Posted Mar 1 2010 12:42PM
Now we will find out just how real Cavs Small Ball is. Nothing's at stake here, just the usual: the chances of LeBron James staying in town and the future of the franchise in Cleveland, blah, blah, blah.
As late as last Thursday, the Cavaliers looked like they had a big (pardon the pun) problem. They had just picked up Antawn Jamison, Leon Powe (see below) was finally active and Anderson Varejao was playing as well as any big man outside of Orlando. J.J. Hickson was showing why Danny Ferry refused to include him in any deals before the trade deadline, and Shaq, being Shaq, needed his touches, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas was tanning, resting and getting ready. How on earth was coach Mike Brown going to split minutes among all of those bigs?
And then, Shaq got hacked by Glen Davis, and things were different.
With the news Sunday night that O'Neal will likely miss the rest of the regular season after thumb surgery on Monday, and with Ilgauskas ineligible to return to Cleveland for three weeks under league rules, the league's best team now operates at a size deficit in the middle. Good news for the Orlandos of the East, who still harbor hopes of catching the Cavs.
Now, they'll have to get by with their small lineup: Varejao at center, Jamison at power forward (though Hickson will get plenty of minutes) and James at small forward, with Jamario Moon spotting at the guard and forward spots where needed. The problem for the rest of the league is that this is probably the Cavs' best defensive lineup, as evidenced by Cleveland's come-from-behind victory over Boston last week.
"I could say it is," James said Thursday, before O'Neal's condition was known. "I think it's one of our best lineups defensively. We're able to fly around and help each other, and we're athletic enough that we can rebound the ball. J.J.'s athleticism is huge. Andy's activity, he's physical all the time, his movement. And then to have big guards in myself, and J-Moon was out there at one point, and Anthony Parker was out there, we're able to contest these guards out on the wing. It's a key lineup for us."
O'Neal was starting to make his presence felt in more than a superficial way. During Cleveland's 13-game win streak, he shot his usual gaudy percentage (63 percent) while making things easier for James and the guards. The Cavs know they'll need some paint presence to make Dwight Howard work hard, and Shaq was, if not the Shaq of old, still better in the post than just about anyone else outside of Orlando.
The Cavs can still smack around bad teams, but can they keep winning at a .767 clip without either O'Neal or Z, until March 22, when Ilgauskas can officially return? Cleveland currently has the league's best record, but the Lakers are on their heels, and the Magic look like they might be getting themselves back on track.
Of course, James can make a lot of problems go away, and with Cleveland forced to go small, James may well find himself playing more power forward than normal, with Varejao at center. There's not a four on earth that can handle James, and a lot of people around the league wonder why the Cavs don't utilize him more there.
There also remains the issue of Jamison, a mediocre-at-best defender, trying to fit in with a team that wins games by shutting opponents down as much as by James' sorties to the basket. Jamison played well in the second half against the Celtics, but the game was secured when Cleveland put Hickson -- who promptly levitated for three alley-oops, and snarfed down every board in sight -- into the game. Varejao shut down the middle, and Moon slowed down Ray Allen, who'd been killing the Cavs in the first half.
Yes, the Cavs' mantra of keeping everything out of the paint and pushing the ball toward the baseline sounds simple. But the devil of the team's success is in the details, and not knowing the details in May and June could have devastating repercussions.
"As a player, I played against it, so I know how difficult it was," Jamison said. "You think you have a guy beat, and all of a sudden, another guy is rotating, and things of that nature. The terminology is totally different. But you grasp what they like to do. It takes game situations to get comfortable doing it. You trust your teammates more. And they will never leave you out on an island by yourself. It's a team-oriented defense."
Brown says there's time before the playoffs for Jamison to get familiar enough with the team's defensive philosophies not to be a liability.
"We feel good about how intelligent he is," Brown said, "and how willing he is to sacrifice what need be to get it done on both ends of the floor. We feel that by the time the playoffs get here, we'll be ready to go, just as much as he is."
Having that kind of depth seemed extravagant five days ago. Now, it may well save the Cavaliers' standing going into the playoffs. As we all know by now, there's no margin for error this postseason.
Chris Wallace knows what it looks like, sending the second overall pick in the NBA Draft to Bismarck, N.D., because he hasn't shown much of anything with the big club.
