Saturday, May 22, 2010

Who are the Cavs?

It's been nearly two weeks since the Cavs slammed the door on our fingers with a head-smacking second round exit at the hands of the Celtics. It's enough time to do some digesting of the situation.

Much has been, and will be, made of what happened in the Cavs six-game ouster, their wet-rag performances in the four losses. Was it LeBron's damaged elbow? LeBron's damaged ego? Mike Brown's inability to coach effectively during games? A player revolt against Brown's failure to adequately settle on rotations? Or were they simply an underperforming team that ran into a red-hot Boston team?

All fair questions. But you're not going to find any mining for answers in this space.

The reason is simple: that doesn't matter. What happened against Boston is yesterday's news. The point is, the Celtics won the series, the Cavs' season ended, and now it's time to pick up the pieces.

What is abundantly apparent is that the Cavs of next season will, in all likelihood, look far different. Right now, there is a tug of war going on within the Cavs' ranks over the future of Brown and his staff. It's hard to imagine that Brown will retain his job after back-to-back 60-win seasons with not even a Finals appearance to show for it. But then again, Browns coach Eric Mangini looked as good as fired early last December, so stranger non-firings have happened.

Danny Ferry's contract is running out. If Dan Gilbert doesn't retain him, or Ferry elects to pursue other avenues, the Cavs will have no head of basketball operations until they hire someone else.

Then there is the LeBron soap opera. He'll be a free agent on July 1, and a few teams -- Cavs included -- might be kicking around the idea of signing him. In case you hadn't heard.

And even if LeBron, Brown and Ferry all return next season, there is simply no way the Cavs can endure the playoff humiliation they just endured without some organizational scarring. It's safe to assume the "team of destiny" mindset and can-do attitude that permeated the organization over the past two seasons will be severely withered, if not entirely dead. Even with mostly the same team returning next year, any optimism will likely be diluted with caution, or even outright cynicism. Even if the players and coaches try to fight it, it's going to be impossible to escape the widespread criticism from the fans and media.

For certain, no one who follows the NBA will be predicting the Cavs to even sniff the Finals in the spring of '11, LeBron or no LeBron. They now have a richly-deserved reputation as a regular-season dynamo that can't win in the playoffs. The Dallas Mavericks of the East.

If LeBron does re-sign with the Cavs, it's possible that the honeymoon between he and his home region fans will have ended. He simply withdrew from serious competition for the balance of three games against Boston, all blowout losses. His reputation took a major hit in Cleveland and throughout Northeast Ohio.

If LeBron does re-sign, we'll still appreciate him and we'll still cheer for him, but the elephant is now in the room. He quit on us during a time when he had everything to play for. No matter what he does in the regular season, the footnote at the bottom of the page will say "He'll just choke in the playoffs again." It will be that way until he wins a title.

And that's if he comes back. If he signs elsewhere, hell be reviled every bit as much as Art Modell. This is the new reality for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So where do they go from here? The Cavs need more than sanding and polishing. It's not just about acquiring guys to match up with Dwight Howard or Rashard Lewis anymore. The Cavs, as an organization, have some questions to answer about who they are and what they want to be moving forward.

If I was a basketball doctor, this is the prescription I'd write. It's not a cure-all, but it might get this team on a 12-step plan to recovery.

Mike Brown does need to go.

Say what you will about scapegoating the coach, but it's time for new blood on the sideline. It's time for a new voice in practice and in the locker room.

Brown is a typical example of a coach who no longer fits his role. The Cavs have changed a lot since Brown took the helm prior to the 2005-06 season. Back then, the Cavs were an undertalented group that lacked discipline and good basketball fundamentals. Brown was the protege of quality coaches such as Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle. He understood that defense can take a team that lacks offensive talent and turn it into a winner.

From 2005 to '08, Brown was the right man for the Cavs job. The Cavs were a playoff underdog, and it was Brown's defensive scheming and constant preaching of defensive fundamentals and effort that led them to some of the proudest moments in franchise history: a six-game thriller over the Wizards in 2006 -- LeBron's first playoff series -- then nearly upsetting the Pistons in the next round. A Finals run in 2007. A near-upset of the Celtics as a 45-win team in 2008.

