An Old Hope

Help me Tony, Tim, and Ginobili. You’re my only hope.

It's desperate times for some NBA fans

It’s desperate times for some NBA fans

While the NBA Finals rematch between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat is likely to be an epic series, there is a lot on the line for a certain population of basketball fans nationwide. The people that I am referring to are the haters of the team residing in South Beach. A third consecutive title for the Heat could be the official beginning of a dark period for many NBA fans. Yes, you read that right and no I am not on drugs.

What once felt like Tyson-Ruddock was more like Tyson-Spinks this year.

What once felt like Tyson-Ruddock was more like Tyson-Spinks this year.

In watching Miami’s dismantling of the Eastern Conference one thing is clearly apparent, virtually no one can match up with the defending champions. Look at how the playoffs have played out thus far.

A season ago, Indiana felt that their two year progression had elevated them to their foe’s level. Not having home court in the decisive seventh game last year was perceived to be the ultimate difference maker and had the Pacers owned it, perhaps they would have advanced to The Finals. Equipped with the home court advantage this year and a deeper bench featuring CJ Watson, Evan Turner and Luis Scola made absolutely no difference as the Heat reminded everyone how wide the gap is between these two teams.

In my opinion, the window of opportunity for the Pacers to dethrone the Heat has closed. When you get the chance to knock out the champs in three consecutive years and fail, then you have all but proven that your squad cannot advanced past theirs. With big money invested in the current core of Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West, and George Hill, fans of Indiana may have to get used to finishing a distant second for years to come.

It's tough to win when the two best players on the court are usually wearing the same uniform.

It’s tough to win when the two best players on the court are usually wearing the same uniform.

If not the Pacers, then who can pose the biggest threat to Miami’s dominance? The Nets? The Bulls? The Raptors? The Wizards? As hopeful as a fan can be, do you really think your team is suited to beat the Heat come post-season? Brooklyn fans, myself included, were proud that their five-game series defeat showed that the Nets could play competitively until the Heat decided to suffocate them with their defense during the closing minutes of the game. Is that really something to hang your hat on? Sad, isn’t it?

It’s not as if time will be the ultimate equalizer and eventually this Heat team will fall off due to old age. Both LeBron James and Chris Bosh are under the age of thirty, and although Dwyane Wade has endured a lot of wear and tear over the years, he still has the ability to unleash his superstar talents when healthy. Credit the Miami coaching staff for devising a part-time work schedule during the regular season to preserve Wade’s health for the post season.

The fact that the Bosh has openly admitted that he would consider a pay cut means that Miami’s Big Three will most likely stay intact for years to come. When they initially joined forces many wondered how they would fill out the rest of the roster. As we have now seen, established players in the “back nine” of their careers are willing to play for nothing for a chance to win the title. Obviously Ray Allen could play elsewhere for more money and when he ultimately retires there will be another former star or future Hall of Famer eager to take his spot.

If anything, time is having the opposite effect of equalizing things. Any elite competition that once existed for the Heat is dying off one by one – the Celtics, the Lakers, and soon enough the Spurs once Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili call it a career.

"I can't believe they're not covering me either."

“I can’t believe they’re not covering me either.”

Out of all the team sports, basketball is the one that closely resembles an individual one in that the best player usually wins. Opposing teams in baseball can pitch around the most dangerous hitter, who only gets four chances per game to make an impact. In football, a team playing a ball control offense can strategically reduce the amount of time an opposing offense can be on the field.

In basketball, someone as dominant as LeBron can play nearly every minute and have a major influence on every offensive possession. With a healthy Wade, Miami has two players that can command a double team. Factor in the consistent open looks from Bosh and Allen and you have an unstoppable offense. Think about that for a second! A top-tier player and arguably the best pure shooters in league history are afterthoughts on most possessions!

tim duncan manu parker

No other Big Three is as battle tested to withstand Miami’s arsenal.

Miami is the varsity team playing against the JV at this point. During The Big Three era in the postseason, the Heat has accumulated 58 wins with only 25 losses—against playoff competition! If your horse in the race isn’t Miami, you have to wonder what the point of even watching is.

Some NBA fans will fantasize that Oklahoma City can defeat them in a series, but haven’t you seen enough by now to realize that there’s something lacking from the Thunder? Would you really bet on Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka over James, Wade, and Bosh if your life depended on it? I wouldn’t either.

