Sunday, October 24, 2010

An undeserved reputation

Byron Scott's Cavaliers are burdened with a prefabricated identity this season. No matter how good or bad they are, whether they wallow among the league's dregs or compete for a playoff spot, they will be The Team That Lost LeBron.

It's branded on them, a scarlet letter, a garish tattoo.

The lack of LeBron will be the prism through which the Cavs are entirely viewed by fans and media alike. It will devalue them, it will make them the subject of ridicule whenever they visit a city. Fans will chant, columnists will take jabs at them in the local paper, the opposing team might even give the Cavs some LeBron love during the road team introductions.

(If the Cavs could have a nickel for every time the opposing team will play Will Smith's "Miami" during visiting introductions, they'd be $2.05 richer by the end of 41 road games.)

Even in the safe haven of Cleveland, where (some) fans still dare to wear wine and gold, LeBron's shadow still blocks out the Sun. We look at the current Cavs roster, and all we see is no LeBron, and ergo, no shot at a title.

When we look at the current Cavs roster, we see some iffy building blocks in J.J. Hickson and Ramon Sessions, and a cast of veterans that are of no use to a team that just had its its soul sucked out several months ago.

So, what's the use? You need a superstar -- or multiple superstars -- to win titles in the NBA. History has proven that. The Cavs have no superstar. So it's time to start pitching deck chairs off the Titanic. Liquidate the inventory. Everything must go. We're slashing prices.

Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon -- anything and everything older than 26 that's not nailed down. This team need to be a 15-67 club within two years. It's the only way to draft high enough to get the superstar you need to win championships. Because if you don't, you're stuck in the purgatory of mediocrity, somwhere between the last lottery picks and the lowest playoff seeds.

It's the worst place to be in the NBA. Not a contender, and not bad enough to get the draft picks to get the star power to become a contender.

That is true. The middle of the pack is NBA purgatory. But let's back up for a second before we convince ourselves that you're either a 60-win team, a 60-loss team or on a treadmill to nowhere.

Finding yourself in the middle of the NBA pack isn't purgatory in and of itself. Teams get long-term sentences at Mediocre Alcatraz when they pay players more than they're worth.

If your team doles out max contracts like Halloween candy, your team is probably playing role players like stars, which is the definition of "bad contract" in the NBA. If a team has multiple 5-year, $60 million contracts on the books, it will likely be stuck treading water until those contracts becoming tradeable.

The Cavs do have some long-term contracts on the books. The contract with the most potential to be cumbersome is Anderson Varejao, who is signed through 2014 and will make $9.1 million in the final guaranteed year.

Beyond that, only Mo Williams and Ramon Sessions have contracts that the Cavs will, in all likelihood, be obligated to honor past the 2011-12 season. Mo has an $8.5 million player option for the 2012-13 season.

Daniel Gibson and Chirstian Eyenga have team options for 2012-13. The Cavs can give J.J. Hickson a qualifying offer after that season.

Other than that, Antawn Jamison's contract expires after the 2011-12 season, and there is nothing else that would make you believe the Cavs are stuck in a long-term trajectory of mediocrity. If they need to get worse to get better, the opportunity will definitely be there in a couple of years.

For the short term, we'd all have more clarity about the current Cavs if we could view them apart from the LeBron elephant that is no longer in the room. If LeBron never played for the Cavs and everything else was the same, what would we see?

The Cavs now employ their most accomplished coach since Lenny Wilkens. Byron Scott was a member of the Showtime Lakers as a player. He was hired into the coaching ranks by Rick Adelman. On Adelman's staff in Sacramento, Scott learned the Princeton offense from fellow Kings assistant Pete Carril -- the former Princeton coach who brought the offense to the mainstream. As a head coach, Scott took the offense to the Nets and Hornets, and used it to help expedite success at both stops.

The Princeton offense relies on passing, screens and ball movement. It is designed for a team like the Cavs with no true go-to scorer. The NBA version of the Princeton is modified because of the way teams play defense, and the fact that plays have to develop quicker due to a shortened shot clock. But the principles of passing, cutting and screening to create open looks for teammates is still true.

Based on media reports, Scott believes he has some pieces in place to successfully run his system. Scott thinks Andy Varejao is an ideal Princeton center due to his active feet and screening ability. The Princeton also requires multiple guards who can initiate the offense, which the Cavs now have in Mo Williams and Ramon Sessions.

Put it this way: if you could completely erase LeBron from your mind, look at this team in the vacuum of the here and now, and make a judgment, we'd be intrigued by what Scott is implementing. We'd want to see Chris Grant get on the phone to other GMs and add more pieces to this team, not scuttle the ship.

Yes, history says you do need a cast of stars to win a title. But getting and keeping those stars will be exceedingly difficult in the NBA, particularly if a lockout this coming summer yields a starkly different financial structure for the league, such as a hard salary cap.

As it is, LeBron has set the precedent: superstars do not want to play in a town like Cleveland. If the current rules stay in place regarding free agency, the next time the Cavs get their hands on a superstar, they might as well turn right around and offer him to the highest bidder.

Putting it bluntly, it's nice to think of an NBA dynasty taking shape in Cleveland. But the chances of it happening are virtually nil. In a league in which six teams have won 29 of the last 31 titles, the Cavs would be extremely fortunate to win even one fluky title at any point in the future.

With that in mind, it's probably better to build the Cavs around a coach's system instead of a superstar's talent. It presents the best possible chance for a team like the Cavs to win consistently in the future. To that end, we should be willing to give Scott and this team a chance to prove that they're worthy of being the rebuild, as opposed to the prelude to the rebuild.

But to have that mindset, you, as a fan, need to stop viewing the Cavs as a band of non-LeBrons.

The Cavs are already going to encounter enough of that sentiment every time they make a road trip this season.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Game Seven: A love letter from next May

May 4, 2011: Miami, Fla.

Cavs 115, Heat 112 (OT)

Cleveland wins series, 4-3.

Admit it, you saw this coming. Yes, it was a 1-seed with a 69-13 record playing an 8-seed with a 43-39 record that required an 8-2 finish to even get that high. But as much as your inner Clevelander didn't want to admit that you saw this coming, you did.

It was probably during Game 3 when LeBron James tried to dunk on Ryan Hollins yet again.

Hollins filled in admirably when Anderson Varejao re-injured his already-ailing ankle in Game 1, effectively ending his involvement in the series. But LeBron tried repeatedly to make sure Hollins knew his journeyman place in the league's pecking order, by repeatedly driving at Hollins and scoring on him. LeBron threw down a series of particularly vicious dunks on Hollins in Miami's victories in in Games 1 and 2.

By Game 3, Hollins had enough, and when LeBron soared in Hollins' face for yet another poster dunk, Hollins threw every ounce of his 7-foot, 240-pound frame into LeBron's 265-pound wall of momentum, upending LeBron, drawing a flagrant foul and starting a scuffle under the basket that drew a technical foul on LeBron.
The skirmish was a dose of savory bloodlust for 20,562 packed into The Q, many in the crowd -- it seemed, anyway -- on hand solely for the purpose of rooting against LeBron, who was making his first Cleveland appearance as a member of the Heat after missing both regular season games in Cleveland -- one with elbow tendinitis and one with back spasms. They were the only two games LeBron missed all season.

With Hollins asserting himself and a waterfall of vitriol cascading on LeBron from 360 degrees, the Heat started to buckle. The Cavs, who were down 11 at the time, stormed past, led by 27 from J.J. Hickson and 22 from Mo Williams, to gut-check the Heat 111-92.

The Heat, who had seldom been challenged en route to cruising to the NBA's best record, were offered their first real test of the season. The test of courage, fortitude and stamina that all great NBA teams must pass in order to become champions.

The Heat didn't fully collapse, but they were visibly jolted for the remainder of the series. Their air of invicibility, the inevitability of their coronation as not just champions for a year, but a decade's ruling dynasty, was wiped away with a well-timed squirt of wine and gold Windex.
LeBron probably remembered it well from the regular season success and playoff collapses of his last two years in Cleveland: when you're really, really good and rolling teams with ease, the regular season can become an endless parade of rose petals at your feet, as people with cameras and microphones are falling over themselves to sing your praises.

But the playoffs are a bitch. And they get more icy, frigid and unconcered with your ego as the rounds progress.

In this case, LeBron didn't have to wait until the conference finals for his slice of humble pie. He didn't even have to wait until the semifinals. Unlike in past years, when powerhouses like Orlando and Boston bested LeBron, this year, with two superstar wingmen, LeBron felt the bile well in his gut against his old, declawed former employer.

But we didn't totally realize it at that point. There was still basketball to be played.

With Mo Williams exhibiting a proficiency for playoff basketball that was beyond anyone's wildest dreams in years past, the Cavs rode his 30 points to a Game 4 win that knotted the series heading back to South Beach. Late in the first half, Dwyane Wade's drama queen of a hamstring tightened up for approximately the 458th time this season, negating his effectiveness for the remainder of the game. As it was, Wade was averaging a paltry 14 points per game in the series and looked like a glazed ham at times, content to camp out on the wing and wait for LeBron to do something with the ball.

But, as vulnerable as Miami looked in the first two games in Cleveland, they were still perfectly capable of defending their home court, where they lost just three times during the regular season.

The Heat looked like they righted the ship in Game 5, throat-stomping the Cavs with a 30-8 run to start the game, and never letting the Cavs creep closer than nine points the rest of the way, winning 108-89 for a 3-2 series lead.

Surely, this was the backbreaker for the undermanned, undersized, undertalented Cavs. Like a small college coach trying to get his team out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Byron Scott was coaching from the book of Norman Dale, Gene Hackman's coach with the checkered past from "Hoosiers." Scott was going just six deep on his roster at times, relying on a season's worth of conditioning, pinpoint shooting and play execution to compensate for the raw size and skill of the opposition.

If Scott brought his team to American Airlines Arena in Miami ahead of Game 1 with a tape measure to prove that the rims are 10 feet off the ground just like in Cleveland, you really couldn't blame him. It was that kind of disparity.

But somehow, the Cavs weathered three losses in Miami with their season still alive.

Game 6 dawned with LeBron making a conscious effort to get Wade and Chris Bosh involved in the offense early. It had been so tempting for LeBron to drive right into the core of the Cavs' weakened defense that he had spent much of the previous five games looking for his own shot.

The strategy seemed to work, as a rejuvenated Wade had 12 first quarter points and Bosh had 10 several minutes into the second quarter. Miami prodded the lead out to seven, then 10, then 12, 15 and 17, and by the half, 19.

Crisis averted, it seemed. Games 3 and 4 were an aberration, and the Heat could relax and start getting mentally prepared for Round 2. But all upset bids have one thing in common: the right people stepping up and seizing the moment at the right time.

Ryan Hollins did it in Game 3. Daniel "Boobie" Gibson would do it in Game 6.

Gibson knows all about Game 6. It was his 31-point outburst in Game 6 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals that sent the Cavs to their only NBA Finals appearance to date. Except Gibson was in the middle of the rotation for that series. For this series four years later, he was coming off five games in which he logged a grand total of six garbage time minutes.

But Scott had an inkling. Gibson's shot looked sweet in shootaround that morning, so he decided to put Gibson on the floor in the second half.

It started harmelssely enough. A three from the wing to cut Miami's lead to 16. Miami got the bucket back with a Wade three at the other end. But then Gibson hit another. And another.

And another.

And another.

And a floater in the lane.

And another.

With each bomb, the Cleveland crowd became a deafening typhoon of decibel power. First a jet at takeoff, then the space shuttle. The Heat felt that feeling welling into their collective esophagus again.

Miami's lead died a death at the hands of small, gnawing rodents: 14, 11, 13, 10, 12, 10, 8....

Another Gibson three-ball inside of 50 second put the Cavs up by three, and they never relinquished the lead. The 105-100 win sent the series back to Miami for a deciding seventh game.

Which brings us back to the here and now. The Heat, with the weight of a foretold legacy on their shoulders. The Cavs, who hadn't fought this hard and long to have it all end on a warm weeknight in Miami. The fans of Cleveland, who still feel their jaw muscles tighten whenever LeBron appears in that No. 6 Heat uniform.

But Game 7 wasn't about any of that. It was about survival. About best-laid plans thrown to the roadside in favor of doing whatever it took to survive.

