Sam Smith: Orlando moves on... will LeBron too?
Sam Smith: Orlando moves on... will LeBron too?
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LeBron James is not going anywhere next season, obviously, but his possible 2010 free agency is again the big story.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)
Kobe vs. Courtney Lee?
OK, it's not what we all expected. And not good for Nike puppet sales. But the Lakers and Orlando Magic, certainly the longest geographical NBA Finals series on record, should be something of a return to the 80s as both teams, for the most part, want to push the ball and score, and both play perhaps the best and most effective offenses in the game.
The Lakers have the triangle, the familiar passing and reading offense. It seeks out open shots, and then if things don't work well seeks out Michael and now Kobe. If Andrew Bynum shows up, the Lakers are the big favorite. Of course, that's in every series as he rarely does.
The Lakers have the post up advantage they'll use with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Bynum and, of course, Kobe. The Magic have the best big man on the floor who could give Pau fits. To me, Gasol is the key for the Lakers beyond Kobe and I'd make him try to beat Howard, who, by the way, Jackson said he'd pick first if he were starting a team now. Gasol was great in putting away the Nuggets and his floor game has been exceptional in finding shooters. He may not be the toughest guy against opponents attacking the basket, but he's a heck of a weapon in the Lakers' offense. The Magic guards were better than expected against the Cavs-though no one expected anything from them-and Orlando will challenge the Lakers' bigger front court guys to come outside and defend. It could be very interesting, though I'll stick with my Lakers' pick.
Meanwhile, the speculation will be about what becomes of LeBron. He left the Cavs' Game 6 loss in Orlando without speaking or even a fake goodbye handshake, though he told Cleveland reporters Sunday he's happy with the Cavs and their progress. James is not going anywhere next season, obviously, but his possible 2010 free agency is again the big story.
We'd all been assuming with those 66 wins and a likely trip to the Finals, James was taking positive steps. But he was in the Finals two years ago, and now the Cavs failed to get to a seventh game in the conference finals. The Cavs won their two games on James' miracle three pointer in Game 2 and his transcendent fourth quarter in Game 5. The Magic could have won the series 6-0. James was brilliant this season, and we saw just how much the way he carried the team to even having a chance in this series. He scored at least 25 in every playoff game and was averaging more than 41 the first five games against the Magic. Mo Williams is a nice player, but hardly a second star. The backcourt is small and was overmatched. Ilgauskas is too slow. Ben Wallace and Varejao can't score. The bench is weak. How did they win 66 games? Is the guy that good? He may be, and he may be wasting his time in Cleveland.
The Cavs supposedly will go hard for Shaq as they did in February. Is Shaq the answer to deal with the quicker Howard? There's been the LeBron to New York stuff (James wore a Yankees hat Sunday when he finally talked to media) and lately LeBron paired with Yao, who can become a free agent after next season, because of that Chinese investor in the Cavs. Though any such benefit James would derive that way should be against the salary cap rules. I've heard James has been recruiting Joe Johnson for 2010. We'll hear all kind of stuff.
But why not the Bulls?
It's unlikely, and would be a huge risk as you'd have to clear so much money and give up some players and have no assurance. But suppose you did want to go for the jackpot? You maybe could get James and Chris Bosh. How would that look with Derrick Rose, John Salmons and Joakim Noah?
Take a look at the rosters of the Bulls and Cavs now. I'd make the case every Bulls position player is better right now than his Cavs counterpart. Except at small forward, of course.
Would you want Rose or Mo Williams? No contest. Williams isn't really a point guard. He doesn't run the offense or pass. He's a spot up shooter most of the time.
Delonte West or Ben Gordon? Or Salmons. For now, Gordon, whom I hope the Bulls bring back. If James had a shooter like Gordon, who do you think wins that series? His teammates could not make big shots or have big games. Yes, he controls the ball a lot. But James will pass, and does. Think Gordon could get hot with him?
I'd take Tyrus Thomas over Varejao now. Varejao has size, but Thomas is active and will score. Though part of the plan is to take a shot-you'd have to find a taker with an expiring contract for Deng, which I doubt would occur-at Bosh for power forward. Bosh, of course, remains the big question mark this summer as the Raptors say they aren't trading him while most league executives believe they will.
