The Cleveland Cavaliers, who have only 15 victories this season and are battling Denver for the NBA's worst record, have been accused by a pair of ex-players of throwing games in order to have the inside track to winning the NBA draft lottery and the top choice, high school phenom LeBron James.
Former Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lamond Murray questioned the franchise's desire to put a winning product on the floor after it became apparent he was headed out of town. Fellow veteran Bimbo Coles echoed Murray's comments immediately after being cut last month and went one step further, saying the team was losing on purpose.
The current group of Cavaliers hear the accusations all the time, wherever they go, from fans, television analysts and even opposing players. And they don't like it.
"I hate hearing it because I don't believe it," Cleveland rookie Carlos Boozer said. "A lot of good teams have started off where we're at. We'll be in the middle of the road next year."
"People just don't know the situation," added Cavaliers forward Darius Miles, who came to Cleveland from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for point guard Andre Miller this past offseason. "I really don't care what people say because they have freedom of speech. You've just got to know the truth."
The truth is former Cavaliers coach John Lucas, fired in late January after an 8-34 start, and current interim coach Keith Smart just haven't had much to work with.
Owner Gordon Gund understands that winning the draft lottery in May is his wild card to bring the franchise back to respectability. If Cleveland (15-61) finishes as the league's worst team, it will have a 25 percent chance of landing the top pick in a lottery that includes the other 12 non-playoff teams and selecting James of nearby Akron, Ohio.
The St. Vincent-St. Mary star will not only boost the team's talent level, but will also guarantee a major hike in home ticket sales and become an instant marketing dream.
With James as the prize catch, this year's lottery will be the most scrutinized since the inaugural lottery in 1985, which positioned the New York Knicks to select Patrick Ewing from Georgetown. The NBA considered televising the Ping-Pong ball portion of the draft lottery -- a random, but weighted, drawing -- for the first time to dispel any conspiracy theories. Instead it has opted to keep the current format in which the order is determined off camera but revealed on air. However, for the first time those results will be aired in prime time, on May 22 in a half-hour special beginning at 8 p.m. on ABC. In years past the draft order was revealed at halftime of a Sunday playoff game.
"The assertion that we're losing games on purpose is preposterous for any number of reasons," Cavaliers spokesman Ed Markey said. "Even if we end up with the worst record in the league, there's still a 75 percent chance we won't get the first pick in the NBA draft."
Cleveland's fascination with James has already caused trouble. In May 2002, the league fined Cleveland $150,000 and suspended Lucas from coaching the first two games of the season for including James in a voluntary workout for local college players and free agents at Gund Arena. The league prohibits contact between NBA teams and players not yet eligible for the draft.
In the workout James, then a rising senior, dazzled those in attendance with an array of passing and dunking skills. Lucas had become friendly with James and spoke at the St. Vincent-St. Mary's team banquet.
"We'd certainly love to get him," Gund told the Associated Press of James just after last season. "But I don't think we'd give away everything we have to get him, and that may be what it takes."
But in the following months Cleveland gave away plenty. Management let go its top three leading scorers from a year ago -- Murray, Miller and Wesley Person -- and received just one impact player, Miles, in return. Murray, coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high 16.6 points per game, was dealt for center Michael Stewart, who hasn't started a single game all season. Person, who was coming off a career year in which he averaged 15.1 points per contest, was traded for Nick Anderson, who was subsequently released. Miller, the NBA's assists leader last season and once considered to be the cornerstone of the franchise, was moved for the 21-year-old Miles.
After Cleveland General Manager Jim Paxson cut veterans Tyrone Hill and Coles in late-February, the team's most experienced players left are centers Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Stewart, who each have played five years in the NBA.
Coles, a 34-year-old veteran who is now the backup point guard for the playoff-bound Boston Celtics, was unable to bite his lip after being cut by the Cavaliers more than a month ago.
"As much as they say they're not trying to lose games to be in the LeBron James race, it's obvious they're trying to lose games," Coles told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in comments that were clearly directed at management and not his former teammates.
"If the Cavs get the first pick and choose LeBron, I wouldn't come if I were him. I'd hate for him to come to the Cavs because they'd screw him up."
While Coles doesn't want to broach the topic again, especially because he'd like to get into coaching once his playing days are over, he didn't exactly back off the comments he made.
"I spoke the truth," he said before a recent game against Cleveland. "That was it."
Coles was able to talk, but the Cavaliers' current players are unable to speak freely because Gund has told them that anyone making negative comments about the organization will be fined. The majority in this group of unproven players also fears for their job security.
Cleveland opened the season 2-2, but proceeded to lose 15 consecutive games and they haven't won on the road in nearly three months.
"It's tough," said Ricky Davis, who is the team's leading scorer with 20.6 points per game but had the most embarrassing moment of the season when he intentionally missed a shot at his own basket and rebounded the ball in an attempt to earn his first career triple-double. "But I love the game so much, that I'm trying to play hard every night no matter what our record is. I know for myself that I'm not tanking games, because I know how I go out and play. It's the same thing with my teammates. They aren't tanking games, either."
Cleveland has won just seven times in the 34 games since Smart took over on Jan. 20, but a pair of wins came against the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets. The Cavaliers also knocked off Utah, Houston, Golden State and the Clippers. With one more victory, the Cavaliers would avoid matching a franchise record for fewest wins in a season. Cleveland won 15 games in 1970-71 and again in 1981-82.
"I expected us to be better than Denver or Memphis at the beginning of the season," said Miles, who is averaging 9.2 points per game. "Right now our main goal is just to win two more games."
Cleveland has lost at least 50 games in each of the past four seasons, and now they are losing fans. Cleveland's attendance is a league-low 10,970 -- a drop of 4,204 from a year ago and down nearly 8,000 from 1994. With many of the 20,562 bright blue seats at Gund Arena empty, players made phone calls last week to some season ticket holders, thanking them for their loyalty and asking for patience while the club rebuilds. The players did not work off a script and were only told to thank fans and encourage them to attend the April 16 home season finale, when the Cavaliers will unveil a new logo and colors for next season.
"We've got a young team that is still learning to play," center Chris Mihm said. "Anyone who has seen us play can tell that we play hard and we're not tanking games. We make plenty of mistakes, but it's not for a lack of effort."
With six games left in the season, the Cavaliers have a shot at catching Denver and avoiding the worst record in the league. Of their final five games, the Nuggets (17-60) have just one against a team that is not in contention for the playoffs.
While Gund may believe that losing is the best way to get James to remain in Ohio, he also may want to look at the numbers: The team with the worst record in the NBA has not earned the first pick under the lottery system since New Jersey did in 1990 and selected Derrick Coleman from Syracuse.
"Our biggest motivation is not to break any records and not to finish with the worst record in the league," Boozer said. "Maybe then people will believe that we aren't throwing games."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.