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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Don't Believe the Historical Revisionism About the Cavaliers

It is easy to forget that not too long ago the Cleveland Cavaliers were considered to be a deep and talented team that was favored to win the NBA Championship. Very few people publicly predicted that the Boston Celtics would beat the Cavs. As the Lakers' Pau Gasol recently said, "I'm not going to lie, I had Cleveland getting to the Finals. It's been surprising."

In the wake of Boston's Eastern Conference semifinal win over the Cavs it has become fashionable in some quarters to suggest that the Cavs were not really that good, that LeBron James carried the team as far as it could go and that Mike Brown got outcoached--but those statements are demonstrably false: the Cavs had enough talent to post the best record in the NBA for two years in a row, overcoming injuries and adjusting on the fly to various personnel moves. The Cavs accomplished this by being a defensive-minded team and that is a reflection of Mike Brown's coaching. If one great player could lead a team to 60-plus wins without any help then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Micheal Jordan would have never played on sub.-500 teams. Why doesn't Mike Brown get any credit for presiding over LeBron James' transformation from an indifferent--at best--defender to an All-Defensive First Teamer? Yes, James had to put in the individual work but he also needed someone providing guidance and devising an overall team defensive game plan.

In the process of reviewing Cleveland's playoff run, I just watched ABC's broadcast of Cleveland's 96-83 victory over the Chicago Bulls in game one of the first round. Analyst Jeff Van Gundy made several very interesting comments and observations during that game:
  1. Mike Breen opened the telecast by correctly stating that anything less than winning a championship would be a disappointment for the Cavs and then he asked Van Gundy what would be the "key" for the Cavs to accomplish that goal. Van Gundy replied, "I think that there are three things. First, they've got to keep defending like they've defended since Mike Brown took over: they're a top three defensive team. Secondly, Mo Williams has to play well. Last year in the Orlando series, he did not play well enough--or shoot well enough--for them to win that series. Finally, LeBron James has to continue to be the best player in the NBA, which he has been for the last two years."
  2. Early in the game, Van Gundy declared, "To me, Cleveland is a far superior team to what they had last year--the ability for (Antawn) Jamison to spread the floor more, (Shaquille) O'Neal can get centers in foul trouble and provide an offensive rebounding presence. I think they have a much better team this year." Mark Jackson then said, "I agree with you. I think the reason why, you look at the versatility--they can throw out multiple lineups and guys can play multiple positions. It allows them to match up with different teams when you talk about playoff basketball."
  3. A few minutes later, after sideline reporter Lisa Salters mentioned that LeBron James had told his teammates before the game that the regular season is over and "You know what time it is," Van Gundy said, "If I (were) him and had given that speech, I would have looked around and said, 'I'm really good. We're not losing. I'm the best player in the NBA. Come on.'"
  4. During a discussion about the job that Vinny Del Negro did as Chicago's head coach, Van Gundy made a point that also applies to Cleveland's Mike Brown: "I'll tell you this: you're never a good defensive team in this league by accident. You're a good defensive team because of coaching and a commitment."
  5. Near the end of the first quarter, Breen said of the Cavs, "(General Manager) Danny Ferry has done an unbelievable job in terms of assembling the players around LeBron James and this bench--it's like a good bullpen in baseball: if you need a lefty reliever to go up against a lefty batter, you've got it; if you need a tall wing player to go up against a quick wing player, you've got it. They've got an answer for everything that the opponent throws at you."
  6. After Jackson said that by the time James' career ends he "is going to be in the discussion" about who is the greatest player ever, Van Gundy said, "To me, he is already in that discussion."
  7. Those who think that James can start stacking up championships by setting up shop in Chicago should keep in mind what Van Gundy said early in the second half: "I just don't think that they (the Bulls) have even close to the talent level of Cleveland. I just don't even think that they are in the ballpark talentwise." I still contend that in a seven game series Cleveland's reserves--including Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West, Jamario Moon and Daniel Gibson (five players who have started for NBA playoff teams, the first three of whom started for Cleveland's 66 win team in 2008-09)--could be competitive with the Chicago Bulls' starting five. If you disagree, then just go back and watch the April 8 game when a full strength Bulls team that needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive barely beat a Cleveland team that rested LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West (and sat other key players down the stretch when the game was up for grabs).
So why is a deep, talented, defensive-minded team led by a two-time MVP sitting at home now? One problem, which I mentioned in March as a possible stumbling block for the Cavs, is that Shaquille O'Neal's thumb injury prevented Coach Brown from having the opportunity to firmly establish his player rotation prior to the playoffs. In a piece that ran in the December 8, 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated, 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell--who earned his last two titles as a player-coach--wrote, "How close can great teams get to reaching team ego and ignoring individual accomplishment? It's tougher to coach an excellent team than a poor one--there are never enough minutes or enough shots." The challenge of coaching a great team is compounded when several of the key pieces of that team do not have much time together on the court prior to the playoffs. Yes, I picked Cleveland to win the championship anyway because I thought that the Cavs could overcome this obstacle but that evaluation was based on a big assumption--one of the three "keys" that Van Gundy mentioned prior to Cleveland's first playoff game: I assumed that LeBron James would be highly motivated, highly focused and highly productive.

