Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Big Unknown

Shaquille O'Neal is big if he's nothing else.

The Big Daddy. The Big Aristotle. The Big Cactus. The Big Shaqtus.

He's 7'-1", 325 pounds and his persona is even larger -- maybe one of the few personalities in the league who can overshadow the Cavs' own magnetic LeBron James.

We're going to find out firsthand how big Shaq is. The grandest of grand Cleveland sports experiments will start to play out over the summer and into the fall. Shaq is coming to the Cavs, courtesy of a trade completed in the wee hours of Thursday morning -- a trade that reportedly sent Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and the Cavs' second round draft pick, No. 46, to Phoenix. Now, we get to see if the potentially-volatile concoction of two legitimate superstars can flourish in Cleveland and end this city's title drought, which will almost certainly stretch to a 46th year.

In basketball, size does matter. And size is why Danny Ferry pulled the trigger on this trade. Shaq is 37, and will be 38 by the time next season's playoffs start. He's slower than he was in his prime years, but he's still a force in the post because he's so big and possesses the coordination to get the ball into the hoop in multiple ways. His size also makes him a load to handle as a post defender.

Shaq will draw double teams on a regular basis, as will LeBron. The combination of the two will produce a staggering number of open looks for the Cavs' perimeter shooters. Even if Shaq disturbs the neat flow of the Cavs' offense, the Cavs should still not hurt for points next season if guys like Mo Williams, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson are knocking down their looks.

If basketball were the only factor to consider about bringing Shaq aboard, this would be a relatively low-risk trade. Even with Shaq's advancing age, the Cavs just received a massive upgrade at the center position for spare parts.

But Shaq is big. And that means big everything. And it's all the non-basketball factors that make this deal a potential powder keg.

No secret, Shaq has an enormous ego, which can divide as well as unite. No active player has a better concept of what it takes to win titles. But in Shaq's world, harmony isn't always a necessary ingredient. For the Cavs, with their often-celebrated locker room chemistry and a low-key coach, that could become a culture shock.

In Los Angeles, he won three titles while maintaining a contentious relationship with Kobe Bryant. It was a volatile relationship that would have fractured a lesser team, but the 2000-02 Lakers had a deep supporting cast and Phil Jackson for a coach. The Cavs don't have that kind of supporting cast, and Mike Brown does not have the locker room management skills that Jackson has honed over years of winning championships in Chicago and Los Angeles. Even so, by 2004, Jackson couldn't prevent the Lakers from lapsing into a fall-of-Rome state. Shaq was traded to Miami that summer.

Shaq won an NBA title in Miami with Dwyane Wade, with whom he has forged a friendship. But even his stay in Miami was marred by a tense relationship with then-Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. The Heat didn't win their title until Pat Riley came out of the front office to reclaim the head coach's job during the 2005-06 season.

The moral of the story? Shaq isn't the easiest guy to get along with. If he doesn't feel he's getting the ball enough or doesn't feel he's being utilized properly, he has no qualms about taking his internal squabble with the coach to the media. If he isn't getting along with a player, don't expect Shaq to be the party that admits fault and extends the olive branch.

Shaq openly disrespects old foes. It's fine to dub Van Gundy the "master of panic" when you play in the opposite conference and have virtually no chance of facing your old coach in a meaningful game. When you're playing for the team that lost to Van Gundy's Magic in the conference finals, it's a different story. The first scenario is funny. The second is bulletin board material.

But that's the Shaq Package. Along with the frontline beef comes the brazen comments and self-serving displays of ego. Make no mistake about it, Hollywood basketball has come to the nice-guy, team-first Cleveland Cavaliers.

Shaq's presence as a daily fact of life should make the Cavs all the more entertaining. When he's not being snarky, Shaq can be quite funny and charming. He's always quotable. And with LeBron's history as a positive, outgoing team leader, there is reason to believe that he and Shaq will develop a positive relationship.

