Sports are one of the last true meritocratic systems in the world.
The best players play and the best organizations flourish.
With that being said, congratulations to the 2015 Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, a franchise that won in spite of itself.
I’m not in any way trying to diminish the on-court excellence of the Cavaliers. It’s the opposite actually, I’m marveling at their success despite the incompetence of team owner Dan Gilbert.
Success in sports is a Darwinistic proposition. It’s not a coincidence. Some teams rise and fall quickly, but the ones that achieve sustained excellence are the ones that apply principles reflective of successful businesses.
Get rich quick schemes don’t work. Want to be rich? Work hard, prepare, study, work even harder, understand your flaws, plan for the future and catch a few breaks. We celebrate hard work and perseverance. There are no shortcuts. In business, in sports and in life the people and organizations that put in the work, have foresight and are decisive are the ones that succeed. A poorly run business will fail. That’s the essence of capitalism. You could certainly argue that our society doesn’t have a level playing field in every aspect, but the NBA certainly does. That’s what makes the Cavaliers so interesting. Their success is attributable to LeBron James and the corresponding moves he helped author after re-joining the team.
Dan Gilbert famously penned a letter to Cavs fans after LeBron left in 2010. He promised that the Cavaliers would hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy before LeBron. It’s as ridiculous of a statement today as it was when he wrote it. James won two titles with Miami in four years and Dan Gilbert was making an annual pilgrimage to the NBA Draft Lottery.
The draft is where the best teams take advantage of poorly run franchises. That’s not to say that well run franchises don’t miss from time to time in the draft, or in free agency, but Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers’ missteps are blatant, consistent and difficult to disregard.
Gilbert turned five top five picks, including three No. 1 overall picks in a four year period into: Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. That list doesn’t include Tyler Zeller, the 17th overall pick in 2012, or Sergey Karasev, the 19th selection in 2013.
After winning the right to the top pick in the 2013 draft, Gilbert said, “We hope this is our last trip here to the lottery for a long time.” He was wrong. They won the lottery again the following year, and were probably going to be back in 2015 if not for the addition of LeBron.
Gilbert has had three different general managers and three different coaches, including Mike Brown twice since 2010.
Gilbert was quoted as saying he made a “mistake” when he fired Brown the first time, a mistake he apparently rectified by firing him less than a full calendar year later.
Organizations that continually trip over their own feet aren’t supposed to succeed. They aren’t unless of course they happen to stumble upon the LeBron James get rich quick scheme. Hiring three different general managers and three different coaches over a five-year period reflect poor ownership.
It’s not just this current iteration of the Cavaliers either. You could argue that if Gilbert had surrounded LeBron with the right pieces at any point in the first seven years of his career he probably doesn’t flee for Miami in the first place.
LeBron had very little say in the front office decision-making in Miami, because Pat Riley was running the show. LeBron wanted to go back to Cleveland to help bring a championship to the city’s beleaguered sports fans, but he also knew he’d get the keys to the franchise.
LeBron wasn’t going to come back to Cleveland to let Dan Gilbert make the same mistakes again.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a massive contradiction in the extremely volatile world of professional sports. Businesses that are poorly managed close their doors. In sports, winning proves worth.
In Cleveland, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, but clothes don’t really matter when you have LeBron James.