Saturday, February 28, 2009

Say it's so, Joe

Joe Smith is averaging 6.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in just over 19 minutes a game for the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that is in any conversation for the worst in the NBA.

But if he is bought out by the Thunder and ends up on the Cavaliers' doorstep in the next few days, he'll get the superstar treatment from both the organization and the fans.

The Cavs should be free from want. They had the best record, percentage-wise, in the Eastern Conference as of Saturday, leading the Central Division by 17 games, tops among the NBA's division leaders. They're counting down the games until they clinch the franchise's first division title in 33 years. At 45-12 entering March, they still possess an excellent chance of achieving the franchise's first-ever 60-win season.

But there is more than a little paranoia that comes with the Cavs' position. Anything less than an NBA title, and a season this good will still pale in comparison to whoever does win the title. Unfortunately, in the rarefied air of the NBA's elite, it's a pass/fail proposition. Either you win championships or you don't. And if you don't, history brands you a paper tiger, justly or unjustly.

Which is why the NBA's elite teams spend this time of year, in the weeks and days leading up to the March 1 postseason roster eligibility deadline, turning over every stone in an obsessive attempt to patch over every crack and blemish on their roster.

Well, not every team. The Lakers are so far out in front of the rest of the Western Conference, they don't have to harbor the sense of urgency that the East's top dogs have. They can wait on Andrew Bynum's return to health.

The Celtics, Cavs and Magic, however, are in a staredown for the first seed in the East. The season-ending injury to Jameer Nelson forced the Magic to deal for Rafer Alston at the deadline, but it still hasn't prevented Orlando from backsliding several games, allowing Boston and Cleveland to gain a little bit of separation.

As tough as the Magic have been this year, the Cavs and Celtics still seem the most threatened by each other. They're the conference's last two champions. The Celtics have a ring, and the Cavs have LeBron James. So when one makes a move, the other would logically feel the pressure to match that move.

All was quiet through the Feb. 19 trade deadline. Neither team made a move of consequence. The Celtics really didn't have the tradeable parts, and the Cavs didn't want to significantly alter the roster that had served them so well.

With no ability to make a trade of consequence, the Celtics had other plans in the week-plus after the deadline. Not that the plans were any big secret. Every member of the NBA-following public from coast to coast knew GM Danny Ainge was going to bargain-shop at the free-agent thrift store. There, he found Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury to add to his bench. Moore had been released by the Kings. Marbury, in an epic saga of a spat with the Knicks, was eventually bought out and hurriedly signed in Boston for the chance at a ring.

In one week's time, the Celtics added two potentially significant pieces to their bench. That still wouldn't have been enough to faze the Cavs, if not for a nightmare of a game in Houston on Thursday night, when Ben Wallace broke his leg after a collision with Yao Ming.

Suddenly, the chess match between the Celtics and Cavs took a decided turn in favor of Boston. The Celtics added two veteran pieces, while the Cavs lost a starter (and locker room leader) for the foreseeable future.

Wallace is out for four-to-six weeks, according to media reports. If that is the case, he'll return before the end of the regular season. But the condition of his leg upon returning is not the stuff of guarantees. This is the 34-year-old Wallace of three points and seven rebounds per game, a far cry from the eight-point, 13-rebound per game Wallace of his Pistons prime. The only aspect of Wallace's game that really makes him valuable anymore is his ability to defend larger players on the floor, which requires the ability to move laterally and contest shots.

If Wallace returns with a stiff, weakened leg, he might be robbed of a great deal of that mobility, which could severely hinder his ability to play defense, or impact a game at all.

That means Anderson Varejao, who has historically been a far better player coming off the bench in smaller sample sizes, must step up his game -- particularly his defense -- and be prepared to fill Wallace's shoes for the remainder of the season -- even if Wallace returns to the floor on schedule. Which, in turn, means that J.J. Hickson will have to fill Varejao's bench role, possibly into the playoffs.

All of which brings us back to Joe Smith.

The playoffs are not a time to force feed relatively-raw rookies like Hickson into major minutes. Hickson can play basketball at a high level, but in the playoffs, when defense reigns, Hickson's inexperience will be exploited and abused by the veterans he'll be forced to guard.

There is no way that Hickson playing major minutes in the playoffs is a good thing. In future years, that will hopefully change, but for now the Cavs need a veteran big man, and the best option of all the realistic options appears to be Smith.

The problem is, he's under contract with the Thunder, so the Cavs can't influence any potential buyout negotiations under the NBA's anti-tampering rules. The best Danny Ferry can do is cross his fingers and hope that Smith sees an opportunity to help out his former teammates in Cleveland.