Bill Duffy knows what it looks like, one of his bigger (literally) clients swinging and missing as a rookie center in the NBA, and having to be sent down to the minor leagues.
But the general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies and the agent who is as big as any in the game today found that when it came to Hasheem Thabeet, they both agreed. Send him to the Dakota Wizards. Now.
"Practice is important, lifting weights are important, but you learn by playing," Wallace said on the phone Friday afternoon. "You learn what you can get away with, what you can't. Players want to play. Players need to play. Most teams are carrying 14 or 15, and you can't play all of those players all the time."
"He's gotta play," Duffy said by phone Friday night. "I'm less concerned with how it looks. This will give Hasheem a chance to show everybody what he can do. We were a proponent of it. No issues."
Well, that's what they told me, anyway.
There's no question that both sides have an incentive to spin this. Thabeet is the highest draftee to ever be sent to an NBA D-League team. His struggles as a rookie in Memphis have been unending and public. He has shown next to no offensive capabilities in the league, averaging just 2.5 points a game. And he's also failed to shine at what was supposed to be his strength coming out of Connecticut: shot-blocking and post defense. He was beaten out, fair and square, by Hamed Haddadi as Marc Gasol's backup, and coach Lionel Hollins informed Thabeet what Memphis' plans were on Wednesday.
But what are the Grizzlies supposed to do?
The alternative would be letting him sit on the bench in Memphis the rest of the season and calcify, losing what little confidence he has left, falling further behind other rookies that get regular burn. And isn't this exactly what the D-League is for; allowing young players who need to develop to get an opportunity to play, every night, to learn on and off the court what it means to be a pro? That Thabeet is a high-profile example of this doesn't mean the example is wrong. For a young man who has been playing organized basketball -- it must be stressed again -- for only six years, minutes are crucial to his development.
The Wizards (the D-League affiliate of Memphis and Washington) began a schedule last Friday of six games in nine days, including Sunday's, in which Thabeet totalled 19 points, 16 boards and six blocks in 38 minutes (the folks at Ridiculous Upside have a summary here). After that, Dakota has a week off.
The plan is for Thabeet to play those half-dozen games, then practice for a few days. After that, the Grizzlies will re-evaluate. Until then, the Wizards' coach, former Clipper forward Rory White, has been instructed to give Thabeet time and touches. A Memphis staffer is with him in Bismarck for the entire stint. Wallace will go there to see him on Wednesday.
"You look at other leagues that have had minor leagues for a much longer time than the NBA," Wallace said. "Baseball has guys going back and forth all the time. We look at this another piece in our toolbox ... any time you have young guys that are in that two-year window, you have to look at the D-League very carefully, because you have to get those guys some (playing) time."
Duffy says he's reached similar conclusions with some of his other clients, including Cavaliers rookie Danny Green, who was sent down to Cleveland's D-League affiliate in Erie this week along with second-year forward Darnell Jackson (though Cleveland recalled Green on Sunday). Duffy is in the process of discussing with the Suns whether their first-round pick, Earl Clark, should go to Phoenix's D-League team in Iowa now that Amar'e Stoudemire is sticking around for the rest of the season and frontcourt minutes are likely to dry up.
Wallace insists the Grizzlies have in no way given up on Thabeet. But he would not give a blanket commitment that Thabeet will be a cornerstone of Memphis' future, either, when asked if he could guarantee the team wouldn't look to move Thabeet after the season.
"Any player can be traded," Wallace said. "I never guarantee any player that that they can't be traded. You look at the league, a guy like Shaq (O'Neal) was traded. Allen Iverson was traded. Other than the young guys on a team that you're taking a look at, if you look at a game, most of the guys out there have been somewhere else ... Anything can happen. But we're not looking to 'dump him' at this point"...
• The new month begins with a week-long league-wide fundraising program for my friends over at Hoops for St. Jude, which raises money year long for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, one of the largest pediatric cancer centers in the world. Families who bring their kids to St. Jude's for treatment receive it, regardless of their ability to pay.
From today through next Sunday, NBA players and coaches will take part in fundraising activities. Schools around the country will also have fundraisers, with students taking part in a special basketball fundamentals curriculum designed by Nuggets coach George Karl to raise awareness of the need for greater physical activity among students. Karl, who has already donated $20,000 to St. Jude's, is continuing with his part in the program despite his diagnosis of throat and neck cancer last month. NBA coaches will wear "Hoops for St. Jude's" lapel pins all week in support of Karl.
