Sunday, May 16, 2010

Anatomy of a LeBacle

By Rick Morris

On very rare occasions, from my perch in Cleveland, I am at Ground Zero of the biggest stories in sports. The majority of these instances have come courtesy of LeBron James, the world’s greatest hoops player and two-time defending MVP. The team built around him as the deepest and best in the playoffs was shockingly eliminated this past week in the Eastern Conference semifinals, with a Game Five growlers-in-the-bed performance standing out as the low point of an entire era. As a lifelong Cleveland Cavaliers fan and relatively experienced hoops analyst, I have thoughts on several angles of the series that was.

^ Enough, please, with the “heart of a champion” gaga. The Celtics are who we thought they were, albeit with a young PG in Rajon Rondo closer to full-on superstar status than was known previously and the game’s most gifted defensive assistant coach in Tom Thibodeau. But the notion that this team rose up in some sort of supernatural way as might a Jordan or a Duncan is ridiculous. The core three players from the ’08 title team never won a blessed thing on their own and essentially gravy-trained off of each other to win by sheer collective overwhelming force. They are all two years older and each looks much more than that, even if KG’s knees seem a bit healthier now due to being shot up like a racehorse before each game (allegedly!). Boston was the “other” team in this series. They won because the better team could not execute well enough to beat them. They will not advance to a championship counting on that dynamic to repeat itself twice more.

^ Enough, also, with the “Cavs just weren’t as good as we thought” revisionism. I will trot out the same phrase now that I did prior to the playoff run: “transformers and shape-shifters.” With the pieces assembled by Danny Ferry, the team could go big or small, half-court or wide-open, with equal aplomb. The shallow angle taken by so many in the national media of “How many fans could name any of these players?” is flat-out embarrassing. The day that anybody starts determining the level of talent on a team based on the capacity of Joe Baggadonuts to nod approvingly is the day that they should lose all credibility. Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is the best beat writer in the country, with shoe-leather reporting, analytical skills and professionalism that are the very best, but I strenuously disagree with his conclusion that he (and we the public) were wrong about what the Cavs had in stock. The same goes for the excellent Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, a Cleveland native who drew the same pained conclusion. To Brian and to Joe, I almost say, “Would that it were so.” Because if that were the case, we could draw conclusions much easier about what happened and what comes next – but instead we are left to piece together a million smaller angles in order to make sense of what seems inexplicable.

^ I noted almost in passing before the playoffs on our FDH LOUNGE Internet TV show (Wednesdays, 7-10 PM EDT on that the task before Coach Mike Brown wouldn’t be as easy as it looked, given the need to juggle the egos involved and to keep everyone in rhythm with limited minutes to be distributed. I also noted in passing that the coach had never excelled with these duties previously. Well, he really came up short against Boston and it will cost him his job as it probably should. It pains me to come to that conclusion as I have always stuck up for Brown against the mindless detractors who never gave him enough credit, who begrudged him his 2009 NBA Coach of the Year award and who were too clueless to appreciate the defense-first approach that helped this team to progress so greatly over the past five seasons. Additionally, everything I have always heard is that he is a very nice man and wonderful husband and father, the kind of guy you root for, but at the end of the day this is a results-oriented business. Aside from putting Anthony Parker on Rondo for Game 3 (a move that he had four entire days to plan for, given the television-caused vagaries of the series schedule), his matchup decisions, particularly in-game, were brutal. He was slow to adjust when Boston began exploiting some players defensively and because he had foolishly buried Boobie Gibson when Mo Williams and Delonte West returned to full health, turning to him only added to the feel of desperation. The biggest difficulties Boston experienced were when the Cavs dictated the game to them with an athletic blend of talent – and these moments did not come nearly often enough as Brown allowed himself to be dictated to far to often instead of doing the dictating. Also, his subpar offensive Xs and Os gameplanning (covered up in 2008-09 by then-offensive coordinator John Kuester) caught up to him as the realization of “Oh, by the way, we aren’t really designing any set plays for Antawn Jamison” came to embody a general waste of talent. Granted, certain chemistry issues made his job harder – such as the fact that Jamison and Shaq were never on the court together until the playoffs – but force-feeding lineups that continually put incompatible players together just made matters worse. On every level, the coach came up short, as opposed to General Manager Danny Ferry and owner Dan Gilbert, who gave him everything they could lay their hands on – with money as no object.

