The Departed (Part 2)
What the Cavs did wrong
So now that I’ve tried to explain why I got mad at Lebron, there is another question to answer: could the Cavaliers have kept him? On the surface, it looks like the answer is no. After all, this move was two years in the making. But I seriously doubt that Lebron would have left a championship winning team to go elsewhere; you just don’t do that.
Now the conventional wisdom of today is that Lebron’s team sucked, but I tend to disagree. I’m sorry but teams that win 60 games two years in row do not suck, and teams that consist of one megastar and a bunch of guys don’t win that much, either. Hakeem’s mid-90s Rocket teams were that; they didn’t win 60 games. Now I’m not saying that Lebron was surrounded by a bunch of Hall of Famers, but they were good enough to have the best record in the league. Just about every ‘expert’ had them in the Finals both years, and they were picked to beat the Celtics in pretty short order this past May. Those lofty predictions are not bestowed upon bands of scrubs. Either that, or everyone self or network proclaimed expert out there needs to fess up to being an idiot. Good luck waiting on that to happen.
All that being said, they didn’t win the title or make the Finals over the last three years so they didn’t have a championship roster. They made all kinds of moves to try and get there; some made sense at the time but didn’t work out, others just didn’t make sense at all. In Lebron’s second season they went 42-40 and almost made the playoffs with a stating lineup that included James, Zydrunas Illguaskas, Drew Gooden, Eric Snow, and Ira Newble. The next season Newble was replaced by Larry Hughes in the starting lineup and the Cavs went 50-32. They took the defending Eastern conference champion Pistons to seven games in the second round that year, then made the Finals the year after with largely the same roster. Finals the year after with largely the same roster, the exception being Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic getting major minutes in place of the departed Murray. But here’s where the trouble really started.
James had been criticized earlier in the playoffs for twice passing the ball to teammates in game winning shot situations; the beef was that as ‘the man’ on his team he and only he should be taking those shots. That of course, is ludicrous; people pass the ball all the time in those spots, even Jordan has done so on numerous occasions. Everyone shut up after he put up his 48 special against Detroit (48 points, including 25 in a row) to take control of the conference finals. And with that, he was no longer Magic Johnson 2.0, he was now the latest in a long line of Next Jordan’s (Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse, Kobe, and numerous others have all been handed that title only to prove their ‘unworthiness’ soon after). So now it became up to his team’s front office to give him a proper set of teammates to get some championships. The only problem was that they handicapped by prior moves from doing so.
The first was an awful contract they gave to Larry Hughes for 5 years and $70 million. Hughes had a career year in his contract year with the Wizards (shocker!), and suckered the Cavs in to paying him to do what he’d done before his breakout season: put up bad shots, miss a lot of them, and turn the ball over while giving up a lot of points on the defensive while trying to rack up a lot of steals. They were also on the hook to Illgauskas for over $10 million a year, which in itself was fine since he was a good center who had made the All-Star team twice, but the two contracts together ate up almost half of their cap space. And that’s before they had to start paying Lebron max money. The front office was crippled in any attempt to add pieces to the puzzle by these contracts, so they could only make piecemeal improvements by adding role players here and there. Hughes would be traded, but could only bring back spare parts in return. It would continue like this for the rest of his time there. Delonte West, Anthony Parker, Mo Williams, and an old Shaquille O’Neal were brought in to help. And while that was going on, the Big Three in Boston came together and Kobe got Pau Gasol. Yikes.
The second thing actually took place earlier: in 2004, when the Cavs had the 10th pick in the draft. With Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, JR Smith, Jameer Nelson, and Kevin Martin still on the board the Cavaliers selected……Luke Jackson. Now I know hindsight is 20/20 (or 50/50 if you’re Steve Spurrier), and no one knew how high schoolers like Jefferson and both Smiths were going to pan out, but did anyone think Luke Jackson was going to be a great player? I don’t think so. Imagine Lebron with Jefferson to crash the boards and score down low for him, or Nelson to handle the ball for him, Martin to knock down jumpers for him. You think the other people that were there over the past few years wouldn’t have benefited from playing with Lebron AND Al Jefferson or Lebron and Martin?
So I just used up a bunch of space to say……what exactly? Simple: The Cavs did their level best to get Lebron a good supporting cast, but crapped out by overspending on Larry Hughes and drafting Luke Jackson. Those two missteps did more to torpedo the teams chances than anything else they did. Mo Williams isn’t so bad in playoff games if he’s the fourth option instead of the second. Lebron is fresher if he’s not trying to play point guard half the time and top scorer if he has Nelson to run the offense. Get my drift? And again, maybe he leaves anyway. But at least you don’t give him an excuse.