The Lakers' Pau Gasol, the Grizzlies' Rudy Gay, the Rockets' Shane Battier, the Clippers' Steve Blake, the Pacers' Danny Granger and the Timberwolves' Kevin Love are each taking part in season-long donations per point for St. Jude's, and have each committed at least a $20,000 donation by the end of the season. Thirty NBA stars, including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal, have donated autographed items that can be bid on during an on-line nationwide auction lasting through next Sunday at www.hoopsforstjude.org. Fans can also make per-point donations for the remainder of the season in support of their favorite players on the website and receive the Hoops for St. Jude's pins with a $20 donation.
(Last week's rankings in brackets)
1) Cleveland  (46-14): Cavs lead league in point differential: 6.88/game.
2) L.A. Lakers  (45-15): Lakers pushed back upstart Nuggets on Sunday behind suffocating defense and the all-around greatness of Mr. Kardashian.
3) Dallas  (39-21): Mavs rolling behind Kidd, who's playing like he's 27, not 37.
4) Utah  (38-21): Jazz put rookie Matthews back in starting lineup after trading Ronnie Brewer, and don't seem to miss a beat.
5) Orlando  (40-20): Howard's double-double streak ended at 20 in win over Miami Sunday, but still is playing his best basketball of the season.
6) Denver  (39-20): Hoped to show they were the class of the west, but blew 13-point lead instead in L.A. Gap is smaller, but there's still a gap.
7) Phoenix  (37-24): Stoudemire seems to dominate the Spurs, but Phoenix never seems to actually beat San Antonio.
8) Atlanta  (37-21): Hawks won't get a better chance to overtake Orlando than this month: seven of next eight opponents are sub-.500, only one playoff team.
9) Oklahoma City  (35-23): Durant so good, writers already trying to create 2012 free agent drama. He ain't going anywhere.
10) Boston  (36-21): Looking grim in Beantown, but in fairness, Pierce is out of the lineup, and that's not a little thing.
11) Portland  (35-27): No wonder Kevin Pritchard says Batum is untouchable.
12) San Antonio  (33-24): Spurs looked like we all thought they'd look on Sunday, but was it a one-time mirage or a sign of things to come?
13) Toronto  (31-27): Today, no one in the city, province or country gives a damn that the Raps have lost three straight.
14) Chicago  (31-28): Bulls can't make a move without a healthy Noah, and it doesn't look as if he's going to be healthy anytime soon.
15) New Orleans  (31-29): Tough slog for Hornets coming up, with 11 of next 16 against teams with winning records, including two apiece against Spurs and Nuggets.
Milwaukee (4-1): Bucks are again charging in the East, winning six straight before losing in overtime Sunday at Atlanta. But this time, it's not rookie Brandon Jennings carrying the load. John Salmons is averaging 18 points per game since coming from Chicago, Jerry Stackhouse has been solid and Andrew Bogut has come on strong at center. Milwaukee plans to be a player in free agency in the summer of 2011. Assuming there is a season in the fall of 2011.
New York (1-3): New York broke an eight-game losing streak by beating the even more inept Wizards on Friday, but that was a band-aid on a season of ugly. Zach Randolph, whom New York gave away in the summer to Memphis, torched his former team Saturday. And Tracy McGrady's knee is hurting him again. Great. Four months until July 1.
Isn't it time to close the trade loophole allowing players to re-sign with their old teams after 30 days?
Any NBA person who's not drooling at the mouth or certifiably naive believes that Zydrunas Ilgauskas is ultimately returning to the Cavaliers, even though Z's agent, the reputable Herb Rudoy, has bent over backwards over the last few days to insist that this is on the up-and-up, that Ilguaskas really is looking at the other teams --Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Utah, Boston and San Antonio -- who have inquired about the 34-year-old's services since he reached a buyout agreement with Washington last week.
Cavs GM Danny Ferry would say via text last week, when I was working Cleveland's game in Boston, only that "we have interest." Which everyone knows. Cleveland is the team that drafted Ilgauskas in 1997, the team that's paid him often and well over the years, despite his numerous foot injuries early in his career, and the team that looks almost unstoppable on the way to a Finals appearance this year. Why wouldn't Z want to go back there? He certainly didn't want to be traded to the Wizards in the first place, and the rebuilding Wizards had no interest in him -- other than the $1.5 million in luxury tax savings he provided in the buyout.
