Posted Oct 29 2009 10:31PM
Coming out of an NBA summer in which the league's best got better, it was fun to ponder all the offseason acquisitions, upgrades and roster enhancements. In a few cases, not unusual, we witnessed the clever math of addition by subtraction. Or, when some GM guesses wrong, subtraction by subtraction.
As the season opens this week, though, two teams with better things to focus on found themselves dealing with subtraction by distraction.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics really have no time and, some would argue, ought to have scant tolerance for the sagas of Delonte West and Glen (Big Baby) Davis. They have more pressing agendas. Reclaiming the Eastern Conference championship is No. 1 on their lists, with everything else a distant 1A. Both teams took two or three sizeable strides forward by signing or trading for the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Rasheed Wallace, Anthony Parker, Marquis Daniels and so on, going click-crazy near the end of a kind of eBay auction.
With West and Davis, though, each team is taking the proverbial one step backwards. But that's life in the NBA -- with the emphasis on life.
The two situations clearly are different. West's absence for much of the preseason and the Cavaliers' first two games is due to a serious medical condition -- bi-polar disorder -- that has manifested itself through what looks to the outside world like simple reckless behavior. With emotional outbursts and a history of relatively minor offenses already in his past, West faces legal troubles stemming from his arrest in September when caught on a motorcycle, armed with three firearms. And even that is secondary to the matters of body and soul that the Cavaliers are trying to help him with.
Davis, by contrast, is missing from the Celtics' scene because of knucklehead behavior -- specifically, knuckle-to-head behavior -- that led in the wee hours Monday to a fractured right thumb for the backup big man. As Davis drove through Waltham, Mass., with friend Shawn Bridgewater, according to published reports, his pal escalated an argument with a punch and Davis responded in kind. Now, after surgery, he is out for two months. The early joke was that the Celtics would pick up the slack -- and move to the right on the maturity scale -- by pushing more of Davis' minutes onto ... wait for it ... Rasheed Wallace.
It's not a good joke, of course, because Wallace has always been known as a solid teammate, even in his squandered-opportunity days in Portland, where he left most of his off-court antics. Besides, few who care about Boston's basketball ambitions are laughing; Davis came to camp in surprisingly good shape and presumably was ready to take his career to the next level. He wasn't happy with his experience as a restricted free agent this summer -- no offers, so what else is new? -- and during the preseason schedule Davis didn't seem to grasp that his increased playing time last spring was related to Kevin Garnett's absence. But those grumbles could have been turned into motivation for 2009-10, if only he weren't going to be sidelined until the holidays. Merry Christmas, huh?
For sheer X's and O's, in terms of what fans of the Cavaliers and the Celtics care about most and factoring in the primary reason we know about and pay attention to West and Davis in the first place, this is all very disruptive. And the more self-imposed it seems, the more an off-the-floor incident bleeds onto the floor when it need not have, the greater the assigned irresponsibility.
Judged that way, West and Davis both have let their teams down. The Cavaliers need the guy who was their starting shooting guard last season, that extra scorer who can pull defensive traffic away from LeBron James and O'Neal. The Celtics need the player who can bang all night and still finesse fourth-quarter jump shots in ways that deep reserve Shelden Williams, new but instantly logging time now, never has.
Obviously, though, these are matters requiring different mixes of compassion and discipline. That's why Celtics boss Danny Ainge could announce that Davis was being suspended indefinitely (not that it matters for a while) and team owner Wyc Grousbeck could grouse that he's "had enough'' of the "Big Baby'' nickname and would henceforth be calling Davis "Glenn.'' Lest he, y'know, live down to the "Baby'' thing.
It's also why the Cavaliers have treaded lightly around West's condition and why NBA commissioner David Stern wound up addressing it the other day during a news conference in L.A. "To me, this is where you defer to the team and the doctors,'' Stern said, responding to a question. "But overall I think this is a place where the players association, with us, have to step up and try to be as compassionate and helpful as can be.''
Neither team needed this. Each will try to find something positive in it -- the Cavaliers making it clear that some issues forever will be bigger than basketball, the Celtics using it as a way to force-feed adulthood on their young big man. But Boston coach Doc Rivers is in the rare position of knowing, working with and caring about both men. His comments were illustrative of the different stakes involved.
Of Davis, Rivers said: "'Baby' is not a bad person. He made a bad mistake and he made a bad judgment and unfortunately it only takes one second, five seconds to make a mistake and then you have to live with it at times ... He has some ways to grow and we want to help him do that.''
Rivers came to the Celtics in 2004 with West, a rookie fresh out of Saint Joseph's, and the two spent three seasons together. Rivers went through smaller hiccups with the player back then. As the Celtics' coach spoke outside his locker room Tuesday before the team's season opener, his tone was more somber.
"I pray for him. I just hope things work out for him,'' Rivers said. "We didn't have all this. Honestly. We had some issues but we didn't have all this. It's tough. Those are the kids you hope somehow ... that someone can touch him and help him. You can't give up on him. I don't believe you give up on anybody breathing, that's my belief.
"Obviously, I don't know exactly what's going on. But there's a lot of stuff. You just hope somehow somebody, something gets to him, because ...,'' Rivers added, then paused. "It's dangerous.''
The rest is just basketball.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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