It's highly doubtful that Smith would leave the Thunder and sign with a contender just to be a spare part. The idea of fighting with Hickson for minutes behind Wallace, Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas probably didn't appeal to him. But now that the Wallace injury has opened up minutes in the Cavs frontcourt for an able-bodied veteran, Smith might find the prospect of returning to Cleveland more attractive.

What we do know is that landing a player like Smith has become more of an necessity than a luxury for the Cavs at this point.

It wouldn't be the end of the world if the Cavs don't. The season won't screech to a halt, and the Cavs should still be able to advance deep into the playoffs. But when it comes to the prospect of knocking off the Celtics in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup, or the Lakers or Spurs in the NBA Finals, heading into battle with a creakier-than-ever Ben Wallace and an unready J.J. Hickson is far from ideal.

Smith, currently a part-time player on a bottom-feeding team, is a buyout away from becoming an important player in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A season on the brink

Baseball's 162-game season is supposed to be a truth serum of sorts. It's extremely difficult to play over your head or stay mired in a slump while playing games nearly every day for six months.

Water tends to find its level, for players and teams. The good and bad, successes and failures, are tossed into a giant mixing bowl and whipped together until the resulting mixture offers a fairly realistic view of the player or team in question.

There are exceptions. Injuries can wreak havoc with a player's or team's potential, but then again, if the injury bug bites hard, the win-loss record will likely bear that out. Injuries are part of what makes a team and makes (or breaks) its season.

But if the marathon baseball season is among the best mirrors in sports, the Indians are still trying to figure out what their reflection is saying to them.

Over the past four years, the Indians have seen the many faces of what they can be. Some looks are flattering, some less so. At their best, in the 93-win season of 2005 and the 96-win ALCS season of 2007, they were greater than the sum of their parts. They were a team built on solid pitching in the rotation and bullpen and an offense that lacked power, but still produced runs.

At their worst, in 2006 and '08, they were lugging around a crumbled bullpen, hindered by injuries and, last year, traded away the ace of their pitching staff in anticipation of his departure via free agency. At their very worst, they have revealed their tendency to go knock-kneed when the pressure is highest, fumbling away a playoff berth in '05 and an American League pennant in '07.

It has been nearly a decade since Larry Dolan purchased the Tribe, nine years since Mark Shapiro took over as GM and entering the seventh year of Eric Wedge's managerial tenure, and the Indians still seem to find themselves in pursuit of the consistency that would brand them a truly elite stalwart of an organization. They've shown flashes of it, but the flame fizzles as quickly as it flickers.

The Indians are the ultimate balance-beam team. With middle of the pack financial resources and a middle of the pack payroll, they can exhibit an ability to swing with the big boys almost as easily as they can resemble an overmatched small market team. They can't outspend their mistakes or out-trade misfortune, so the line between an October to remember and a lost season is as thin as the chalk line between home and first base.

We keep waiting for the boom-bust pendulum to swing one way or the other and stay there. Promise in '04 and '05, disappointment in '06, seemingly arriving as a force in '07 only to regress to non-contention in '08.

The Indians' brass is quick to point out that injuries played a big role in the team's lackluster 81-81 season of a year ago. That's true. The unraveling of Jake Westbrook's elbow was a stroke of bad luck that every organization endures sooner or later. The Indians never asked for Fausto Carmona, Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner to all miss large chunks of the season.

But there was also the stubborn refusal on the part of Shapiro and Wedge to admit that closer Joe Borowski's arm was finished, despite the fact that he entered spring training last year throwing a fastball in the low 80s. There was the force-feeding of Martinez and his injured elbow into the lineup for weeks, until it became apparent that he wasn't going to be able to play through it.

Handling those situations differently might not have saved the Tribe's '08 campaign, but it illustrates the thin line between have and have-not. A couple of miscalculations here and there, and the season's slope goes from soapy to oil-slicked.

The point is, injuries played a part in last year's collapse, but to simply chalk the '08 season up to an infirmary case is not telling the whole story. Not when there is a precedent set of dramatic year-to-year momentum shifts with this team. Not when the offense goes into collective slumps that last weeks and weeks. Not when last year's rock-solid bullpen can become this year's bowl of tapioca pudding while still employing many of the same pitchers.

As much as Shapiro and Wedge value their grinders, this team doesn't seem to achieve grinder-type results all the time. Grinders are supposed to be rocks in a choppy sea, models of stability and taking the same approach, day in and day out. Each game is a single game out of 162. That has been the Wedge mantra and mindset since his first day on the job in 2003.