Ilgauskas or Noah? The last few years, Ilgauskas, sure. But Noah is faster and coming and Zydrunas seems to be going.
Chicago is that major market, and, unlike New York, actually has a winning basketball tradition. The owner has shown he'll spend money for a championship. A decade later, Michael Jordan still has the two highest salaried seasons in the history of pro team sports.
Going into that last regular season game, the Bulls needed to beat Toronto to get to six and a matchup with Orlando. I thought that was the best chance for the Bulls to advance (I know, I know. Nice pick). We weren't sure Kevin Garnett was out yet and no one thought the Cavs could be had early. I was talking to Bulls coach and he said he preferred the Cavs. I was shocked. He said let LeBron play against the Bulls for two weeks, see the kind of players they now had, see the city and the organization and the facilities and the community and in 2010, who knows.
There'll be a lot of teams saying that now unless the Cavs can make some good additions. Look, they can. They've got expiring deals. Ben Wallace sounds like he wants a buyout. I don't see him retiring and giving up $14 million. But if he does want a buyout, the Suns might be interested now (which they weren't for Shaq for Wallace in February) because they could save several million dollars and get something else from the Cavs. The Cavs can get under the cap for 2010 and add their own guy to join James. Their owner will spend money. And James seems to like living in Ohio. It certainly hasn't damaged his celebrity or earnings power.
For a team like the Bulls to pull off adding two guys, like James and Bosh, you'd probably have to get rid of Gordon and Deng for virtually nothing. It's probably not worth the risk. With the expiring contracts the Bulls now have, they could make a pretty good case to James with the likes of Rose, Salmons, Gordon/Hinrich, Deng and Noah and/or Thomas. Though that would preclude taking a shot at someone who might come available this summer. But like the great title of that Roger Kahn book about minor league baseball, the Bulls now are Good Enough to Dream.
It's the beloved LeBron James and not the despised Detroit Pistons Bad Boys. So there wasn't nearly as much fuss or comment. Though in many ways LeBron James' refusal to shake hands with Orlando Magic players or meet with reporters after the game while running in silence to the team bus was worse than the Pistons famed walkout after losing to the Bulls in the 1991 conference finals. The Pistons' behavior, except for Chuck Daly, Joe Dumars and John Salley, was inexcusably bad sportsmanship. But they had a bit of an excuse. Reflecting the day before Game 4 on three years of brutal losses and treatment from the Pistons, Michael Jordan told reporters the Pistons were unworthy championships and didn't deserve their two championships for the way they played. Gotcha. In that pre Internet/tweet era, the Pistons didn't read the comments until the day of the game and were furious, effectively goaded into their churlish reaction. James, really, has no excuse, especially as the team leader and league MVP. Hey, it's not like Orlando is some bitter rival. You have responsibilities. You don't let poor Mo Williams be the lone postgame spokesman for the team after the bitter loss. Some, probably, is due to the cloying, fearful treatment James gets in Cleveland as he never is held to any behavior standard because of the organization's fear he will leave as a free agent after next season. It's not really an issue because James apparently is a good citizen and responsible and well liked by teammates. James said anyone should understand you don't congratulate someone who beat you. OK, then, why was it wrong for the Pistons?
Sunday, in effect, James told reporters in Cleveland he would do it again.
"I just didn't have much to say. Congratulations to the Orlando Magic, they played a great series and they deserved it," James said. "One thing about me you got to understand: It is hard for me to congratulate somebody after just losing to him. I'm a winner. That's not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you are not going to congratulate them [for] beating you up. That doesn't make sense to me, I'm a competitor and that is what I do. It doesn't make sense to me to go over and shake somebody's hand."
