Sunday, May 31, 2009
Cavs advanced as far as they could
By Chris Broussard ESPN The Magazine
LeBron James had 25 points in Game 6 but was held scoreless in the second quarter by the Magic.
ORLANDO -- I have an old college teammate who is hurting right now. Born and raised in Cleveland, he nearly cried in his dorm room after "The Fumble" cost the Browns a trip to Super Bowl XXII in 1988.
He obviously enjoyed this season's Cavaliers, but he celebrated their every victory and individual accolade with caution, fearing that come playoff time, they would be "exposed."
His fears were well warranted.
The annals will record this as the first time in the LeBron James era when the Cavaliers didn't go as far as -- or further than -- they were supposed to in the postseason, the third-seeded Orlando Magic's 4-2 victory in the Eastern Conference finals marking James' first loss to a lower seed.
But the truth is that despite winning a league-best 66 games, the Cavaliers did go as far as they were supposed to. The Magic, 103-90 winners in Saturday's Game 6 and the flat-out better team, merely exposed them.
That's not an insult to the Cavs.
They did exactly what every coach hopes and prays his team will do during the regular season: With few exceptions, the Cavs protected their home court and beat the teams they were supposed to.
Zoned in and focused for nearly all 82 games, they fattened up on the New Yorks, the Milwaukees and the Chicagos and even the really good clubs like Portland, San Antonio and Dallas. Amazingly, only four of their 16 losses were to teams with losing records.
They kept it up in the playoffs, whipping Detroit and Atlanta in eight straight games.
But the scary truth, the elephant in the room, the family secret they had hoped to ignore and keep hidden, was that they were just 3-6 during the regular season against the ultraelite: Boston, Orlando and the Los Angeles Lakers. Those six losses were by an average of 13.8 points, five of them coming by double figures. And that's not even including the 19-point shellacking the Rockets put on them in Houston.
The Cavs' 66-16 record was a tribute to their hard work, professionalism and the greatness of LeBron.
"It wasn't about a lack of effort," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said, explaining the loss to the Magic. "It wasn't about a lack of passion. It wasn't about a lack of heart. Our guys have that. To accomplish the things that we did, you have to display that the entire year."
What the Cavs lack is elite talent.
Oh, they have one elite talent -- James, the league MVP and arguably the best player on the globe. But outside of LeBron, who averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists during this series, the Cavaliers are a bunch of role players. Smart, savvy, hard-nosed role players, but role players nonetheless.
The Cavs are the only team in the NBA that's even close to title contention with only one star.
The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and a star-quality talent in Lamar Odom, not to mention the developing Andrew Bynum. The Magic have Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu -- the three best players in this series after LeBron -- not to mention injured All-Star Jameer Nelson.
The Nuggets have Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. Houston has Yao Ming and Ron Artest (and Tracy McGrady). San Antonio has Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Boston has Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
The Eastern Conference coaches, a group that places winning above all else, did not vote any of LeBron's teammates to the All-Star team even though the Cavs had the best record in the league at the time. That tells you what the coaches think of Cleveland's talent. It was NBA commissioner David Stern, not the coaches, who made Mo Williams an All-Star replacement for Nelson.
Folks missed something former Lakers player and coach Jerry West said two weeks ago when he called LeBron the game's top player. Before he opined that LeBron had surpassed Kobe, West gave his reasoning for praising James: "I look at Cleveland and say to myself, 'How many games could they win without LeBron James?'"
In another interview, this one with a local Cleveland radio station, West, one of the greatest team builders in league history, said the Cavs would be a lottery team without James.
He's right. Take away LeBron, and a lineup of Williams, Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas would not be better than eighth-seeded Detroit, seventh-seeded Chicago or sixth-seeded Philadelphia.
Williams, the closest thing James has to a star sidekick, is very good. But he may not even be one of the league's top 10 point guards.
Delonte West, who played well on Saturday, is ideally a first guard off the bench, a tough, skilled player who can man both guard spots. But at just 6-foot-3, he's too small to start at shooting guard, especially next to the 6-1 Williams.
Varejao is also ideally suited for coming off the bench as an energy guy, unless he's playing next to a powerful force such as Howard. But he's playing next to Ilgauskas, who will turn 34 years old next week and has become strictly a finesse player.
And the main bench guys -- Ben Wallace, Joe Smith and Szczerbiak -- are all at the tail end of their careers.
Criticize Brown all you want, but he threw everything imaginable at Orlando. Without a big man who could guard Howard one-on-one -- such as Detroit's Rasheed Wallace or Boston's Kendrick Perkins -- and with just one long, athletic defender (LeBron), the Cavs simply didn't have the personnel to stop the Magic.
Orlando torched them all series long, shooting 48 percent from the floor in averaging 103.7 points. In Game 6, the Cavs didn't pick their poison, they gave up everything, as Howard scored 40 and Orlando made 12 3-pointers.
To their credit, the Cavs tried to upgrade their talent at the trade deadline. They had serious interest in Shaquille O'Neal and were discussing a deal with the Suns involving Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic. But Phoenix, which had just replaced fired coach Terry Porter with Alvin Gentry, wanted to play out the season and see how far it could go with Shaq.
In the end, it didn't work out for Cleveland or Phoenix.
A month ago, James was on top of the basketball world, sharing his first Most Valuable Player award with those closest to him in a touching ceremony at his alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.
Not only did he feel like the best player on the globe, but he also felt as though he was on his way to winning the NBA title, an achievement that would've given Cleveland its first major sports championship in 45 years.
Instead, he became like the previous four MVPs, finishing his season under a cloud of disappointment that eclipsed the euphoria of winning the league's ultimate individual honor.
He felt so awful that he not only walked off the court without congratulating the Magic but also left Amway Arena without speaking with the media.
James, unlike many other All-Stars, speaks to reporters before nearly every regular-season and playoff game and is easily the most accessible superstar in the league. But Saturday, after dressing quickly, he threw on his headphones, left the locker room and walked straight to the Cavaliers' bus without saying a word to anyone.
Reserve guard Daniel Gibson said James told his teammates in the locker room after the game, "Don't hold your heads down. We gave it our best shot, and they won."
It's not clear whether LeBron spoke with any teammates individually.
"I haven't talked to him yet," said Williams, his closest friend on the team. "He's just disappointed. It's like you're at Christmastime and you want that remote control car. You've been begging your mom for the whole time, and Christmas comes, and you open up a present and you open up another present, another present, and you never see that remote control car. You can have 10 presents, but if you don't have that remote control car, you're going to be sad and disappointed anyway."
Although James may not say it, what he really needs by Christmas -- actually, make that Labor Day -- is some more talent playing beside him.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.