Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Popping the clutch

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the Cavaliers were the rally kings of the NBA. Led by the best fourth-quarter player in the league, it almost seemed like if Cleveland entered the fourth quarter trailing, they had the other team right where they wanted them.

Turnovers, offensive fouls, poor shot selection, it didn't matter what missteps the Cavs took with the game on the line. With LeBron holding the basketball, it was something of an inevitability that the Cavs were going to pull out the vast majority of hairy fourth quarter situations and put the game in the win column.

Then came The Trade. And things haven't been the same since.

Prior to the Feb. 21, 10-player, three-team trade that rocked the roster to its foundation, we could always count on the Cavs' ability to do two things with the game on the line: Score (thanks primarily to LeBron) and stuff the other team's best scorers with solid team defense.

Sure, the Vince Carters of the world might still go off for 40 points, but we knew they weren't going to get a crystal clear look at the basket with the fourth-quarter clock about to hit zero.

As a result, the Cavs seldom subjected us to heart-rending, soul-crushing buzzer-beater losses. They might not have been able to hit the game winner with time expiring very often, but they could definitely stop the other team from hitting the game-winner.

Since the trade, the Cavs have fallen victim to two buzzer-beaters in less than a month. In Michael Redd's 35-foot heave in Milwaukee on Feb. 26 and in David West's 15-foot jumper for New Orleans Wednesday night, there were a couple of common threads -- namely, lousy clock management and poor defensive execution.

Certainly, you can chalk up Redd's heave to an answered prayer, or a great play by a great player, but it still doesn't account for the fact that the Cavs left Redd more than five seconds to take the inbounds pass, streak up the floor and get a clean look at the basket. To do that, Redd had to be the beneficiary of botched defense on the inbounds pass, and a failure to close on him in the open floor.

Seriously, how do you not do everything in your power to ensure that the one guy on the other team who can nail a 35-foot heave doesn't get the ball -- or if he does, that he's forced to give it up?

And, for Pete's sake, how on Earth is Wally "Craig Ehlo" Szczerbiak your last line of defense? After Szczerbiak flailed with futility at the superior-athletically-in-every-way Redd, all that was missing was a baseline shot of Szczerbiak crumpled to the ground by the scorer's table as Redd pumped his fist and screamed.

Wednesday, though West's shot wasn't a true buzzer-beater, it left the Cavs with six-tenths of a second and no timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt, so it effectively sealed the game.

As during Redd's game-winner, the Cavs left their opponent with an embarrassment of riches on the clock. You want to know how long 7.7 seconds is? Ask the guys who have to defend a team loaded with good shooters and a greased-lightning point guard for 7.7 seconds with the game on the line.

With the Cavs down by one late, LeBron steamed to the hoop for the too-easy lay-in that gave the Cavs the lead, but left the Hornets with a small eternity to get a shot off.

I'll assume that LeBron was the one who decided when to set the play in motion. We've gotten on The Chosen One before for holding the ball until about four seconds, dribbling himself into a double- or triple-team, then hoisting an off-balance 20-foot brick at the buzzer. At least we can give LeBron credit for seizing the opportunity to take a high-percentage shot. But it was still poor execution because it played right into the Hornets' hands.

If you're the opposing team and LeBron is going to take his shot for the win at eight seconds, you let him. Once he gets a head of steam going, you're not going to stop him, so why not let him drop the ball in the cup knowing that you're going to have more than five seconds to answer?

The Cavs could still have sealed the win with some solid defensive maneuvering on the final play, which the pre-trade, Mike Brown-indoctrinated Cavs would likely have accomplished. But the post-trade, hastily-thrown-together Cavs bit hard on Chris Paul's drive to the basket, flying toward him like moths to a blue light. Paul, the league's best point guard, alertly found West spotted up at the free-throw line, sickeningly wide-open for a shot he could probably make in his sleep.

As good as the Cavs looked against Detroit last week, this trend doesn't bode well for the playoffs. A great many playoff games come down to the final possession, and it's looking more and more like this year's Cavs can't get the scores or stops they'll need to win those last-second battles. If they do get the score they need, they might get burned by leaving too much time on the clock.

Unfortunately, before the Cavs get this straightened out, we might be subjected to more of Wally Szczerbiak's Craig Ehlo impersonations. I wish I was talking about his shooting touch, but I'm not.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Where no man has gone

Ever since early in his rookie year, when we all found out just how good LeBron James could be, the idea that he would become the Cavaliers' all-time leading scorer seemed like something of a foregone conclusion.