But then, in the summer of '08, Gilbert opened up his pocketbook and let Ferry acquire Mo Williams. The following summer, Shaq arrived. This past winter, it was Antawn Jamison.

Through a series of blockbuster trades, the Cavs amassed one of the best collections of offensive talent in the league. They didn't need to play like a gritty underdog anymore. They could win most games by outscoring the opponent. Suddenly, Brown's coaching was obsolete in the minds of the players, whether they would admit it or not.

In the span of about a year, the Cavs went from needing a coach who harps on mechanics and fundamentals to a coach who can manipulate a room full of egos for maximum effect. They need a basketball psychologist. But that's not Brown's strength. He's a basketball bookworm who has always been most comfortable in the film room and toting a dry-erase clipboard.

The Cavs, quite simply, need a veteran winning coach if they aspire to continue on as a veteran winning team. Brown will find work again, probably leading a team that is in need of "Winning Basketball 101" tutoring, like the '05 Cavs were. But he doesn't fit the Cavs now, and won't in the future.
The Cavs are, at their heart, a running team.

If the Cavs do end up firing Brown, they need to hire a coach who will nuture this team's true DNA, which was starkly absent in the playoffs when the team played slow, passive basketball.

The Cavs are a running team. They are an offensively-gifted team. It's time to stop pretending that they are anything else. They are not a lockdown defensive team. They are not a grind-it-out halfcourt team. They are an uptempo team that should be focusing on small lineups, increasing possession volume, increasing shot volume and viewing turnovers as a necessary evil -- forgivable as long as you keep pushing the ball and finding open shots.

For much of this season, Brown and Shaq combined to turn the Cavs into a slow-down team. When Shaq injured his thumb and spry youngster J.J. Hickson moved into the starting center spot, the Cavs had their hottest streak of the season.

It's not a coincidence. Over the past two seasons, the Cavs have always been at their best when they trotted out small, fast lineups that could run and score. When you looked up and down the lineup at athletes like LeBron, Hickson, Williams, Delonte West and Anderson Varejao, it was easy to see why. The Cavs' best players have been fast, active players. LeBron is the best fast break player in the league by a wide margin.

But the loss to Orlando in the '09 Eastern Conference Finals occurred, and the Cavs' brass decided the best courst of action was to get bigger and stronger. Shaq fits the Cavs' makeup like an army boot fits Cinderella. Anthony Parker was reduced to a spot-up jump shooter, far from the dynamic role he had with the Raptors. Zydrunas Ilgauskas looked out of place as a starter in '09, and completely unfit for the floor as a reserve in the just-completed season.

If the last two seasons teach nothing else, it's that you shouldn't make moves just to match up with one team. A good team like the Cavs has an identity, and that identity is created by the makeup of the team. And the Cavs are a fast break team.

So, what to do about it?

It would be a moderate shock if Ferry wasn't retained as the Cavs GM, but whether he or his successor is running the show, it's time to build a team that can be competitive, interesting and draw fans to the The Q whether LeBron returns or not.

First off, hire a coach who is willing to let this team run while still keeping defense relevant. The time will come when defensive effort will be needed, but the coach needs to trust that a veteran team will know when that time is, or at least will be able to turn on the effort with very little prodding. And if they don't play D, they lose those games. That's how you get a team to be accountable.

The Cavs don't need to have a 24/7 obsession with defense, as Brown believes. After so many years, you don't need to drill them on it like you're drilling third-graders on multiplication tables.

Second, find a point guard who can run an uptempo offense. The ideal candidate would be relatively young, lightning quick, have a tremendous handle, reliable midrange jumper and the presence to command the floor. In other worse, someone who can allow LeBron to move without the ball -- but more than that, someone with the ego and voice to dictate the game to LeBron. It could be a tough task. LeBron isn't used to not having control of where the ball goes, and he is most certainly not used to being told what to do.

Mo Williams is not that guy. Nor is Delonte West. They are auxiliary scoring options, not floor generals.

