If the NBA's 29 general managers were a fraternity, this would be their credo: "Nobody has it as bad as I do."
Or so jokes Portland GM Bob Whitsitt, who's able to laugh about silk-tie martyrdom more easily than most. His team buys free agents the way everyone else buys gum, and makes the playoffs as if it were mandated by league policy. Still, beneath the success and the what-me-worry? veneer, even Whitsitt sometimes feels as wanted as smallpox. The Trail Blazers have ended every season with a loss since he arrived in 1994. Fans blame one man.
"It's not the players' fault, not the coach's fault, not the owner's fault. It's the GM's," he says. "When your team isn't winning, you're on an island that's the smallest place in the world."
By that logic, Jim Paxson's lifeless body should be resting on Lake Erie's floor, his island long since submerged by dismal draft picks, no-yield trades, and suspect coach selection.
Going into the 2002-'03 season, his fourth as Cavaliers general manager, the team had posted a 91-155 record. Halfway through this year, FEMA inspectors already are sifting through the wreckage. The club owns the NBA's worst record -- 8-36, entering the week -- and lowest attendance, drawing fewer people than would watch LeBron James butter toast. Last week, after a 1-5 road trip that saw the team fall into a group coma, head coach John Lucas got whacked. The news came a scant 17 months after Lucas replaced the previously whacked Randy Wittman.
No wonder the Cavs' faithful -- or what's left of them -- want Paxson's head tossed up for the opening tip. "The players have changed, the coaches have changed, and they still ain't winning," says longtime fan Keith Coleman. "It's the general manager that needs changing."
But for the moment, Paxson's going nowhere. He's here, in his office at the Gund, the huge plate-glass windows letting in a rare blast of winter sunshine and a shimmering downtown view. On his desk lie a pocket book of meditations and a Zen sand garden, complete with tiny rakes. These would seem the room's most revealing objects -- proof that Paxson is cracking, the pressure driving him to search for his Inner Phil Jackson.
"My wife gave 'em to me," he says, smiling and pointing at the garden. "You're supposed to move the sand around to help reduce stress. Other people come in and play with it. I don't use it much."
Which isn't to say that Paxson, 45, skips through the Gund's plush hallways, untroubled that other teams regard a game against Cleveland as a day off. He works out on a StairMaster to relax his back, the muscles tending to stiffen when his anxiety spikes. These days, he climbs far enough to reach Key Tower's observation deck.
"The nature of what you do in this job, it's kind of a lonely existence," he says. "It's a 24/7 scenario. It always gnaws at you."
Paxson expected his back to pretzel this season. Last summer, he mortgaged the Cavs' lifeless present for a promising but utterly uncertain future. He traded the club's best player, Andre Miller, and its top two scorers, LaMond Murray and Wesley Person. In their place he gathered the diaper squad -- the NBA's youngest roster, with eight players under 24. The moves left no doubt that the Cavs -- more so than at any time during his tenure -- are Jim Paxson's Team. The moves also guaranteed that the kids would receive regular spankings.
"We knew it was going to be a struggle," he says. "We have a long way to go to convince people we're going in the right direction. But I think we will."
Given his icing of Lucas, Paxson's optimism might strike Clevelanders as either PR shtick or the delusions of a man with a gas leak in his office. This is Browns Town, remember, where hoops fever went into remission in 1998, the last year the Cavs made the playoffs. Talk to enough NBA insiders, however, and another sentiment surfaces: Despite their ugly play and uglier record, the Cavs' baby-faced core has a legit chance to blow up into contenders.
"In a year or two," says Indiana Pacers GM Donnie Walsh, "you're going to wake up in Cleveland and find out you have one helluva basketball team."
And, perhaps, a GM who's morphed from village idiot into basketball genius.
Only 7,472 people -- or 4,000 fewer than the team's dwindling average -- show up at Gund Arena to watch the Cavs play Milwaukee. The sparse turnout has its benefits. When the Fan Cam pans the crowd, almost everyone in the building gets face time on the Jumbotron. No lines clog concession booths, no bathrooms run out of hand soap.