All it would take is steering clear of the typical Cleveland witch's brew of catastrophic injuries, disastrous trades and unrealized potential, and the math would take care of the rest.

....OK, so it wasn't as easy as hopping on the treadmill and setting the dial for 10,390 points. Not when the LeBron Era in Cleveland has also seen devastating injuries befall several Browns players. Not when we had a front-row seat to the injury-plagued career of Larry Hughes for more than two years.

But a player of LeBron's caliber should be able to overcome at least a mild amount of adversity to set a new bar for a Cavs franchise that previously only knew greatness in the context of what might have been.

A quick glance at the history books on Saturday showed that only the Miami Heat (Alonzo Mourning, 9,459), Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets (Dell Curry, 9,839), Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies (Pau Gasol, 8,966) and four-year-old Charlotte Bobcats (Gerald Wallace, 3,994) have lower all-time scoring records than the Cavs did heading into Friday's game, when Brad Daugherty was the pacesetter at 10,389 points.

The fact that a team that has existed since 1970 couldn't produce a player able to break the 10,400-point barrier prior to Friday speaks to the caliber of player the Cavs have put on the floor for most of their history. But not entirely.

Daugherty could easily have been one of the top 20 centers of all time had a herniated back disc and subsequent surgery not derailed his career at age 28. He could have, and should have, finished with somewhere around 20,000 career points. However, despite being one of the cornerstones of the great Richfield Coliseum-based teams of the late 1980s and early '90s, Daugherty never played a dribble of basketball for the Cavs after the team moved to Gund Arena in 1994.

Austin Carr, the Cavs' scoring king prior to Daugherty, managed to last a decade in a Cavs uniform, but like Daugherty, injuries took their toll on the once-prolific scorer and now he's better known for his on-air quips and malapropisms as a Cavs television commentator than for anything he accomplished on the court.

No, it wasn't the Everest of team scoring records that LeBron ascended. But the Cavs have had a few guys who could play some ball over their 38 years of franchise existence, so the record isn't chump change, either.

LeBron would be a new perspective on greatness for many NBA franchises. Take LeBron's career point total away from the context of the Cavs' scoring record, and what might seem like a lightweight accomplishment for a previously-lightweight franchise suddenly takes on a whole new, and far more impressive, form.

LeBron scored his 10,414th career point in Friday's win over the Raptors. Friday was March 21, 82 days after LeBron's 23rd birthday.

That means LeBron has scored 10,414 career points before the quarter mark of his 24th year. Furthermore, LeBron was a little less than two months shy of his 19th birthday when he stepped on the floor in Sacramento for his first-ever NBA game in November 2003. That's four years and about three and a half months ago.

Perhaps that's the most impressive aspect of LeBron breaking the Cavs' scoring record. The real story isn't that he broke the record, it's when he did it, within his first five NBA seasons. Even in the two more seasons he's guaranteed to be in a Cavs uniform, he is on pace to put the team's scoring record well out of reach for years.

Assuming he continues to average somewhere around 2,110 points scored per season, as he did for his first four seasons in the league, he should be up over 15,000 career points by the end of his current contract -- 16,000 isn't out of the question if the 2,347 points he's on pace to score this season signals LeBron reaching a new gear in terms of yearly production.

If he re-signs with the Cavs, then we're talking about 20,000 and 25,000 career points, and the focus shifts from team history to all-time history.

If you're a team looking to be rescued from the doldrums of mediocrity and anonymity, as the Cavs surely were when LeBron arrived at their front door, this is how you want your franchise scoring mark to be broken: Swiftly, efficiently and by a player who is, without a doubt, the greatest to wear your uniform.

No offense to Daugherty and Carr, excellent and beloved players in their own right, but to have your team's scoring record broken by another aging ex-star who has battled time and injuries to hang around long enough to sink one last milestone jumper would only perpetuate the idea that the best your team can ever hope for is to aim low and remain content with the result.

LeBron, with his lightning-fast acquisition of yet another record, is once again leading us into uncharted waters, which is a very good thing.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

No country for old men

When you're trying to expedite the process of turning your team into a contender, it's difficult to do it without making it older. And once you've started down the path of building around aging veterans, it's nearly impossible to reverse the trend without commencing a major rebuilding project.

