Cleveland's summer of discontent threatened to drag on into
fall. Forward Chris Mills turned his free-agent back on the
Cavaliers and hightailed it to the Boston Celtics. Cleveland's
other top-priority free agent, guard Bobby Phills, scurried off
to the Charlotte Hornets. Seeking replacements, the Cavs front
office, about $10 million under the salary cap, tried to give
greenbacks away. But Celtics swingman Rick Fox turned down a
four-year, $20 million offer from Cleveland to play for the Los
Angeles Lakers for one year at $1 million. Sacramento Kings
forward Brian Grant spurned the Cavs' $8.6 million-a-year offer
and joined the Portland Trail Blazers for--you guessed it--less
guaranteed money: $8 million a year. Cavaliers fans (what
remained of them, anyway) implored their team to do something.
Last Thursday the Cavs obliged, acquiring disgruntled five-time
All-Star forward Shawn Kemp from the Seattle SuperSonics and
veteran point guard Sherman Douglas from the Milwaukee Bucks in
a three-way swap that sent Cavs All-Star point guard Terrell
Brandon, forward Tyrone Hill and Cleveland's 1998 first-round
pick (providing it's not a top 10 selection) to the Bucks, who
in turn shipped their All-Star forward, Vin Baker, to Seattle.
Thus Cleveland president-chief operating officer Wayne Embry
obliterated what was left of his starting lineup during the
1996-97 season (in which the Cavs went 42-40 and missed the
playoffs) and kicked off efforts to revamp a team whose
excruciating down-tempo game left most of the league punching
the snooze button last season. The Cavaliers are a natural fit
for the Reign Man because they are one of the few teams in the
NBA that have enough room under the cap to give him an instant
raise. (Embry said he would soon begin negotiations with Kemp's
agents.) "When you are trying to reestablish yourself as a
contender, you need a cornerstone to build around," Embry says.
"We have ours."
Seattle thought it had a cornerstone when Kemp and point guard
Gary Payton led the Sonics to the 1996 NBA Finals. But when the
club followed up that success by making off-season changes,
including the signing of free-agent center Jim McIlvaine to a
seven-year, $35 million contract, all the good feelings
vanished. Kemp, who made $3.3 million last season on a contract
running through 2001-02--which he had already renegotiated and
which contained a clause precluding further renegotiation until
this fall--briefly held himself out of preseason camp to protest
McIlvaine's bigger salary. In '96-97 a simmering Kemp averaged
18.7 points, down from 19.6 the year before, and 10.0 rebounds,
a drop from 11.4. He spent the season in a highly visible sulk,
which was almost certainly a factor in the Sonics' dismissal by
the Houston Rockets from the Western Conference semifinals.
In June, Kemp vowed he would not report to training camp if he
was still Seattle property. He cut off all communication with
the team, even refusing to answer repeated phone calls from
teammates Payton and Nate McMillan. Amazingly, the Sonics were
able to extract equal value for their unhappy superstar. The
reason: Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl, who is fond of Baker as a
player and a person, finally came to grips with the need to
It had become apparent to the Bucks, who finished 33-49 last
season, that they needed to alter their team chemistry. Baker
and Milwaukee coach Chris Ford clashed during the team's slide
in the second half of '96-97, while Douglas openly questioned
the leadership of Baker and his frontcourt mate, Glenn Robinson.
Yet the Bucks were reluctant to move Baker--until a recent
meeting with him and his agent, David Falk. While Baker did not
ask for a trade, he and Falk declared that in 1999 he would
exercise his right to opt out of his contract.
At one point, sources said, there was discussion of a
Baker-for-Brandon swap, but Cleveland had concerns about keeping
Baker beyond 1999 and coveted Kemp anyway. Giving up Brandon and
Hill will undoubtedly hurt Cleveland in the short run. The
Cavaliers will settle on Douglas at the point while rookie
Brevin Knight learns the NBA game. With Kemp, Knight, rookie
guard Derek Anderson and third-year guard Bobby Sura expected to
play major roles, the Cavaliers should at least depart from
their Sominex style. It will take some time, however, before
that translates into wins. Embry is optimistic about how Kemp
will fit in with the Cavs. "Actually, we look at it as a fresh
start," Embry says. "I don't anticipate any problems with Shawn."
The Sonics were not going to deal Kemp unless they could remain
championship contenders. Seattle president and general manager
Wally Walker decided he would not trade for a player in the
final year of his contract. That eliminated Chicago Bulls
forward Scottie Pippen, Denver Nuggets forward Antonio McDyess
and Golden State Warriors forward Joe Smith. The Toronto Raptors
had cap flexibility and trade bait in forward Marcus Camby, but
the Sonics were not enamored of the former UMass star. Baker was
the man they wanted, and though they gambled by taking a player
who could walk away in two years, Walker feels it's worth the
"He sounds enthused to be here," said Walker after talking with
Baker on the night of the trade. "That's a refreshing change."
The rap on Baker has been his inability to step forward as a
leader, but he will not be called upon to play that role in
Seattle, where Payton is more than happy to do the honors. In
1996-97 Baker's numbers (21.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game)
were better than Kemp's. He has already been told by Sonics
coach George Karl that he needs to work harder on playing both
ends of the floor.
The prospect of having a stronger defensive team is one reason
Milwaukee is happier this week. In Brandon the Bucks get the
point guard they have long sought, and in Hill they get a
no-nonsense, hard-working power forward. Though they've lost a
valuable offensive weapon in Baker, Ford feels his team too
often got bogged down dumping the ball into him in the post.
Milwaukee will become a perimeter team with one of the most
promising young backcourts in the league: Brandon and
second-year shooting guard Ray Allen. Team chemistry, meanwhile,
has improved immeasurably. "We're a basketball team now," says
Ford. "Honestly, I think this is one of those rare times when
the deal really worked for everybody."
For Cleveland, a happy ending depends on how quickly the Cavs
rework Kemp's contract and on how Kemp handles going from a
contending team in the West to a rebuilding team in the East.
"The real questions at the end of the day are, Will Shawn Kemp
be happier in Cleveland making more money, and will Vin Baker be
happier in Seattle winning more games?" Falk mused. "My guess
is, the answer to both is yes."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Kemp (here, when he reigned in Seattle) should get a deluge of dollars in Cleveland. [Shawn Kemp]