But James' walkoff was unprecedented by a star, at least in this era. No matter how bitter the defeat—and Jordan had many more than James—Jordan always stood up for the accountability and never let it hang on a teammate. Such post game media appearances are mandated by the NBA in the conference finals, especially after the concluding game. I wondered if James would be fined. They even made Rasheed Wallace speak, though no one wanted to hear what he had to say. One league guy told me he didn't think James would be fined, but said it really didn't matter because no fine could be as bad as what James did to himself. James simply ran away from his responsibility as a pro, a competitor, a teammate and league MVP. This is not just some guy. In many respects, James is the face of the NBA today. His play against the Magic was exemplary. His coach and teammates repeatedly let him down with poor decision making and fearful efforts. James' numbers in the playoffs were staggering: 35.3 points per game, 9.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists. Against the Magic, James averaged 38.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and eight assists and averaged a staggering 15.7 free throws per game. But being a leader also is about being there when things are the worst. It's easy to be clever and funny and available when things are going well. James still has a lot to learn, if also accomplish.
Coaching kiss of death
-- I always used to ask Phil Jackson about not winning the coach of the year award (he finally got one in 1996, though it took an all-time record 72 wins) even though his teams won so many championships, and now he can become the all-time leader with 10 if the Lakers beat the Magic. Jackson always joked it was the kiss of death award because the winners usually were fired within a year or two. It is really amazing because it's true, if not universal.
Byron Scott, the 2008 winner, is said to be on shaky ground in New Orleans. The 2007 winner, Sam Mitchell, was fired in Toronto late in 2008. The 2006 winner, Avery Johnson, was fired by the Mavs after the 2007-08 season. The 2004 winner, Hubie Brown, was gone the next season. The 2002 winner, Rick Carlisle, lasted one more season. The 2001 winner, Larry Brown, was gone two years later. The 1999 winner, Mike Dunleavy, lasted two more seasons. I think I see a pattern. And, yes, there is the 2009 winner Mike Brown. How much longer do you think he'll be coaching the Cavs?
It was a brutal playoff series against the Magic for Brown, who seems to have assumed the odd position of a coaching CEO as he mostly watches during huddles as someone else talks to the team and designs plays. Yes, we know the matchup wasn't great as Orlando has had success against the Cavs. And the Cavs were close enough in several games to potentially have won the series. That's where a coach can make a difference. Either way. I know Joe Smith isn't an All-Star. But how could he have hardly played at all while the Cavs front line, especially Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace, was getting run all over the place by the Magic's smallish forwards? What was Varajeo doing chasing Rashard Lewis all the time? How could you have James on Rafer Alston? Your best defender has to take their best offensive player. It's why I picked the Cavs to win the series. I know James is no Jordan on defense. But I thought he tried much harder this season. Not to be all-defensive team. But the coaches vote that and not the media, so blame them. I thought James would take Turkoglu and squash that Orlando pick and roll. Instead, the Magic killed the Cavs with it. I know. James had to play a lot with his supporting cast contributing little, and maybe you couldn't ask him to burn so much energy on defense. But you can't hide your best defender, assuming he is. Actually, that myth of Cavs defense was exposed. They really just play slow because they don't have any really good individual defenders. Brown always talks about the San Antonio way. But he forgot to bring Tim Duncan. This Cavs team should be playing a faster game, especially with James and players like Williams and West, who are better transition players than shooters. The Cavs plays slow allegedly for defense, and the defense doesn't work at the big time.
The Magic scored easily, and it's supposed to be tougher in the playoffs. In two of the six games, the Magic shot at least 50 percent. Orlando shot at least 45.8 percent in every game but one, and then 42.9 percent. In the regular season, the Cavs led the league in fewest points allowed and were tied with Boston for lowest field goal percentage against at 43.1. Which means just once in six conference finals games did the Cavs hold a team to the Cavs regular season defensive percentage. Overall, Orlando averaged 103 points, about 12 above the Cavs regular season average, and shot almost 49 percent. The Cavs were outscored in the third quarter in five of the six games. So much for halftime adjustments. And we always thought teams played more defense in the playoffs. This one is going to leave a mark.
Van Gundy: 'This is a real sport.'