Danny Ferry held out as long as he could with a Cavaliers team built around a core of mostly 20-somethings, but for a variety of reasons, he felt a LeBron James supporting cast featuring Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden had reached the limit of what it could accomplish. And that limit stopped short of winning an NBA title.

So, as we all now know, he shipped Gooden and Hughes off to Chicago, along with back-of-the-bench youth in Cedric Simmons and Shannon Brown, as part of a three way trade that brought in a trio of 30-somethings as part of the return package.

While most Cleveland fans and media members praised the newly-acquired experience that Ben Wallace (33), Wally Szczerbiak (31) and Joe Smith (32) brought with them, the applause drowned out the collective sound of joints creaking.

There is no getting around it. By adding Wallace, Szczerbiak and Smith to a rotation that already includes 32-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Cavs are becoming an older team, particularly in the physically-demanding and all-important frontcourt positions.

As if right on cue, within two weeks of the Feb. 21 trade, Ilgauskas was sent to the bench with recurring back pain brought on by a bulging spinal disc. His return might be a week from now, a month from now, or -- heaven forbid -- next season. Back injuries are fickle, and for Z, this is going to be a recurring plot line for the remainder of his career.

At virtually the same time, Wallace's back tightened up on him, causing him to miss a few games. He returned during the Cavs' recent road swing through New Jersey and Washington, but don't expect this to be the last time tight muscles or aching joints put Wallace out of commission during his stint in Cleveland.

Certainly, injuries can happen to any player of any age. Relative youngsters Daniel Gibson, Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic have all missed significant time with foot and ankle injuries, contributing to Cavs' inability to put themselves on a 50-win pace. It would be unfair to accuse Z, Wallace and their bad backs of being the sole saboteurs of the Cavs' apparently-futile run at the East's third seed.

But, regardless of at which pair of feet you want to place the blame for what is shaping up to be a much harder run through the Eastern Conference playoffs than last season, there is no getting around the fact that it is going to be extremely difficult for the Cavs to put an elite team on the floor if the frontcourt is a constant revolving door between the bench and the trainer's room.

With Z, Wallace, Smith and Varejao, the Cavs, at least on paper, have one of the deepest frontcourts in the league. But how often is Mike Brown really going to be able to take complete advantage of that depth? If the past three weeks are any indication, most games will find at least one of the three over-30 big men battling some kind of injury. Combine that with Varejao's flailing, thrashing style of play, and you have four bigs who are prime injury candidates.

Granted, one of the advantages of having depth is the ability to absorb injuries. But watching Brown constantly having to deactivate one or more big men with an endless stream of pulls, sprains, tweaks and inflammations is going to be like watching an anchor constantly weigh the Cavs down. The new fan mantra will become "If this team can ever get totally healthy...."

But, chances are, that's a day that will never come. If it does come, it will be a fleeting prelude to another injury.

The arrival of Wallace and Smith did give the Cavs more toughness and experience in the low post. There is little doubt those two add different dimensions to a frontcourt that is a team strength. But skill sets can't be utilized if bodies break down. So far, the injuries to Z and Wallace do not bode well for the future.

For most of the season, the Cavs talk around town centered on adding the piece or two necessary to vault the Cavs from contender in a weak conference to true championship threat. Since the trade, the focus has shifted to maintenance and replacement parts, from adding a point guard and wing scorer to making sure the center position doesn't crumble before our eyes.

In two years, when Wallace is 35 and Z is seriously contemplating retirement, the Cavs frontcourt will be in need of a drastic overhaul. That's not the position Ferry wants to be in as LeBron approaches his contract termination option in the summer of 2010, so it would probably be the best course of action for Ferry to start formulating Cavs Frontcourt Version 2.0 this summer.

Whether it's through the draft or a trade, Ferry needs to find at least one young big man who could become a productive NBA starter in short order. In other words, no project players like Simmons. Ideally, it would be someone who could match skill sets with Z reasonably well. Maybe the Cavs don't necessarily need a young center who can consistently knock down 15-footers, but they do need a 7-footer who can rebound, score inside and get to the free-throw line.

My vote currently goes to Georgetown's Roy Hibbert, the center in the draft who I think would be able to most closely match Z's production. There is little chance Hibbert will be on the board when the Cavs select, so Ferry would almost certainly have to engineer a trade to acquire a pick high enough to select Hibbert, whom projected as going 15th overall to Phoenix as of Saturday afternoon.

