Friday, October 13, 2006

The legacy of Jim Paxson

With today's trade of Luke Jackson, one of the final pieces of Jim Paxson's Cavaliers was trimmed from the roster.

Paxson's last first round pick went the way of all the other first-rounders not named LeBron James. Jackson spent the majority of his time with the Cavs injured, unhappy or glued to the bench. Reports today said he had been pining for a trade for more than a year.

Jackson is Paxson's last brushstroke in a legacy of draft-day failure that created a hole the Cavs are still trying to completely climb out of, even with the presence of LeBron.

When Paxson was finally fired in May 2005, we easily saw it coming. Some of us thought it was overdue.

But his drafts, his coaching hires, his role in botching the contract of Carlos Boozer, it doesn't all add up to the sum of Paxson's tenure.

Many of the reasons Danny Ferry is enjoying initial success as the Cavs GM is because of what Paxson did before him. And for that, Paxson deserves to be viewed as more than just another pair of bad hands that mishandled the Cavs like so many before.

Don't get me wrong, the Cavs are most definitely in better hands now. But if Paxson understood one thing, it was that NBA teams need financial flexibility.

His moves (or non-moves) are a big reason Ferry has been able to build a competent roster around LeBron, a starting point to arrive, maybe someday, at a championship.

It started in 2000, when Paxson was able to dump Shawn Kemp's massive contract. You might poke fun at the fact that one of Paxson's greatest triumphs was getting rid of a player, but that $100 million contract Kemp signed after coming over from Seattle in a Wayne Embry-engineered trade could have saddled the Cavs for years with an overweight, unmotivated shell of a player.

It could very easily have been the worst contract in Cavs history. Instead, Paxson was able to push Kemp off the team's chest for expiring contracts.

In the summer of 2002, Andre Miller was the team's best player. He wanted a maximum contract, or he'd bolt town as a free agent the following summer. Paxson could have grasped at straws. He could have appeased Miller with a max deal, keeping the closest thing to a good player the Cavs had.

Instead, he went out on a limb and dealt Miller to the Clippers for Darius Miles. It wasn't so much that they got Miles, a career underachiever who desperately needed to play college ball, it was that Paxson didn't cave to Miller's demands. He kept the big picture in mind.

History has proven Paxson right. Miller, while a solid point guard and certainly better than anyone the Cavs have at the moment, is far from a max-deal type of player. The Nuggets, at times, appear to be less than satisfied with their investment in Miller.

Isiah Thomas could learn a thing or two from that approach as he continues to run the Knicks into the ground.

Prior to that 2002-03 season, Paxson unloaded the cumbersome deals of Wesley Person and Lamond Murray, looking ahead to coming summers with cap room. Eventually, with the departure of Carlos Boozer and the expiration of Zydrunas Ilgauskas' last contract, Paxson left Ferry with $28 million to spend in the summer of 2005.

On the heels of the Boozer debacle, in which Paxson and owner Gordon Gund can only be accused of being too trusting, Paxson had arguably his finest strategic moment as Cavs' GM.

With the franchise reeling from Boozer's shocking departure and every reason to throw in the towel, Paxson took his obvious anger and focused it on his work. Several days after acquiring Eric Snow from the 76ers, he authored a brilliant trade that could help the Cavs for years to come.

Winning the 2003 draft lottery might have been Paxson's finest moment at a GM, but trading bench big Tony Battie and a pair of second-rounders to the Magic for Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao was Paxson's greatest move, some karmic payback for trusting a player who went back on his word.

Armed with LeBron, Gooden, Varejao and $28 million in cap room, Ferry was able to hit the ground running in his first months as Cleveland's GM.

Ferry made the moves that put the Cavs in the playoffs for the first time in eight years, but Paxson made the moves that set Ferry up.

Jackson is gone. Sasha Pavlovic might be next. Slowly, Paxson's signature appears to be getting erased from the face of the Cavs. But, in a very real way, it isn't.

Early returns say Ferry is doing a better overall job as GM, but every time Gooden snaps off a rebound and Varejao takes a charge, every time Larry Hughes sinks a bucket, Donyell Marshall sinks a three-ball and Damon Jones nails a game-winner, Paxson is at least indirectly responsible.

