Believe it or not, in less than a month, the Cleveland Cavaliers will start training camp. Before too long, I’ll begin hammering out my previews and begin focusing 100% on the future. Until then, though, we still need to spend some time looking back on what happened in Cleveland in the LeBron James era. The only way we can learn and build going forward is to better understand our past.
One thing that’s clear is that we were all deceived by a great number of things with regard to the Cavaliers franchise. At the end of the 2009 season we thought the Cavaliers were an extremely close-knit team with endless supplies of chemistry. We thought this was a team building something special for the future. I spent countless hours doing cap projections and laying out the different ways the Cavs could build around LeBron and convince him to stay.
By the 2010 season, much of that had seemingly been unraveled. Sure, the Cavaliers were still winning a ton of games and would eventually finish with the NBA’s best record again, but something was off. Last November, I wrote about this in an attempt to rationalize what was going on:
This year’s Cavaliers team is different. They don’t have the same external chemistry. Part of it is the NBA rule change forcing teams to stay seated on the bench. Some of it is the fact there are five new players on this team (Shaq, Parker, Moon, Powe, and Green). Some of it is LeBron himself. As the leader of this team, everyone follows his examples. Remember last year when LeBron would be hamming it up on the bench? Mugging for cameras, dancing, hugging teammates and encouraging the players who were on the court in his absence. This year, LeBron frequently seems sullen and disinterested when he’s on the bench. Sure, he still has the occasional outburst, but by and large he’s a very different person on the bench.
I tried to argue that the Cavaliers still had chemistry, but that it was a more internal chemistry than the external chemistry they displayed the previous season. Perhaps I was wrong all around about that.
Over the weekend, Antawn Jamison was in Paris for an Adidas basketball tournament and Arnaud Lucotte sat down with Jamison for a brief interview for HoopsNotes.com in which Jamison talked about what life was like on the Cavaliers last season:
What was your first reaction when you learned about this trade?
Antawn Jamison: It was amazing to be in a team which played for the title with one of the best players in the league, because Lebron is really a great player. I arrived in Cleveland and tried to adapt myself, to melt myself in the collective. And then there was the elimination in the playoffs while we were there favorites and we realized that the chemistry was not good in the team. After that you ask yourself lots of questions, you think on how to come back stronger the following season. In the end, it’s been a season with a lot of ups and downs.
This is the first time I’ve heard a player speak so openly about chemistry problems on the Cavaliers last season. Sure, Shaq took his little pot shots at Mo Williams for taking what was evidently too many shots in Shaq’s opinion, but really, that’s just Shaq being Shaq.
With Jamison, though, when he speaks, I pay attention. A trusted veteran and one of the most well-respected personalities in the NBA, Jamison’s words carry a lot of weight behind them. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Jamison was simply referring to chemistry on the court….saying that the players’ skills didn’t fit or mesh together. If that’s the case, it’s a shot at Danny Ferry and the front office for putting those players together. If he’s referring to the chemistry on the team, in the locker room, and on the bench, then that’s a shot at guys who were supposed leaders like LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal.
Whatever the case may be, it’s clear now looking back on the 2009-10 season that it was doomed from the start. Delonte West’s arrest was the start of problems, as it dramatically changed the dynamic of the team on the court. Then, there was the fact there were so many new players to fit in to the system. There was the loss of John Kuester and thus a slightly different offensive system in place. There was Zydrunas Ilgauskas having to accept coming off the bench for the first time in his career. There was Mike Brown’s inexplicable humiliation of Z on the night he was supposed to set the Cavs’ all time record for Games Played. There was the trade of Z which removed one of the key glue personalities on the team. Then they had to add Jamison, which was an adjustment. And about the time they got used to that dynamic, then Z came back the dynamic changed again. Then they had to adjust to Shaq coming back in the playoffs after the team was just hitting their stride without him. Then there was the bizarre disappearance in playing time for JJ Hickson in the playoffs despite the fact he started 73 games for the team with the best record in the NBA.
In other words, there was a whole mess of changes and adjustments in chemistry on a team that had just won 66 games the previous year. Perhaps the Cavaliers panicked a little too much after losing to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009. Perhaps LeBron pressured the front office too much to bring in more talent to try to win immediately rather than continue the steady building plan they had been on. All we know for sure is the Cavaliers found themselves in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to go all in with no regard for what would happen in this summer if they failed, or keep letting their expiring contracts expire and building cap space to make a solid move to solidify the future of the franchise. They went for it in 2010, and they flamed out spectacularly.
As a result, rather than having a young team with young talent like LeBron, Mo, Hickson, Andy, and a bunch of cap space to go with it, they left the 2010 season as a broken team with some young players, and a bunch of old players and no cap space to use to improve. Which isn’t to say that LeBron would have stayed for sure had they not made the moves they did in the summer of ‘09, but it certainly puts LeBron leaving this team into a different kind of perspective.
Take this as perspective, though, and not justification. I’m not in the business of defending LeBron’s defection to Miami, but I just found it very interesting when Jamison spoke outwardly about the chemistry problems this team had last season. As this franchise moves forward, they have a chance to learn from last season as they try to find a chemistry that works for the players who are still here. They may not be a better basketball team without LeBron, but based on LeBron’s body language last season, I’m not convinced that the chemistry on this team can’t be better this season without him.
Bob Finnan had a lengthy, but interesting, piece about Chris Grant on Sunday in the News Herald, and he had some quotes from Dan Gilbert about the rebuilding process:
Gilbert said now that James is history, the Cavs will do things the right way.
“We weren’t as focused on the long term (before James left),” he said. “We’ll build the right way. It’s absolutely refreshing and challenging and we’re all looking forward to building the Cleveland Cavaliers into a premier team.
“We didn’t achieve the ultimate goal (with James). It can’t be a one-person show. We have to have a team approach and a team effort to make it happen.”
Gilbert might second-guess himself as to what happened and why James decided to leave. But he’s ready for the challenge that lies ahead.
“I think the organization is in a much better place than what the pundits think,” he said. “We won 66 and 61 games the last two years. It didn’t happen alone. We still have lofty expectations. This wasn’t a one-man show. We have a lot of good, young, athletic players.”
The immediate future for the Cavaliers may not be super bright, but there’s hope and optimism in the words of Gilbert. This franchise learned a valuable lesson with LeBron James, and now Dan Gilbert, Chris Grant, and the rest of the front office must find ways to use the knowledge acquired from those lessons to build a team with the right chemistry both on and off the court, and to build a unit more as a team than just as a one man show with complimentary pieces around him. Hopefully they can be successful in applying that knowledge.
Image Source: (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)