If I'm dreaming, I'm looking at Chris Paul, the current centerpiece of the cash-strapped Hornets -- a team that has a lower-cost future point guard to develop in Darren Collison. My faith in humanity would be restored if the Cavs could land Paul, who also happens to be one of LeBron's best friends in the league.

If I'm being more realistic, I'd be looking at Grizzlies guard and Ohio State product Mike Conley, Kings guard Beno Udrih and Rodney Stuckey of the Pistons. The Timberwolves also have a small army of point guards, including the rights to Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio.

If you have a point guard who can run a fast-paced offense, it's time to put the young legs out there -- mainly Hickson. J.J. should be the starting center for this team moving forward. He is undersized at 6'-9", but if he isn't starting at center, that means a slow, lumbering guy probably is. And while it's true that centers are the outlet-pass guy and don't necessarily need to be fast, it's also true that the other team is getting all five guys back on defense while your center ambles into the frontcourt. So you either slow up the tempo or play five-on-four for the first 8-to-10 seconds of the shot clock. Enough time for the other team to set their defense.

With that in mind, it's time to bid adieu to Shaq and Z. Shaq, it was real. Thanks for your time. Z, No. 11 will hang from the rafters in a few years. But your time as a Cavs player is over.

A fast-paced, active team will be competitive without LeBron and likely remain a 60-win contender with LeBron. In either case, the Cavs make the best of their situation. With LeBron, they're an offensive juggernaut. Without LeBron, they can still win, and the gate receipt apocalypse that many are predicting for the post-LeBron Cavs might be diluted, if not averted entirely.

Yeah, there is still the little thing about beating Boston and Orlando in the playoffs. A small, fast Cavs team might still have trouble handling Dwight Howard and Boston's beefy frontcourt. But after the frustrating playoffs exits of the past two springs, you have to think positively:

If you're going to get drilled by Orlando and Boston every spring, you might as well look good doing it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Slump of a career

First off, I'm going to try really hard to not bury the Cavs prematurely.

The fact of the matter is, this series isn't over. Some approximation of the Game 3 LeBron and Game 3 Cavs could show up in Game 6. Boston is already further than they were supposed to go in this postseason and the Cavs' backs will truly be against the wall. LeBron once again has something personal to prove, like never before in his seven NBA years. The Celtics have had some of the same inconsistency issues as the Cavs, and they've strung together two great games. They're due for a flat game.

So there is still a chance, more solid than grasping at straws, that this series will find its way to a seventh game. And as we know, Game 7's are a completely different animal from any other type of playoff game.

Now, having said all of that ... severe damage has been done to the Cavs, and to LeBron James, in this series. Damage that might alter the future of the Cavs and LeBron, and will certainly alter our perception of who is now a disgraced king.

Unless the Cavs find that championship-level switch that we've been waiting 10 games for them to flip, unless they win the last two games against Boston and ride that momentum to series triumph over Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Western Conference champion in the NBA Finals, the Cavs are going to look a lot different next season, and LeBron -- whether he's still here or playing for another team -- will have an elephant in the room with him. And the only way that elephant is going to leave the room is if LeBron wins a championship. Or perhaps multiple championships.

Mike Brown will be fired, probably very quickly after a Cavs elimination. He wasn't dealt the greatest of hands in the past three months, needing to work Antawn Jamison into the rotation just as Shaq left the stage with a torn thumb ligament, then being forced to adjust his rotations on the fly when Shaq returned for Game 1 against Chicago. And as has been discussed many times in this space, the Cavs being forced to accommodate Shaq on the fly is like asking the Indianapolis 500 to accommodate a dump truck on the fly.

That aside, Brown's rotation-adjusting has always been an area of criticism. He tends to add to the upheaval when things aren't going right by mixing and matching willy-nilly. At this point in the season, if you can't give players defined roles, you are going to anger them and mess with morale. That is exactly what has happened in this series. Shaq was biting his lip after Game 4, when he was benched for all of the fourth quarter. Bench players such as J.J. Hickson and Jamario Moon, who have both given the Cavs solid minutes in this postseason, have seen their playing time jump all over the board from game to game.