Nobody will confuse Paxson with Red Auerbach, or even John Paxson, his older brother whom he now serves under in the Bulls front office. But Paxson deserves better than to have his name spat out when mentioned in Cleveland circles.


Ben said...

Man, I dunno... I'm with ya, Paxson wasn't that awful but I feel you're giving him too much credit in some places.

For every good move Paxson seemed to pull off, he seemed to make 2 bad ones.

Dumping the contracts? How he pulled that off will forever be a mystery to me. Kemp, Person, Sura... he got rid of all these guys.

So those were nice, but the coaching hires? Ugh.

And for every Carlos Boozer or Andre Miller drafted there was a Desagana Diop or Trajan Langdon (and even Miller and Langdon were suspect, they had Brevin Knight and Derek Anderson at the time, solid but not great players).

As for the Miller/Miles deal. It wasn't that Paxson didn't think Miller was worthy of max deal or wanted flexibility, he traded for Miles because "people don't come to arena for Andre Miller".

And yes, he got the Cavs in position to draft LeBron, but that isn't exactly a testament to his GM skills.

But even after LeBron... the Kevin Olie and Ira Newble contracts were awful. (But somehow he got Eric Snow for Olie and Kendrick Brown.)

And I agree, his greatest and most unheralded move was the trade of Tony Battie for Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao. But even that came after he botched the Boozer deal (and despite what has happened since, I'd take a healthy Carlos Boozer over a Gooden/Varejao combo).

And even Luke Jackson... drafting a SF a year after getting LeBron? Huh?

Sure, he made a decent deal every now and then, but that's not going to stop me from spitting out his name (with scorn mind you!).

Of course, I'll always remember Paxson for his final deal. Magically turning a first round pick into a second round pick all with the help of one Jiri Welsch (some say at the end he was collecting 'Jim Paxson' type players, tall, white swing players who could shoot. Jackson, Pavlovic and Welsch all fit the mold).

Erik said...

A great deal of what Paxson did was bad. Ferry had better hope Shannon Brown and Daniel Gibson are real-deal NBA players, because that's all the draft is going to give them until 2008, barring a trade.

The only point I'm trying to make is that, as much as some may hate to admit it, Paxson played a huge role in allowing Ferry to do what he has done so far. Of course, if Paxson were still here, we'd be treated to more slow, white jump shooters under long-term contracts.

The right move happened at the right time. Paxson did what he does best, clearing cap space, got lucky with the Gooden/Andy V deal, then was ushered out for a far more competent trader and (we hope) drafter.

I'm just trying to give credit where credit is due. Kind of like with the Dolans. Everyone seems to hate them as owners, I'm impatiently tapping my foot waiting for them to spend some real money this offseason. But there is a lot they've done right, too.

Ben said...

I see your point, but I just hate giving Jim Paxson credit for anything. I watched a ton of games with Ricky Davis and Darius Miles (and Lammond Murray, Chris Mihm, Bimbo Coles)... I want those countless hours back.

erik said...

Point well taken on Kevin Ollie, Trajan Langdon, Lasagna Flop, Bimbo Coles, Bryant Stith, Darius Miles, Ricky Davis, Lamond Murray, Jiri Welsch, Ryan Stack, A.J Bramlett ... gad, is the list that long?

POJO_Risin said...

A very...very interesting take. You know, I sat around looking at the deals that Paxson made, and he was terrible. But you have to look from the position you are at now. Then, he was terrible. But you are right. Now, with that last deal, we are left with a much better team. Had he have stayed, what would have happen? Thankfully, we won't have to find out.

As for rather having Boozer than Varejao and Gooden...well...back then I'd certainly agree. But facts are facts, his botched move kept us from two injury riddled seasons from a guy that will never be a factor again...

I don't commend Paxson for being an idiot...but thank him for it nonetheless. Gooden will get the Boozer boards, and there's more than enough scoring to go around to make up for the 4 or so points we lost in the Boozer/Gooden "swap."