I declared prior to game six of the Cleveland-Boston series, "The bottom line is simple: even the best game plan in the world will fail if the team’s best player does not invest his mind, heart, body and soul in the process of trying to win a championship." The best player sets a tone for his teammates to follow: if he plays hard then they will do so as well. The number one reason that the Cavs lost to the Celtics is that at some point, for some as yet unknown reason, James became disengaged from the process of leading Cleveland to a championship; we saw signs of this during Cleveland's game two loss to Boston and the whole nation "witnessed"--to borrow a catch phrase--his listless play during game five. The Cavs owned a 2-1 lead in this series after blowing out the Celtics in Boston, so it is pretty silly to suggest that the Cavs simply could not match up with Boston; they only could not match up with Boston when James acted like he could not wait for the playoffs to be over.

What about James' much discussed elbow problem? That injury may be real but it is also a red herring in terms of assessing blame for the Cavs' playoff failure: the Cavs publicly stated that the MRI of James' elbow revealed no structural damage and GM Ferry said after the Boston series ended that there is no reason to believe that James will need surgery. James was officially diagnosed with an elbow bruise but that problem was not serious enough to prevent him from firing several half court shots prior to game six versus Boston and it clearly was not serious enough to limit his range of motion during games, as demonstrated by a number of plays that he made during the postseason. As TNT's Kenny Smith said, if James had not shot a late game free throw versus the Bulls lefthanded--after swishing a free throw with his normal motion--no one would have even suspected anything was wrong because James did not seem the slightest bit impaired.

It is easy to say that James' teammates should have stepped up--and it is true that overall Mo Williams (the second of Van Gundy's keys for a Cleveland championship run) had a disappointing playoff run--but it is hard to play offense four on five; during the fifth game of the Boston series, James spent far too much time camping out so far behind the three point line that he was not even a credible threat to shoot if the ball came his way. The Cavs might have been better off without James during game five (and possibly game two as well), because if he had sat out then other players would have known from the start of the game that they had to fill bigger roles--but as long as James was on the court you could sense that his teammates kept waiting for him to snap out of his funk and do something.

For the past two years I have picked the Cavs to win the NBA championship; during each of those regular seasons they affirmed my assessment that they were the best team in the league by winning more games than any other team but then they fell well short of the ultimate goal, not even advancing to the NBA Finals. The Cavs dealt with various challenges during those seasons but think about some of the things the last two NBA championship teams overcame: the 2008 Celtics were thrown together in one offseason and survived two tough seven game series (including one against Cleveland) before winning the title, while the 2009 Lakers won despite a broken finger suffered by Kobe Bryant, a knee injury that vastly reduced starting center Andrew Bynum's effectiveness and some very inconsistent play by their bench.

Few teams just coast to a championship without having to surmount tough obstacles and each of the four teams remaining in this year's playoffs have responded well to a variety of challenges:

1) The Lakers have overcome multiple injuries suffered by Bryant, yet another knee injury to Bynum and a bench that has become even more erratic.

2) The Suns improved defensively despite having to constantly hide point guard Steve Nash at that end of the court and they survived the loss of starting center Robin Lopez.

3) The Magic seamlessly added two players to their starting lineup in the offseason and lost point guard Jameer Nelson for 17 games due to injury.

4) The Celtics battled the aging process, injuries and some chemistry problems.