But the degree to which Shaq and LeBron will coexist harmoniously depends on how the plot develops on the hardwood. Shaq will need his touches in the post. LeBron will need his touches on the wings and perimeter. Mo will want his shots. Altogether, it wouldn't be a shock to see those three account for 70 to 75 percent of the Cavs' total shots in a given game. That leaves Delonte, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the rest of the team to fight over the scraps.

Like I said, it's going to be a delicate balance. The ramifications of Shaq's presence extend well beyond his relationships with LeBron and Brown.

The 2009-10 season will be a juggling act for Brown as he attempts to get a roster led by two massive egos to the playoffs, then through the early rounds and back to the point where the Cavs were eliminated in May.

That's the real reason Danny Ferry has sought the services of Shaq. Not to beat the Grizzlies in December. Not to beat the Bobcats in February. It's to beat the Magic, Celtics and Lakers in late May and June. The Cavs don't need Shaq's help to win 60 games during the regular season. They don't need Shaq's help to beat the Pistons or Hawks in the playoffs. They need Shaq's help to beat the best of the best when it counts the most.

If Shaq can help make a world championship a reality for the Cavs, size will matter. Ring size. And if that's the case, dealing with Shaq's size in all its forms will have been well worth it.

But as of right now, that's still The Big "If."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Winging the draft

If there is any silver lining to be pulled from the Cavaliers losing in the conference finals, it's that the offseason will move fast.

This Thursday marks the NBA Draft, the first chance the Cavs will have to reload for next season. Most basketball reporters and pundits are predicting that the Cavs are going to approach the summer as one of the few buyers in a league of sellers, and if that is the case, the draft marks the beginning of a blank canvas of an offseason for Danny Ferry and his staff. The Cavs can take this offseason in a number of different directions.

Since Dan Gilbert's pocketbook is apparently not an issue when it comes to stocking the roster for the 2009-10 season, what Ferry can accomplish is limited by only his tradeable assets, creativity, and ability to phone and text his colleagues in other NBA front offices.

Ferry will make some significant things happen this summer as the Cavs approach LeBron James' anticipated foray into free agency next summer. What form Ferry's moves will take remains to be seen, but as the draft approaches, we can scan the landscape and set some basic ground rules.

First, the Cavs' biggest need is immediate help in the frontcourt, and Ferry almost certainly isn't going to find that in the draft. Ferry needs veteran big men who can step in and start -- or at least play major, productive minutes -- right away. The Cavs have been talking to the Phoenix Suns about Shaquille O'Neal, which should give you an idea of what Ferry is looking for in terms of frontcourt help. He wants playoff-tested veterans who can provide size and skill to the center and power forward positions right away.

There are a couple of elite-potential big men available in this year's draft, but unless the Cavs can somehow trade up to the tippy-top of the draft order for a shot at Blake Griffin or Hasheem Thabeet, going big is probably not a great idea for the Cavs on draft night.

Second, the Cavs have a less-pressing need for a dynamic wing player who can score and defend. This draft has some decent depth at the shooting guard and small forward positions. If the Cavs sit tight with the 30th pick, there is a chance that a solid wing player could fall to them. If Ferry is more proactive and acquires a pick in the teens, there is a much better chance that he'll find a swingman who can step in and produce as a rookie.

And if pre-draft scuttlebutt is to be believed, a number of teams could be looking to move down in, or entirely out of, the first round as a money-saving move. That means Ferry could find ample opportunity to move up in the draft order without breaking his own bank.

Assuming that Ferry is going to commit the vast majority of his tradeable assets and free agency resources to improving the frontcourt with veterans, draft night might present Ferry with his best chance to get a skilled wing player who can at least bring more to the table than Wally Szczerbiak or Sasha Pavlovic, neither of whom should count on a return to the Cavs next season.

Here are a few possibilities for a first-round Cavs pick if Ferry stays put at No. 30, and a few possibilities if he moves up.

If the Cavs move up

DeMar DeRozan, freshman, USC

Pos: SG, Ht: 6'-7", Wt: 220

Ferry might have to trade up to around No. 10 to have a shot at DeRozan, a Southern California freshman who is regarded by scouts as a supreme athlete. He has range on his jumper and pogo-stick legs that have gifted him with a 40-inch vertical jump. However, he is only 19, so his game is still kind of raw and his defensive fundamentals need work, meaning his ability to step in and produce for the Cavs as a rookie is legitimately within question. But as he matures, his star potential alongside someone like LeBron would be hard to ignore.

Gerald Henderson, junior, Duke

SG, 6'-4", 215

Mike Krzyzewski's program isn't known for cranking out a lot of NBA stars. But one thing Duke has done for the NBA is produce a number of steady role players who go on to have long and productive, if not spectacular, professional careers.

Henderson could very well become another in that mold. He's a player who is great at nothing but good to very good at just about everything. He can hit spot-up jumpers outside, pull-up jumpers inside, and can finish at the rim and draw fouls. Coming from Duke, he's been well-schooled in defensive principles and can play good man defense on the perimeter -- a major need for the Cavs.

Henderson is a little undersized for an NBA shooting guard, and is significantly undersized for an NBA small forward. But as a rookie, if he could battle the Mickael Pietruses and Eddie Houses of the world to a draw, he could become a productive role player for the Cavs.

Chase Budinger, junior, Arizona

SG, 6'-7", 205

If Ferry is looking for a player who could potentially step in and start at some point next season, Budinger is a good place to begin the search. At 21 and with three years at a top-level college program under his belt, he has developed into an excellent all-around offensive player. He is among the best pure shooters in the draft among swingmen, with range beyond the NBA three-point line and an advanced ability to curl off screens and knock down jumpers. He has the size, hops and athleticism to get to the rim and score. He's also a decent passer with an unselfish mentality.

However, Budinger's defensive game is not as advanced as his offensive game, which means Mike Brown's help-and-recover defensive system would have to do a lot to mask Budinger's man defense weaknesses.

Terrence Williams, senior, Louisville

SG/SF, 6'-6", 215

Another player with starter potential as an NBA rookie, Williams isn't the offensive force that Budinger is, but he employs his height and length far better at the defensive end. He's also a good rebounder for a wing player.

The main problem with Williams is his shooting, and reliance on the outside shot. Although he is an excellent athlete, he lacks a dynamic offensive game and an inability to penetrate could force him to rely solely on his outside shooting. In that department, his three-point shooting has stayed below 40 percent throughout his college career.

If the Cavs stay put

Sam Young, senior, Pittsburgh

SF, 6'-6", 220

It might be a bit of a stretch to think that Young could still be available at No. 30, but teams have been scared off by less than a 24-year-old senior.

In a best-case scenario, Young's advanced age would make the other 29 teams hedge enough to pass on him, leaving the door open for the Cavs to take the defense-minded swingman at 30.

Young isn't the most fluid player on the board, and offensive game might be limited to jump shooting at the professional level. But he's big and tall with a long wingspan and high defensive potential. Young might never be an NBA starter, but he could develop into the type of player that could shut down the other team's best wing scorer for stretches. After watching the Magic light the Cavs up from the perimeter throughout the conference finals, that kind of player could be worth his weight in gold.

Wayne Ellington, junior, North Carolina

SG, 6'-5", 200

Ellington would seem to project as a shooting specialist on the NBA level. His jump shooting ability is superlative, and over his college career, he's developed multiple ways to get his shot off. He can spot up, pull up in traffic and shooting it coming off screens. If he can develop a niche as a catch-and-shoot gunner in the NBA, he'd be a great fit playing alongside LeBron.

However, his size, quickness and overall athletic ability will probably grade out as below average at the NBA level, meaning that he's not going to become much of a threat taking the ball inside, and he will likely remain a suspect defender. That probably won't sit well with Mike Brown.

Dionte Christmas, senior, Temple

SG, 6'-5", 210

Christmas is a player with a well-developed offensive skill set who might be lacking a bit in athleticism. He can probably shoot it at the NBA level, but his ability to create his shot at the next level is questionable. Christmas is a good passer, solid defender and regarded as an intelligent player, so he can probably fit well into a defined role in a team concept.

DaJuan Summers, junior, Georgetown

SF, 6'-8", 245

Size and athleticism make Summers an attractive pick at 30. With an ability to both shoot it from the outside and post up, along with an NBA-size body, he could develop into a legitimate inside-outside threat at the pro level.

Summers' biggest problem is a lack of fundamental discipline. He hasn't yet showed an ability to play fundamentally-solid defense on a consistent basis, and any technical errors in his offensive game stand a much better chance of being exploited at the NBA level. But he still has size and height, and you can't teach that.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Baseball withdrawal

I have a confession to make.

I only started really paying attention to the Indians about two weeks ago. As in, really following them day to day.

True story. The Cavs took up that much of my sports-related attention for roughly eight months. I didn't start keeping daily tabs on the Tribe until the Cavs made their abrupt exit from the playoffs in the conference finals. Even then, I didn't focus on baseball until I made up my mind that the NBA Finals, no matter the winner, would just be too painful to watch.

Certainly, I paid passing attention to how the Indians were generally doing -- which is to say, poorly through April and May. But watching the Indians sag to the bottom of arguably the weakest division in baseball made me dread the end of the Cavs' season even more.

I had made up my mind about the Tribe's offseason moves over the winter. Signing Kerry Wood was a good move. Signing Carl Pavano to guaranteed money was a bad move. Mark DeRosa was another grinder who was going to be valued by Eric Wedge and Mark Shapiro for his supposed intangibles like hustle, heart and leadership -- and the ability to play five different positions. But at the end of the season, he'd present us with a .260 average and 12 homers.

Other than that, I was certain the Indians stirred nothing in me. They weren't all that good in '08, and I didn't really see anything that made me believe they were going to suddenly find the path to greatness in '09. Heading into this season, I firmly believed that the 2007 season was a fluke, one of the few glimmers of success on an otherwise drab backdrop of mediocrity, and one of the only things on which Shapiro and Wedge could hang their collective hat.

If anything, once my suspicions were confirmed in early April, I was hoping for an absolute bust of a season. I was hoping for 100 losses. A season absolutely devoid of any straw within grasping distance of Shapiro or Wedge. A season that wouldn't allow anyone in the Tribe's brain trust to hide behind injuries, or a supposed fluke of a bad bullpen, or an off year by this player or that player.

Once I saw that another lousy start was inevitable, I wanted to see the Indians have a season so bad that the Dolans would be forced to examine the organization and perform what I have believed is a long-overdue shakeup, even to the point of replacing Shapiro. Too many excuses plus not enough wins equals failed rebuild. Harsh? Maybe. But from my perspective, it was better to come to the conclusion now than in 2012, when three more seasons had been wasted.

The Indians hardened my heart. On a trip to Florida in May, I watched them blow a 7-0 lead to the Rays at Tropicana Field, losing 8-7 on a B.J. Upton homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. As I left the stadium that night, I was openly relieved that I decided against wearing an Indians shirt to the game.

A lot of fans, in Cleveland and elsewhere, place a premium on representing your home team when attending a road game. But a bad experience at an Indians-Tigers game at Comerica Park in 2006 made me wise up. If representing one of the teams in this town is going to subject me to ridicule, persistent heckling or worse, why put myself through that? Just because they're going down doesn't mean they have to take me with them.

I was hoping every day that the Cavs would extend their season into mid-June. Even if a Finals loss delievered temporary numbness, it would mean only about five weeks until Browns training camp started. The Browns might still reek like a fish kill this year, but at least they offer the intrigue of a new coaching regime and the obligatory accompaniment of new players.