There's also plenty of space to lounge in the stands. Entire sections in the upper deck are deserted. Noah Kraut and a friend occupy Section 212, a vantage point from which the players look as small as on TV. The Cavs lead midway through the second quarter, and the two high school pals like what they see -- as much for tonight as next season.
"LaMond Murray and Wes Person, they were gonna be too old by the time we got any better," Kraut says. "Now we got Darius Miles, Ricky Davis, Dajuan Wagner, [Carlos] Boozer -- young guys who are gonna be good."
The four players hold roof-raising potential -- and Paxson's job security.
He signed the explosive Davis, 23, to a long-term contract last August, a year after poaching him from Miami. Davis has become the team's leading scorer, unbridled id, fan favorite, and occasional headache. Miles, 21, arrived from the L.A. Clippers in the Miller trade. Tongues wag at his raw talent; heads shake at his rim-rattling jumper. Wagner, who turns 20 next week, and Boozer, 21, came in last year's draft. The undersized Wagner calls to mind Isiah Thomas -- or will, when his passing catches up with his shooting. Boozer, an undersized forward, reminds coaches of Dale Davis, only his free throws don't shatter backboards.
Some GMs roam during games, too nervous to settle into a seat. Others choose the isolation of a luxury suite. Paxson prefers to observe his creation up close, sitting a dozen rows behind the Cavs bench. He studies smaller moments: the way players stand during the national anthem, whether they listen to coaches during time outs, their posture on the sidelines.
"During the game, I'm focused. I'm trying to find out where the team's at, trying to see what the attitude is."
And trying, he admits, not to cuss. "It happens."
His critics take Paxson's name in vain, most often on draft day. First-rounders Chris Mihm and DeSagana Diop, a pair of 7-footers, are 14 feet of mistake, playing with all the agility of the embalmed. Trajan Langdon, taken 11th overall in 1999, flamed out of the league in three years. Before landing Wagner and Boozer -- both selected to play in this year's All-Star rookie game -- Paxson's best pick was Miller, who last season led the league in assists -- then got traded.
"I think Paxson's problem has been not having a clear vision of what he wants to do," says Chad Ford, who covers the NBA for ESPN.com. The website last fall ranked Paxson 27th on its list of league GMs. "The team in some ways is spinning its wheels, and he's been in the driver's seat."
Then again, Paxson took the wheel of a franchise in reverse.
He arrived in Cleveland in 1998 as vice president of basketball operations after serving as assistant GM in Portland. A year later, he replaced GM Wayne Embry, whom fans still exalt for resurrecting the Cavs -- thanks to Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, and Mark Price -- in the late '80s. Often forgotten are later Embry moves that crippled the club: signing the likes of Shawn Kemp and Bob Sura to inflated contracts, trading Ron Harper for Danny Ferry.
Based alone on his ability to dump Kemp -- a malcontent who blew his millions on blow and cheeseburgers -- Paxson "should get a lifetime pension of some kind from the Cavs," says Chicago Tribune hoops columnist Sam Smith. "He saved them so much money. That was a miracle, one of the great trades in NBA history."
Other deals proved less celestial, from acquiring career slug Robert Traylor to trading away Matt Harpring, now a stud in Utah. But if Paxson ran the team before as though nursing a shot of tequila -- unsure of how quickly to turn over his roster -- last summer he ate the worm.
He shredded a veteran squad that stumbled to a 29-53 finish to clear the way for this year's fresh-cheeked, high-flying nucleus, which also features forward Jumaine Jones and guard Smush Parker. Add to the mix a healthy Zydrunas Ilgauskas and -- presto -- the Cavs possess "talent that's in the top half of the Eastern Conference," says David DuPree, NBA beat writer for USA Today.
"He's done a pretty damn good job of getting the talent there. People just need to be patient," adds DuPree, who puts Paxson on the NBA's second tier of front-office execs, behind old hands like Memphis's Jerry West and Sacramento's Geoff Petrie. "Your objective can't always be to win as many games as you can right now. The smart GMs build toward the future."