The team that is capable of beating the champs will have their opportunity for redemption over the next few weeks. They are the ones with the championship pedigree, experience, depth, leadership. The Heat may have the best weapon(s), but the Spurs have the better army.

It’s now or never for these Spurs and a nation of desperate fans can only hope that San Antonio can win three more games.

The Whining King

The National Basketball Association, like any other professional sports league, is star driven. No star in the NBA is bigger than LeBron James and the Brooklyn Nets learned last night that an army of men is no match for a superhero. There are some deniers out there who stubbornly insist that Kevin Durant is better, but after his Game 5 performance, it’s crystal clear that James is simply unstoppable if he chooses to impose his will on the offensive end of the court.

I am not part of the paranoid population of NBA fans who believe the league conspires to help the Miami Heat win. They are a great team and things tend to break their way.  Do the greatest players tend to get calls in their favor? Of course they do, but hasn’t that always been the case throughout the history of sports? Isn’t that the biggest perk of having star power?

Would referees tolerate behavior like this if it was coming from JR Smith?

Would referees tolerate behavior like this if it was coming from JR Smith?

What irks me as a fan is seeing the double standard that exists with how officials treat LeBron. Whether it’s the verbal complaining, throwing his arms in disgust, or taunting his opponents with stare downs and slow walk-bys, James rarely faces any repercussions for his actions. Would officials react differently to the excessive histrionics if they were coming from Nate Robinson or Rasheed Wallace?

Considering the league claimed last year that were cracking down on flopping, I don’t recall James ever getting warned by the higher powers. Surely he takes his fair share of contact from opponents, but he also delivers it as well. A thrown elbow or lowered shoulders seldom results in an offensive foul, and if a charge is called, take notice on how he shows up the referee who blew the whistle. Can you imagine what his high school teachers experienced if they marked him wrong?

 

This seems like the one time officials acted accordingly:

 

In all my years following the sport, I do not recall Michael Jordan whining to the extent that King James does. I understand that superstar status creates a giant ego and from that comes the “your shit doesn’t stink” mentality, but at what point does the sense of entitlement and blatant disrespect for officials get you into some sort of trouble? Do officials even threaten LeBron to calm down or else?

LeBron was placed on a pedestal at an early age.

LeBron was placed on a pedestal at an early age.

Is this the product of being told that you’re the greatest since you are in high school? He is old enough now to realize that his bratty behavior reeks of immaturity. Is this the message to send his biggest fans – young kids and teenagers? When role models act this way what type of effect does this have on kids’ behavior towards people of authority – parents, teachers, referees, etc.? For someone who seems to know how to represent himself favorably off the court, it’s quite ironic how he conducts himself on it.

When it’s all said and done, I believe that LeBron James will go down as the greatest basketball player of all time. As for now, it’s time to for him to grow up…..

…and for officials to show some backbone.

 

It’s Time to Fix the Mistake

At the time he had to do it. The opportunity to team up with fellow All-Stars, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was too good to pass up. The ceiling had been reached in Cleveland and the chances of winning a championship there appeared to be dwindling. Although the manner in which LeBron James announced his decision was distasteful, the rationale behind it was justified.

So here we are four years later and the Miami Heat appear to be the favorite to win their third consecutive NBA title. Cleveland, on the other hand, resembles a city still recovering from a catastrophic disaster.

At one point, hope was restored when the Cavaliers won the lottery and it was certain that Kyrie Irving would be the new face of the franchise. Unfortunately, that hope appears to be quickly decaying following another disappointing season and rumors of Irving’s uncertainty about his future in Cleveland.

At the time, this helped ease the pain.

At the time, this helped ease the pain.

Cleveland’s response to appease their franchise star was to fire their general manager, Chris Grant, and make one last ditch effort to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs when they traded for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes. Even with the infusion of talent, the Cavs appear destined to return to the NBA Lottery- a place where owner Dan Gilbert vowed that they wouldn’t be returning to when they hit the jackpot last season.

Assuming Irving ultimately leaves Cleveland, where does that leave the organization? Twice they would have had an elite player dump them for a prettier girl. Not being able to recruit free agents is one thing, but not being able to retain your own franchise stars is devastating. The ramifications of losing players of this magnitude are not just a hit to the roster but also the psyche of the team and fan base. You have to wonder how Cleveland basketball will be able to recover from this.