Neither team led by more than six. Neither team did the sport of basketball any favors. There were rocks off the glass and rim-chipping bricks. LeBron airballed a three, Ramon Sessions countered with an airball of his own. There were unforced turnovers, botched rebounds and blown defensive assignments as both teams fought their own physical and mental exhaustion in a series that was far longer and more emotionally-charged than anyone on either side anticipated.

In that spirit, both teams missed a chance to win the game with less than 10 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. In overtime, even the Miami crowd struggled to keep up its intensity, the scoreboard inciting the fans to make noise, and receiving diminishing returns each time.

In Cleveland, you were waiting for LeBron to make a bucket, Bosh, Wade, someone. A kickout to Mike Miller for a three. Someone had to insert the dagger. But the Heat kept forcing up bad shots, and the Cavs did just enough right to arrive inside of 24 seconds with a 112-112 tie and the ball.

Gibson's perplexing three-point attempt sailed off the mark and carmoed off several players before ending up in the hands of Hickson. For the first time since his rookie year, the pump-fake move that had been his crutch for much of his first couple of seasons actually worked. He drew Bosh's sixth foul and managed to chuck the ball high enough that it bounced off the rim and fell in with 10.7 seconds to play. The subsequent made free-throw put the Cavs up by three.

Miami spent what seemed like half an hour trying to diagram a play for the final seconds, and all it netted was LeBron James, above the key, dribbing the clock down to three seconds before jab-stepping and hoisting a 35-foot three-ball that missed wide left.

The Cavs bench raced toward their teammates on the floor, interlocking in a mass-embrace by the scorer's table, jumping in unison. Impossible achieved. World shocked.

Scott raced toward his team and was eventually mobbed by a hobbled Varejao in street clothes, assaulting his coach in much the same way a St. Bernard assaults his owner after a long day at work.

"I have no words right now," Scott later told reporters. "Thirty years in this game, multiple NBA titles, two Finals as a coach. And I've never been a part of anything like this. It's just incredible."

On the other side, Wade sat on the Miami bench and maintained a glassy-eyed stare at the floor for about 20 minutes after the final buzzer. LeBron stormed off the court for the fourth straight year, offered the Cavs no handshake, and only made a 90-second appearance for the media about an hour after the game ended. But he did keep his jersey on, in breaking with his Cleveland tradition of yanking his jersey off immediately following an elimination loss.

"We lost. I got nothing else to break it down for you," he explained in a curt tone during his brief media session. "Maybe we're supposed to learn a lesson that we haven't learned yet. I don't know."

LeBron is starting another long summer, kicked off by his most humiliating playoff loss to date, to digest and meditate on what just happened.

The Cavs? They have no such time. An hour after the game ended, as LeBron was delivering his comments to the rolling cameras, the Cavs were already packed up and preparing to leave for the airport. No time to party on South Beach for Scott's gang. They have a second-round series with the winner of the Atlanta-Chicago series to prepare for.

Tomorrow is another day of practice for the Cavs at Cleveland Clinic Courts. In the NBA playoffs, normalcy is the reward for winning.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Chasing the story

Whether Brian Windhorst wants to be or not, he's a celebrity by association.

If Paul Hoynes left The Plain Dealer's Indians beat to cover the Florida Marlins or Tony Grossi traded in his Browns credentials for a Dolphins press badge, it would be nary more than fodder for blogs and message boards -- and short-lived fodder at that.

You may love their work, hate their work or be completely apathetic toward their work, but the point is, a good beat writer is supposed to be like a good waiter. As a reader, you're only supposed to notice them when they mess up. When they're on, the team is the story and the writer is just a byline.

I write that from personal experience. I covered sports for newspapers all throughout my college years, and I worked a city beat as a young reporter. Nobody is supposed to care who you are as a reporter. You're the conduit between the news makers and the news readers, nothing more.

But Windhorst is something more. His newshound mentality and reporting talents landed him the Cavaliers beat reporter job as a young reporter at the Akron Beacon Journal in 2003. That also happened to be the year that ping-pong balls dropped LeBron James into the Cavs' lap.

Windhorst is an Akronite like LeBron. He graduated from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School six years before LeBron. He honed his journalism skills at nearby Kent State. Like any basketball-following Akronite, he knew about LeBron before the rest of the state and country took notice.