Paxson claims the roots of the Cavs' makeover reach all the way down to the 2000 trade of Kemp. "But you couldn't go to the public with that at the time, because you didn't know how long [the changes] would take." While his comments may blend truth with revisionist spin -- why would any rebuilding plan include a trade for Michael Doleac? -- fellow NBA honchos recognize the method behind his moves.
"It takes years of preparation to take the big step, years of strategy and slotting," New Orleans GM Jeff Bower says. "And a lot of times, you don't see the results for one, two, three years. It's a test of patience, and he's passing the test."
Paxson has endured a couple of handicaps that, to some degree, may have forced him to turn the Cavs into an NBA day care. He's had few cracks at big-name free agents who, given the choice between living in Cleveland and Chernobyl, would need time to think about it (see Brian Grant).
Meanwhile, Cavs principal owner Gordon Gund has attached The Club to the team's coffers. He refused to ante up for Miller, who sought a max contract of $83 million. The trades of Person and Murray were as much about cutting costs as making room for younger players. (The moves slashed the Cavs' payroll from $46 million to $42.5 million, fifth-lowest in the league.) Nor did the deals snuff talk that Gund, who lives in New Jersey and shuns the press, intends to sell the team.
Paxson, pointing out that Gund bankrolled high-salaried playoff teams not so long ago, insists the owner will do the same when he believes he has another winner. "No, it's not an open checkbook. But Gordon Gund's been supportive of what we're doing. He may not be able to see," Paxson says, alluding to Gund's blindness, "but he knows the business of sports."
The Tribune's Smith suspects Paxson -- whom he thinks Gund may have found easier to sway than Embry -- of playing the good soldier. "With what he's working with financially, he may be the best GM in the league, because he's probably more hamstrung than any of them," Smith says. "What he's probably been told is 'Make it appear like you're building a team, but save as much money as possible.'"
Yet the same applies to most GMs, says Indiana's Walsh. He likens the Cavs to his Pacers teams in the mid-'80s, when he junked veterans in favor of rookies, among them Chuck Person, Rik Smits, and Reggie Miller. A playoff tradition soon sprouted. "Nowadays, with the exception of a few teams -- Dallas, Portland -- everyone's going to wrestle with the salary cap," Walsh says. "It's the GM's job to find out how to work within that."
In short: Now that he's shown he can dump salaries, Paxson needs to win.
"You can talk for a while about rebuilding," says Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, an ESPN analyst. "Sooner or later, though, you have to start picking up wins."
The Cavs fail to grab one against the Bucks. They hang tight until late in the fourth quarter, when their immaturity takes the form of rushed shots and errant passes. Yet even with the game out of reach in the final minute, they're still diving after loose balls.
"You can see their energy," says Jeremy Hiser, 26, visiting from Sandusky. "I think they're on the brink of being a very good team. That's something you couldn't really say a year ago."
"You gotta like their talent," adds Milwaukee coach George Karl. "They have more energy and enthusiasm on the court than I've seen in a long time. But the losing is hard, and it's how you handle the losing that will determine the future."
Cups of hot chocolate stand on a small table in the Cavs locker room, a remedy of sorts for shooting hands gone cold. While few players linger to talk to reporters, there's still a sense that losing a game is no reason to lose perspective. "It's a struggle when you're getting beat, no doubt about that," Boozer says. "But we feel like if we can keep the young guys together, we're gonna make things happen."
"This year really isn't about this year," Miles adds. "It's about next year."
Tell that to Lucas.
"We were not making the kind of progress that we should be making at this point of the season," Paxson said, in announcing the coach's sacking. "I felt that the development was not where it should be, both from an individual and team standpoint."
His decision came a day after the Cavs returned from a western road trip as grim as Mao's Long March. They dropped five out of six games by an average of 20 points, the misery peaking in Denver, where the league's second-worst team throttled them, 97-80. Reporters declared the Cavs winners of the "LeBron James Bowl": By losing, they upped their chances of nabbing this year's de facto No. 1 draft pick.