In other words, whoever wins the 2010 NBA title will have dealt with issues at least as severe as anything the Cavs faced. It is indisputable that the Cavs have significantly upgraded the talent surrounding LeBron James since he led the team to the 2007 NBA Finals and yet they have regressed in terms of postseason success. Some people argue that this means that the Cavs must add even more talent to their team but I think that at this point it is fair to ask how perfect of a scenario LeBron James needs in order to win a championship. It is so tiresome to hear "stat gurus" proclaim that if James played for the Lakers they would go 80-2 and win the championship every year while if Kobe Bryant played for the Cavs their record would be much worse than it has been with James; leading a team to a championship is about more than just posting gaudy individual numbers: it is about doing whatever your team needs you to do in crucial situations--and it surely is not about wandering around passively behind the three point line while your team gets blown out at home in a crucial playoff game. There is no way to really know what would happen if Bryant and James "traded" supporting casts (though I think that the "stat guru" take on the matter is nonsense), but I can guarantee you this: if Kobe Bryant had a teammate--any teammate, from an All-Star to the 12th man--who played as listlessly as James did in game five Bryant would get right up in his face and demand more from him. Bryant feuded with Shaquille O'Neal not about the nonsense that the media liked to focus on but rather because of O'Neal's lax training habits and Bryant has not hesitated to confront any of his current teammates when their effort and/or toughness has been lacking. Bryant's style may not win points with the media and its value may not be quantifiable but it produces championship results. LeBron James likes to declare that he is a no excuse player but Kobe Bryant does not have to say that because with the kind of effort he puts forth he knows that he will not have to make any excuses.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 AM

7 comments

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7 Comments:

At Sunday, May 16, 2010 12:47:00 PM, Blogger Codysseus said...

Of course Lebron is largely to blame, but those other two landmarks mentioned by JVG weren't met either. The team did not play good defense for many significant stretches at all and Mo Williams stunk all series except the 1st half of game 6 and the third quarter of game 2. Add all this to a very disappointing series from Antawn Jamison (well, disappointing career in Cleveland so far)and you get a recipe for disappointment.

 
At Sunday, May 16, 2010 1:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MARCEL

i agree with people who said jamison and mo willams didnt play up to par the problem is lebron didnt either so he cant complain about teamates when you play 2 good game out of 6 depending how you viewed game 6.

he played terrible in game 5 and uninspired bron had 2 good games mo and twan one when youre leader doesnt bring it what do expect other players to do seriously david.

well see against orlando if celtics were benefactors of dysfunctional cavs or truly best team in east.

 
At Monday, May 17, 2010 5:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Codysseus:

While it is true that Williams did not play well overall and that the Cavs' defense did not perform up to par, I still say that LeBron failed as a leader in this particular series because he did not set a strong example for teammates to follow.

 
At Monday, May 17, 2010 1:37:00 PM, Blogger $9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

2 years ago when the Lakers made the final (where they lost 3 close games & 1 blow-out), the cumulative All Star appearances of Kobe's teammate equaled One (Gasol had made 1 All Star Game).

The Lakers had Phoenix on the ropes in the playoffs with a starting lineup including Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. Like you said, great players do whatever is necessary, and that includes making lesser teammates better. I don't know how to teach that, or describe it well, but it is part of the great player's skill set.

 
At Tuesday, May 18, 2010 5:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I would hope that one does not even have to be a basketball expert to be able to detect the enormous difference in the effort, intensity and efficiency that Kobe Bryant showed in game one versus Phoenix compared to LeBron James' disappearing act versus Boston. I am very surprised and disappointed by how LeBron performed. He has long been described as a coachable player and I respect the way that he has worked on improving his skill set weaknesses but what he did during the Boston series is very disturbing.

 
At Tuesday, May 18, 2010 12:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MARCEL

i believed lebron tanked on purposed something happened with mike brown and him after game 3 or something where he quit the last 3 games. thers no way he comeing back to cleveland i still think he gets a few rings before his career is over 3 more than likely because he a great great player he sent a message loud and clear to the state of ohio hes gone.

because david how do you go from game 3 38 to game 5 without purposely quitting with some behind the scenes issues going on i dont think it was anything the celts did it was lebron totally he quit we may never know why but when he leave cleveland the writing will be on the wall.

 
At Tuesday, May 18, 2010 6:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Why do you think that LeBron will win three rings? He has not won a single ring yet despite playing on the team with the best record for two years in a row. I'm not saying that LeBron will never win a ring but it is a bit of a stretch to declare that he will win three rings, particularly when we don't even know which team he will be playing for in the next few years.

 

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