Monday, December 07, 2009

Opportunity knocks

From the start of training camp until the end of November, Delonte West was a man on the edge.

Delonte was a man on the edge emotionally, on the edge of domestic turmoil and on the edge of pending legal proceedings from his September weapons-related arrest. Because of that, he was a man on the edge with the Cavs. He has spent the past few months hovering around the team's fringes, involved, yet not all that involved.

Early in the season, he was practicing with the team, but not activated as Danny Ferry and Mike Brown continued to move very cautiously with their troubled player. Aided by pressure on Brown from LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal, he returned for a Halloween showdown with Charlotte. He scored 13 points, but was largely ineffective in the ensuing three games. Following the Cavs' win in New York on Nov. 6, he was deactivated again, missing another four games in the span of 11 days.

It was during this time that Ferry reportedly made a hard push for Stephen Jackson, who had grown disenchanted with the Golden State Warriors. Jackson is a swingman with his own checkered past, but loads of scoring talent and defensive ability. Jackson is 31 and signed to a horrible contract that will saddle his team for another three seasons as Jackson creeps into his mid-30s, but at a time when the Cavs were about to resign themselves to moving forward without Delonte, Jackson was a worthwhile acquisition to pursue. Statistically, he could replace West and then some.

But Warriors coach and organizational overlord Don Nelson had other ideas. The Charlotte Bobcats were offering Vladimir Radmanovic and Raja Bell, who could both help the Warriors at some point this season. The Cavs were reportedly offering up the unreliable West on the condition of a buyout. If Nelson turned down West, the Cavs' remaining stable of tradeable pieces included Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who would fit Nelson's uptempo style like a down jacket fits a Caribbean cruise, and other assorted bits and pieces at the end of the bench.

To put it another way, all Nelson could hope to gain from the Cavs is cap relief, and cap relief probably wasn't enough for one of the Warriors' two best players. There also might be something to the swirling rumor that Nelson didn't want to reward the malcontent Jackson with a trade to a contender in Cleveland.

Whatever the reason, Jackson is now a Bobcat, and the Cavs were left with Delonte's dicey situation, and the knowledge that how his season plays out might have a great deal to do with how the Cavs' season plays out.

As long as Delonte is a Cav, he's an important part of the team. With a versatile skill set, indefatigable legs and the ability to play relentless defense on bigger guards, he simply brings too many assets to the table to become an extra on the set. There is no real way for a team to reduce its reliance on a player like Delonte, unless it wants to completely replace him with another player.

Stephen Jackson and Delonte West together is an either/or proposition. With Jackson on the roster, Delonte would have been reduced to a bit player, making do with the scraps of playing time that Brown throws his way, hoping for a teammate's strained groin or pulled hamstring to bump him up in the rotation. Every time Delonte arrived for a game or practice, he would have found himself surrounded by reminders that he's unreliable, damaged goods, that his superiors have deemed him unfit for a key role on a winning team.

It might have been the ruination of Delonte's career as we know it. Or at the very least, the ruination of his time with the Cavs.

Delonte needed another chance. He needed opportunity to knock yet again. And that's exactly what he received when Nelson decided to send Jackson to Charlotte instead of Cleveland. In the weeks following Jackson's trade to Clarlotte, Delonte has re-emerged as the do-everything handyman who was so critical to the Cavs' success last year.

A week ago Saturday, Delonte pulled a 10-point, 10-assist game out of nowhere, helping the Cavs rout the Mavericks. He followed it up with an eight-point game in a blowout win over Phoenix.

This past Friday against Chicago, he had an emotional downswing, going scoreless and playing just over five lethargic minutes before Brown pulled him. Earlier in the season, it might have foretold another two-week inactive spell. But Delonte delivered his most encouraging signs yet on Sunday.

Not only was he active for Sunday's win over the Bucks, he was the MVP of the game. In 24 minutes, he scored 21 points, helping the Cavs to erase an early 11-0 deficit and spurring an unreal 29-0 run that turned the rest of the game into a scrimmage.

It's not time to get swept up in Redz-mania just yet. He's still mired in a volatile point in his life. He's still afflicted with bipolar disorder and will be for the remainder of his life. Chances are, he's going to miss games between now and the end of the season, whether it is due to emotional issues or his pending legal proceedings. It would be folly to assume that a uptick in game performance signals the all-clear.

What the past four games does demonstrate is that Delonte is starting to play with the same confidence he showed last year. His recovery between the Chicago and Milwaukee games would seem to show that he's figuring out how to manage his emotional swings effectively -- at least to the point that one bad day doesn't become two bad weeks.

No one -- not even Delonte himself -- knows if he can continue on this upward trend for the long haul. But it looks like Delonte is going to try as hard as he can to stay on the court and deliver more games like he has over the past week and a half.

Perhaps out of necessity more than a willingness to trust in Delonte's stability, the Cavs are giving him the chance to stick around and reclaim his status from last year. There are many ways it could go right, and many ways it could go wrong. The certainty is the four-plus months of basketball left to be played between now and the start of the playoffs, time enough for just about any course of events to unfold.

For now, the relationship between the Cavs and Delonte West might be a little short on trust, but long on need. Delonte is seizing the chance to play himself back into the meat of Brown's rotation, and it seems like the Cavs are backing off the search for his replacement.

If Delonte stay put, the rewards and risk are both significant. The relationship between player and team needs to remain constructive and productive through June if the Cavs are to have a realistic shot at winning the 2010 NBA title.

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