So why the violent shifts in fortune from year to year? Why the tendency toward meltdowns at the most inopportune times? These have been the defining negative traits of the Shapiro and Wedge years, and they seem to be the questions for which there are no easy answers. A lack of clubhouse leadership? A lack of a team swagger, like the Tribe teams of the '90s exhibited? Simply a loss of collective focus and inability to regain it in short order? All might factor into the equation.

On the positive side, Wedge has run a peaceful clubhouse with few exceptions and has instilled a no-excuses mindset with his players. The Indians are a quality team comprised of quality people. But the negative aspects can't be overlooked, because the negative aspects are what have, and might continue, to cost this team a shot at a World Series title.

Now, as the 2009 season dawns, fans are crossing their fingers and hoping that the '09 follows '05 and '07 into the history books as another odd-numbered year of success. The Indians undertook one of the most aggressive offseason improvement plans of any team outside The Bronx, signing fireballer Kerry Wood to be their closer, signing Carl Pavano to round out the starting rotation, trading for reliever Joe Smith and infielder Mark DeRosa. It looks like the Indians are set to show marked improvement over last year's performance.

But sooner or later, this game of hopscotch between odd and even-numbered years will end, and the Shapiro-Wedge era will cement itself as an era of sustained success or an era of failure punctuated by granules of fleeting success.

For their sakes, and for the sake of Indians fans who will enter their 61st year without a World Series title, the Indians' GM and manager had better do everything in their power to ensure that '09 is the start of a run of sustained success, and not just another odd-year spike in performance. Or worse yet, the season that proves that the relative successes of '05 and '07 were random blips on the radar.

By the time October rolls around and the Indians take a collective look in the mirror, they had better like what they see. If they see trophy hardware in the reflection, so much the better.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Countdown to the deadline

The NBA trade deadline must be in the near future. Rumors and conjecture are clogging the air like a bothersome, disorienting swarm of mosquitoes. Every media outlet seems to have a new player matched to a new team several times daily. And it's only going to pick up pace between now and zero-hour, which is 3 p.m. on Thursday.

Armed with the expiring contracts of Wally Szczerbiak and Eric Snow, and one of the best records in the league, the Cavaliers are at the center of much of the speculation. A major move by the Cavs could significantly swing the balance of power in the Eastern Conference.

With the dizzying spin of the rumor mill already making us lightheaded, let's make some sense of it all by taking an updated look at some of the rumors linked to the Cavs, which ones are dead and which ones just might happen between now and Thursday afternoon.

Amare Stoudemire

All Stoudemire deals appear to be dead and buried. The Stoudemire rumor machine became the biggest beast of this trading season, fueled by rampant national media speculation throughout the all-star break. But the Suns switched coaches on Monday, new coach Alvin Gentry expressed a desire to get back to the "Fun 'N Gun" offense that made the Suns' reputation this decade, and they really can't do that if they trade their best scorer.

Gentry holds the title of interim coach, but he still deserves a shot to win with a full deck for the remainder of the season. The Suns will still likely look at cutting salary at some point, but it might not be until this summer. The best a team like the Cavs could hope for is that Phoenix staggers to an unremarkable finish, Steve Kerr decides he needs to remake the philosophy of the entire team, and Stoudemire becomes available in the offseason. At that point, the Cavs would have the expiring contracts of Ben Wallace, and possibly Zydrunas Ilgauskas, to use as bargaining chips.

But as of now, Stoudemire is a Sun, and that's not going to change anytime soon.

Marcus Camby

It's a rare occasion when the Clippers are courted for anything. Most of the time, their roster is 75 percent garbage, and what talent they do have is either young and inexpensive or way overpaid.

But this year, the Clips hold a valuable piece in Marcus Camby. A rebounding, shot-blocking center with elite defensive skills who is signed for one more year, Camby's skill set, length of contract and solid character make him an attractive piece for any contender. Earlier this week, The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto reported that Camby is at the top of Danny Ferry's wish list.

The Clippers, so used to being the bastard child of Los Angeles and the entire NBA, don't seem to know how to react to the sudden glut of attention. Mike Dunleavy, who became the unquestioned basketball guru of the organization following the ouster of longtime GM Elgin Baylor, has remained stubborn regarding Camby. According to published reports, he's turned away all Camby suitors. But Camby's name keeps popping up in trade rumors, and it would appear that hanging on to Camby offers the Clippers no real long term benefit, which would mean Dunleavy would be nuts to not at least listen to overtures that involve young talent.