In the interim, I'd have the NBA draft and the start of the NBA trading and free agency season, which is certain to be an intriguing period for Cavs fans. So if the Indians were to continue losing with a long, still silence, I made up my mind that my summer would probably be more fulfilling if I just kept them in the background.

So why am I watching them again? Why am I hoping again?

The overwhelming apathy is disappearing. I'm looking at the standings again. I'm seeing the Indians hovering six-to-seven games back in the AL Central, and thinking "You know, if they could slice that lead in half by the all-star break..."

I'm actually having an opinion on this team again. While watching a win over the Cardinals this past weekend, I actually said "This is why you rely on healthy players. You don't keep plugging along with injured players in the lineup."

Did I say that? I meant to say "Who cares? They're still bound for 75 wins."

Am I really catching myself watching every at-bat of Victor Martinez? Liking Shin-Soo Choo more by the day? Making sure I'm in front of a TV for every Cliff Lee start? Even gaining some begrudging acceptance of Pavano and DeRosa?

This can't be happening. I had an air of indifference carefully constructed. I don't want to be sucked back in. This team is Nowheresville. The rebuild needs to be rebuilt, and quite possibly with a new GM and manager. Hope is a bad thing when your team is in last place.

And yet, not even 10 games out. And if they could just cut that deficit in half by the all-star break....

There is no getting out, is there? These guys had better make a season of it, or this could be a long summer.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

LeBron is still learning

The 2008-09 season was hailed as LeBron James' coming-of-age party. The season in which he stopped climbing Mount Greatness and reached its lofty summit.

It was the coronation foretold since LeBron's formative years winning state titles at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. And in one sense, it happened. LeBron won the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award in his sixth season, at the age of 24. As the Cavs cruised to a franchise record 66 wins, LeBron was an all-around force, adding top-flight defense and a penchant for chasedown blocks to his already-superlative arsenal.

Kobe Bryant could be the game's best finisher. Dwight Howard could be the Defensive Player of the Year. This year, LeBron was the game's best player, period. The boy-turned-man demonstrated no discernible weaknesses through 82 regular season games and two playoff sweeps.

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that the law of averages was going to catch up to the boy-turned-man and make him look more like a 24-year-old man-child. We just didn't expect to happen so suddenly and all against one team.

In eliminating the Cavs in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic brought out the worst in LeBron in a couple of different ways. In the process, they showed Cleveland and the rest of the country that maybe LeBron isn't as finished of a product as we'd like to believe.

Four years in college would have made LeBron a second-year pro this season. And, at times, that is what he looked like against Orlando.

Prior to storming off the court in a huff and failing to show for the postgame press conference following Game 6, LeBron got something of a free pass from many fans and members of the media. LeBron was carrying the team, we said. He's doing all that should be asked of him and more. It's his teammates and coach who are letting him down. It's the Cavs organization that let him down. Cue the LeBron-to-New York speculation anew.

That's why it was something of a perspective-altering blessing in disguise when LeBron gave the Orlando Magic the cold shoulder and didn't move his lips again until he stepped onto the team bus. LeBron's bout with post-elimination pouting helped remove his Teflon coating, revealing a side to LeBron that we seldom see. An imperfect LeBron, not as mature as we'd like to believe -- perhaps not as much of a leader as we'd like to believe. Not yet, anyway.

LeBron, for all the progress he's made between his rookie year and now, all of the sanding and polishing his game has undergone, his uncanny ability to meet and surpass the expectations placed on him as the most-hyped young athlete in history, has still not arrived at his full potential. At the age of 24, who really has?

LeBron, quite simply, did not lead adequately against Orlando. He rose to the occasion himself, but he didn't spur his teammates to do the same. Accountability from LeBron might not have been able to get Mo Williams' jumper to fall. LeBron's leadership wouldn't have made Delonte West tall enough to guard Hedo Turkoglu, or Zydrunas Ilgauskas fast enough to not look athletically overmatched by Dwight Howard. But what it would have done is put the ball in their hands, in a very real way.