But when LeBron and Windhorst ended up on different sides of the microphone in the same locker room, their stories became intertwined. And it will stay that way, with Windhorst following the news trail of LeBron and his handlers, probably until LeBron retires from basketball.

That is why Windhorst is leaving The Plain Dealer, his employer since 2008, and Ohio in his rear view mirror to cover LeBron and the Miami Heat for And that is why Windhorst is experiencing his own form of local backlash -- a mere fraction of the venom spewed in the direction of LeBron in July, but a startling level of fan anger aimed at a departing beat reporter.

This week, message boards and other internet outlets have been ablaze with fan opinion on Windhorst's departure for Miami. Some accused him of being an unabashed LeBron shill. Some accused him of being a willing participant in the ESPN pro athlete public relations machine. Some have accused him of sacrificing his journalistic integrity, assuming that he will head to Miami to write fluff pieces on LeBron in exchange for an ESPN-financed pay bump.

Admittedly, the last point did enter my mind. If ESPN was offering Windhorst a large sum of money to head south and pen articles lionizing the Heat's collection of star talent, it could still be difficult to say "no." Being totally honest, I know I'd find it difficult to turn my back on more money and winters in Miami in exchange for writing pieces that are less than completely objective. It's human nature.

But that's pure speculation. For Windhorst's part, he made the media rounds this week, talking to WTAM, WKNR and Scene Magazine about his impending departure.

He called it "a difficult decision." He admitted that this might not end well for him, but he wanted to get out of his comfort zone as a reporter. He told Tony Rizzo on WKNR that he's walking into "a buzz saw" in Miami, carrying the double-edged burden of having covered LeBron in Cleveland -- where he wasn't a favorite of LBJ's handlers due to his objectivity -- and working for, at which LeBron's is reportedly spitting mad over a tell-all story on an allegedly wild party LeBron threw in Las Vegas over the summer. A story that was pulled by ESPN soon after it was published.

Windhorst told Rizzo he could have been perfectly happy staying in Cleveland and covering the Cavs' rebuilding process, but he is taking the route that allows him to cover the bigger stories.

From that standpoint, I can understand Windhorst's departure. Windhorst covered the Cavs for seven years, but he is really in the business of covering LeBron. He cultivated sources around LeBron and was at the center of the throng analyzing LeBron's every word, gesture and action for his entire Cavs career. Leaving the LeBron sphere to remain in Cleveland and cover Ramon Sessions is a waste of the sources that Windhorst has worked hard to develop and keep.

Obviously, it's a perspective that ESPN was willing to pay for. But the logic of the situation still doesn't do a lot to smooth over an often-rejected fan base that is watching yet another sports scene pillar leave for greener pastures.

We don't handle rejection well in Cleveland. And Windhorst's departure feels like rejection. He might be ESPN's go-to guy on LeBron, but for us, he was the voice of reason, perspective and inside information for seven years when we were hanging on every morsel of Cavs news. Windhorst's blog, first at the ABJ and later at the PD, became required morning reading from October through May, and anytime in the offseason when trade rumors became thick.

His Twitter page was refreshed thousands of times each day by office workers around Northeast Ohio, looking for trade deadline news or reassurance that Delonte West was emotionally right and ready to play that night.

I'd like to say Windhorst was a print version of Ernie Harwell or Vin Scully, painting a picture of the action for his audience. But he was more like FDR giving a fireside chat over a crackling speaker of a World War II-era radio. He was Winston Churchill giving reassurance to glass-nerved Britons bogged down in the London Underground tunnels during The Blitz.

In the trying times of sports contention for a city that hasn't seen a title trophy in 46 years, when the national scribes and talking heads had LeBron signed, sealed and delivered to destinations from the Hudson River to Hollywood, Windhorst was the voice that pulled us back from the ledge and gave us logical reasons to keep the faith. And maybe teach us a thing or two about the ultra-complex NBA salary cap while he's at it.

That's why we feel like we're losing someone this week. That's why we feel, in some form, a degree of the hurt we felt when LeBron left.

It's not enough that LeBron had to leave. Now his gravitational pull is causing us to lose the one person who could, more than anyone else, help us make sense of it all.

And the worst part (or best, depending on how you look at it) is that we can't fault him for doing it.