Camby is 34 and the Clippers are once again rebuilding, meaning that there is an extremely high probability that Camby will bolt Clipperland once his contract expires in 2010.

Yet Dunleavy is either dead set on making a 34-year-old center a core member of his Clippers new world order, or he's waiting for a heist of a deal that isn't coming. Either way, it's typical confusing Clipper behavior. Don't hold your breath on a Camby trade involving the Cavs or any other team. But once you exhale, don't be surprised if Camby moves for an expiring contract and a pair of used sneakers, either.

Antawn Jamison

Jamison is the hot read now that the Stoudemire rumors have been deep-sixed. Both Brian Windhorst of The Plain Dealer and Chad Ford of ESPN have speculated about Jamison's appeal to the Cavs.

From purely a basketball standpoint, Jamison would be a good fit for the Cavs. He's a 6'-9" forward who can play inside and outside. He shoots with range, is an effective rebounder and has a sound all-around game. His 21.9 points per game and 9 rebounds per game this season are up from his career averages of 19.8 PPG and 8 RPG.

The downside is his age (32), his salary ($9.9 million this year, and rising after that) and the length of his contract (three more years). If the Cavs land Jamison, that's probably going to lock them into their current roster core through next season, and possibly beyond. In other words, no Stoudemire this summer. They'll sink or swim with LeBron James, Mo Williams, Jamison and Ilgauskas.

Caron Butler

If the Wizards are selling, Ferry might as well see what he can get. In the above linked story, Windhorst noted that Ferry has recently made pitches for both Jamison and Butler.

Butler's money situation is similar to Jamison's. He's making about $9 million this year and has three more years after that. The big difference is that Butler is 28, a wing player and solid perimeter defender.

Of course, if the Cavs landed Butler, his minutes would have to come from somewhere. Delonte West and Daniel Gibson would likely be the ones to sacrifice. Particularly in the case of West, chopping down his playing time upon return from injury probably isn't a good idea. The Cavs need more Delonte, not less.

In the end, Butler on the Cavs might pose the same problem as Vince Carter on the Cavs: Too many chefs in the kitchen. Butler is a 20 points per game scorer, but he's not going to get touches at the expense of LeBron or Mo. That means everyone else must sacrifice, and that might not go over too well in the locker room.

Mike Miller

I've never really understood Danny Ferry's alleged fascination with Miller, but his name keeps creeping up in connection with Cavs trade rumors.

The Cavs basically have a Mike Miller on their roster in Szczerbiak. Miller is a bit taller and more athletic, but I don't think he brings anything the Cavs don't already have. Miller is 28, so he's still in his prime years. But he's signed for $9 million this year, and has another year remaining on his contract. For that investment, the Timberwolves are getting 9.1 points, 3.7 assists and 34 percent shooting from beyond the arc in 31 minutes per game. Ferry should be able to find a player out there who can put up those numbers for less money.

If we're talking about using Eric Snow's expiring contract to get a useful player who can provide some bench depth and give us less Sasha Pavlovic come playoff time, I guess I can support the move. But if landing Stoudemire or Camby would qualify as a home run, landing Miller is more like a bleeder single under an infielder's glove.

Chris Bosh

I don't really have a lot to say about a Bosh deal because it's not going to happen. Not now, not next summer, and probably not ever.

I feel compelled to at least mention Bosh because the idea of a Bosh trade or free agent signing is something that a number of Cavs fans are holding near and dear. But Bosh is the single most valuable member of the Raptors roster. They will fight tooth and nail to keep him, and the only instance in which they'd trade him is if he held a free agency gun to management's head. Rumors to that effect were swirling several weeks ago, but shortly thereafter denied by both Bosh and Raptors management.

Even if Bosh were to arrive on the Cavs' doorstep via free agency in 2010, it would be extremely difficult to sign him, re-sign LeBron and put a competitive supporting cast around them at the same time. The 2010 offseason figures to be a very busy one for the Cavs, with a number of players slated to hit free agency beyond LeBron. It makes for a good deal of cap room, but also a good deal of uncertainty.

The 2010-11 Cavs could look drastically different from the current team, even if LeBron is still in house. There are only so many places that money can be spent, and if the Cavs put all their eggs in the LeBron and Bosh baskets, they could end up regretting it down the road.

Job 1 for the summer of '10 is re-signing LeBron, if he hasn't inked an extension beforehand. Job 2 and beyond is, at this point, undefined.