So why go through this charade?
The league put the 30-day window in as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2005, trying to close another loophole that became obvious earlier that year, when the Celtics traded Gary Payton to Atlanta in the Antoine Walker trade. The Hawks waived Payton immediately, and he re-signed in Boston a week later; his agent had made it clear that was Payton's intention all along. The hope was that by making teams and players wait 30 days, such arrangements would not be as common, because other teams could get involved as well.
But it isn't working. Other than when Jerry Stackhouse shot off his mouth in 2008 about coming back to Dallas 30 days after being traded to New Jersey in the Jason Kidd-Devin Harris deal, the league hasn't stopped any player from returning a month later.
This whole business is also a symptom of the growing disparity between the league's relative economic haves and its have-nots. The Cavs are a tax payer; the Wizards were desperate to get under the tax threshhold. The Mavericks were tax payers; the Nets were not. True, Antonio McDyess did go back to Detroit last season after being waived by Denver following the Allen Iverson-Chauncey Billups trade, but the preponderance of such deals have favored the richer team.
There's a quick, simple fix.
A player who is traded during a season can't re-sign with his former team for the rest of the season. Period.
That would restore the integrity of trades, where two (or three) teams give up valuable assets in order to receive other valuable assets. It's okay if Cleveland wants Antawn Jamison, but if it meant the Cavs would have to give up Ilgauskas for the playoffs, they might think twice.
Nobody wants to make trades -- which are already hard to pull off -- even harder. But the current rule is too easily manipulated, and makes teams contort themselves into pretzels pretending they don't have "understandings" with players, and makes the league look inept at best with its lack of real enforcement. It's a problem the league doesn't need to have.
The ghost of ee cummings walks among us. From Rumar Spencer:
i have to disagree with you on the phil jackson thing; if he does decide to leave, which ever the results may be, the lakers will still be contenders for titles. its not like with him being gone the team will no longer go after titles, cause that's ludicrous. david, the difference between the first time phil left (in 2004) compared to if he leaves after this season (if we win it all or lose) is that in 2004 he was fired, shaq was traded, and the lakers rebuilt around kobe. the team went from a contending team to a rebuilding team, have been rebuilding for 3 years. when all of the talented pieces started coming to the lakers to surround kobe with, the lakers were back to being title contenders, and got a title. now if phil does go this time, the difference is that the lakers will still be title contenders, phil's departure won't have any impact on the lakers continue(d) future of going after championships. there are still proven coaches out there, so david the lakers future would still look bright if phil isn't around.
I believe all I wrote, Rumar, was that the Lakers would no longer be prohibitive favorites next season without Phil, not that they wouldn't still be in the hunt. And I believe that. A guy with 10 rings gives you an edge, and nobody else other than Bill Russell, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones has 10 as a head coach or player, and I'm pretty sure Mr. Russell is done with coaching, and Sam Jones seems happily retired every time I see him. (Don't see K.C. Jones much these days.). The Lakers have a ridiculously qualified guy on their bench in Jim Cleamons to take over if Phil leaves, or maybe Kobe finally convinces Mike Krzyzewski to come to L.A., so I agree, the Lakers wouldn't fall off the cliff. But they would lose something without Phil, and that would bring them closer to the rest of the pack.
Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? From Ezra Schwartz:
I just wanted to point out another chapter in the Ginobili exterminator business has been added, first he kills bats, then he stops Durantula. We have to start calling him Manu "the exterminator" Ginobili.
Fly Williams is not impressed.
The exchange rate is slightly better these days. From Arthus "Tobi" Bihis:
I like your articles because theyre very impartial...and that sit down interview with CB4 was awesome! In case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm from Canada. Just wondering if you can do an article on potential deals that the Raptors can do in case CB4 decides to leave in the summer. Could be about potential free agents that the Raps can sign, someone who would fit the current team and system if Bosh does not re-sign or possible sign-and-trade scenarios for CB4 that would be advantageous for the Raps.
Before I answer, Tobi, I want to make clear that this e-mail came from you, a Raptors fan, and was not concocted by me. That disclaimer is for all the Torontoites that always write in saying that all of us down here in the States keep assuming that Bosh will leave Toronto. I assume nothing of the sort, but am aware of the real possibility. Having said that, let me answer you.
