It was a very light week for the Cavs, as they played only one game.
That's right, they played one game. Okay, the schedule says that they actually played two: against Utah last Thursday, and then against the L.A. Clippers last Saturday. But it was the same game: Cavs play uninspired ball for three-plus quarters; trail by double digits in the fourth; LeBron James single-handedly overcomes the deficit and gives the Cavs a lead in the waning moments; and the game comes down to a potentially game-winning shot by the other team.
Against Utah, the ending was a sad one, as Jazz rookie Sundiata Gaines (who?) drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer to give them a 97-96 victory.
Against the Clippers, the ending was much happier, as Baron Davis missed a jumper with two seconds to go, allowing the Cavs to escape with a 102-101 win.
Same game, two different outcomes. Kind of like one of those movies in which they give alternate endings on the DVD, so that you can see the version where Andy Dufresne's tunnel leads him right into the warden's office, dooming him to a lifetime in solitary confinement.
The 1-1 week leaves the Cavs with a record of 31-11. Thanks to the Celtics and Magic both stumbling into losing streaks, the Cavs have now opened up a bit of a margin in the Eastern Conference, as they lead the Cs by 2.5 games and Orlando by 4.5 games. Just as importantly, the week marked the end of the Cavs' longest road trip of the year, as well as the end of their last West Coast swing. With 11 of their next 13 games at Quicken Loans Arena, and no significant road trips for the rest of the season, the Cavs are now entering the easy part of their schedule, while other top teams in the league (cough Lakers cough) still have the toughest part of their year ahead.
Frankly, it is pointless to look for any trends from two relatively meaningless regular-season games (yes, I know that all 82 games count equally in the standings), especially two games at the end of a long road trip. The Cavs have been dragging ass this past week, and that stands to reason: they are at the most ass-draggingest point of the schedule (the end of a long road trip), and at the most ass-draggingest part of the season (midway through the regular season).
The team you saw this past week is not the team that will be playing in April and May. Yes, the names will be the same (or mostly the same, if The Balded One decides to tinker with the roster between now and February's trading deadline), but the energy will be completely different. Refuse to believe me if you want. But if you're a doubter, then save those DVRs of the past couple of games, compare them to the level of play you see in the Second Season ... and then tell me that the Jazz and Clippers games had any sort of predictive value.
So instead of the typical good/bad sections, this week we are going to take a more in-depth look at a few Cavs-related items.
WHY CAVS FANS SHOULD BE REALLY, REALLY HAPPY
Because barring injuries or an unforeseen collapse, they have a yellow brick road to the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and are in a great position to have the NBA's best record for the second straight season.
As it stands right now, the Cavs have opened up a gap between them and Boston/Atlanta/Orlando. And as I have been saying for months, they are now entering the part of their schedule where they can really make some noise, with plenty of home games over the next month. They're reasonably healthy (only Jamario Moon is on the shelf right now, and he should be back within a week or so).
•- The Celtics are showing their age, having lost six of their last ten games. When they traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007, I wrote at the time that they would have maybe a two to three year window, and then advancing age and injuries would probably shut that window hard. That's exactly what is happening: Garnett can't stay healthy, neither can Paul Pierce, and Allen's game has slipped - not tragically so, just in the usual "he's not 25 anymore" sense;•- The Magic are an even bigger mess, having lost seven of their previous ten contests. As predicted, Vince Carter has replaced Hedo Turkoglu on the stat sheet, but not in the win column; and Carter also seems to be having problems staying in one piece. Meanwhile, Dwight Howard is showing that maybe he's not going to become that top-shelf superstar most of us thought he would be: he seems to spend more time barking at the referees than playing. Howard can dominate smaller or slower centers; but put him against another big body (say, Shaquille O'Neal? Just to throw out a completely random name?), and he's neutralized.•- The Lakers are the one team in the league with a better record than the Cavs (at 32-9, they are 1.5 games ahead of Cleveland's 31-11 mark). They also have a superstar who is nursing a sore back and a broken finger, and a much tougher, road-heavy schedule in the second half (they have played only 15 of their first 41 games away from home, easily the lowest total in the league).
•- The Celtics are showing their age, having lost six of their last ten games. When they traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007, I wrote at the time that they would have maybe a two to three year window, and then advancing age and injuries would probably shut that window hard. That's exactly what is happening: Garnett can't stay healthy, neither can Paul Pierce, and Allen's game has slipped - not tragically so, just in the usual "he's not 25 anymore" sense;
•- The Magic are an even bigger mess, having lost seven of their previous ten contests. As predicted, Vince Carter has replaced Hedo Turkoglu on the stat sheet, but not in the win column; and Carter also seems to be having problems staying in one piece. Meanwhile, Dwight Howard is showing that maybe he's not going to become that top-shelf superstar most of us thought he would be: he seems to spend more time barking at the referees than playing. Howard can dominate smaller or slower centers; but put him against another big body (say, Shaquille O'Neal? Just to throw out a completely random name?), and he's neutralized.
