When I conceived the notion of writing this column, at first I thought it would be a bit of a stretch to ask if people could recall a season that took place only eight years ago. Surely everyone who would read it would be able to dust off the synapses as far back as 2002-03.
But the more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that a lot of Cavaliers' fans did not become fans until the addition of LeBron James. It is what I sometimes call "The Lipton Cup-o-Fan Syndrome" ... just add a hot team or a hot player and presto! ... instant fan. Some would call it jumping on a bandwagon, and I suppose that would apply as well. But the fact remains that, although the Cavaliers had been around since 1970-71, and had had much success at various points in the intervening years, a lot of people took little if any notice before Cleveland added that kid from Akron in a media frenzy that captivated northeast Ohio.
Now there is a danger of the Cavs going onto the back-burner in the minds of many, where they fall out of the consciousness of those fans who cheered more for one player than they cheered for the actual team. It is important, though, to remember that all players, no matter how great or memorable, will eventually leave, either through trade, free agency, or retirement, and what remains is to be a fan of the team those players were a part of. For seven years, LeBron kept Cleveland on the edge of Nirvana, and we all came teasingly close to living a dream and winning it all. But, as all players go at some point, LeBron, too, has gone. The games will go on, and the team will remain.
As bad as it could get in the near future, it was just as bad, perhaps worse than it will get now, just before The King made his entrance into the NBA. Let's take a look back at that last pre-LeBron James season, and while we are at it, keep in mind that after much failure can come much success. The cycle will repeat someday ... hopefully someday very soon.
Coached by John Lucas, the Cavaliers had compiled a 29-53 record in 2001-02, marking the worst record since 1985-86. Lucas would survive for only half of the ensuing season as the bottom dropped out, and the Cavaliers would threaten to equal their all-time worst record of 15-67.
The roster contained only one name firmly identified with the Cavs of the LeBron Era. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was in his fifth season in 2002-03, and was by far the highest paid of the Cavaliers on a team which included rookies Carlos Boozer, Smush Parker and Dajuan Wagner to go along with notable veterans Tyrone Hill, who split the season between the Cavaliers and the 76ers, and Bimbo Coles, who split the season between Cleveland and Boston. Some of the names have been long forgotten, names such as Michael Stewart, Tierre Brown, Milt Palacio and Chris Mihm. Desagana Diop, Jumaine Jones, Darius Miles and Ricky Davis rounded out the roster, and it was Davis, in his fifth season, who would lead the team in scoring in '02-'03.
When the Cavaliers defeated the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 5 in the first home game, Cleveland evened its record at 2-2. Beating the Lakers in any season is an accomplishment. And how did the Cavs respond to this accomplishment? By immediately going on a 15-game losing streak which stretched into December before finally defeating the Bulls to "improve" to 3-17. At the quarter-pole of the season, the Cavaliers were on pace to win a heady 12 games, and although it did not come to that, it did not get much better as the long season progressed.
How bad was it? In March, Cleveland beat the New Jersey Nets and the Golden State Warriors back-to-back at what was then called Gund Arena. And that, my friends, was the only time all season that the Cavaliers won consecutive games.
Imagine that for a moment, if you will. Imagine playing an 82-game schedule and having precisely one winning streak, and that lasting only two games.
Luckily, for the sake of not breaking the franchise's all-time mark for futility, there were 15 one-game winning...umm, streaks? Aberrations?
You get the point, I think. As bad as it feels looking into the Twilight Zone of the post-LeBron years, it has been much worse than it will probably be now.
To go along with that 15-game slide, there was a seven-game skid in 2002-03, as well as two streaks of six straight losses, and one five-game swoon.
Needless to say, John Lucas did not weather the storm. Lucas was replaced at just about the halfway point of the season -- with a record of 8-34 -- by Keith Smart. Apparently the Cavaliers did not "get Smart" either, as they did only marginally better under him, at 9-31.
Attendance-wise, the Cavaliers, out of 29 teams, finished dead-last at the gate, drawing only 471,374 for the entire 41-game home slate. That sounds like a big number until you do some division and find that that translates to an average crowd of 11,496. In other words, the Gund was only a little more than half-filled, on average.
Individually, Ricky Davis stood out with a fine season wherein he averaged 20.6 ppg, followed by Ilgauskas at 17.2. Those two were joined by Dajuan Wagner and Carlos Boozer as the only Cavs to average in double figures. Boozer and Z also led in rebounds, while Davis dished as well as he scored, averaging 5.5 assists.
But in a wasteland of being outscored by an average of 10 points a game ... for the entire season ... individual numbers meant little in the grand scheme of things.
So why belabor the point about an abysmal season? As I said earlier, as bad as it may get in this coming season or in future seasons, it cannot be much worse than it has been in the past. That 17-win season of 2002-03 was not even the worst in the franchise's history -- two 15-win seasons "topped" that.
It is a cycle, and now we are entering a down-point in that cycle. But the Cavaliers will be back, just as they began coming back in 2003-04, even if the catalyst of that comeback won't be that kid from Akron. Just as they came back after Clemons and Bingo and Carr and Snyder and Chones, just as they came back after Daugherty and Price and Ehlo and Nance.
Let's go Cavs!