Ferry, Gilbert now working with a four-year plan

If the reports are true about LeBron James agreeing to a three-year extension with a player option for a fourth season, instead of the max five-year deal, things at the Q are about to get very interesting.

If he were to decline his player option after the 2009-10 season, James would move into a higher salary bracket. As a seven-year veteran, he would be able to sign a contract paying up to 30 percent of a team’s salary cap, as opposed to his current ceiling of 25 percent.

Okay, so financially, this move makes sense for LeBron since he would be able to sign an even bigger contract once those three years run out, but let’s not kid ourselves: there’s much more than money motivating this decision for LBJ. He’s a loyal guy and, as I’ve stated before, I believe him when he says he wants to stay in Cleveland for his entire career. But wanting to stay and being compelled to stay are two very different things.

The Cavaliers aren’t getting a free pass here, no hometown discounts and no benefits of the doubt. LeBron wants to win, especially after his buddy Dwayne Wade hoisted the championship trophy over his head last month. If his player option comes up in four years and LeBron’s not happy with the direction of the franchise, he’ll bolt, hometown roots be damned. Playing at home for your entire career is a great story but it’s an incomplete story if there’s no championship involved. If LBJ can’t get his ring here, he’ll get it somewhere else.

Which puts the pressure squarely on Danny Ferry and Dan Gilbert. Ferry came from San Antonio, a franchise that placed high value on big men in the middle. Hey, that philosophy works great if you’ve got David Robinson and Tim Duncan on your roster, and if you don’t have arguably the best player on the planet at small forward. Zydrunas Ilgauskas has his moments and he’s always been a fan favorite, especially once he kicked his foot problems and became one of the better low-post scorers in the East. Unfortunately, he doesn’t fit here.

The NBA has been tightening up its rules on contact, which favors athletic teams that run, like the Suns. With the talent they have, the Cavs could be a very good up-tempo team, pushing the ball aggressively up the floor looking for high-percentage shots. The only problem is, your starting center is about as up-tempo as a funeral procession. Dude can’t run. In fact, you don’t want dude to run because every time he does, he looks like a wounded giraffe galloping down the court and you’re sure that, one of these times, he’s going to lose his balance, topple over and break his wrist, ankle or, even worse, his foot.

Z is built for the half-court game but the Cavaliers are built for the run-and-gun game. If LeBron, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall and Shannon Brown (yeah, I’m excited about this guy) were on the run all game, they’d be one of the most explosive offensive teams around. But they’ve got Z holding them back.

Even worse, the front office has Z’s contract holding them back for another four years. The Larry Hughes contract is almost as bad but, assuming he’s healthy, he’s still a much better fit on this team than Z. The Cavs need an athletic big man who can run, block shots and play solid D in the post more than they need a stationary guy with a great low-post game who’s a liability in transition and mediocre at best defensively.

So what to do? The Dans need to figure out how to clear Z’s contract off the books and start building an athletic roster top to bottom. Would they even be able to move Z? I’m sure someone out there who’s enamored with offensive-minded centers would love to have him; question is, who is that and what are they willing to give up in return?

These next four years are the most important four years in franchise history, without question. Ferry and Gilbert can’t afford to make any mistakes, and they can’t let past mistakes continue to haunt them. Every contract they take on needs to contribute to this four-year plan, every rookie they draft needs to fit the system, and every dollar they spend has to bring them one step closer to an NBA title.

The Cavaliers don’t necessarily have to win a championship by the time LeBron’s option year comes up, though that certainly would improve their chances of keeping him beyond 2010. Instead, when it comes time for LeBron to either re-up or bolt for greener big-market pastures, the Cavaliers need to be one of the NBA’s elite franchises, a team on the shortest list of title contenders each year and one that LeBron is confident will one day soon bring home a championship.

So let’s see what you’ve got, Ferry and Gilbert. It’s on you now. You’ve got four years to convince LeBron that this is, in fact, where he wants to be. And not to add any unwanted pressure, but an entire city is counting on you.

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