By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - Jim Paxson's third full season running the Cleveland Cavaliers didn't go any better than the first two. They had too many injuries, lost at least 50 games, missed the playoffs and are back in the NBA draft lottery.
Paxson can only hope the worst is over.
"We've taken some lumps," he said. "Now we have to step forward. ... We can't take any more steps back. We need to try and make a jump next year."
Paxson, just back from a scouting trip in Europe, spoke with reporters Tuesday for the first time since the Cavs completed a 29-53 season under first-year coach John Lucas.
In a wide-ranging interview, Paxson assessed the Cavs in 2001-02, praised Lucas, and said the club is hoping to keep the backourt of Ricky Davis and Andre Miller intact for the future.
Paxson said one of his primary objectives during this offseason is to retain Davis, who became a Cleveland fan favorite this season with his wide-open game and infectious attitude.
Paxson knows that signing Davis, though, won't solve all of Cleveland's problems.
"We have a lot of priorities, that's one of them," Paxson said.
Davis, who came over in a three-way trade last October, was one of the few positives for Cleveland this season. He gave the Cavs an offensive spark off the bench, and after becoming a starter late in the season, Davis carried Cleveland offensively.
Davis averaged 25.3 points per game during an eight-game stretch late in the season, punctuated by a 35-point performance against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Lucas went as far as to to call Davis, "the next Michael Jordan."
Davis, 22, is a restricted free agent, and Paxson said the Cavs will make him a qualifying offer on a new contract by the end of June.
Davis can still test the free agent market for more money if wants to, but because he's restricted, the Cavs can match any offer. Under NBA rules, that could mean a potential six-year, $27 million deal.
"I think other teams will be interested in Ricky," Paxson said. "I'm not going to say we'll do whatever it takes (to keep Davis). But I feel confident we'll be able to get a deal done. He's definitely a player we'd like to bring back."
Miller, too, is a keeper.
The third-year point guard led the league in assists this past season, and is under contract for one more year. Paxson said the Cavs would like to sign Miller to a long-term deal -- when the time is right.
"We'd like to keep him here for a long time," Paxson said. "He's a very solid player who has continued to improve every year. He doesn't get hurt and he plays through things. Our intention is to do everything we can at what becomes the appropriate time to get something done. We've been real pleased with Andre."
The Cavs currently have 10 players with guaranteed contracts, and Paxson said he'll meet later this week with Lucas to discuss the roster and figure out ways to improve it.
Paxson said he'll wait until after the NBA draft before deciding on whether to make qualifying offers to restricted free agent center Michael Doleac or forward Brian Skinner.
Paxson's preference would be to keep a core group of players together, and he doesn't expect to make "wholesale changes" this summer to the Cavs, who have no room under the salary cap to sign free agents anyway.
He may not have a choice, though. Not if Paxson wants to avoid a fourth straight year of misery with a "jump" in 2002-03.
"I'm not predicting playoffs," he said. "But that's our goal. That has to be our goal."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)