-- See. It is as Stan Van Gundy always says and not as the conspiracy buffs suggest. "This isn't the BCS," said Van Gundy. "People don't get to vote for who they want to see. We're not in that ridiculous system. This is a real sport. We decide the championship on the court." You also had to love Van Gundy after Game 6 noting that Dwight Howard after his 40-point pounding of the Cavs was "smiling on the court and able to play well. Imagine that." That was in reference to pre playoff talk that Howard wasn't serious enough to be a top playoff player. I can't say many saw this coming, even if the Magic had its moments this season. I do one of those league power ratings things every quarter (I still don't get seeing them every week. How much can you change after three games?). At the 41-game mark, here's what I wrote:
"The big talk is whether the Bulls will make a major trade. I'd doubt it, and I believe it will be difficult to deal Larry Hughes until after the season or during next season when his contract finally is expiring. I expect the Bulls would send him home once the trade deadline is past if they cannot trade him. If there is a trade, I think it will be looking toward the future and the first one out, I'd guess, would be Andres Nocioni. The larger question would be whether to trade Hinrich. He'd bring perhaps the most substantial return of any Bull not named Rose, though the Bulls would have to consider whether they can-or want to-keep Ben Gordon. There remains reasonably high interest around the NBA in Thabo Sefolosha, who continues to get limited time from Del Negro. My guess is Hinrich stays for now unless the Bulls are knocked over with a package of young players and picks, which seems unlikely.
As for the rest of the NBA, here's a look at the halfway point:
- Magic: Biggest surprise of the season. Sweeping the Lakers and Spurs is enough for me. Despite all the Spurs imitators around, they are the one, circa 1999. With Dwight Howard surrounded by a cadre of shooters and Stan Van Gundy's defensive demands, they are a legitimate championship contender.
- Lakers: Their defense remains suspect and you get the feeling there is some detachment with Andrew Bynum, who floats through games too much and is a poor rebounder. There's still no real three and trade speculation regarding Lamar Odom. And this is the league's second best team?
- Cavaliers: They're enduring injuries now and Delonte West out is bad for a weak backcourt as LeBron will go back to handling the ball too much. Their big chip is whether they can move Wally Sczerbiak's expiring contract for someone, say, like Tracy McGrady or Gerald Wallace. It may be the difference in being able to keep LeBron.
- Celtics: One and done? They were playing this season for history (that's over with) and a second championship. The same issues that had many doubting them last season remain: Can Rajon Rondo hit a shot and make someone guard him and is there a bench. Last season they found P.J. Brown at All-Star break. This season may depend on the Knicks letting go Stephon Marbury.
- Rockets: The key may be if they can offload McGrady for something. His absences remain too distracting and he doesn't fit their style, anyway. Ron Artest will be back and they have a lot of workable pieces around Yao."
Of course, then when the Bulls made that big trade for John Salmons and Brad Miller which turned around their season, they needed to win the final game of the season at home against Toronto to land a first round playoff matchup with the Magic. I wrote that was critical because I thought the Bulls would beat the Magic the way the Bulls finished the season. That prediction business is a tough one.
Amare on the move
-- Like with Chris Bosh, most NBA executives also believe the Suns, despite saying they want to keep Amare Stoudemire, will look to trade him. Apparently, Stoudemire decided to speed the process a bit last week in a series of radio interviews he was doing while appearing for a group promoting eye protection (Stoudemire had detached retina surgery this season). Stoudemire told a San Antonio station he may have to "part ways" if a championship is not imminent. He said on an Atlanta station they'd love him there. He said in Chicago wherever he goes the team should expect a championship run. To a Washington, D.C. station he said it was 50-50 he returned to the Suns, he'd love to play in Washington and they were one player (him) away from a championship. He also said he'd love to be reunited with Mike D'Antoni. Bosh, Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Carlos Boozer and Hedo Turkoglu perhaps all changing teams. To say nothing of Allen Iverson and Jason Kidd. And a draft with several of the top teams looking to trade. The Finals looks like just the appetizer.
-- NBA-TV televises the postgame interview sessions and their hosts usually get to ask a question from the studio. It caught Dwight Howard by surprise with a disembodied voice coming into the interview room. Howard raised his eyes heavenward and asked, "Is that God?" The reply, "No, it's Eric Snow."