Some fans appear to take it for granted that Dan Gilbert will always spend gobs of cash on the Cavs roster. He's doing that right now because he sees this team is good enough to win a title. But the time will come when the return won't support the investment -- certainly not to the point of paying tens of millions in luxury tax penalties every year -- and Gilbert will rein in the spending. The Cavs roster will get younger and cheaper at some point, and that will probably start in 2010. Just so you've been warned.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cry us a river

Good teams have huge collective egos. It comes with the territory of success.

Millionaire athletes who routinely beat other millionaire athletes are bound to develop a high opinion of themselves, as a unit if not individually.

There is nothing wrong with believing you are good. Confidence is a key ingredient in sustained success, in any endeavor. That's why so many motivational-speaker types wax poetic about visualizing success in order to make it happen.

The Cavaliers are Cleveland's Exhibit A on the effects of success. All season long, the Cavs have been drubbing opponents on a regular basis, winning at around an .800 clip for most of the campaign. They made it well into February without a home loss, and their road record isn't too shabby, either. In short, the Cavs expect to win every game, and have developed a sharp distaste for losing.

If the Cavs are following the Michael Jordan method to championship hardware, that's great. Jordan detested losing and did everything in his power to avoid it. Jordan also knew that he was the best player every time he stepped onto the court. By the time the Bulls achieved their second three-peat from 1996-98, that attitude had completely rubbed off on his team. The Bulls won 72 games in the 1995-96 season and didn't release their iron grip on the NBA for three years.

With that kind of success comes a sense of entitlement. Those Bulls, like the Celtics of the '80s and the Spurs of this decade, did their share of whining to the referees. They believed it was their birthright to get the benefit of the doubt on every call. Great teams tend to openly, sometimes bitterly, contest every call and non-call that go against them. Teams like the Celtics, Bulls and Spurs believe that more leeway and respect should be shown to them than the average team. When they don't get it, those in authority hear about it.

The Cavs have very much developed that attitude, particularly as the 2009 portion of the schedule has unfolded. With their status as an elite team cemented, the intermittent chirping at the refs has turned into a pandemic of whining, both on and off the floor.

But there is a big difference between this year's Cavs and the teams mentioned above: The Cavs haven't won a title yet. And that's the reason why the Cavs' status as the league's next great crybaby team is so troubling.

If the problem was confined to LeBron shuffling up to the refs with his arms out and a pained expression on his face after every foul or non-foul that he finds unsatisfactory, that would be one thing. You roll your eyes. It would be nice if LeBron would whine a tad less, but due to his unprecedented combination of speed and size, he does get hacked a lot with no toot from the refs' whistles. Many times, he has a legitimate beef.

If the effect on the rest of the team was limited to Anderson Varejao mimicking LeBron's arms-out and just-sucked-a-lemon facial expression after getting busted for lifting his pivot foot, you'd roll your eyes again. Andy is good at playacting. He has a career as a mime waiting for him after his basketball days are over.

But that isn't all that is going on with this team.

The first sign that something is really wrong with this team's attitude occurred two weeks ago when Mo Williams failed to make the cut for the Eastern Conference all-star team. Mo is having a good year and is a key component on a top-shelf team. He had a case built for a trip to Phoenix. Not an airtight case, but it wouldn't have been an embarrassment if the coaches had voted him in.

But they didn't. Orlando's Jameer Nelson made the cut instead. And the Cavs started crying bloody murder.

Ben Wallace made up a new word to characterize the diss, calling it a "shamockery" -- an affront that carries qualities of both a sham and a mockery. LeBron spouted off to the media. Mike Brown, who will be coaching the Eastern Conference all stars, had some choice words.

The bees' nest settled down after a few days, and the Cavs stuffed their hands into their pockets, sulked back to work and resumed the task of winning games. But then, fate intervened and offered the Cavs a whole new soapbox.

Jameer Nelson went down with a shoulder injury. The NBA front office would need to name a replacement. The Cavs crossed their fingers, rubbed their rabbit's foot, and waited for the slam-dunk announcement that the East all-star roster would be rounded out by ... Ray Allen.

Strike two, Mo. You're out.

The demonstrative complaining morphed into an something bigger, a episode of finger-pointing that reached all the way to the top of the organization. Squarely in the crosshairs? NBA commissioner David Stern, a man not afraid to flex his authoritarian muscles when needed. As a general rule, Stern doesn't like to be questioned about his decisions. Cavs management fired away, however.

Danny Ferry politely questioned Stern's knowledge and appreciation of the Cavs. But he questioned it nonetheless:

"I know Commissioner Stern has followed our team's success but maybe doesn't appreciate how important Mo has been to our team."