Being capped out, Toronto can't sign any free agents other than with the mid-level exception, and there isn't any quality big man that the Raptors could probably entice (Dallas' Brendan Haywood has priced himself well above the mid-level with an outstanding season in his walk year, for example).
The worst-case scenario for Toronto, of course, is if Bosh bolts for cap room in either New York, Chicago or Miami, leaving the Raptors with nothing. The good news for Toronto, though, is that I'd think with decreases in player maximum salaries in the Collective Bargaining Agreement looming, Bosh and his agent would be much more inclined to agree to a sign and trade deal, which would get Bosh one more year of salary at the existing rates of increase (10 percent per year). And a sign-and-trade would obviously net Toronto some significant goodies in return for a five-time All-Star entering the peak of his career.
As long as we all agree we are deep into Fact-Free Speculation Country, who could be out there? The New York Post's Peter Vescey speculated on a Toronto-Lakers deal featuring Bosh and Andrew Bynum last month, and once Bynum's base-year compensation expires in July, such a deal would be relatively easy to put together. (A Bosh-Pau Gasol-Lamar Odom frontcourt would almost be unfair.) At 22, Bynum would certainly be fair compensation for the soon-to-be 26-year-old Bosh, and give the Raptors the low-post hub around which all their three-point shooting moons could continue to fire threes happily.
Portland always has the assets and the inclination to do big deals. A swap of LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Miller and, say, rookie Jeff Pendergraph for Bosh and a future first-round pick -- the Raptors owe Miami their first-round pick in 2010 as part of the Jermaine O'Neal-Shawn Marion swap last year -- would be mutually beneficial. (Toronto could then re-route Miller to a team like Washington, which will be in desperate need of a floor general next season. It would make sense for the Wiz because while Miller has two years and $15 million due, only next season's $7.2 million is guaranteed. And it would make sense for Toronto, because Washington could take Miller into its available cap room in exchange for a future pick, providing the Raptors with a humongous trade exception in return.)
I'd assume Minnesota would come calling, with its Ricky Rubio trump card, along with Al Jefferson and assorted other enticements, though I'd also assume the Land o' 10K Lakes would not be a preferred destination for Bosh, and it takes two to tango for a sign and trade. You'd also think Phoenix would make Amar'e Stoudemire available, though I suspect this would be low on Toronto's wish list and serve only as a last-ditch option.
And now, back to the reality-based portion of the column.
1) LeBron James (30.7 ppg, 6 rpg, 10.3 apg, .500 FG, .857 FT): Averaged 32.6 per game in February; with Kobe Bryant down for much of the month with a bum ankle, James separated himself from the rest of the MVP pack. It's his award to lose, just as it's starting to appear that the championship is Cleveland's to lose.
2) Kobe Bryant (21.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 7 apg, .427 FG, .947 FT): First week back from ankle injury was uneven, but Bryant's presence on the floor transcends his numbers.
3) Kevin Durant (27.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.5 apg, .474 FG, .938 FT): Consecutive games streak with 30+ points ends, but Thunder keep piling up wins.
4) Dwight Howard (21 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.3 bpg, .639 FG, .654 FT): When you go 11-for-11 in a game, and finish with 30 points and 16 boards, becoming the first player in more than 30 years to score 30 points and grab at least 15 rebounds without missing a shot, and you're still leading the league in blocks and boards, and your team appears to have gotten past that hiccup that threatened to become season-threatening, you merit MVP talk again.
5) Carmelo Anthony (24 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, .415 FG, .621 FT): Post-great performance against LeBron hangover? Or just great D by Artest on Sunday?
Dropped out: Dirk Nowitzki
27 -- Games since San Antonio's Richard Jefferson had scored 20 points, which he did Sunday in the Spurs' victory over the Suns.
.160 -- Free throw percentage this season by Golden State's Andris Bierdins (4 of 25), which threatens the league's all-time record for lowest free throw percentage in a season by a player with at least 20 attempts -- the .194 mark of Celtics center-forward Garfield Smith (who made just 6 of 31 free throws in the 1971-72 season).
111 -- Average points allowed per game by the Rockets since the All-Star break, during which time Houston has gone 2-5.
