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Steve Aschburner

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Playing time has been hard to come by in Cleveland for Sebastian Telfair.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite miniscule role, Telfair savoring time with Cavs


Posted May 5 2010 11:51AM

It's all about the W's. The ring is the thing. A championship is the one thing no one can ever take away.

Until you're a spectator when you'd rather be a participant. At which point the only thing separating you from the local mogul with the Super-Duper-VIP-Platinum-Winner's Circle season ticket package is that they don't let that guy into the trainer's room.

Sebastian Telfair is a 6-foot point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers. A shifty and clever playmaker with a sterling basketball pedigree out of Brooklyn. A "Mr. Basketball" in New York who was drafted as a lottery pick straight from Lincoln High by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2004. A kid who already has been the subject of a book and a movie for all the generation-next anticipation of his pro career. A player who, a month shy of his 25th birthday, feels his game is stronger, smarter and more complete than ever, surrounded finally by top talent and the game's premier star, LeBron James.

Except that Telfair is not actually playing. He has been inactive for the Cavs' first seven playoff games, a status that isn't likely to change anytime soon.

"He's a terrific pro," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "He's a guy who's been extremely helpful in practice. He's played a few games for us [in April], and in those games, he helped us. But obviously it'd be tough to get him minutes now."

But "Bassy" sure does look sharp in those suits.

"It's great getting this experience, and I understand what we're playing for as a team," Telfair said the other day. "But I would like to get out there and play. So it's a give-or-take. The fact that I was out some games with my injury [strained right groin], coming back healthy so late in the season, I'm really, really anxious to play. But I'm supporting the team."

Telfair's career has been one big hurry-up-and-wait. He got to Portland on the hoops fast track and logged two seasons, falling short of some inflated expectations, averaging 9.5 points and 3.6 assists a game while shooting 39.4 percent in his second season. He was traded to Boston in June 2006 in a multi-team deal that landed Brandon Roy with the Blazers.

After one season with the Celtics (6.1 ppg, 2.8 apg, 20.3 mpg, 37.1 FG percent), Telfair was shipped off to Minnesota in the Kevin Garnett trade. Two more seasons, 94 starts in 135 appearances and what looked like a professional home fizzled there, too, when the Timberwolves dealt Telfair and two others to the Clippers for nothing more than cap space.

He had played only 39 games for L.A. when he was traded again, this time to Cleveland in the three-team deal that landed Antawn Jamison on the Cavs. Sort it all out and Telfair's greatest claim as a pro is helping his former teams acquire players (Roy, Garnett, Jamison) they coveted way more highly than him.

Not the sort of legacy he had in mind. Or cares to continue.

(By the way, Telfair has been the dutiful employee for the Cavs, keeping quiet about his inactive streak. He agreed to an interview rather than lobbying for one, as we've seen from others through the years when they're unhappy with their minutes.)

Telfair agrees that the ultimate goal is playing for a ring, at which the Cavaliers have a tremendous shot. Thing is, he'd like to play for that ring.

"This is the first time in my career I'm being inactive. So there's an adjustment to that," he said. "But y'know, I'm in the playoffs. I could have been home. So I'm excited about that."

Telfair did get healthy in time to participate in four games for Cleveland near the end of the regular season. He scored 21 points against Indiana in the final week as the regulars mostly rested. In practice, he has been able to push Mo Williams, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson, and even has tried to play the Derrick Rose-Rajon Rondo role in the team's prep work.

Cavs big man Leon Powe, Telfair's teammate in Boston, said: "Bassy's looked real good in practice. Great floor general. He reads the defense well. Knows where everybody's supposed to be at, like a good point guard should. Makes real good passes, right on target, and can get in the paint and cause trouble.

"And his shot got a lot better. I knew him from way back in the day and now he's hitting the three, hitting the mid-range jumper. Y'know, he's just been working. I was really impressed when I played with him in practice."

Practice? Practice? We're talking about practice.

"Yeah, now it's getting some minutes," Powe shrugged. "But you take something away from an experience like this anyway. To be on a winning team and see how people go about their business. You know, it can be a blessing in disguise. But always, you want to play. Everybody wants to play in there, 30 or 40 minutes. But it's not going to happen. It's a very deep team."

Other players have been in Telfair's spot. When Cleveland acquired Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas got shoved to the side. When O'Neal came back healthy for the playoffs, replacement J.J. Hickson slid down the rotation. All the things they said then, about sacrificing and staying ready, Telfair is saying now.

With one year and $2.7 million on his contract, Telfair said he would like to stay and calls the Cavaliers players and coaches the smartest he's been around. They certainly are the most successful: Telfair's teams in Portland, Boston, Minnesota and L.A. were a combined 185 games under .500 during his time with them. Cleveland is 23-12 since he's been along for the ride.

It has little to do with him, of course.

"This is a smart basketball team," Telfair said. "This coaching staff and this team go perfect with each other. It's guys who know how to play, and how they approach the game, it's a cool thing. How they go through their shootarounds, how they break their film down, how they plan everything out.

"It's their approach to the game. It's their personnel, too -- LeBron [James] absolutely is the icing on the cake, and how he approaches it, everyone's going to follow him because he's the leader. But they all have fun together."

It is, by far, the best team Telfair ever has played with. If, that is, he was playing.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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