Comments like that probably make the hairs on the back of Stern's neck stand up. What Dan Gilbert said probably makes Stern reach for his stress squeezy-ball. And you wouldn't like him when he's using his squeezy-ball.

"Ben Wallace was right when he called Mo originally being passed over for the All-Star game a 'shamockery,' " Gilbert told The Plain Dealer via e-mail. "But not naming him as the natural and obvious replacement for the unfortunately injured Jameer Nelson is stupidiculous, idillogical and preposterageous."

Maybe Gilbert meant it half in jest. Maybe he was just trying to inject some levity into the situation. But when you're dealing with the all-powerful long-standing commissioner of the league in which your team plays, it might be best to assume that he was born without a sense of humor, likes to be called "sir," and doesn't want to hear your voice unless he addresses you.

Instead, Gilbert didn't just question Stern. He didn't just accuse Stern's people of making the wrong choice. He did so in a condescending tone, using Wallace's made-up word as the basis for a juvenile string of commissioner-flaming nonsense.

Gilbert might have thought he was being funny. To us as Cleveland fans, it was funny. To Stern, it was a franchise owner saying "Since you're so ignorant as to what is going on in Cleveland, I guess I have to use Mike Tyson-speak to communicate with you. I hope you find my style impetuous."

I think Gilbert has been an amazing owner with regard to the product he's put on the basketball floor, and the improvements he's made to the Cavs organization as a whole. But I also see a streak of Mark Cuban in him that is a bit unsettling.

If you've seen the classic baseball movie "Bull Durham," you're probably familiar with the scene in which Crash Davis tells Annie Savoy that a player on a streak has to respect the streak and shouldn't do anything to disrupt said streak. In other words, "Don't (blankety-blank) with a winning streak."

Thumbing your nose at David Stern with made-up words is most definitely blankety-blanking with a winning streak. Unlike in Bull Durham, it's about a lot more than perpetuating superstitions.

If you're a conspiracy theorist, you could readily draw a line between the reactions of Gilbert and Ferry to Mo's second all-star snub, and the league's decision to strip LeBron of his historic triple-double last week at Madison Square Garden by taking away his ninth rebound.

Did the rebound rightfully belong to Wallace? Probably. But the NBA has let greater injustices slide past without lifting a finger. The decision to strip LeBron of his triple-double seems punitive in nature when taken in the context of when it happened (two days after the game) and the fact that it happened right after the remarks of Gilbert and Ferry went public.

If there was any chance the league would let the triple double slide into history as a subject of debate, it was lost after the Cavs' bigwigs took their discontent over Mo's snub to the media.

Since then, the Cavs have developed an us-against-them mindset. That's great, but only if it leads to steely resolve and wins. If it leads to paranoia and a meltdown, the Cavs are going to be watching the NBA Finals on TV come June.

Before the Cavs were dealt their first home loss of the season on Sunday, LeBron got in another parting shot at the Eastern Conference coaches and the league over Mo's snub, saying "That's how they always treat us .... they wouldn't take me as an all-star if they had their way."

That's just crazy talk. Unfortunately, in Cavs land, emotions seem to be winning out over zipping it and getting to work at the moment. In the process, they're getting on the bad side of David Stern, the man who controls the refs, signs off on trades, and generally plays the role of puppet master.

Not to insinuate that Stern would influence the outcome of a playoff series, but it's never good to try and win a championship when your team's owner and superstar player have built an icy, ego-driven wall between themselves and the commissioner's office. It's a chance no team -- certainly not a team in a city that has gone 45 years without a major pro sports title -- should be willing to take.

Think I'm off base? Think back to the 2006 Finals, and ask yourself if the Dallas Mavericks will ever win an NBA title so long as Mark Cuban owns them.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Firing the Wally bullet

As far as NBA players go, Wally Szczerbiak is kind of plain.

Sure, he has a funky last name with multiple Z's, and you don't find too many modern-era NBA players who go by "Wally." But beyond that, he's a serviceable role player on the Cavaliers bench, a guy who can knock down a few jumpers, guard a couple of different positions and high-five everyone in sight.

Szczerbiak doesn't even sport visible tattoos. This in a league where arm, neck, chest and back ink is as much of a birthright as penthouse suites and limousine service.

But as the calendar marches into February, Wally Szczerbiak is the man on every Cavs fan's mind. If you don't know the reason why, feel free to rejoin the living world anytime now.