So what am I suggesting here? I know that I am in the minority here, but I believe the decision now is for LeBron to return to his home state. Could he stay in Miami and continue to accumulate championship rings as Pat Riley replenishes and stockpiles elite talent? Obviously he could, but isn’t this the easy path for him to continue down? Wouldn’t it help his legacy more if he took on a new challenge in his career?

We all know that LeBron’s supporting cast in Cleveland during those final days could never compare with his crew in Miami, but to me, he wasn’t nearly the player as he is now. (Could LeBron Have Kept his Talents in Cleveland?) As a member of the Cavs, LeBron didn’t have the unstoppable post game that he now possesses and his outside jump shot wasn’t as consistent. People forget that he was only 25 years old during his final season in Cleveland and that his overall game had just scratched the surface. Yes, the supporting cast was lacking but maybe the real reason why he didn’t win it all was that he hadn’t peaked yet.

A developed post game was just one of the finishing touches in making LeBron unstoppable.

A developed post game was just one of the finishing touches that has made LeBron unstoppable.

Yes, Cleveland has had a disappointing season considering this was supposed to be the year that they took the next step with their young core. After accumulating multiple top 5 draft picks over the past few years, the 2013-2014 season was crucial to show progress and offer an intriguing option for James to consider if he chose to opt out of Miami. Unfortunately, the team that was supposed to get their act together is a few weeks away from returning to the lottery. For pundits like Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavs blew any chance of a King James return. ( How Cleveland lost its way, and lost a chance at LeBron’s return )

Although this may not appear to be the case, the Cavs in disarray presents the best opportunity for LeBron and his quest to become the greatest of all time. Multiple championships are certainly impressive, but just how remarkable is it when you are joining forces with two other players that are amongst the NBA’s elite to win those titles? Doesn’t that somewhat stack the deck in your favor? Wouldn’t it be more of an accomplishment to return home and elevate the city of Cleveland to their first professional championship since 1964?

Not only would his return heel the wound caused from his departure, but a championship might just be enough empirical proof to supplant Michael Jordan as the game’s greatest player. How many other times in league history did a player bring a title to two different cities, one of which was a perennial cellar dweller without him?

LeBron was the reason for the Cavaliers’ rise and ultimate fall when he left them. His return would not only be poetic but legendary. The city whose heart he broke with “The Decision” could finally experience joy. Is it really out of the realm of possibility that a core consisting of James, Irving, and Tristan Thompson, as well as whoever is selected in this year’s draft can challenge for a title?

The talent pairing of James & Irving could certainly elevate Cleveland back into contention.

The talent pairing of James & Irving could certainly rise Cleveland back into contention.

Sometimes in life you need to get away from where you grew up in order to grow as a person. LeBron taking his talents to South Beach was perhaps his version of going to college and escaping the life he always experienced in Ohio. It was in Miami that he added to his repertoire and became a more complete player. It was there that he learned how to become a winner and savor the big moments of a game rather than hide from them.

You don’t become the best at what you do without taking on some risk. Well, it’s been four years and graduation is now upon him. It’s time for LeBron to fix “The Mistake on the Lake”.

Hey LeBron, Do it for the Kids!

We were close this time!

Magic Johnson’s million dollar offer almost convinced LeBron James to participate in this year’s Slam Dunk Contest. Does anyone else find it somewhat disturbing that it came to this?  One of the richest athletes in the world needs a financial incentive to participate in what’s supposed to be a fun, entertaining event?  Really?

There was once a time when the marquee players of the NBA participated willingly:  Michael, Dominique, Kobe, T-Mac,  and Vince just to name a few. This was when the Dunk Contest was at its best, aside from the novelty acts of Spud Webb and Nate Robinson.

Will we ever see the league's biggest star compete again?

Will we ever see the league’s biggest star compete again?

Here’s a little secret, no one really cares about Harrison Barnes or Ben McLemore.  I don’t mean to downplay their athletic abilities one bit here. The unfortunate truth is that they could perform the exact same dunk as LeBron, but it would never have the same sizzle and excitement.

There are tens of millions of LeBron fans around the globe, and guess what, most of them are kids who idolize King James.  They switched their allegiances from the Cavaliers to the Heat when he took his talents to South Beach. They alone should be the reason for him to participate.

A member of the national sports media recently defended LeBron’s decision not to participate by saying that “he has nothing to gain and everything to lose”.   Am I missing something here?  What exactly is there to lose?  Once again, this is a nothing more than an entertainment show FOR THE FANS!  Is LeBron’s ego that fragile that he can’t risk losing a meaningless competition?

