Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The right thing to do

It isn't easy to pull the plug on a coach who wins 127 regular-season games in two years and posts a winning percentage of more than .600. Coaches like that do not grow on trees.

But when Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert cashiered Mike Brown a few days ago, it was unquestionably the correct move, one that was highly understandable in the NBA community. After two extremely disappointing postseasons, something had to be done. A sacrificial lamb became an imperative.

It had become increasingly apparent that Brown had lost his authoritative voice in the locker room. That voice bounced off all the walls, but was being ignored. Ample evidence of that notion can be traced directly to the Cavs' performance in the final three games of the series against the Boston Celtics.

There is no question that Boston coach Doc Rivers, a master motivator, dramatically outcoached his counterpart, much as he's doing in the Eastern Conference final against Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy. In no way were the Cavaliers properly prepared to defeat the Celtics. That became evident in game one when it took a virtuoso performance by LeBron James to register a come-from-behind victory.

LeBron cannot -- and should not -- be expected to play like that all the time. Not even the great Michael Jordan was capable of sustaining that kind of play. Jordan had help along the way.

If not for the remarkable play of James, there is no way the Cavs win 127 games the last two seasons, gaining home-court advantage throughout the playoffs both seasons. Brown rode LeBron's coattails all the way. Without James, the Cavs are a notch or two above mediocre. He was truly the NBA's most valuable player.

If James chooses to remain in Cleveland, it is imperative that Gilbert make the correct choice for Brown's successor. And if anyone believes James won't have a significant say in that matter, he is naive.

It will be very interesting to see in which direction the owner heads. The smart money says he'll stay within the ranks of the NBA as he seeks to keep LeBron at home. Anyone short of Phil Jackson or Rivers or perhaps Larry Brown or Byron Scott will not make a difference. And that might be next to impossible top pull off.

Rumors have the Chicago Bulls sniffing around regarding a Jackson return even though there is a good chance his Los Angeles Lakers could repeat as NBA champions. Given his history, the only way Jackson would return to Chicago is if a superstar awaited him like Jordan in Chicago and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in L.A.

Now if that superstar happened to be LeBron James, should he choose to abandon Cleveland, Jackson could be enticed. So could Rivers, a Chicago native who isn't overly appreciated in Boston. A lineup with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and James on the floor would be formidable.

That's not to say LeBron is most likely to wind up in the Windy City. That scenario makes sense only if he is determined to play for an experienced coach, especially one who has won a league championship.

And isn't that what Lebron is all about?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The long, hot summer

Buckle up and hunker down, Cleveland. The time has come.

For the next six-plus weeks, Cleveland will be the center of the NBA universe. Never mind that the playoffs haven't reached critical mass yet. No problem. LeBron James has more than taken care of that.

Whether you like it or not, the national spotlight will fall on Cleveland on a daily basis, or until James decides where he wants to play basketball for at least the next three years. Get ready for what will amount to a soap opera.

LJTV, a.k.a. ESPN, presents the LeBron James Saga, a 50-part series starring LeBron James, co-starring LeBron James, with LeBron James, and LeBron James, with specialist guest appearance by LeBron James as himself, extra special cameo appearance by LeBron James, set decoration by LeBron James, written by LeBron James, produced by LeBron James and directed by LeBron James. Executive Producer: LeBron James.

It's true; the planet revolves around LeBron James.

The fate of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team birthed by Nick Mileti way back in 1970, now teeters in a suspended state in the meantime while the anointed one and his minions determine the next terrestrial stop on the road to iconic stardom.

There are too many possibilities to break down here. Suffice it to say, James has the pick of the litter. From downtrodden teams like the New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers and New Jersey Nets to an up-and-comer like the Chicago Bulls. Or, perhaps, mining his loyalties and remaining in Cleveland. The fate of the Cavaliers franchise hangs in the balance.

If he chooses to stays in Cleveland (and the odds on that are 50-50 at best right now, although a month ago I believed it was 100% certain), then Dan Gilbert's investment is safe. But if he opts to ply his craft elsewhere, the franchise is as good as dead. Yep, that's how much he means to it. It will be the beginning of the end and the club will eventually wind up in another city. So in a large sense, James hold the franchise's future in his hands.

From now until July 1, and maybe even beyond that point, we will be sucked into the vortex of LeBronomania as the world eagerly and anxiously awaits the command decision.

Pundits around the globe will speculate on a daily basis. And to no one's surprise, a vast majority of the fans will hang on just about every word.

Rumors will pour out incessantly from the wide, wonderful world of the World Wide Web. Virtually none will be true, but that won't stop the pundits and fans from reacting. Sides will be taken. Harsh, mean words will be exchanged.

Along the way, we will be subjected to "exclusive inside information" and "you heard it here first" reports in an effort to be first with the news. Get used to it. It ain't gonna stop until James plops down in front of a microphone at a news conference that is certain to be televised around the globe and shares his secret.

And when it all shakes out, there is only one bottom line: New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Minnesota and Los Angeles need LeBron more than LeBron needs them. But the NBA will survive no matter where LeBron Lelands.

So buckle up and hunker down, Cleveland. And if you can, enjoy the ride. The end just might surprise you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Striking similarities

It's quite obvious by now that the Cavaliers' post-season journey hasn't been anywhere near what the fans -- or the players themselves for that matter -- thought it would be. Very few believed the series would be tied at this juncture.

The fact that it is gives rise to wild speculation ranging from LeBron James' imminent departure from Cleveland to who knows where to coach Mike Brown's job being on the line. James isn't going anywhere but his 35,000 square-foot digs near Akron. He's going to be a Cavalier for a very long time.