Lucas knew a long season awaited him after Paxson gutted the roster last summer. Talking after a practice in early January, he joked, "I thought we were rebuilding last year." The coach admitted that he hated losing Miller, the point guard he regarded as a surrogate son, and appeared to age by the quarter during a 15-game losing jag. He juggled lineups nightly, wrestling in particular with finding a role for the mercurial Miles. Still, he claimed to have bought Paxson's sales pitch.
"No GM or coach wants to go through this," he said, "but it's necessary to right the ship for the long haul."
Yet critics began fitting the dapper Lucas for a body bag by early December. He'd suspended Davis for two games for twice berating teammates. Weeks later, the coach went nose to nose in the locker room with Miles, who popped a headband over playing time and demanded a trade. All the while, losses and bad press piled up.
Then Paxson provided a subtler hint that Lucas might be an unwitting short-timer.
Days before the six-game road swing, the GM told reporters he wanted Mihm, Diop, and Boozer in the lineup more; Lucas had given major minutes in previous games to veteran forward Tyrone Hill. Coming from Paxson, notorious for offering sound bites as bland as porridge, the comments seemed to amount to spitting fire: Play the kids . . . or else.
"The coach needs and wants to win," Paxson said a week before Lucas's dismissal. "I want to win, but I want to find out what our identity is. I'm committed to playing the young players so that at the end of the year, we'll know what changes we need to make."
Paxson, a self-described "Type A personality," sensed he couldn't wait that long to switch coaches after watching the Cavs self-destruct out west. The former All-Star guard, who played 11 years in Portland and Boston, fears the corrosive effect that losing has on the team's collective psyche.
"The biggest worry I have this year is that our young players are going to get used to losing," says Paxson, who's on his third coach in less than four seasons. "Take a guy like Carlos Boozer. He probably didn't lose 30 games in his whole college career [at Duke]. For the young guys to survive, we gotta start winning."
Likewise, Paxson frets about the losses numbing fans. After the Cavs fell to Milwaukee in overtime earlier this season, he took the unusual step of defending Lucas for sitting Ilgauskas late in the game. The team limits the center to 35 minutes to prevent a recurrence of his well-documented foot problems, so the coach pulled him out during overtime. Fans and some players portrayed the decision as symptomatic of a franchise engaging in self-sabotage -- in hopes of winning the LeBron sweepstakes.
"We're not trying to lose games," Paxson counters. "I don't want people thinking we don't want to win. We're not in the hunt for the No. 1 pick."
Paxson appears to care. He attends practices to chat with guys and watch their progress. A worrywart, he checks with trainers to make sure they're tending to Wagner's blisters or Miles's achy knee. He rarely blasts a player in front of reporters, even saying of a bloated target like Kemp, "I'm not gonna knock Shawn."
He also brings his work home, staying up till the wee hours to watch West Coast games, spelunking for a player who might fit the Cavs. That's how he discovered Davis, whom he saw play a couple of times for Miami and lured to Cleveland before last season. A backup a year ago, he's erupted into the NBA's 13th leading scorer this season.
"I think we're going in the right direction, with all the moves that have been made," Davis says. "It was hard losing guys like LaMond and Wes, but we've got the nucleus now. We feel like if we can all stick together, then we'll become one of the better teams."
"We believe we can be great," adds Parker, 21, who a year ago brought the ball up for Fordham University. "That's a lot more right there than most teams."
But if losing together sows toughness among the younger set, it inspires bitterness in veterans Hill and guard Bimbo Coles, who've become bench jockeys. During a practice the week before Lucas's firing, they got in the coach's face for sentencing them to the pine. Coles, 33, admits he's struggled to adjust. "I'm enjoying being around young guys, watching them get better, but I'm still very competitive. You still want to be out there playing."