•- The Lakers are the one team in the league with a better record than the Cavs (at 32-9, they are 1.5 games ahead of Cleveland's 31-11 mark). They also have a superstar who is nursing a sore back and a broken finger, and a much tougher, road-heavy schedule in the second half (they have played only 15 of their first 41 games away from home, easily the lowest total in the league).
Nothing is guaranteed. But at this point in the season, it is hard to imagine a scenario that could have been more favorable to the Cavs than what they are facing right now.
WHY CLIPPERS FANS SHOULD BE REALLY, REALLY SAD
A week ago, with the Clippers game looming, I wrote that ESPN columnist and noted Clippers honk Bill Simmons would likely plead his case, yet again, why LeBron should join the Clippers next season. (Completely unrealistically, I might add. There's a better chance of a Jewish deli opening in Mecca than of LeBron joining the Clippers and playing for their wonderfully zany owner, Donald Sterling.)
Turns out, I called it exactly right ... except for the identity of the ESPN columnist.
Earlier this week, ESPN's J.A. Adande spilled a couple of thousand words on why the King should choose that other L.A. team as his destination in free agency. Adande cited (among other factors) the Clippers' nucleus of good young talent, the promise of a cross-town rivalry with Kobe and the Lakers, and ... well, the fact that L.A. is not Cleveland.
That's really what all these "LeBron should leave" articles come down to, doesn't it? After all, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade also signed three-year extensions (instead of the maximum allowed five years) back in 2007, just like LeBron did ... but they play in more glamorous cities, so not much ink is spilled about the possibility of them leaving. No, it's all about how LeBron is so horribly shackled here in backwards ol' Cleveland, and how he cannot possibly become an all-time great and a global icon as long as he's spending so much time in what is apparently America's purgatory.
I get that. If I had been born in California or Florida, and had spent my entire life there, I might feel the same way too. (As would any of you. So much of life is where we're born, how we're raised, and the situations we're placed in.)
But really, the Clippers? The team that has had one winning season in the past decade? The team that is the gold standard for futility in sports? The team whose "solid core" of players features one guy who will miss his entire first NBA season and a thirty-something point guard who never met a shot he didn't like?
One of the most overlooked aspects of LeBron's decision next summer is that, unless we are really misreading him, he wants to win now. He does not want to play wet nurse for a team that might be a contender in two or three years. He already paid those dues here in Cleveland. He just turned 25, and he is staring at Michael Jordan's six rings ... and he presently has none. He has maybe ten seasons in which he will be dominant enough to win titles. He may not need to win six titles like Jordan did, but he has to get close, if he wants to be a serious part of the "best player of all time" conversation.
In other words, the clock is ticking. Loudly.
If you want to believe that LeBron is going to give up one or two of those ten seasons in order to play for a young team that might be able to win it all in 2013, it's your right. If you want to believe that team will be owned by Donald Sterling, who has a long history of letting young talent walk because of his (let's be nice here) thriftiness ... I think you're alone on that ledge.
WHY JOHN LUCAS SHOULD REALLY, REALLY LEARN WHAT THE INITIALS "STFU" MEAN
This one bothered me. Probably more than it should have.
Almost a week ago, former Cavs coach John Lucas said that the Cavs deliberately tried to lose games during the 2002-03 season, in hopes of getting into position to draft LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, who were then regarded as the two biggest prizes in the 2003 NBA Draft. (Yes, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have turned out pretty well in their own right; and yes, the grainy footage of Darko Milicic playing against 12-year-olds in Europe won him any number of fanboys; but Bron and Melo were perceived as the real prizes in that draft.)
Specifically, Lucas was quoted as saying:
They trade all our guys away and we go real young, and the goal was to get LeBron and also to sell the team, ...I didn't have a chance. ... You can't fault the Cavaliers for wanting to get LeBron. It was hard to get free agents to come there.
What you can't talk about is, 'We're trying to get LeBron,' ... You can't say that (to the fans).
We're walking a fine line here. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the Cavs dumped some of their more experienced players before the 2002-03 season. Wesley Person and Lamond Murray were shipped out, netting little in return. Point guard Andre Miller, probably the Cavs' best player at the time, was traded to the Clippers (will we never get away from them in this column?) for Darius Miles.
