Without LeBron, Cleveland Would Channel Orlando's Pain
If the Cavaliers lose LeBron James, Hollywood might have to come to Cleveland and film a new disaster movie.
At least, that's the word from NBA TV analyst Dennis Scott.
"It would be like 'Twister,' that movie where a tornado comes through town and tears everything up,'' Scott said. "It will be so drastic there will be nothing left of that team. ... If LeBron leaves, Cleveland will become a ghost town. It will be like it used to be. You just go into (Quicken Loans Arena) and play your game and leave.''
Scott knows a bit about a star player departing via free agency and devastating a franchise. He was with the Orlando Magic in 1995-96, when they went 60-22. Then Shaquille O'Neal bolted to the Lakers that summer, and it was as if a tornado had swept through Central Florida.
The Magic slipped to 45-37, and coach Brian Hill would be fired midway through the season. Orlando would end up not winning a playoff series for 12 years after Shaq slipped out of town.
"I see a lot of similarities,'' said Nick Anderson, the starting shooting guard for the Magic in 1995-96 and 1996-97 while Scott was the starting small forward in those seasons with, and then without, the big fellow. "It would just devastate that franchise. It would be starting over again if LeBron James left.''
James became a free agent on Thursday for the first time in his career, and Cleveland fans are quite nervous he could leave. The leading contenders to steal away James are Chicago, Miami and New York, all of which have carved out oodles of cap room.
If James does bolt, it indeed would conjure up memories of O'Neal, a 7-foot-1 center, leaving the Magic 14 years ago. If O'Neal wasn't the best player in the game then (Michael Jordan won the MVP in 1995-96 at 33), he certainly was on the verge of that. If James isn't the best player in the game now (while James has won the past two MVPs, some note the Lakers' Kobe Bryant has seized the last two Finals MVPs), he certainly soon will be.
O'Neal and James both played for teams coming off 60-win seasons. Both were on up-and-coming outfits that had made the Finals once but been swept by Texas teams (Orlando by Houston in 1995 and the Cavaliers by San Antonio in 2007).
While O'Neal had played four years for the Magic and James has played seven for Cleveland, their ages at the time of being free agents for the first time were similar. O'Neal, who played three years of college ball, was 24, and James, who came straight from high school, is 25.
"I would do everything you can to embrace and try to hold on (to James),'' Anderson, now a community ambassador for the Magic, said of any advice to those in Cleveland. "Before LeBron came, they didn't get any fans out to the arena (attendance was a disastrous 11,496 in 2002-03, the season before King James' arrival), and you don't want that again. It would be devastating.''
Just ask Pat Williams, Orlando's senior vice president, what a disaster it was to lose Shaq in 1996.
"It took me 10 years to halfway get over it,'' said Williams, who has been with the Magic since before the team's inaugural season of 1989-90. "To lose a 24-year-old that is the franchise is just very, very painful. ... The wounds didn't start to heal until eight years later when we drafted Dwight Howard (a center with the No. 1 pick in 2004), and we began to make our way back. We were impacted for a decade. It was very, very difficult.''
It took 12 years before the Magic would again have a 50-win season after Shaq's departure, although Orlando did go 33-17 (the equivalent of 54-28) during the 1998-99 lockout season. The Magic finally made it back to the Finals in 2008-09.
Ask Magic players from the summer of 1996 where they were when the news hit that O'Neal was definitely gone, and they can tell you. It still hurts.
"I'll always remember that day,'' Anderson said. "I was watching the Olympics (from Atlanta) and there was a bulletin that flashed across the screen and then there was (Lakers general manager) Jerry West holding up a Shaquillle O'Neal jersey. And then my dad called me and said, 'The championship just went to L.A.'''
Not just one, but three. O'Neal led the Lakers to titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. As if to further add pain to the Magic, O'Neal won a fourth with in-state rival Miami in 2006.
"I remember Shaq calling me up and he says, 'Hey, bro, I'm going to L.A. They really wanted me more than the Magic,''' Scott recalls. "John Gabriel (then Orlando's general manager) is a good friend and every time I see him now, he says, 'You were right.'''
Scott said he had told Gabriel that the Magic, when offering O'Neal an $88 million package, was putting too little on the table. The Lakers, after clearing salary-cap space by giving players away for next to nothing, carved out enough to give Shaq a seven-year, $121 million contract.
Williams said the Magic, who could go over the cap to sign O'Neal, eventually raised its offer to more than what the Lakers could pay. But it was too late.
"That offer came at 12:01,'' Scott said.
Scott and Anderson both said Orlando fans, their team then just seven years old, were a bit naïve, not realizing what they had in O'Neal. Scott remembers O'Neal being irritated by an Orlando Sentinel column that asked if O'Neal was worth $100 million and declared he probably wasn't.
"It was crazy,'' Anderson said. "You had people (in Orlando) saying, 'We don't need him.' But I doubt they're doing that in Cleveland. ... You learn from other people's mistakes. They've been around long enough in Cleveland (an NBA city since 1970) to know what (James is worth).''
If they could, the Cavaliers would give James the Terminal Tower and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But there are maximum contracts now, something that wasn't in place when the Magic pretty much could have offered anything to keep O'Neal due to having his Bird rights.
But the Cavaliers have more advantages under NBA rules now with James than the Magic had under O'Neal. They can give James a six-year deal while other teams can only offer five, and they can give him more money overall due to 10.5 percent annual raises rather than eight.
O'Neal became an unrestricted free agent after his first contract, enabling him to vanish from the Magic for nothing after just four seasons. The earliest James could have been an unrestricted free agent would have been after five years, and he would have had to have taken way less money in his fifth season to have done that.
"We couldn't even match (the Lakers' offer) after his first contract, but the NBA eventually tightened that loophole (in the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed before the 1998-99 lockout season),'' Williams said.
Williams said fans in Central Florida back then "didn't think he would leave.'' But O'Neal's teammates felt differently.
"I can remember back when Shaq was a senior in high school and I was at the University of Illinois, and he came for a recruiting visit,'' Anderson said. "And said he wanted to be the Lakers' next great center. That had been his dream. And in practice a few times he'd be running down the court and say, 'I'll see you all with my new team next year.'''
Scott always was aware the jovial O'Neal would embrace the Hollywood lifestyle.
"I knew that Shaq always loved movies, and was thinking it would be fun to be out there.'' Scott said.
O'Neal ended up being in several movies while with the Lakers from 1996-2004, a tenure that included an MVP trophy, three Finals MVPs and a scoring title. None was a disaster movie.
But O'Neal left Orlando as a would-be setting for a disaster movie.
"When we came back the following season, it was like the air had seeped out of the balloon,'' Anderson said of the 45-37 campaign in which Hill was fired after a 24-25 start, and in which the physical O'Neal was replaced at center by the afraid-to-muss-his-hair Rony Seikaly. "You went from having an All-Star big to Rony Seikaly, who we used to call a 7-foot model.''
Life off the court was quite different as well.
"With Shaq and Penny (Orlando's other star in guard Anfernee Hardaway), it was like the Beatles or the Jacksons,'' Scott said. "We'd get to the hotel and there'd be 200 people outside. After Shaq left, it was like five and they just wanted to see Penny.''
If James leaves, it might be more of the same for Cleveland. It might be a sequel to "Twister,'' which, interestingly, came out in 1996.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson