Miami Heat Index: Tristan Thompson
Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
LeBron is flying high for the Heat now, but will he ever rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers?
On Tuesday, LeBron James and the Heat will face off against the Cavs for the fifth time since the two-time MVP left the only franchise he had ever known. The wounds have healed some for both sides, but still, a Miami versus Cleveland will always hold some more meaning than their respective records would suggest.
Have we seen the last of LeBron in a Cavaliers uniform? Is Kyrie Irving the favorite for Rookie of the Year? Is Norris Cole enjoying a better debut season than Tristan Thompson? Was beating Miami was the Cavs' brightest moment of 2011? Will the Heat play the Cavaliers in the opening round of playoffs?
In another edition of the Heat Index's 5-on-5 series, our stable of writers and voices play some "Fact or Fiction" with the story lines surrounding the Cavs-Heat matchup.
1. Fact or Fiction: LeBron James will be a Cavalier again.
Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: Fact. Time heals all wounds even if it won't turn ashes to jerseys.
John Krolik, TrueHoop Network: Fiction. Stranger things have happened. But not a lot of them.
Jorge Sedano, ESPN radio/790 the Ticket: Fiction. Did we all forget about July 8, 2010? Yeah, most people haven't either. Though, I guess there is a possibility if Dan Gilbert all of a sudden writes an apology letter in Comic Sans. Outside of that, the only way he ends up a Cavalier again is if he trades himself in a future edition of NBA2K.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Fact. But for now, I only see it happening in the instance where, when it's all said and done - and much is forgiven - the Cavs do one of those 'sign for a day' deals so LeBron could retire as a Cavalier. But I don't see him actually playing for them again.
Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: Fact. Insane you say? Never? Impossible? Too much bad blood, right? Not in professional sports, where you can always go home again. And when it does happen the Cavs fans, for the most part, will welcome him back. Don't believe me? They're building a statue in Cleveland to Jim Thome right now and he ditched Cleveland for straight cash back in 2002. Not today and not tomorrow but someday James will consider it because time heals wounds, it just does. The Heat will not be championship contenders forever. James has outs in his contract after the 2014, '15 and '16 seasons for the record.
2. Fact or Fiction: Kyrie Irving will beat Rubio for Rookie of the Year.
Haberstroh: Fact. As much as I think Ricky Rubio has teenybopper appeal for basketball fans, Irving has scoring, PER and the No. 1 overall pick status on his side.
Krolik: Fact. Irving is having a great scoring season for a rookie and passing the ball well, so Rubio's ROY claim would have to be based on the fact that he's a good defender while Kyrie is a bad one. And ROY voters are notorious about ignoring defense.
Sedano: Fact. As much as I love "La Pistola's" game (Spanish for "The Pistol." Yes, I'm showing off my Spanish speaking skills. By the way, I have no idea if he even likes that nickname, but I'm going with it), he has Kevin Love on his team and he's shooting less than 40% from the field. Kyrie is carrying the Cavs and is shooting 50% from the field.
Wallace: Fiction. Rubio is the bigger national/international media darling and he has more of a flair for the spectacular. That doesn't mean he's better than Irving, who I'd take in a heartbeat if the two were up for grabs. But as we've seen with the MVP voting, things get political and agenda-driven.
Windhorst: Fact. Rubio has some slick passing highlights but Irving has been the much better overall player. In fact, it is not even close. He has continued to impress opposing scouts and coaches with his maturity and skill level, even if he hasn't made SportsCenter as much. There's a reason the GMs recent voted Irving to be the most successful current rookie in five years.
3. Fact or Fiction: N. Cole is having a better rookie year than T. Thompson.
Haberstroh: Fiction. The Cole Train has gone off the rails recently. He's missed more layups than he's made this season and has four assists in his last five games. I'm as guilty as anyone for overreacting to Cole's hot start and Tristan Thompson is proving that he's already an average NBA player. Thompson gets the nod, but I reserve the right to jump back on the Cole Train if need be.
Krolik: Fact, although it's kind of apples and oranges. Cole's numbers have fallen off, but he's still a bit part of Miami's "pace and space" attack because he, like Chalmers, puts pressure on the defense on both sides of the floor. Thompson has given the Cavaliers a lot of energy, and I think he has potential, but his offensive numbers are cringeworthy right now.
Sedano: Fiction. It's close. But, the Cole Train has slowed down after a fantastic start to the season. The last 2 weeks have been quite pedestrian. Thompson's FG percentage has been has been good so far. Points are a wash. Thompson's blocks and rebounds wash out with Cole's steals & assists numbers. It comes down to PER. Thompson wins by a hair.
Wallace: Fiction. I'd say it's a wash so far. Even in games when Cole doesn't score, he still dictates tempo and puts pressure on the defense in transition. Likewise, Thompson certainly has had his moments. But both seem to have hit a truncated rookie wall at times.
Windhorst: Fiction. Cole had a tremendous start and that great performance against the Celtics has carried him for awhile. The reality is he's been struggling for the last three weeks, turning the ball over a bunch and seeing his playing time and shooting percentage shrink lately. That's OK, it happens, he's a rookie. Thompson has been an effective bench player for the Cavs so far, showing off his extreme athleticism. He's been unsteady too because he's very much a rookie as well. He also might not play tonight with an ankle injury.
4. Fact or Fiction: Beating Miami in March was the Cavs' highlight of 2011.
Haberstroh: Fiction. As deeply therapeutic as it was for Cleveland fans to watch their team destroy LeBron and the Heat at the Q, lottery night was the real turning point for the franchise. Funny how a lucky ping-pong ball can change everything.
Krolik: Fiction, because I think winning the lottery with the Clippers' pick was a more long-term moment. Personally, I wouldn't trade Kyrie for that one game when both teams' fates had been decided, but I think that night, on a purely visceral level, was more satisfying than the ping-pong balls bouncing the Cavs' way. Wow, I'm really hedging on these.
Sedano: Fact. Not only was it the highlight of 2011 for the Cavs, the fans at the Q reacted as if it was payback not only for The Decision, but for: A) The Indians losing the 1997 World Series to the Marlins; B) The Fumble; C) The Drive and; D) the fact someone thought it was a good idea to make several sequels to Major League. Lots of pent up frustration. I guess it's hard to blame them.
Wallace: Fiction. I'd say finally snapping that NBA-record losing streak was the highlight. Beating LeBron's new team ranks second to that. Had Cleveland beat Miami in that first December meeting, that would have been the high-water mark.
Windhorst: Fiction. It was winning the draft lottery with the Clippers pick they traded for in February. Irving is that good.
5. Fact or Fiction: MIA will open the playoffs vs. CLE (now an 8th-seed).
Haberstroh: Fact, because that 1 vs. 8 East match-up in lockout-shortened seasons is always destined for drama. Am I right, Heat fans?
Krolik: Fiction. I don't think the Cavs will make the playoffs, and it could be tricky for the Heat to beat out the Bulls for the top seed. The matchup could happen, but the odds seem to be stacked against it.
Sedano: Fiction. I wanted to say fact, simply because I think it would make for great theater. We rarely get any interesting story lines for a first round series. So, I'd like it to happen, but I think the Knicks will get back in the playoff picture and Boston could be a likely 8th seed. Now that I think of it, that works too. Maybe @sportsguy33 can take part in 5 on 5?
Wallace: Fiction. While it's good that the Cavs are ahead of schedule and playing relatively well so far this season, I'm not so sure they'll be able to hold off Boston, New York and Milwaukee - three teams that are likely to get going eventually. Cleveland will contend for a playoff spot, but I doubt they make it this season.
Windhorst: Fiction. The Cavs are not a playoff team. They got off to a solid start at 6-6, but their schedule has a couple of brutally challenging periods and they're in a 15-game stretch right now against top competition that is already taking its toll on them.
January, 24, 2012
By Brian Windhorst
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Many believe that LeBron burned his bridges with Cleveland, but the Cavs' rookies consider him a mentor.
MIAMI -- If both LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavs had control of such things, neither would mention their past love affair and everyone would just proceed through Tuesday night’s game like exes avoiding eye contact at a wedding.
The venom has run its course and there’s no reason to rehash old ground. But here’s the thing: Despite the "moving on" rhetoric, James actually continues to take an interest in the Cavs. And not like last season, when he waited for chances to take Twitter jabs at them during low moments.
No, believe it or not, he’s actually rooting for them now in the sort of way an NBA player can take such an interest in another team.
The Cavs' new core, the one that is designed to help them move past the James era, is actually tied to James as part of the NBA’s always tangled web of connections. Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, and Tristan Thompson, the No. 4 pick, both have long relationships with James and consider him a mentor.
Irving is off to a fantastic start to his career, an early front-runner to win the Rookie of the Year Award, like James did for the Cavs back in 2003-04, and has been getting advice on dealing with life in the NBA from the man he is essentially replacing. James has been watching and doing plenty of encouraging.
“We talk a lot; I’ve been knowing Kyrie since he was a ninth grader and it’s been great to see him continue to get better over the years and do the things he’s doing in Cleveland right now,” James said. “He’s been playing great. He’s been showing why he’s the No. 1 pick in the draft. Cleveland got a great pick.”
James has known Thompson nearly as long and last year Thompson selected one of James’ best friends and business partners, Rich Paul, to be one of his agents. For James, that virtually makes Thompson part of his extended family. The feeling is apparently mutual.
“Me and LeBron’s relationship is pretty close,” Thompson said. “He’s like a brother to me.”
This is a topic that may be uncomfortable for the Cavs and their fans. The team’s leadership knows this is a part of the NBA; players have relationships with other players. They have to continue operating and that means letting bygones be bygones as much as possible. But they cannot help but be sensitive to any mention of Irving and James being linked for so many reasons, with public relations near the top.
Irving, who was just out of high school and indifferent on the whole matter of James’ departure, knows that his new fans might not be thrilled that he looks up to their ultimate villain. But he’s also not planning to let it dictate how he interacts with James.
“Honestly, there’s nothing to juggle for me personally,” Irving said. “I wasn’t really worried about filling LeBron’s shoes or filling that void. I was worried about being the best rookie I could be. I set my own goals and on that goal list was never 'be like LeBron.'"
That isn’t just lip service, that is how Irving feels. The Cavs were already high on his talents but settled on him as the top pick largely because of his demeanor. He doesn’t carry any of the emotional baggage with James that anyone who was around in 2010 does, and that is a distinct advantage. It also makes it easy for Irving to accept James' counsel without a hint of guilt. Thompson feels the same way.
“I wasn’t in Cleveland when LeBron played there, so I don’t think I’m in the whole drama dilemma,” Thompson said. “He did what he felt was best for himself and I’m here and I’m a Cleveland Cavalier.”
Though he never really looked for a veteran mentor when he came into the league, James has played this role for top young players for the past several years.
Some of it is business; part of James' responsibility was to recruit college players to his agency and Nike. Sometimes it has led to such signings and sometimes it hasn’t. James developed a relationship with 2010 No. 1 pick John Wall and Wall picked a different representation agency and signed with Reebok. Irving also picked another agency but did sign with Nike.
But it is not all about money, it is part of James’ personality to be inclusive of young players. Chris Paul is one of his closest friends. His friendship with Dwyane Wade is a major reason he’s in Miami now. His contact list is deep, and as the Cavs' two rookies have experienced challenges and successes, James has been there to share those moments with them.
Though the Cavs come to town with a three-game losing streak, there have been successes. Especially for Irving, who is averaging 17 points and nearly five assists a game and impressing all along the way.
“He’s a smart player and even with the limited number of games he had in college, he’s already making an impact with them,” James said. “I’m happy for him.”