A nice reminder that it's all a show for the fans.

A nice reminder that it’s all a show for the fans.

Oh well, I’m thankful there are some superstars who were willing to put their egos in harms way.  Kudos to Dwight, Blake, and Paul George in recent years for being good sports about it and bringing some star power to an event that has certainly lacked some buzz.

Hopefully the league’s biggest star will have a change of heart one of these years.  Until that happens, let the “what ifs” and wishful thinking continue.

Now you’ll have to excuse me.   I have to go research who exactly Jeremy Evans and James White are.

Deja Vu All Over Again?

Cleveland is about to get dumped by the face of their franchise…for the second time!

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Oh no, not again!

If you missed the recent news, apparently Kyrie Irving is venting his frustrations about the state of the Cavaliers and is hinting at the possibility of bolting from the team the first chance he gets. Irving will try to downplay his comments, but if he is saying this now, then it’s very likely that he will be seeking greener pastures.   Just remember, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

If I am Dan Gilbert, I am looking to deal him now and try optimize the return of assets.  He can learn a lot with how the Jazz handled Deron Williams years ago.  Yes it’s another shot to the psyche of Gilbert and the city of Cleveland, but they cannot afford to let history repeat itself. Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, well…you know the rest.

I sense that the Cavs will do everything in their power to sell the bright future that Cleveland has to offer, but this has The Decision Part II written all over it.  Luckily for us there won’t be a shameless, self-promoting spectacle on ESPN.  Acquiring Luol Deng is not the solution to this problem.  He is the equivalent of trading for Antawn Jamison in an attempt to give Lebron a formidable running mate.  Deng is a very good player, but most envision him as a great third option on a contending team.  If I were Irving, this transaction wouldn’t convince me that Cleveland is any closer to a championship, or even the playoffs.

In Irving’s defense, the Cavaliers have blown this golden opportunity in the Post-Lebron Era.  Top 5 lottery picks were gift wrapped to them, yet they failed to capitalize on most of them.  The draft is always a crap shoot, but when you essentially swing and miss on Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, and Anthony Bennett, then you failed at your talent evaluation.

Consider the following:

Drafted

Still on the Board

Thompson

Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Vucevic, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker

Waiters

Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard, Terrence Ross

Bennett

Victor Oladipo

Obviously hindsight is 20/20 and some will argue that you shouldn’t draft a position that is already filled.  If you consider Irving’s durability issues, drafting an Oladipo or Lillard would have allowed the Cavs to either get creative with their backcourt or position themselves better to make a deal.  Their decision making during these drafts has proven that they simply drafted for need or reached for players, which tends to backfire when you bypass superior talent.

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Fellas, remember to use it wisely next time.

Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.   The Cavs can avoid a disaster this time around and be proactive with the Kyrie Sweepstakes. A budding superstar point guard should net them a king’s ransom of draft picks and other pieces to help expedite the rebuilding process.  What history has shown us is that Nick and Dan Gilbert will bring the city of Cleveland the necessary luck on lottery night.  It will be up to Chris Grant, or his successor, to capitalize on such opportunity this time around.

Cleveland, you’re on the clock….

Could LeBron Have Kept His Talents in Cleveland?

In the “microwave society” we live in today, expectations for instant greatness and achievement seem to be at an all time high.  We are not satisfied with steady, gradual gains.  We demand exponential growth or else our patience wears thin.  Perhaps sports are the epitome of this unfortunate reality.

While watching the NBA Finals, it became more evident to me that LeBron James failure to deliver a championship to the city of Cleveland during his seven-year reign was an unfair blemish on his resume.  After all, he entered the league as an eighteen year old kid and took them as far as he possibly could.

Many people are quick to point out that LeBron had zero support while playing for the Cavaliers.  His supporters defended his decision to leave Cleveland for the chance to join forces with fellow stars, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  Making this move was a no-brainer if he was going to position himself with the best chance to win a championship.

If you watched the NBA playoffs you would have realized that the Miami Heat actually struggled at times against formidable opponents.  There were moments when it appeared that the Spurs and even the Pacers had a chance to eliminate the defending champions.  The Big Three looked vulnerable, as Bosh provided virtually no offense and a hobbled, ineffective Wade seemed to limit the floor spacing.  The sports media likened this situation to the final years in Cleveland, when LeBron had to do it all himself.