^ What happened to #23? Well, there is one distasteful potential angle – to be explored gingerly below – but he certainly did not cover himself in glory during this round, leading to the first legitimate tarnish on his pro career (yes, haters, the first LEGITIMATE tarnish). His demeanor was disturbing, particularly in the now-infamous Game 5, leading to all manners of psychoanalysis. I called out my fellow Cav fans on Twitter Tuesday night for jumping the gun and assuming he did not care sufficiently about winning. My good friend and fellow Lounge Dignitary Paul Teeple was quite vociferous in his disagreement with me. My bottom line is this: to assign such a motive, regardless of what our eyes tell us, is to throw out seven years of observance at the pro level of a will to win that has never before been questioned. Unlike others, I am unwilling to change my belief system about a player’s heart and integrity based on my interpretation of one night’s actions, damning though they may be. While the pain and disability came and went to various degrees (witness LeBron’s last huge performance in Game 3 with the aforementioned long rest), I came to perceive that these elements left him largely disarmed (no pun intended) when they were in effect. Witness (again, no pun intended) the dribble off his foot in Game 6 (bringing back painful memories for me of my all-time favorite hoops player Mark Price in the ’92 Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls). LeBron NEVER does that when he’s okay physically. Combine Thibodeau’s excellent schemes, the frustration of a coach who’s getting caught with his pants down at the worst possible time and teammates slumping offensively at the worst possible time and he simply wasn’t himself. I think that, given the sharp and almost uninterrupted uphill trajectory in his career growth (given that no playoff eliminations could previously be laid at his feet in any way), he was caught unprepared for a moment in which he had no chance to succeed. While his frustration clearly got the best of him at times, I still do not accept that he stopped caring at the worst possible moment. If anything, the extent to which he cared probably just made matters worse, as his physical issues came to be accompanied by psychological ones. And while his performance in this series will be a black mark on his professional record, and deservedly so, in fairness it bears no resemblance whatsoever to a classic quit job like Scottie Pippen refusing to enter a playoff game when he wasn’t going to get the last shot. As for where he goes from here, there is plenty of time to discuss a topic that is infinitely more complicated than countless media morons are making it out to be.

^ Now, as promised, that “other angle” – I’m not going to delve into the matter here – you can go enter “Delonte West” on any search engine you like – but the truth is that it is going to have to be aired by a major media outlet sooner rather than later. Whatever else we might say about it, we can state with certainty that it would explain in one fell swoop so much of what caused the Cavs to fray from within! It is remarkable that this story made it as high as #8 on the Twitter Trending Topics on Friday night without benefit of any large entity (save Deadspin, which proudly cherishes its place outside the mainstream) giving it the time of day. I applaud Windhorst for refusing to write about it and others who feel that they would be dipping into the grimiest of tabloid muck if they addressed it in any way. At the same time, the story of how the story has become so completely widespread so quickly having risen from the bottom up instead of the top down seems newsworthy in its own right. How that gets done without airing something that could be false and defamatory and completely unworthy is something I still haven’t sorted out yet, as evidenced by my own unwillingness to discuss the story directly.

^ Lastly, I will address the subject of the Cleveland fans. There used to be a T-shirt back in the ‘70s and ‘80s that read “Cleveland, You Gotta Be Tough.” Somewhere along the line, that message got lost as people took the long line of tough breaks as an excuse to whine and moan and do whatever they could to make matters worse. They embraced losers like Butch Davis, Mark Shapiro and Eric Mangini for longer than they should while running pros like Phil Savage and Brady Quinn out of town for the stupidest of reasons. The self-pity that flows from the pores of this populace reeks like the Cuyahoga River waters of days gone by and to a person with a brain trapped in this area, that just makes everything feel that much worse. You can’t throw a dead rat in this town without hitting a pathetic idiot weeping “Only in Cleveland!” I said to fellow FDH Lounge Dignitary Jon Adams, “You know, we’re two of the only people around here who DON’T deserve this,” and he agreed. What happens to “hostages of karma” like us? Who knows? But therein lies the real fear and loathing going forward from this episode. Make no mistake, if the LeBron era ends in this manner, it will be the biggest Cleveland sports indignity to date and the crybabies in this town will be able to drink their bitter tears like nectar for decades to come.

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