On the other hand, saying that a team is trying to lose is a pretty serious charge. All of sports is based on the principle that everybody is trying to win. Granted, there are varying degrees of winning (watch the Indianapolis Colts in their final regular season game sometime if you need that point illustrated), but you are never actively trying to lose.
That issue is further complicated by the reality of the NBA: it is better to be a terrible team than it is to be a middle-of-the-pack team. The NBA is not like other major sports, in which a team can stay on top for years thanks to shrewd drafting despite not having a top pick. You're not going to find your superstar player in the sixth round of the draft, as can happen in the NFL. In order to become a dominant team in the NBA, you first have to lose to the point where you get a high draft pick. (And the calendar has to be on your side too; if your high draft pick happens to come in the year when Michael Olowokandi is the best player out there, then your plan has just been shot to hell.)
Yes, there are exceptions. Kobe Bryant fell to the thirteenth pick in the 1996 Draft, where the Lakers eventually scooped him up via a trade with Charlotte. (Then again, he wouldn't have fallen that far had teams thought they would have a better chance of signing him.) The Pistons built their 2004 title winner without any high picks. (Again though, there were unusual circumstances; they were able to pick up two former top-five picks, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace, through pennies-on-the-dollar trades.) But if you want to win, you need to draft that superstar. And those superstars come only at the top of the draft.
The Cavs of the mid-to-late 1990s were a perfect example of what we're talking about. With a core of players that included (at various times, never all on the same team) Miller, Person, Murray, Shawn Kemp (in his Fat Sequined Jumpsuit phase, rather than his Seattle Reign Man days), Terrell Brandon, and Tyrone Hill, the Cavs were never a terrible team. But at their best, they might win 45 games, sneak into the playoffs, and be back home a week later. That was their ceiling. And they couldn't get any better, because those 45-win seasons mean you'll draft low enough to not get that impact superstar. (Fun Fact: That 1996 Draft, when Kobe went 13th overall? The Cavs owned the 12th pick, and used it on Vitaly Potapenko. He was just like Kobe, except he couldn't dribble, shoot, pass, or win.)
So yes, the Cavs did decide to blow up that "core", endure a season or two of considerable suckitude, and hope to land a top draft pick that would spearhead the turnaround. But there is a large difference between saying that they put the team in a position to win fewer games, and saying that they intentionally lost games.
Lucas saying that the Cavs specifically lost games to be able to select LeBron also shows quite a bit of ignorance about the NBA Draft itself. Ever since the Knicks magically ended up with Patrick Ewing years ago, the draft has had the lottery element, so that a team cannot guarantee itself of having one of the top positions no matter how many games they lose. Even if the Cavs posted a record of 0-82 that season, they were not guaranteed of selecting any higher than fourth in the following draft. So even if they had specifically targeted James or Anthony, it would have been a stupid strategy, because they would have had a less than fifty percent chance of landing one of those players no matter what they did.
I have one other problem with Lucas's remarks: Lucas himself had a role in the Cavs' personnel problems. In 2001, he went to then-Cavs GM Jim Paxson and said that he had to have high school center DeSagana Diop. A year later, he again pounded the table, this time for Memphis freshman guard Dajuan Wagner. Now, Lucas did not make those picks himself; but because Paxson suffered from a tragic birth defect, apparently having been born without a spine, he caved into Lucas, and made both of those selections. Unfortunately for the Cavs, in both of those years, they bypassed some real talent in order to pick Diop and Wagner. What would you have said to seeing, say, Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire in Cavs uniforms? It could have happened (Johnson was still on the board when the Cavs took Diop in 2001, and Stoudemire went a few picks after Wagner in the 2002 Draft).
Mind you, that's not hindsight talking. Both Diop and Wagner were terrible picks at the time they were made. Diop was part of the Great High School Draft of 2001, in which every team took a high school player because, well, all the other teams were doing it! (Ironically enough.) He had no real skills other than being seven feet tall. Wagner had a more impressive resume, but was still a terrible pick, because the track record of six-foot tall shooting guards in the NBA is poor. (Especially six-foot tall shooting guards who can barely make 40 percent of their shots.)
In other words, if Lucas wanted to point a finger at somebody because of the lack of talent on his team, maybe he should have found a mirror.
Maybe I am making too much out of Lucas's comments. But there is a difference between a sound strategy and intentionally compromising the sport. I'm not sure Lucas gets the difference between them.
WHAT LIES AHEAD:
As we said earlier, what lies ahead is a well-deserved homestand. It starts tonight against Toronto, and continues later this week against the Lakers (on Thursday) and Oklahoma City (on Saturday). The Cavs will then make a quick trip to Miami to face the Wades next Monday evening, so that will make four games we'll have to talk about next time; and that should give us enough material to do the good/bad/summary thing as usual.