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Wasn’t this supposed to easy?

Credit Erik Spoelstra for making the difficult decision during moments of crisis and reduce the minutes of two-thirds of his Big Three in Wade and Bosh.  Most coaches would feel obligated to run their highly paid stars out there and be prepared to go down with the ship if they didn’t produce.  In doing so, Spoelstra found his most productive, cohesive units in James, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Mike Miller.   These combinations surrounded James with shooters to space the floor and an energetic big man to defend the post and finish in the paint.

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If you look back at LeBron’s last year in Cleveland, in which the Cavaliers won 61 games, the roster didn’t have another superstar to play Robin to LeBron’s Batman.   Instead the team had a proven scorer, yet on the downside of his career, in Antawn Jamison, a capable point guard in Mo Williams, and a few good role players in Anderson Varejao, Anthony Parker, and Delonte West.  Hardly a championship roster when looking at it now, right?

The criticism at the Cavaliers’ management when looking back at those teams was that when they brought in proven players, they were a shell of what they once were.  This list included the likes of Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Shaquille O’Neal, and the aforementioned Jamison. Consecutive sixty win regular seasons ended in disappointment with playoff exits prior to The Finals.   As the Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the handwriting was on the wall that LeBron had played his last game in Cleveland.  It was time for him to move on to greener pastures at the age of 25 years old.

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Perhaps the problem wasn’t the supporting cast that surrounded LeBron in his final season in Cleveland.  Watching LeBron during the Heat’s consecutive championships has shown that he is a different player now.  The development of a consistent outside jump shot and a legit post game has made James practically unstoppable.  No other player in the league has the combination of size, speed, strength to defend him.  It has gotten to the point where only LeBron can stop himself.

What had plagued the Heat’s offense periodically during their championship reign had been the sudden incompatibility of their star players.  In shaking up the supporting cast, Spoelstra surrounded LeBron with an average point guard, two great shooters in the twilight of their careers, and a high-octane center that provided the necessary spark on both ends in the paint.

Does this type of cast sound familiar?  If you look closely at who was complementing LeBron in Cleveland, the names may be different but the skill sets and statistics are similar to what made the Heat offense efficient and unstoppable in the playoffs.  Consider some of the regular season game statistics from some of those key role players:

FG%

FT%

3P%

MIN

PTS

REB

AST

BLK

3PM

M. Chalmers

43

80

40

27

8.6

3.5

1.6

R. Allen

45

88

42

26

10.9

1.8

M. Miller

43

73

42

15

4.8

1.2

S. Battier

42

84

43

25

6.6

1.9

C. Andersen

57

68

15

4.9

4.1

1

U. Haslem

51

71

19

3.9

5.4

0.2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FG%

FT%

3P%

MIN

PTS

REB

AST

BLK

3PM

M. Williams

44

89

43

34

15.8

5.3

2.3

A. Parker

43

79

41

28

7.3

1.3

D. Gibson

46

69

47

19

6.3

1.3

D. West

45

81

33

25

8.8

0.5

A. Varejao

57

66

28

8.6

7.6

0.9

The bottom line is, LeBron’s Cavaliers did not win a championship because the game’s best player had not reached the level that he is currently playing at.  On average, athletes do not reach the prime of their careers until they reach their late 20’s.  Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas did not win their first titles until they were 28 years old.  Hakeem Olajuwon was 31.  There are some exceptions where players won earlier in their careers (Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant); however those players were in unique situations where the core group possessed more than one great player.

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Coincidental that once MJ added long range shooting into his arsenal, the Bulls evolved into a dynasty?

There is no way to change history, but looking into the numbers shows that perhaps LeBron had sufficient support during his Cleveland tenure.  The problem was that he wasn’t the complete player that he is now.  In the end, the most physically gifted talent added skills that raised his game to an unthinkable level and in the process he developed a tough-minded, killer instinct.

 It is unfortunate that we live in that “microwave society” where everyone demands instant results and greatness overnight.  The Cavaliers were on their way to that elusive title assuming LeBron continued to develop as he entered his physical prime and the management filled out the roster with the similar parts.  It just wasn’t his time in a sport where one player can single-handedly dominate a game and carry his team to victory.  Now that LeBron is in his prime, Ohioans (especially those Clevelanders) can only wonder what could have been.