Sometimes it seems like the NBA is covered like a drama series more so than a sports league. Perhaps because basketball is the sport that bares its soul most openly, it only makes sense that reading coverage of the sport is like reading a series of narratives and human interest stories.
But the thing that can sometimes be frustrating about the sport is the degree to which said narratives change over time. Hindsight is the king of all sports, where memories are built on the foundation of what happened in retrospect as opposed to what actually happened in those precise moments. Nowhere is this more true than in the NBA, where the past is rewritten quicker than ever.
For Cavaliers fans, this point is particularly apropos considering some of the recent developments and storylines in the NBA. If we begin from the top and start with GM news, the Portland Trail Blazers recently fired newly-hired GM Rich Cho. They are reportedly interested in Danny Ferry. They were interested in Danny Ferry last year, too, when looking for a GM. When Ferry left Cleveland, he was quickly hired by San Antonio as VP of basketball operations.
When Ferry was in Cleveland, though, the common perception was that Ferry was in over his head, a guy who was unable to build a Championship team around the best player of his generation. Ferry was considered by many to be someone who was a figure head, unable to keep control of all the behind the scenes chaos of various moving pieces counteracting each other in a power struggle over who was truly in control of the franchise.
You would think that such a GM would be virtually un-hirable today, yet the Spurs were ecstatic to have Ferry back in their organization and now the Blazers are reportedly very interested in him. Over the last couple days countless articles have been written pinpointing the grace with which Ferry handled all the distractions in Cleveland and the steady leadership he provided as chief architect of the best basketball teams the Cleveland Cavaliers organization ever had. It would seem that only in hindsight is fact being forged from fiction and the narrative on Danny Ferry has been rewritten.
Then there’s the news of former Cavalier coach Mike Brown being hired as the new coach of the storied Los Angeles Lakers franchise. This one probably seems even more curious to those who paid close attention to the things that were both said and written of Coach Brown during his tenure in Cleveland.
Following Twitter during a nationally televised Cavs game the past couple years was like observing a Mike Brown coaching execution by firing squad as local fans and national media/bloggers alike delivered hit after hit to Coach Brown. Again, he was supposedly in over his head, couldn’t understand offense, didn’t know how to get the most out of a superstar, and was surely the one thing keeping LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers from their prized achievement.
And yet here was Mike Brown this week, a candidate for almost every head coaching vacancy, being given a new narrative. Only now that he has a new high profile job are the articles being written that credit the coach for his ability to get LeBron to commit to his true defensive potential, his ability to teach cohesive defensive principles to a team as a whole, his ability to handle and deal with the tenuous nature of leading a supposedly immature superstar and finding ways to succeed when there were so many factors working against him.
It can seem like both the media revelations of the disinterested subordination of LeBron James and the resulting outcome of the Cavaliers’ season of historic losing have given Mike Brown the validation for the quality coaching work he had actually been doing all along. Yet the truth is, being given another great coaching opportunity is really the only validation he needed.
And for the Cleveland Cavaliers themselves, the narrative is still being rewritten for them as it pertains to the LeBron James era in Cleveland. If this postseason is serving as a referendum on LeBron’s “Decision”, then what happened in the regular season has now been labeled as a referendum on the Cavalier franchise’s inability to give LeBron what he needed in Cleveland.
Yet what is so frequently overlooked is that all those stories rewritten about Danny Ferry and Mike Brown help highlight the facts of what really happened in Cleveland. LeBron James demanded upgrades in talent around him, yet could never be bothered to pick up a phone and call a free agent and help recruit them on the merits of coming to play beside him (something he was all too willing to do last summer for Miami). And Danny Ferry, having learned from the mistakes of overpaying free agents in 2005, thus carried out his only option, which was to trade for role players who were carefully selected as players who fit specific functions that were tailored to perfectly fit LeBron’s skills.
Indeed, this solution was highly effective, too. It was easy to see the effect losing LeBron had on the Cavalier franchise this year. When a team is designed to fit around one player, and that one player leaves, of course the whole system is going to struggle.
Finding the effect that losing a supporting cast designed to compliment his skills had on LeBron is a little more difficult to do. Yet if you look at the numbers, you can see some evidence. LeBron’s efficiency rating dropped almost 4 points this season, to its lowest mark since LeBron’s “off” season of 2006-07. We saw decreases in his scoring, assists, and blocks with increases in turnovers and fouls. Some of it is properly attributed to both the need to get used to new teammates along with the reduced burden he needed to carry by himself, but a part of it was also that he was dealing with playing with teammates who were not hand picked because of the way they fit with his game.
It’s been said that LeBron now has justification for leaving Cleveland in the form of the failures of the Cavaliers in their first post-LeBron season. It will be said that LeBron had to leave Cleveland to win a Championship, but that is merely history being rewritten. The Cavaliers were on the brink of winning Championships and, in my opinion, would have eventually succeeded had LeBron stayed. He didn’t have to leave to win, he had to leave to make winning easier. And that’s the choice that was his to make.
Which brings us full circle to the storylines that are being written this postseason. As the Dallas Mavericks sit and await their inevitable rematch with the Miami Heat, it would make for a tremendous story to see Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Mark Cuban find their redemption against the “evil” franchise that many NBA fans feel were handed the title by the refs in 2006. What a story that would make for Dallas fans, for Cleveland fans, and for any other fans who either felt turned off by the way Miami won in 2006 or by the way Miami celebrated their Championship in 2010 before the Big 3 had even played a single game together.
But alas, this is LeBron James’ fairytale. The writing is on the wall, and destiny is drawing ever closer. Cleveland fans hoped that this Miami arrangement would fail miserably, but the truth is it’s working better than ever. The Miami Heat are an unstoppable force led by the best basketball player I have ever seen who is not named Michael Jordan. It’s tough to watch them charging so easily toward something the Cavaliers fought so hard for, but that’s the way life works. It’s time to accept it and move on.
And so we can see the story being written in front of us now. But even as the last story in Cleveland is being rewritten, the franchise is about to start a new one. And no matter which version of the last story you choose to believe, there are plenty of lessons in all of them for the organization to learn from. For the Cavaliers and their fans, the hope is that the next story is given a happier, more peaceful ending. It’s a story worth getting excited for.