The Warriors indicated they wanted Dion Waiters.
The Cavaliers drafted Waiters – who shut down workouts (before visiting Cleveland) and then shot up draft boards – No. 4 in the 2012 NBA draft. They either played into Golden State’s gamesmanship or poached the player the Warriors really wanted. Golden State took Barnes No. 7.
Three years later, the Warriors and Cavaliers are no longer sparring in the lottery. They meet in the NBA Finals – hoping to become the first team in seven years to jump from outside the playoffs to a championship so quickly.
Cleveland had the worst-ever four years preceding a conference-finals appearance, let alone the worst lead-up to a conference – or even NBA – title. Before its turnaround that begun in 2012, Golden State made the playoffs just once in 18 years.
How did these downtrodden franchises change their fortunes?
The Warriors have made the most of their opportunities. The Cavaliers have made the most most opportunities.
For Cleveland, everything starts with LeBron James.
When the Cavaliers drafted him in 2003, he immediately set them on a track toward title contention. They never reached the pinnacle, and those hopes exploded in flames of burning jerseys when he left for the Heat in 2010.
But Cleveland immediately began preparing to maximize its next championship window – whenever that might be.
They signed-and-traded LeBron for two first-round picks, the right to swap another first-rounder with Miami and two second-rounders. They accepted Baron Davis’ burdensome contract in exchange for the Clippers’ unprotected first-round pick. They dealt J.J. Hickson to the Kings for Omri Casspi and another first-round pick. They traded Ramon Sessions to the Lakers for a first-rounder and the right to swap future fist-rounders. They helped the Grizzles escape the luxury tax by taking Marreese Speights – and yet another first-round pick as bounty.
Some of those picks have been squandered. The Sacramento pick (which still has not been conveyed) went to Chicago for Luol Deng, who didn’t help Cleveland get anywhere before bolting in free agency.
But others have proven instrumental. The Clippers’ pick won the lottery, sending Kyrie Irving to the Cavaliers. They also had their own pick after a poor season, which resulted in Tristan Thompson.
Infamously, that wasn’t the end of the Cavs’ lottery luck. They won again in 2013 (Anthony Bennett) and 2014 (Andrew Wiggins). In their lone non-lucky lottery since LeBron left, they picked up Waiters.
Essentially, the idea was accumulating assets while the team was bad and then cashing in on them when it became good. The lottery helped immensely, but the underlying plan was sound.
Paying Davis and Speights didn’t bother Cleveland at the time. Spending that money on better players wouldn’t have been enough to make the Cavaliers good, anyway.
Now, every roster upgrade matters, and the Cavaliers have shifted gears.
They sent away Tyler Zeller (acquired with accumulated draft picks in the first place) and another first-rounder to dump Jarrett Jack, clearing the cap space to sign LeBron. They dealt Wiggins, Bennett and a first-rounder acquired in the LeBron sign-and-trade to get Kevin Love. They used Waiters to acquire J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. That deal came with a Thunder first-round pick, which Cleveland packaged with that Memphis first-rounder to get Timofey Mozgov.
The Cavaliers have built a complete team very quickly because they and luck positioned them so strongly entering last summer. I’m sure LeBron wanted to return home, but I doubt he would have signed with Cleveland if its collection of assets weren’t so impressive.
The Cavaliers made plenty of missteps along the way, but they and lottery luck afforded themselves that imperfection.
The Warriors, on the other hand, didn’t have such room for error. They needed to – and did – operate much more shrewdly.
Golden State also relied on fortune – not of lottery luck, but health.
The Warriors traded Monta Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut in 2012 – a highly controversial deal at the time – and Bogut didn’t play the rest of that season. Curry was also done for the year due to an ankle injury.
Golden State was essentially building around two injured players.
And it couldn’t have worked any better.
Bogut and Curry got healthy, but not before the Warriors tanked their way into keeping their top-seven protected 2012 first-rounder and Curry agreed to a four-year, $44 million contract extension.
Barnes became that pick, and Curry’s bargain extension gave Golden State a ton of flexibility to upgrade the rest of the roster. So did the team’s best 2012 draft pick – second-rounder Draymond Green, who like most second-rounders, signed for near the minimum.
The Warriors used some of that flexibility (necessarily furthered by a salary dump on the Jazz) to sign Andre Iguodala in 2013 and add Shaun Livingston last year.
They also took a huge risk – firing Mark Jackson, who’d helped the team escape its decades-long rut, and hiring first-time coach Steve Kerr. Of course, it has worked beautifully. Green, Barnes and Klay Thompson have blossomed this season, and the team is clicking on both ends of the court.
This is the culmination of Golden State’s plan, but the road gets more difficult from here.
Green becomes a restricted free agent this summer, and he’ll surely command a max contract. That would take the Warriors into the luxury tax, so they’ll have to pay big to keep this group together.
Likewise, the Cavaliers are running out of future assets to trade in for immediate help. They also have the urgent task of keeping Love, who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Both franchises face difficult decisions in the years ahead.
But title windows are difficult to crack ajar, let alone prop open for extend periods of time.
Golden State and Cleveland have done both. Whatever happens in the Finals, these teams should remain in contention for the next few years.
And to think, not long ago, they were trying to misdirect each other about selecting Dion Waiters high in the draft.