there's an upside to every situation, and no one focuses on the upside more than Grant. It's been that way since the lockout finally broke, since family and road trips took a backseat again.

"We're not sitting around counting the years. We have to keep adding pieces and give the group time to grow," he says. "But we have a 19-year-old starting point guard right now, ya know. Everybody wants it to happen right now. But, look at [Chicago's] Derrick Rose. He wasn't the MVP overnight. It takes time to grow. Being patient is important."

But patience pays off only when the acquisitions pay off. And Grant, of all people — a draft man himself, a staunch believer in the fundamental ways you build championship teams — knows you have to hit when you have the shot.

And so his hopes, like yours, rest with Irving. Not that he could ever say as much.

"Kyrie has to get better every day," Grant says, echoing the company line spouted by coach Byron Scott every time a microphone is thrust in front of him. "For anyone to sit around and say he's going to be this or this ... he's a good young player. He has to work hard every day. Same goes for Tristan [Thompson]. Same goes for everyone."

But c'mon, Irving will have to turn into something pretty special for the Cavs to compete for a championship, right?

"We have a good group of guys ...," says Chris Grant.



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