1) Come on, that's as good as it gets on a Sunday in February: great game between Spurs and Suns, great game between Nuggets and Lakers, and ... my gosh, what drama in Vancouver. I watch some hockey here and there -- you have to, when you live in a city where Alex Ovechkin does work -- but Canada 3, United States 2 made everyone in my house sit down and watch. And cheer. And congratulate the Canadians, for whom this means much more than it could possibly mean to us. (Did you hear 20,000 Canadians, as one, singing "O, Canada" after the medal ceremony? Talk about raising chills.) And Ryan Miller, you are incredible.
1A) I know some people thought this was a bush league move by Jason Kidd. I don't. I think it showed A) that he knew the rule about a coach being out on the court being a technical (stop and think about that: how many guys actually know the rules that well?), and B) was composed enough to make sure the rule was enforced, in the guts of a ballgame. Sorry. I think that's really smart.
Put it this way: Paul Westphal is revered, correctly, for calling an illegal timeout in Game 5 of the 1976 Finals, with his Suns down one to the Celtics and taking the ball out under their basket with one second left in double overtime. A technical was called on Phoenix; Boston made the free throw. But the timeout allowed Phoenix to move the ball to midcourt, from where the Suns could execute a much easier pass, leading to Gar Heard's remarkable jumper as time expired. Westphal hasn't bought a meal in Phoenix since. Kidd deserves a steak at Nick and Sam's, pronto.
3) I'm sure there have been four overtime games in one night before, as there was Friday. I just can't remember it.
4) Don't know how it's all going to turn out, but it seems appropriate, as Black History Month ends, that one rich African-American man would sell his team to another rich African-American man. It doesn't mean that things are great for everyone, but it is a small sign of progress.
5) Ron-Ron ate his Wheaties before tipoff Sunday, it would seem.
6) Sorry I just saw this; it's a couple of days old. But an interesting take from Rashard Lewis on the Cavs' acquisiton of Antawn Jamison.
7) A great interview with a great writer whose love of basketball knows none superior, Rick Telander.
1) Of course it was just one game. But the Celtics looked old and tired Thursday, and I don't know that they'd have looked much different even with Paul Pierce on the floor. The contrast between Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett with Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson was telling, and if Mo Williams plays Rajon Rondo, more or less, to an offensive tie, well, that's big advantage, Cleveland. And that was before Danny Ainge called out the starters, and the Cs lost at home again ... on Saturday ... to the ... Nets. Gulp.
2) I can't remember the last time I saw Steve Nash make a mistake at the end of the game.
3) Good Lord, this is sad. For everyone.
4) J.R.? C'mon, Son.
5) I know local columnists sometimes feel the need to back the local guy, but us national folks do get to see everyone, usually more than once. I know the Chamber of Commerce won't like it, but the LeBron guy is having a better season.
6) Oh, for Ken Dryden's sake. Let people celebrate when they accomplish something noteworthy without always looking over their shoulder, looking to snuff out any trace of spontaneity or fun. Let's be real: if these were guys, no one would have blinked an eye.
little does @kevindurant35 know i signed his name and room number on the bill...hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha GOTCHA!!!
--Oklahoma City forward Jeff Green (@jeff_green22), Wednesday, 4:52 p.m., no doubt sowing the seeds of discontent and distraction that caused the Thunder's nine-game win streak to end that very night in San Antonio. Kidding, for the humor-deficient.
This week's Mr. Fifteen is Cavaliers forward Leon Powe, one of the most remarkable people in this league. If you don't know Powe's story, here's the Reader's Digest version: Father gone by age 2. At age 7, brother accidently sets the family's home on fire. Home burns to the ground, leaving the family, including five kids, homeless. The family shuttles in and out of homelessness in Oakland, living in cars and finding shelter wherever they can. Leon and his brother are put in foster care. In high school, Powe suffers his first anterior cruciate ligament tear, in his left knee, playing summer ball, but comes back to become a McDonald's All-America. Powe's mother, battling substance abuse while trying to provide for the family, dies of a heart attack at 41 just before he plays in the state championship game.
Powe overcomes the injury and everything else, and becomes a rising star at the University of California, winning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors. But during his sophomore season at Berkleley, Powe tears the ACL again. Comes back, again. Averages a double-double his junior season, and turns pro. Gets drafted in the second round by Boston in 2006, and within two years, a key, physical player off the bench for the Celtics in their championship run.
