Wednesday, March 01, 2006

LeBron and the stretch run

As Aaron Rund points out in his blog, don't think for a second that many members of the national media wouldn't love to see the Cavs flame out and miss the playoffs yet again this year.
All the columns and talk shows would start whispering in LeBron's ear. Actually, they'd be screaming like 14-year-old girls trying to make eye contact with Joey Fatone at an *NSYNC concert.
"The Cavaliers will never be able to build a winner around LeBron," they will say. "He needs to go to a big-market team where he can be the next Jordan for the NBA. He can't do that in Cleveland."
"The Cleveland fans booed him! They booed LeBron!" mock-incredulous talk show hosts will exclaim. "There is no way that city deserves him! They don't know what they have!"
So Michael Jordan was never, ever, ever booed in Chicago? Not once in 15 seasons? Larry Bird was never, under any circumstances, ever booed by the notoriously-moody Boston fans, not ever?
Ohhhh, that's right. Chicago and Boston are big-market cities. When the fans boo there, they are demanding excellence. If Jordan and Bird were ever booed, it was their fault for screwing up. But LeBron misses four free throws, gets a smattering of boos that didn't even register in some parts of The Q, and Cleveland fans have just committed blasphemy?
That's not a double-standard. That's the big-market media machine working on LeBron, trying to massage doubt about Cleveland into his brain, doing whatever possible to get him into a big-market team's uniform by 2008.
What big-market team depends on what coast you live on. It's like watching single women fight over the bouquet at a wedding.
What the national media will emphatically point out, should the Cavs slump and miss the playoffs, is the fact that LeBron's extensive (maybe excessive) playing time will be the primary culprit, an indicator that the Cavs haven't put an adequate roster around LeBron.
LeBron won't admit it, but he is wearing down. Only Allen Iverson has played more minutes in the NBA this season. And every minute LeBron is on the floor is an important minute for the Cavs.
LeBron piloted himself through last year's grind by taking some possessions off, by scaling back his effort at the defensive end. As we all know, non-existent defense killed the Cavs' playoff hopes last season, so LeBron was asked to step up his effort on defense and become more involved leading the team at both ends of the floor.
LeBron works much harder at both ends now. With no Larry Hughes, the pressure on him to perform at a high level for 40-plus minutes a night is extremely high. It's like driving your Hyundai at 100 miles per hour to and from work every day. Except LeBron is no Hyundai, and the NBA season is no work commute.
LeBron has not paced himself this season. When Hughes went down, he couldn't anymore. Now, he has become prone to second-half letdowns. It is no coincidence that the Cavs' recent fourth-quarter flops have come in tandem with LeBron's late-game burnouts. As LeBron goes, so go the Cavs.
LeBron is still just 21, and even though he might be the most gifted and famous 21-year-old on the planet, like most 21-year-olds, he wants to prove himself and gain the favor of his superiors. If Brown tells him to play hard for 48 minutes, he will play hard for 48 minutes.
Only with experience will LeBron learn how to pick and choose the spots to exert himself. He will have to go through these late-season wind-sucking fits to figure out how to guard against them.
Meanwhile, the Cavs' playoff hopes hang in the balance. If LeBron doesn't have enough left in the gas tank to get Cleveland to the playoffs, Cleveland's not going. It's as simple as that.

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