After months and months of hypothesizing, scrutinizing and rumormongering, the NBA's trading deadline is now less than three weeks away -- 3 p.m. Eastern Time on Feb. 19. And Szczerbiak's $13.775 million expiring contract might be the most important bargaining chip in the league.

Of the league's top four teams -- the Cavs, Lakers, Celtics and Magic -- Cleveland has the most ready-made solution for adding a major piece before the deadline.

NBA rules state that a team over the salary cap can use an exception in a two-team trade to acquire contracts equalling up to 125 percent plus $100,000 of the outgoing contract or contracts. That means Szczerbiak's contract could allow the Cavs to acquire a player or players totalling up to about $17.3 million this NBA fiscal year, should owner Dan Gilbert be willing to take on that much extra salary.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. In order to perform a significant roster upgrade, Danny Ferry has to find a team willing to take on Szczerbiak's contract in exchange for what would likely be one of their core players. That means finding a front office that is eyeing a rebuild, or a team that is thoroughly disenchanted with a high-priced player in need of a change of scenery. Example A would be the Larry Hughes for Ben Wallace swap the Cavs and Bulls conducted a year ago.

Other players Ferry might potentially consider -- such as Washington's Antawn Jamison and the Clippers' Marcus Camby -- make less than Szczerbiak, which would require further maneuvering by Ferry, possibly to the point of getting a third team involved.

That's all assuming Ferry will even deal Szczerbiak. With the recent rash of injuries to Cleveland's backcourt, and the recent uptick in Szczerbiak's performance, Ferry might come to the conclusion that the best course of action is to sit tight and wait for Delonte West and Tarence Kinsey to return from injury.

But this is a column about trades, so below are some of the Cavs' possible trade targets, their upsides and downsides, and a percentage chance of acquiring the player. Statistics are as of Tuesday evening.

Antawn Jamison, Washington Wizards

2008-09: 21.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG

Upside: Jamison is a points and rebounds machine who would fit very well as a member of the Cavs bench corps. A career small forward who has transitioned to the power forward spot in Washington, Jamison is a durable 32-year-old who now has veteran savvy to go along with his wide array of skills.

Downside: He is signed for three more years, and this year is slated to make $9.9 million. He grabs rebounds, but won't provide a lot in the way of low-post scoring. His bread and butter is his mid-range shooting touch -- which is valuable, but if you're looking for a rugged bumper-grinder to wear down the likes of Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard, Jamison is not your guy.

Another potential problem is his $9.9 million salary. As mentioned above, that could make fitting Jamison into a trade for Szczerbiak somewhat difficult. A third team might have to get involved. That's assuming the Wizards would even trade their best player to the Cavs, their long-time tormentors.

Jamison to the Cavs: 10 percent

Marcus Camby, Los Angeles Clippers

2008-09: 11.7 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 2.5 BPG

Upside: Camby will turn 35 in March, but he's still one of the premier defensive big men in the game. He can score to the tune of double figures per game, but it's his defense, rebounding and shot blocking that set his game apart.

If the Cavs had Camby patrolling the paint, it would allow Ben Wallace, Anderson Varejao and even Zydrunas Ilgauskas to roam away from the basket and pressure players on the wings. That could come in handy if the Cavs draw the Magic in the playoffs. The Cavs will need tall defenders who can bother Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, Orlando's 6'-10" perimeter bombers.

Downside: Camby has been an injury case for much of his career. Though he has remained healthy in recent years, a 35 year old with an injury history always gives reason to pause. Camby recently returned to the Clippers' lineup after missing several games with an ankle injury.

Camby, with a $10 million salary this year, is another player who would pose numbers problems in a trade involving Szczerbiak.

Having said all of that, Camby could be a prime target for Ferry.

Camby to the Cavs: 20 percent

Vince Carter, New Jersey Nets

2008-09: 21.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.6 APG

Upside: Carter is a scoring machine. He's 32, but can still drive and shoot at an elite level. In the Cavs lineup, it would be virtually impossible for opposing teams to stop Carter, LeBron and Williams simultaneously.

Carter isn't a terribly physical player, but he has the size to grab rebounds, as his career 5.5 rebounds per game average would indicate. He has the black mark on his resume of having admittedly sandbagged as a member of the Raptors, but he has historically been a solid team player. This year, he willingly took a supporting cast role as the Nets began to construct their team around Devin Harris.

Downside: Acquiring Carter could easily turn into a case of too many chefs in the kitchen for the Cavs. Averaging nearly 17 shots per game this year, and just over 19 per game for his career, Carter would fight for touches on a Cavs team that already has two dominant scorers and a sharpshooting big man. For Carter to get his shots, every other Cav besides LeBron would have to sacrifice, which generally isn't a recipe for maintaining good team chemistry.

