CLEVELAND (AP) Their shocking collapse complete, the Cleveland Cavaliers began to rebuild on Thursday from the top.
Jim Paxson was fired as the club's general manager, dismissed by new owner Dan Gilbert one day after the Cavaliers' chaotic season ended short of the NBA playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.
Expected for weeks, Paxson's firing came exactly one month after coach Paul Silas was fired with 18 games left by Gilbert, the online mortgage banker who has had a rough introduction into operating a pro sports franchise.
On March 1, Gilbert took over a 31-24 team that appeared playoff-bound. But a prolonged losing skid, compounded by Silas' firing and rumors that Paxson was next, LeBron James wasn't happy and free agent center Zydrunas Ilgauskas was apartment hunting in New York, has Gilbert entering his first summer looking for a coach and GM.
''We have a pretty good track record in 21 years of business of picking the right people,'' he said. ''We're looking at the best in business and basketball.''
Gilbert didn't divulge any candidates for a successor to Paxson, who took over the Cavaliers in 1999. Gilbert intends to have Cleveland's next GM hire the new coach. He removed Brendan Malone as a coaching candidate. Malone went 8-10 as an interim replacement for Silas and will stay with the organization.
Paxson's tenure as Cleveland's GM will be remembered for poor draft picks (Trajan Langdon, DeSagana Diop), a carousel of head coaching changes, James' arrival and Carlos Boozer's defection as a free agent.
But perhaps most importantly, the Cavs didn't make the playoffs under Paxson. Cleveland went 185-307 in his six seasons.
Although critics are quick to point out his failings, Paxson was responsible for ridding the Cavaliers of some burdensome contracts leftovers from previous GM Wayne Embry that prevented the team from improving with offseason moves.
Paxson traded Shawn Kemp and his four-year, $70.8 million contract to Portland in 2000. He also freed the team of other awful contracts that Embry and former principal owner Gordon Gund handed out in the late '90s.
Paxson had finally placed the Cavaliers, who won just 17 games two years ago, in position to spend money on free agents to complement James, but now he won't get the chance to see his plans through.
In a statement, Paxson thanked Gund for the opportunity and wished Gilbert ''every success in the future.''
Thanks to Paxson, Cleveland's next GM will be more than $20 million under the salary cap.
''For the organization it's a critical time,'' forward Robert Traylor said. ''They have to make sure they get somebody in here who knows the business.''
The Cavaliers finished 42-40, a seven-game improvement from last season, but lost a tiebreaker with New Jersey for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
It was a bitter ending for the Cavs, who led the Central Division for several weeks before their season was thrown into upheaval by the change of ownership, Silas' firing and guard Jeff McInnis' benching.
''There were a lot of things that happened business-wise,'' said forward Drew Gooden, who replaced Boozer and averaged career-highs in scoring (14.4) and rebounds (9.2). ''It did bring us a lot of negativity.''
Before the Cavaliers went their separate ways following a strange season, there were a few more bizarre moments Thursday:
James, who had an MVP-caliber season, was the only player to leave without speaking to the media. The star jumped into his Hummer, pumped up the stereo's volume and signed a few autographs for Gund Arena employees before rolling into a summer vacation he couldn't postpone.
James averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists, smashed several team records and ended his fabulous second season with 27 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists in a win over Toronto.
''The kid can do it all,'' Traylor said. ''But he can't do it all by himself.''
Wearing a New York Yankees cap, Ilgauskas ended his ninth season with the Cavaliers not knowing if he'll be back for a 10th. The All-Star center said it's ''50-50'' that he re-signs with Cleveland.
''I would love to stay,'' said Ilgauskas, who averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and played the final two weeks with a dislocated finger. ''I never wanted to go, but reality is I'm a free agent.''
McInnis blamed stomach cramps, not a ''viral syndrome'' as the team called it, for him not traveling to the season finale in Toronto. However, McInnis' excuse seemed shaky after the soon-to-be free agent sulked over playing time and his benching by both Silas and Malone.
During Tuesday night's final home game, McInnis didn't join his teammates on the bench for long stretches of the second half. And when he was there, he sat with a towel wrapped around his head.
''I thought I was a true professional during all of this,'' he said. ''I think they wanted me to blow up and do something crazy.''
The Cavaliers had plenty of that this season.
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