In Game 5, forgotten man Zydrunas Ilgauskas suddenly got the call in the first quarter as Hickson remained buried on the bench. Then, seemingly for the first time since the days of James Naismith and wooden peach baskets, Daniel Gibson made an appearance when things really got desperate.

Brown has had to deal with upheaval. But he's also had a month to smooth his rotations out, and he's making things worse, not better. He's coaching himself out of a job at the moment.

Danny Ferry might be gone as well, if for no other reason than as an accompaniment to Brown's firing. His contract is up after this season and there has been no apparent progress toward an extension. Maybe Ferry wants to make sure he has a place on a lifeboat if the Cavs do indeed strike the iceberg that is now looming mere yards off the bow. Or maybe Dan Gilbert is leaving the door open to try and attract a big name such as Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown or Pat Riley to Cleveland with the promise of the combined coach and general manager's roles, and the unchallenged authority that goes along with it. Not to mention the loads of money.

Whatever the reason, if this downward trajectory continues for one more game, there is a very good chance the Cavs' power structure will look much different next season.

The roster will look much different. A month ago, I was certain that the Cavs would retain Shaq for at least one more season. Even at 38, there is no one who affects the game on a foundational level the way Shaq does. Now, I'm fairly certain that Shaq is a one-and-done failed experiment. His low-post game, once the most reliable weapon in the NBA, has been reduced to travels, off-arm push fouls and some of the ugliest hook shots you will ever see. Ironically, his foul shooting has been perhaps his biggest strength thus far in the postseason.

If the Cavs could somehow get past Boston, Shaq could actually become more of a factor against the Magic. Kendrick Perkins, with his girth and ability to prevent ideal post-up positioning, is a tougher matchup for Shaq than Dwight Howard, who is slender by comparison.

Mo Williams might find his way onto the trading block, and probably should. He's having an overall miserable series. But he's also a streaky volume shooter who has been forced into a specialist's role since the Jamison deal. He no longer fits here the way he is going to have to fit in order to be successful. The Cavs need a more traditional point guard to fill Mo's role.

But anything that might happen with Brown, Ferry, Shaq or Mo is mere deck chair shuffling compared to the questions that will surround LeBron if this is how the Cavs end their season.

For the first time in his career, LeBron is showing real weakness. He is showing what might be fatal flaws. He is playing terribly, he is submitting to the will of his opponent, he is withdrawing emotionally, and he is doing it all with a thousand-yard stare that is usually reserved for those who have seen the horrors of war.

His injured elbow excuse left the building after his Game 3 mastery. To look at what LeBron has become in this series, there is no way you can blame it all on an injured joint. This is much deeper and much more serious. What we've seen out of LeBron in this series is a lack of interest and a lack of heart. Even he doesn't seem to know what is going on. The best he can offer up is "I spoil a lot of people with my play," delivered to the media after Game 5. Basically saying, "I've been so good for so long, you should expect that at some point, I won't play well."

You'd have to think that Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant would have committed hara-kiri before they'd admit to something like that in the middle of a playoff series. Something is really wrong with LeBron, and it's going really wrong at the worst possible time -- right before he becomes the most coveted free agent in the history of professional sports.

It would be foolish to think that this series is going to cool teams on pursuing LeBron. There are too many desperate teams out there with cap space and blind faith that LeBron is all they need to become relevant again.

But there is a long road, filled with wrong turns, between relevancy and championships. Just ask the Cavs.

LeBron will make money for himself and his team, no matter where he goes, or if he chooses to re-sign with the Cavs. But LeBron's legacy as a great player will be directly tied to the number of rings he wins, and what we're seeing right now is a superstar player who has an opportunity to build his legacy as a winner, and he's letting it slip through his fingers almost willingly, met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders and a "Yeah, these things happen sometimes."

If LeBron doesn't have one foot out the door, it's entirely possible that he has one foot in the offseason. It's possible that he's not playing hard because he doesn't want to risk a major injury, or worsening his elbow, on the eve of his free agency.

It's entirely possible that LeBron's real "championship" is his next contract, and his parade is the national tour he will begin in early July, hopping from city to city so that powerful team executives can grovel at his feet.