Szczerbiak for Carter straight up works financially, and the two teams reportedly discussed that very trade last summer. But be careful what you wish for.

Carter to the Cavs: 15 percent

Brad Miller, Sacramento Kings

2008-09: 11.9 PPG, 8 RPG

Upside: Nearly two full months without an effective Zydrunas Ilgauskas showed us exactly how much the Cavs miss him when he's not out there. No other player on the roster matches Z's skill set or size. Miller, a seven-footer who excells at passing and shooting, would replicate Z's skill set closely enough to act as an insurance policy against injuries, and with a roster at full strength, would allow Mike Brown to have a shooting big man on the floor at all times.

Downside: Miller doesn't bring a ton in the way of defense, and he has virtually no low-post game. At age 32, he's starting to become increasingly injury-prone, which could lead to a nosedive in his production. In the end, there are probably better places to spend Szczerbiak's contract.

Miller to the Cavs: 5 percent

Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix Suns

2008-09: 21.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG

Upside: Stoudemire is a flat-out lethal scorer with an array of moves to free himself for shots. As a big man, he doesn't really have a traditional low-post game, but when you can fill the bucket the way Stoudemire does, who cares? If an opposing defense has to decide whether to guard LeBron or Stoudemire, someone is getting dunked on, early and often.

Downside: If Ferry and Brown are the staunch disciples of Gregg Popovich defensive basketball that we think they are, Stoudemire could be a poor match for the Cavs. He has never developed himself as a defender, and when he tries to dig in his heels, he usually ends up committing fouls. Some of that might be due to spending a good portion of his young career playing for offensive guru Mike D'Antoni. Brown could reform Stoudemire into a good defender, but it might take some time.

A more pressing issue is the fact that Stoudemire wants to be the focus of the offense in Phoenix. That sentiment probably won't disappear if he gets traded, even to LeBron's team. As with Vince Carter, Stoudemire's touches are going to have to come at the expense of other players, which could create tension. Stoudemire is a top-1o player in the NBA, but he really can't influence a game without the ball in his hands.

But this might all be a moot point. There have been media rumblings that the Suns might be on the verge of blowing up their roster and rebuilding, but it seems far-fetched to think they'd part with Stoudemire on such short notice, unless GM Steve Kerr was bowled over by a trade proposal.

Stoudemire to the Cavs: 2 percent

Elton Brand, Philadelphia 76ers

2008-09: 14.3 PPG, 9 RPG

Upside: You want low-post scoring? Brand can give you low-post scoring. Possessing solid footwork and a deft shooting touch that includes a mid-range jumper, Brand is a member of a dying breed: a basketball player who makes his living by boxing out and scoring off the block. Basketball, particularly NBA basketball, has become a wing player's game, so a big man with Brand's skill set can pose all kinds of matchup problems for defenses.

Brand hasn't really fit in with the Sixers, largely because they have a team full of floor-runners who want to push the ball. Brand excels at half-court basketball, and the Sixers don't play at the slow, methodical place needed to truly take advantage of Brand's skill set. What it means for the Cavs is that Brand could be available for the right price.

Downside: He's coming off a severe ankle injury that ruined his final season with the Clippers, and might affect his lateral mobility for the rest of his career, something to consider when saddling yourself with the bulk of a five year, $80 million contract that Brand signed with the Sixers last summer. That's a lot of money and years to pay for a guy who looks to be on the back nine of his career at age 29.

Of course, if all he needs is a change of scenery, whoever is able to pry him loose from the Sixer might look like a genius.

Brand to the Cavs: 5 percent

Joe Smith, Oklahoma City Thunder

2008-09: 6.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG

Upside: Smith is already familiar with the Cavs system, having played three months here last season. If the Cavs are looking for some bench depth, as opposed to a making a major splash, Smith would fit well. He can't absorb major minutes, but he makes the most of the minutes he gets.

Downside: The Cavs can't trade for him, since they dealt him after last July 1. The Thunder would have to buy Smith's contract out and make him a free agent. It seems simple enough, but once Smith is on the market, any team can sign him. You had better believe the Celtics and Magic would make strong plays for Smith. Now that Andrew Bynum is out for up to three months, the Lakers might get in on the action as well.

Having said all of that, this might be the most realistic and appealing option for Ferry, who still has all of his midlevel exception money to play with.

Smith to the Cavs: 25 percent