The speculation on Brown, however, might have some legitimacy. Some Cleveland fans are painting him as the Cavaliers' version Marty Schottenheimer, the erstwhile Browns coach who rang up several successful regular seasons only to falter in the postseason.

But when you take a closer look at what's going down this season, then compare it to last season's playoff, several striking similarities surface.

Last season, the Cavs cakewalked through the first two rounds, sweeping Detroit and Atlanta, scoring double-digit victories in every game. Then they met the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals and we all know what happened there. If not ford a miracle James shot in game two, the Magic would have swept that series.

But last season, the Magic struggled to get to the conference finals, much like the Cavs have been struggling this season. The Magic trailed the Philadelphia 76ers, 2-1, in the opening round before winning the last three games. They also trailed Boston, 3-2, before taking the final two games, the last one in Boston.

This season, the Cavs are playing like the Magic did in the first two rounds last season, while the Magic have breezed past Charlotte and Atlanta this year with little or no trouble. Much like Cleveland did last season. Eight up, eight down. Right now, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy knows exactly how Brown felt a year ago at this time.

The next two games will tell Cavs fans all they need to know about this team. The Celtics have exposed several soft spots in the Cleveland armor in three of the first four games. Emphasis on the word "soft".

As trite as this sounds, it's hard to disprove the notion that the Celtics have outworked -- and imposed their will on -- the Cavaliers. They have reached back for something extra when it counted the most and produced the series tie.

The Cavs have displayed a variety of emotional gears this season with James leading the charge. But if he continues to play in a comparatively passive (for him) manner and refuses to take charge early and often in the the next two games, the Cavs are done.

This is James' chance to finally show he can pull off what his idol, Michael Jordan, did with the Chicago Bulls. It took Jordan seven seasons to win an NBA title. This is James' seventh season.

LeBron knows what he has to do. The history books beckon for another shot or two of his greatness. He holds the fortunes of a franchise and the emotions of a starved (for a sports championship) city in his hands.

Dwight Howard and the Magic did it last season with some gritty play. Now it's LeBron's turn to show just how tough he and his teammates can be against the Celtics. That's the only way they have a shot at redemption for last season.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Not panic time yet for Cavs fans

It wouldn't be surprising if Cavaliers fans this morning wonder if this yet another tease from a team that plays brilliantly in the regular season. What else would you expect them to think after Monday night's embarrassment at The Q?

The whipping by the Boston Celtics that evened the playoff series at a game apiece angered just about everyone including he normally mild-mannered Mike Brown. The Cleveland coach took a giant step out of character and let his team have it after the Celtics humiliated them in front of the home folks.

Truth is the Cavaliers haven't played good basketball since the start of the postseason and it's about time Brown came down hard on them. They deserved it. The only reason they skipped past the Chicago Bulls in the first round is that the opposition was the Bulls, a team not nearly as talented as Cleveland. The Bulls clearly outhustled the Cavs.

But these are the Boston Celtics, a team with much more talent and just as much hustle. In fact, the Celtics have played so well in the first two games, they should be headed back home with a 2-0 lead. The Cavs, who had better take their game up a notch or three or the offseason will arrive much earlier than expected, have become the antithesis of what we saw in the regular season.

The lack of hustle is alarming. It's almost as though the Cavaliers believe that all they have to do is show up and the game is secure. One would think they would have learned their lesson from a year ago when the Orlando Magic shocked everyone by outplaying and outhustling the Cavs. If it weren't for a magical game-winning shot by LeBron James in game two, a sweep by the Magic was a distinct possibility.

There are a disturbingly large number of Cavaliers at whom the fingers of guilt can be pointed this postseason, players who figured prominently in the Cavs securing home-floor advantage throughout the playoff.

Let's begin with Shaquille O'Neal. Here's a guy, despite his age, who should be dominating in the paint. He said his mission was to help LeBron win his first NBA championship. And yet, he has piled up a truckload of missed opportunities at or near the basket thus far. Are layups that difficult to make?

And then there's Anderson Varejao, the master disturber/pain-in-the-ass forward whose greatest strength is his ability to frustrate the opposition. Where has this guy been? The Celtics seem to be flicking him off as nothing more than an annoyance.

Where art thou, Mo Williams? Sure, you put up 20 in the game-opening victory over the Celtics. But one game does not constitute consistency. You need, as your coach said, to step up and take charge. Just because you're now the third option, that doesn't mean slinking back into your shell.

Delonte West? Time to shoot the rock more.

If the Cavaliers are to advance to the next round, LeBron has to take charge. He has been extremely tentative in the first half of the first two games against Boson. It seems as though he wants to involve his teammates more before opening up.

No. That's not the formula. The Cavaliers have been successful this season mainly because they been a terrific first-quarter team, in large part due to James getting off to quick starts. The Cavaliers need to get back to that mode. And James is the only player who can get them to that level.

That is, of course, if he is healthy enough. It is possible James is pacing himself with that tender elbow and ratchets up his game only when necessary. Only problem there is the Celtics have made it difficult by surpassing the Cavaliers' intensity with some inspiring play of their own.

When Ray Allen starts hitting from outside and when Rasheed Wallace recreates his best days with the Detroit Pistons and when Rajon Rondo begins imitating Bob Cousy, the Cavs are in big trouble. Two of those three must be shut down in order to regain home-floor advantage.

In the past, the Cavs have shut down Allen, and Wallace can't be expected to keep this up. It'll be interesting to see what Brown has in store for the Celtics in Boson. He's too good a defensive coach to keep the status quo because it clearly is not working.

The Celtics have been vulnerable at home this season and the Cavs have already played them tough up there on two occasions. They'll need at least one more. In order to do so, however, they must recapture the drive and desire that propelled them to the top of the league.

If not . . .