There is plenty of time for speculation on what Ferry should do this summer. What there isn't a lot of time for is standing pat. Every game is another game older for Z, Wallace and Smith. And with each game, each week, their bodies get worn down a little bit further by making a living in the NBA's mosh pits.

Without quick and decisive action by Ferry in the next year, this deep, prized frontcourt of the Cavs will become a rusty, leaking shell held together by medical bandages. It's begun already.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A portrait of the artist

Nearly 15 years ago, the poet Donald Hall contributed his recollections of the national pastime to Ken Burns' PBS series, "Baseball."

He told Burns there is a moment in the game that he treasures -- the split second pause after the pitcher has rested into the set position, right before he explodes toward the plate. At that moment, everyone on the field freezes. The batter tightens his knuckles around the bat, the baserunners' leg muscles coil, readying him to pounce one way or the other, the crowd tenses in a single held breath.

At that moment, Hall said, anything can happen.

I have my own moment like that. It's on the basketball court, when LeBron James has the ball, crouched over, above the free throw line, eyeing the court from sideline to sideline.

At that moment, LeBron holds the world surrounding him in the palm of his hand.

The vast majority of professional athletes are artisans. They apply a set of acquired skills to a craft. Many are specialists, valued by their teams for one particular skill, like Daniel Gibson's shooting or Ben Wallace's interior defense.

But LeBron, as we have seen over the past five years, has risen far beyond that definition of a professional athlete. He is one of the rarest of individuals in sports -- a man who can re-shape a game to his will. He doesn't fit within the game. He shapes it, defines it, gives it meaning.

LeBron is an artist. If you believe that art can exist anywhere, that it isn't limited by medium or venue or interpretation, you can see the validity in that statement.

An artist is, in essence, a creator. Someone who has a vision, and then turns that vision into something tangible. Of course, LeBron doesn't work with a blank canvas, block of marble or brick of freshly-cut clay. He works within the 94 feet of a basketball court. Which perhaps makes his work all the more impressive.

LeBron doesn't just manipulate paintbrush and oil, or hammer and chisel. He manipulates the living, breathing, three-dimensional space of a basketball game. He manipulates space that includes nine other players -- five of which are trying to stop him -- three referees and up to 20,000 screaming fans.

And yet, through all that, through the double teams and cheap shots, non-calls and heckling fans, he can make his vision a reality.

And that, I'm convinced, is what LeBron sees when he is clutching the ball between the circles with the shot clock ticking away. He doesn't just see the man guarding him, the forward rushing over to double team or the teammate cutting to the basket. He isn't even focused solely on the basket, as his idol Michael Jordan so often was.

LeBron sees his vision of what the play, and the game, should be. An entire vision that encompasses everything around him, from the onrushing defender to Wally Szczerbiak camped out in the corner 40 feet away. What the defense gives him, what his teammates show him, these are the tools he will use to create.

And when he does create, it will be in the span of seconds, with brushstrokes that are startling in their raw power.

It's altogether appropriate that LeBron creates his art in Cleveland, a city with a gruff, blue-collar exterior but a largely-unnoticed appreciation for the fine arts that is long-standing and deeply-rooted.

We don't have a basketball reference point for a player the caliber of LeBron in Cleveland. We never had a Jordan or Magic or Doctor J in eras previous to show us the true meaning of greatness on the hardwood. But we're far from confounded when it comes to appreciating the greatness of a master at work.

Whether you are a regular visitor to the Cleveland Museum of Art, or scratch your head every time you walk past Claes Oldenburg's Free Stamp downtown, if you tense in anticipation every time LeBron holds the basketball, feeling a sense of the very real possibility that something is about to happen that you have never seen before, you get art. You understand, at least on some level, that LeBron's talent and mastery go deeper than clutch shooting and windmill dunks.

LeBron is more than a great basketball player or a meal ticket to a championship. To define him as simply that is to sell yourself short and insult his talent. Even calling him a business mogul or global icon isn't going far enough.

If LeBron's true greatness can ever be accurately defined, you won't find it on a 20-story billboard in Times Square, as he's hanging out with Jay-Z or even when he's hoisting a trophy. It will most likely be in that moment of pure anticipation of his next creation, when Wise LeBron, Kid LeBron, Business LeBron and Athlete LeBron give way to Artist LeBron, the man who knows no boundaries.