Chances are slim that Coles and Hill will get more floor time under Keith Smart, the assistant coach promoted to replace Lucas on an interim basis. The last half of the season will be an unforgiving 40-game Survivor: Cleveland for the squad's twentysomethings. Paxson guarantees nothing to any of them. "If I traded Andre Miller, our best player, no one's untouchable."
It's the kind of bluntness that evokes Portland's GM Whitsitt, one of Paxson's mentors. In the mid-'90s, he tutored Paxson -- who'd found 15-minute stints as an assistant coach and hoops broadcaster equally torturous -- on the finer points of executive life, from vetting players to negotiating contracts. Now, despite the overhaul of the Cavs' roster, Whitsitt believes the team will rise on the strength of Paxson's intellect. Even if the club flounders, he adds, its GM won't.
"A lot of the former players don't make it in the front office because they're not used to working 24/7. They're used to going home after a couple of hours of practice. Jim's always had the work ethic and the basketball mind. A lot of owners would take him."
Agents second the opinion. Dan Fegan, who represents Davis, negotiated with Paxson for several weeks last summer. When Paxson's offer for Davis came up short, Fegan tested the free-agent market, and Minnesota dangled a six-year, $34 million contract.
Paxson had 15 days to match the offer. He took less than a week. "He's very straightforward, and even though I don't often like what he has to tell me," Fegan says with a laugh, "it's the truth . . . The fact that the market pushed up [Davis's] value, he never resented it."
As a boss, Paxson has a style that veers toward total quality management. He'll hire a private investigator to check out potential draft picks and likes to write up the details of his meetings. He also retains an ex-player's instincts for image control. He canceled the Cavs' annual draft-day party for good last year, weary of fans booing his selections. After a double-digit loss to Indiana earlier this season, his wife suggested that he shake hands in the Gund's VIP room. Paxson opted for the sanctuary of his office.
His mix of savvy and secrecy explains why NBA reporters have little love for Paxson. They rank him with Chicago's Jerry Krause and New York's Scott Layden as the worst quotes among league GMs. "He's stern and stiff-lipped," says ESPN.com's Ford. "He doesn't give you anything."
Talking in his office, however, Paxson's quick with a smile, the politeness of his Dayton roots evident. While he admits disliking a coterie of writers he refers to only as "the Internet guys," he's happy to talk to reporters "who will work on the relationship." In Northeast Ohio, he says, only one -- the Beacon Journal's Terry Pluto -- takes the time. Content to let yakkers like Indiana's Walsh and Boston's Chris Wallace fill reporters' notebooks, Paxson avoids dealing dish for two reasons: He knows from his playing days how trade rumors fracture a locker room, and he realizes that if he's talking to one guy, he may as well talk to a hundred.
"If there's anything I've learned, it's that there aren't too many people you can bounce things off in this business without everyone hearing about it."
In other words, don't expect his search for a coach -- now looming as the make-or-break decision of the Paxson regime -- to unfold in the papers. Says Ford: "With him, you'll hear about it when you hear about it."
Lucas's firing may quash rumors that the Cavs want to lose their way to the No. 1 pick. That's a good thing, says Marty Burns, who covers the NBA for Sports Illustrated and CNNSI.com.
"If you put all the hope in the LeBron James basket, and then it doesn't come through, there might not be any fans left in Cleveland."
Much as James might help fill the empty blue seats at the Gund in the short term, few believe his presence alone would catapult the Cavs into the playoffs. If Paxson hopes to keep his job, Ramsay says, he'll need more than the right ping-pong ball to bounce his way in the June lottery. "Turnover in GMs is much less frequent than with coaches. But at some point, if you're not getting it done, there are going to be changes in the front office."
Paxson acts unworried. Asked if he thinks Gund will bring him back next year, he shoots back, "Yes, I do." For all the stress, his work sustains him as nothing else has since he shot the rock himself. He recalls the fourth game of the season, when the Cavs stomped the L.A. Lakers by 19 points, and Cleveland briefly buzzed. "You had people chanting 'Beat L.A.!' That's a great feeling."
Now if only it would come in the playoffs.