And it's entirely possible that we're watching LeBron get broken down into his constituent elements right before our very eyes: ego, greed, vanity, hubris and emotional fragility. And playing like a champion, but only on his terms, when it best suits him.

LeBron's character is among the last things I thought I'd ever have to call into question. But it's his character that is losing this series right now. I am one loss away from never looking at LeBron the same way again.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The fire inside

It's been long enough that we've forgotten what a later-round NBA playoff series is supposed to be about.

When is the last time a Cavs playoff series has taken us on an emotional roller coaster like this? The Celtics series two years ago? The Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit in 2007?

Last year, the Cavs crumpled up the Pistons and Hawks and threw them in the wastebasket. Then they fought uphill all the way against Orlando. They looked invincible for eight games and utterly mortal for six.

But within a series, we haven't experienced this kind of violent oscillation between elation, despair and elation for at least a couple of springs. A second-half comeback in Game 1, on the receiving end of a beatdown at home in Game 2 and dishing out a beatdown on the road in Game 3.

The net result is still positive, however. The Cavs lead the Celtics two games to one and have wrestled back the homecourt advantage they lost in Game 2. Regardless of the outcome of Sunday's Game 4, the Cavs won't come home in a desperate situation. Tuesday's Game 5 is either a pivotal game or a closeout game.

Saturday's off day was a chance to drink in everything that has happened to this point.

What have we learned about the Cavs? More importantly, what have we learned about LeBron James?

LeBron is a complicated superstar. In any given game, the Cavs are a mirror reflection of LeBron's competitive state of mind, so by extension the Cavs are a complicated team. A very good team, but complicated all the same.

He wants to write his name alongside those of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant. But LeBron really isn't like those guys. His personality isn't the same. How he approaches challenges isn't the same. The place where he stokes his competitive fire isn't the same.

LeBron's desire to dominate and win can burn as bright as any that has burned inside an NBA superstar. But unlike the internal conflagrations of Jordan, Bryant and Bird, who are generally regarded as the three of the most cutthroat competitors to ever play basketball, LeBron's fire inside doesn't start on the inside.

LeBron doesn't have a gland from which acid wells and rage radiates. He doesn't have a gland that automatically makes his blood run reptilian cold at the fourth-quarter, Game 7 hour of reckoning.

He is, by most accounts, a pretty nice guy. His default setting is to shake hands and hug opponents before the game. He's tried to rein that in a bit over time. Even so, it's fine to be diplomatic, even friendly, no matter if it chafes those of us in the armchair quarterback brigade who are waiting on the Jordanification of LeBron. Because that's a transformation that will never come without a brain transplant.

LeBron needs outside adversity to trigger his seek-and-destroy response. He has to endure embarrassments like the Game 2 debacle. He has to sit back and stew over it for a couple of days, listen to the doubters, listen to those who would say that LeBron has finally met his personal kryptonite, and it's an elbow boo-boo.

What he can't manufacture from within, at least to the level of a Jordan or Bryant, he can distill from the words of the detractors who are getting set to carve his team's epitaph in solid granite, two games into a series.

Three days of criticism and preparation later, the Celtics got a fully-fuming LeBron who, for the first time all series, relentlessly attacked the basket, forcing Boston's frontcourt into head-on collisions and fouls. When the Celtics tried to pack the paint, LeBron shot over them. His teammates fed off the energy, as Antawn Jamison and Delonte West had solid games, and Shaq finally looked serviceable.

The elbow? It didn't stop LeBron from 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Which could lead many of us to believe that the tentative play from Games 1 and 2 was more the result of not getting mad enough, as opposed to an effort to protect his sore wing.

This momentum pendulum will continue to swing back and forth. Boston is now the team that is stewing. They will make adjustments for Game 4, and if LeBron and his teammates aren't ready to respond, the Celtics will likely tie the series. If the Cavs are able to keep attacking, Game 5 could be the gateway to a third conference finals appearance in four years.

It will hinge on LeBron and how vicious he wants to be, which will likely be the direct result of how much he is provoked. Hopefully it won't take repeated embarrassing losses to keep LeBron's internal fire stoked at a championship temperature.