Mike Brown has taken the majority of the heat for the LeBron-on-five offense that repeatedly reared its ugly head late in games throughout the series. Brown seemed to actually encourage LeBron to take the ball and plow into the teeth of the Orlando defense. No doubt, this was far from Brown's best performance as a head coach. But as counterintuative as it seems, Brown is looking for his cue from LeBron, who is asked to lead the whole team -- players and coaches alike.

It goes back to the idea that if LeBron, for some reason, ever wanted Brown fired, Brown would find boxes in his office approximately five seconds after LeBron's decree. That's simply a fact of life when one person means so much to the welfare of an organization. What LeBron wants, LeBron gets.

With that type of power comes the corresponding responsibility to lead -- even at the age of 24. That means despite his young age, LeBron has to make veteran decisions. To his substantial credit, he's hit for a very high average in the decision-making department through the first six years of his career. But against the Magic, in this series, LeBron just didn't make a lot of good decisions.

At this point in his career, LeBron isn't at all unlike a young CEO. The young CEO starts his own company -- or in LeBron's case, turns around a faltering organization -- by doing things his way. He gets used to having his hand on all the buttons, having a hand in all the tasks. But the organization grows. Expectations increase. The way the CEO does business needs to change. Change is easy when you're winning. But when the road gets muddy, it's easy to revert back to old habits.

That's what happened against the Magic. LeBron doesn't yet seem to grasp the idea that a leader's job isn't to strap his team to his back, perform all the jobs, compensate for every weakness and try to make everything all better. That's how one guy averages 40 points a game while the effect of everyone else is negligible. That's also how you lose a playoff series in six games.

There is certainly a time and place for LeBron to take a game over. But the entire second half isn't it. Those are the times when LeBron should be getting in his teammates' ears and demanding more of them. Maybe LeBron can't get Mo's shots to start falling, but he can make sure Mo is busting his tail on the defense end, and that he is taking every opportunity to use his quickness to penetrate and draw fouls.

Maybe LeBron can't make Z, Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao match up better with Howard, but he can let it be known in no uncertain terms that letting all 6'-11" of Howard sneak back door and throw down an alley-oop dunk is unacceptable.

LeBron can defer to Mo and Delonte in setting up the offense, instead of taking the ball up top and dribbling down the shot clock while everyone stays parked on the wings waiting for a kickout. LeBron needs to recognize that Mo and Delonte aren't catch-and-shoot gunners. They need to handle the ball and set up the offense in order to stay in the flow of the game. It's the approach that worked all season, but it disappeared for long stretches against Orlando.

Maybe all of it wouldn't have beaten Orlando, a team that simply had a series for the ages shooting the ball. But it is a blatant falsehood to say that LeBron stuffed the stat sheet and therefore has no blood on his hands in this series loss. If anything, LeBron helped lose this series because he singlehandedly stuffed the stat sheet.

The Cavs had great chemistry all season long. The Cavs' closeness was so uncommon among professional sports teams, it drew national attention. LeBron was a facilitator of that, and that's great so long as the wins keep coming and the sailing remains smooth. But sooner or later, a team like Orlando will come along and pose a serious challenge, and the leader will need to stop being a bud and start being a boss.

LeBron will need to start making good decisions at critical times, and start demanding that his teammates make good decisions. And it won't matter if that list of teammates includes Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire or anyone else, because those players will take their cues from LeBron. If LeBron dribbles down the shot clock and kills the flow of the offense, the caliber of his teammates won't matter. They'll be standing around like every other teammate LeBron has had.

The bottom line: We know LeBron's teammates respect him as an equal, but can he get them to respect him as a superior? Can he even sprinkle in a little fear when necessary? That's the real question about LeBron that needs to be answered in the next 12 months.

Once again, LeBron is asked to grow up fast. Now that he's tasted real, bitter playoff defeat in each of the last two seasons, the stakes have been raised. Unless he wants to keep tasting springtime defeat, this is an aspect of greatness that he needs to master, and soon.