CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cavaliers fans are looking for a reason to believe the future will be better. That brighter future has to start next season.
At 9-31, the Cavs are on a pace to finish 18-64. At this point, it makes no sense to trade for veterans who will end the pain. They should keep playing kids and keep adding ping-pong balls to enhance their chances in the NBA lottery.
The general approach by the Cavs is the correct one for a middle-market team. You can't built a team based on free agents.
Would the Cavs love to sign LeBron James when he becomes a free agent again as soon as 2014? Of course. Will they be careful how the use their salary cap space? They must.
But not just for a chance to sign James. Rather they need what General Manager Chris Grant calls "flexibility" to make trades and other moves.
But will they just keep losing and drafting and put themselves at mercy of James' whims in 2014? They better not. Besides, James' departure for Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shows he shops for a team ready to win, not one that has a seemingly permanent seat on the NBA lottery stage.
More important than remaining on the LeBron watch is the psyche of the fans.
The Cavs are 49-139 since James left in the summer of 2010. It would be a public relations nightmare and render the franchise utterly irrelevant if the Cavs had a fourth consecutive season of more than 50 losses in 2013-14. It also would send a message to Kyrie Irving and the other young players that winning isn't important, especially dangerous as Irving will be a free agent in the summer of 2015.
The Cavs have had four first-round picks in the last two drafts. The problem is those drafts were not rich with talent. Of the last two rookie classes, only one player has emerged as a certain star -- and that's Irving, averaging 23 points this season. Portland's Damian Lillard (18.3 points) and Anthony Davis (13.2 points, 7.8 rebounds) of New Orleans also seem like they will be All-Stars at some point.
In the last two drafts, only four players are averaging at least 15 points: Irving, Lillard, Kemba Walker (17.4) and Klay Thompson (15.8). Dion Waiters (14.8) ranks fifth among scorers from the last two draft classes.
So the Cavs have two of the top five scorers entering the league since 2011. They have the third-leading rebounder in Tristian Thompson (9.2 per game). They do have a promising young big man in rookie Tyler Zeller.
Coach Byron Scott and Grant take solace in the fact that the young players are improving. Thompson is averaging 13.5 points and 11.7 rebounds, shooting 51 percent in the last 10 games. The 21-year-old power forward is figuring out the pro game.
While Scott never said it, he was frustrated with Waiters' poor shot selection and iffy defense. So he pulled the rookie guard from the starting lineup, making Waiters the sixth man. In his first seven games off the bench, Waiters is averaging 18.0 points and shooting 47 percent from the field, 87 percent from the foul line.
The 6-4 rookie is driving more than he did as starter, resulting in more trips to the foul line. This is the player the Cavs hoped to see when making Waiters the surprise No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft.
The only young player now struggling is Zeller, who became the starting center when Anderson Varejao (leg surgery) was injured. In those 14 games, he's averaged 10.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 39 percent shooting. He has been physically overpowered in several games, and been hampered with foul problems.
The NBA often is an unforgiving land for young big men.
A pretty rank group
Where the Cavaliers rank (30 NBA teams)
30th: Allowing opponents to shoot .474 from the field.
29th: 9-31 record is 2nd worst in the NBA; shooting only .420 from the field.
25th: Allowing opponents to average 100.7 points per game, and to shoot .371 on 3-pointers.
22nd: Averaging 95.0 points per game.
14th: Shooting .355 on 3-pointers.
The top five players from the last two drafts this season in scoring and rebounding:
Scoring: Kyrie Irving, Cavs (2011) 23.0; Damian Lillard, Blazers (2012) 18.3; Kemba Walker, Bobcats (2011) 17.4; Klay Thompson, Warriors (2011) 15.8; Dion Waiters, Cavs (2012) 14.8
Rebounding: Nikola Vucevic, Magic (2011) 11.1; Kenneth Faried, Nuggets (2011) 10.2; Tristan Thompson, Cavs (2011) 9.2; Anthony Davis, Hornets (2012) 7.8; Andre Drummond, Pistons (2012) 7.2
Grant knows fans are frustrated. He also knows the franchise has to be creative to add veteran talent -- and it's far more likely to come via a trade than free agency.
The Cavs have $10 million on the salary cap available to take back a player with a large contract in a trade. They don't say so, but seemed to be poised to deal Anderson Varejao before the Feb. 21 trading deadline, but the big man's leg surgery means it's doubtful he'll play before March. That makes a deadline trade unlikely, at least one with Varejao.
The Cavs may have to take the same road as Houston, which spent nearly two years collecting draft picks and expiring contracts to trade for an impact player. When Oklahoma City refused to offer James Hardin a maximum contract, the Rockets put together a package of picks and players to deal for the high-scoring guard. So far, Houston is 21-17, not much better than their previous three seasons. But the Rockets believe they can grow and build with Hardin.
While some fans are upset with Scott, the coach was handed a roster of young guys and told to teach the game and take the losses. In the off-season, the only veteran they added was C.J. Miles.
But Scott must do something with the defense. The Cavs rank 25th of 30 teams, allowing 100.7 points. They are dead last in opponents' field goal percentage (.474). Their young guards are often like swinging doors, allowing players to drive past them. Varejao's absence has taken away a big man who knows how to defend the basket.
The Cavs are a soft team.
Scott can't magically change it, but he must begin to improve it -- even if it means sitting some of the young players when they flounder on defense.
But the bottom line is not much will change for the Cavs this season. However, it must for next year with a playoff push in mind -- and it will take more than a few draft picks for that to happen.