But last year, during Boston's first-round playoff series last year with Chicago, Powe tears the same ACL a third time. The timing couldn't have been worse; Powe became a free agent at the end of last season, and the Celtics were obviously reluctant to put any guaranteed money into a guy whose NBA future was suddenly in doubt. But the Cavaliers, making a title push of their own this season, were willing to wait on Powe. After months of rehab, and finally getting back on the practice court in February, Powe was cleared to play last week. With Cleveland already sporting Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson at power forward -- and, in a pinch, LeBron James -- Powe's minutes figure to be few and far between. But he's a wild card possibility for the playoffs, when Cleveland may need someone to bang for a few minutes against the likes of Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett or Al Horford.
Just getting back on the floor, and being the kind of role model that everyone can emulate, is a major victory in itself.
Me: At this point, do you gear yourself more toward the playoffs than the regular season?
Leon Powe: Yeah. I know I've got the experience. I can come in and do whatever they need me to do. I can score the ball, and especially play defense. I know Mike Brown likes defense, and that's what I love to do, too.
Me: Has Mike talked to you about whether you're going to play or not?
LP: He talked to me a little bit before [Powe was activated]. He just said he's trying to figure out all this stuff with the new team. It's like we've got a new team all over again, like we've got to start training camp again. New bodies. And then I come in. So he said if I get some minutes right now, it would be great, and if I don't, he just wants me to stick with him and just know that he's thinking of a way to try to get me in if he can, just use me in situations as he needs me.
Me: Is that uncertainty hard, because you're used to being a rotation guy?
LP: Yeah. It's kind of hard. But it's a championship team. I think in my eyes, 'cause I've seen a championship team before, been on one. I think this is a championship team. Me, I've never been a problem as far as coaches sitting me down, or coaches playing me. I don't really cause no trouble like that. Coach called me in the office and told me what he needed from me, and I was like, okay coach. And if he thinks I can get in before, just put me in there. I'll be ready. And if not, I'll stay with you anyway.
Me: When you first started this last rehab, what was the first thing they had you do?
LP: Oh, man. Leg lifts.
Me: How much weight?
LP: No weight. Barely could do that. And that's why I said I had to focus on the process, because I know how hard it is to come back from that. And I know what I had to do. But I know I had to start out with baby steps, like stuff my little son can do. And that just was frustrating me a little bit. But I talked to my family, and they just told me to stick with it, just start off light, but then you're going to start feeling good, and more stronger, and more confident. That's what I did.
Me: Who was there with you at the beginning?
LP: At the beginning, they started me off right here, with Ed [Lacerte, the Celtics' head athletic trainer]. Stayed here a little bit. And then when I didn't think, I didn't know how things were going to play out, if I was going to be back here, then there was an indication that I wasn't coming back, I thought to myself, I gotta come up with a new game plan. So I talked to my family, and they told me to move. I talked to a couple other NBA guys, and they said go to L.A., with this lady named Judy . So I went and got an apartment out there for me and my family, got a place out there. And then we went and rehabbed out there for the next two months, until I got here.
Me: The fact that you've gone through this so many times, was that a positive or a negative?
LP: It was a positive and a negative at the same time. 'Cause I knew I can get through it, I can do it. But I knew all that long, hard, grueling rehab that I had to do was ahead of me, and I was sitting in the bed and can't move my leg. That's where the trouble came in at. I talked to my family and they was just like, stick with it. Nobody in your family quits, and you ain't gonna be the first one. I said, 'you're right. I'm not going to be the first one.' I'm gonna go out there and set a good example, especially come back for my little brothers and sisters and stuff like that. I just said if I just work hard, anything can happen. I'm gonna put my money on working hard.
"He told me, 'I'll adjust to what you want to do. Don't worry about adjusting to me.' For guys like that to tell me that, I was totally blown away."
-- Nate Robinson, recalling what Kevin Garnett told him about now playing for the defensively minded Celtics after being traded from the defensively indifferent Knicks.
"It's funny. Some kids now only know me from the (Snickers) commercial or from the 'Space Jam' movie. Times change, I guess."
--Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, sadly noting the march of time that, sooner or later, engulfs us all.
"His body was in one place, but his mind was still with his family."
-- Sixers guard Willie Green, detailing to NBA FanHouse Allen Iverson's recent state of mind while his 4-year-old daughter, Messiah, has been suffering from a serious undisclosed illness. Iverson has been excused from the Sixers and may not return to the team.
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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