Antawn Jamison: Cavaliers’ Chemistry Was “Not Good”

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.

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Image Source: (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

  • AMC

    I read Jamison’s comment more as a classy way of saying, “We thought we had this great chemistry, but the fact that LeBron quit on us and we self-destructed means we clearly didn’t have the chemistry we thought we had.”

  • Lyon

    If DWest doesn’t get arrested, he most likely starts, keeping AP where he belongs, coming off the bench. That in turn probably helps keep West’s head on a little straighter, allowing him to play good basketball, as opposed to the disinterested kind he played last year.

    Hope the team reads Gilbert’s words and takes the faith he has in them and applies it to the game. I don’t want to watch another Indians type season.

  • TSR3000

    Lebron and only Lebron is to blame. The team went as he did. Everyone was likely on edge b/c they had no idea if he was staying or going.

    I am curious to see how the new team bounces back. Obviously they won’t be as good but I wonder if they will show any character or just start collecting paychecks.

  • Shamrock

    @1 Those are some mighty big lines you read between but maybe I missed something. The blame game should start with Danny Ferry because in the end no matter what he did it didn’t work. At the end of his term how much better are the Cavaliers then when he started? After that Mike Brown takes the hit. Brown never had a clue when it came to offense and I’m sorry I think his ability to coach defense was highly overrated. When it came to the playoffs Brown was overmatched when it mattered the most. After those two you can lay the blame on players.

  • Hamsterdam

    They’re still shi**y.

  • Chris

    You can’t put all the blame on Ferry, he was doing his best to put a team around Lebron for the short term, because Lebron wouldn’t commit to the Cavs.

    In hindsight, since Lebron was apparently leaving anyway, they could have tried to build the team correctly anyways, but no one had any way of knowing Lebron’s intentions after this past extension expired.

  • Charlie

    I agree w/ TSR3000, the blame falls squarely on LeBron. Ferry and Brown and the rest of the organization had to deal with the cards they were dealt. And every single card they got was a “King.” HA! That analogy worked out great!

    You can say everyone was spineless and refused to stand up to him and you’d be right, and maybe blame falls there too, but they acted as any of us would. Look at MIA now, they’re doing it all over again.

  • Chris

    This is not news though Jamison told North Carolina papers about the lack of chemistry like a month after the playoffs. You’re late dude.

  • mike

    frankly, i think Ferry did as well as could be expected considering the Grand Canyon-sized hole that was created by outgoing-GM Paxson when Ferry took over. It is easy to say “the cavs should have built the team the right way, like how OKC is with Durant.” the reality is, it was MUCH tougher to do that considering (a) lebron’s unwillingness to commit long-term, (b) the lack of draft picks (let alone lottery picks) to draft players and/or use as trade bait and (c) the lack of tradeable assets in the form of solid older vets.

  • JM

    Very good comment about Miami about to make the same mistakes the Cavs did. It’s a good story on Jamison who is a class act, but LeBron is to blame. He just quit, like the loser he is.

  • Nicko

    Doomed from the start? I don’t think that at all.

    The Boston Celtics didn’t even start trying until April….

  • http://twitter.com/dj_2 DJ

    @9: The Cavaliers will continue to regret that Jiri Welsch trade until the end of time. That was the coup de gras of the Paxson reign of ineptitude. It absolutely killed them at the time, and it still does. Krolik wrote a tremendous piece on it on his blog as well.

    Somehow, I get the feeling the team chemistry will be much improved this year. It probably won’t make a difference in terms of wins, but hopefully they’ll be fun to watch. I look forward to seeing what Grant does with that trade exception.

  • Bryan

    I think Jamison may have been alluding strictly to “on-court” chemistry, i.e. the fact that the team never really developed chemistry with the Shaq/Jamison lineup due to injuries…. I agree locker room chemistry may have been an issue too, but I don’t think that can be inferred from Jamison’s sparse comments.

  • BB

    DJ, don’t forget that Paxson got completely fleeced by Boozer. This would have been a different team with Boozer at the 4.

  • http://twitter.com/dj_2 DJ

    @14: As much as I want to blame Paxson for that (and he certainly was complicit in that debacle as well), Gund was really to blame for that one, and I believe he admitted as much later, saying he took him at his word. The Cavaliers would have been a much better team with Boozer all this time, there’s no question about that. However, the Welsch trade was just the final blow.

  • Harv 21

    Hard for me to analyze last season beyond two certain cold facts: 1) really hard to go far in the NBA without a dominant player; 2) In our biggest, must-win playoff game, at home, our dominant player simply quit.

    Admire Gilbert’s passion to win, like Ferry, Brown not so much. But last season might really only reveal the long-term corrosive effects on a well-meaning organization that feels compelled to cater to its increasingly overempowered “global icon.” Maybe the biggest mistake was to throw a rookie coach at him, but other than that it’s easy to see how they started down a path they couldn’t abandon: winning with a rare, dominant and charismatic player. Teams obsess about how to identify and obtain that player for good reason.

  • mike

    re. Boozer v. Welsch, Boozer was hands down the bigger blow. yes the Welsch trade was god-awful, but we cannot know for sure how those draft picks would have been used had the Welsch trade never happened. Would Ferry have used them to make a smart pick? would they have been used on busts? would they have been used on average players like shannon brown? would they have been packaged as part of a trade, and if so how would that trade have worked out? we can certainly make a guess on who the cavs would have or could have picked based on who was still on the draft board at that time, but there is no way to know. i think clearly we can agree the Cavs would have been MUCH better off without that Welsch trade no matter what, but it is impossible to know how much better off. Boozer, on the other hand, was a known commodity. We had a young All-Star power forward all wrapped up, and Paxson/Gund just completely blew it. we know for a fact that we could have had Boozer signed long-term for years. GM/ownership performance = FAIL!

  • Nicko

    Boozer was all on Gund. Paxson said no, Gund said yes.

  • http://www.dawgpounddaily.com Bernie D.

    How can ANYONE blame Danny Ferry for the team he put together this year?

    Not only was this by far the most talented Cavs team during the LeBron-era, but I’m sure every single move was OK’d by the Chosen One.

    Why Ferry continues to get the blame is beyond me.

  • BB

    Even if it was Gund’s decision to go ahead with that under the table deal, Paxson was responsible for the situation. Instead of showing some foresight, and setting aside cap space to resign Boozer, Paxson decided that the money was better spent on long term contracts for Ira Newble and Kevin Ollie. Without those two the Cavs could have matched Utah’s offer and locked up Boozer long term.

  • Ike

    Danny Ferry earned every cent of his paychecks; he put the Cavs in a position to win and through everything that happened this summer, I’d be willing to bet Dan Gilbert regrets letting Ferry walk more than anything (no slight to Chris Grant).

    I honestly think all of the Cavs problems could’ve been solved had Lebron committed to the team long-term IN ADVANCE. It’s crazy that we all couldn’t believe he would leave when he continually refused to commit to the organization long term. That’s why we’re called fans [sigh]…