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Basketball Notes

Cavs not making much of a case to keep James

By Gary Washburn
November 1, 2009

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There is such an anxiety, a Christmas Day-type of anticipation for the opening of the season, that we as NBA fans tend to overreact during the early stages. This is the case regarding the Cavaliers, who dropped their first two games with a retooled lineup that includes future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.

The Cavaliers understandably lost the opener to the skilled Celtics. They led by 14 in the first half but provided little support for LeBron James. Concern set in, however, when the Cavs were pounded by Toronto, a team that created various matchup problems. It was disconcerting watching O’Neal attempt to cover 7-foot swingman Andrea Bargnani.

Cleveland remains a contender in the Eastern Conference and could emerge as the best team in the East before season’s end. We tend to forget these beginnings once the season advances into the division races and playoff time. For example, Orlando, which reached the NBA Finals last year, began the season 0-2, with an embarrassing 14-point home loss to Atlanta followed by a loss at Memphis. That was reason for panic on Nov. 1. But we need to have more respect for in-season adjustments. The Magic won their next three matchups with the Hawks and finished with 59 victories.

There tend to be many early-season upsets - Washington over Dallas, Houston over Golden State, Toronto over Cleveland, Chicago over San Antonio - because teams are still trying to figure each other out. The NBA is all about matchups and mismatches, and the ink on scouting reports is barely dry during the first month of the season.

The Cavaliers are suffering because they have many new players - including a center, O’Neal, who plays nothing like their previous starter, Zydrunas Ilgauskas - and their top assistant from last season, John Kuester, is now head coach of the Pistons.

James is facing a potential career-defining decision at the end of the season, having to determine whether Cleveland is where he wants to spend the prime of his career. General manager Danny Ferry has attempted to surround James with talented players but has fallen short. Mo Williams has struggled in clutch situations. Ben Wallace couldn’t produce at an advanced age. Wally Szczerbiak couldn’t defend shooting guards.

James’s reaction to the acquisition of O’Neal has been tepid. He has said all the right things, but it will obviously take some wins to convince him that the organization is ready to contend for the title.

“It could take a few weeks,’’ James said. “Not saying we lose ballgames in that span, because we are going to try to win ballgames, of course.

“But as far as us meshing and having that rotation down and us having the same momentum for every game like we did last season, it may take some time, because we have some new guys. And we changed the system a little bit because we lost our assistant.’’

The other newcomers are Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, solid players but not the type that can consistently take the pressure off James. What’s more, in his seven years, the Cavaliers have never complemented James with a player of high enough caliber, even though Ilgauskas is a two-time All-Star.

Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Flip Murray, Devin Brown, and Sasha Pavlovic aren’t going to entice James to stay in Cleveland. And the draft hasn’t boosted the supporting cast, either. They took Luke Jackson in 2004 over Josh Smith and Jameer Nelson, gave up on Shannon Brown prematurely, and traded their 2005 first-rounder 12 years ago in a deal for Wesley Person.

If James does opt for free agency, the Cavaliers can blame themselves for adding over-the-hill or limited acquisitions that never allowed him to delegate some of the scoring responsibility.

“You’ve got to have talent, first of all; it doesn’t matter if you have new guys and new faces,’’ James said. “You got to have talent and then you have to believe in the system the coaching staff put you in.

“We look to play well, but if we struggle early, it won’t be a surprise because we added a new system offensively. We added some new guys, but we are going to win as many ballgames as we can.’’

It’s premature to make a judgment on the Cavaliers, but the 2009-10 version has looked eerily similar to the previous ones, and that can’t be a good sign for Cleveland fans hoping to keep their King at home.

“That’s the good thing about the season being 82 games long,’’ said coach Mike Brown, whose team beat the Timberwolves Friday night for its first win. “You have time to get where you need to be in order to make that playoff run.’’

The Cavs’ timeline may be a little shorter than most because of James’s impending decision, so don’t be surprised if Ferry makes another significant move if the struggles continue.

CLASS DISMISSED
It was teams who got taken in 2006 draft
Unless Rajon Rondo (left) signs an 11th-hour extension, only three players from the Class of 2006 will have signed long-term contracts with the teams that drafted them. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland) and Bargnani (Toronto) are the only first-rounders to agree to these premium contracts.

The rest will be restricted free agents next season, loading the free agent market even further. Players such as Chicago’s Tyrus Thomas, Memphis’s Rudy Gay, and Utah’s Ronnie Brewer will have the right to entertain offer sheets.

But this draft class has the opportunity to emerge as one of the worst in recent memory. Of the 29 picks who played in the NBA (Portland’s Joel Freeland remains overseas), 15 have changed teams and four are no longer in the league.

Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick haven’t been consistent contributors; Patrick O’Bryant and Mouhamed Sene were drafted strictly on potential and were busts; Shawne Williams is being paid to stay away from the Mavericks.

Charles Barkley believes the NBA should adopt a 20-year-old age limit that would mandate players be two years removed from high school or have two years of college to help stem the slew of draft busts.

“I have always thought the longer they stay in college, their level of play will improve,’’ said Barkley. “You go to college to learn how to play.

“When you are in high school, you’re just good because you are bigger, stronger, and faster than everybody else. You should go to college to learn how to play. They are bypassing that, and it hurt the NBA for a long time.

“The NBA is back on the upswing but there was a few years where we had a bunch of talented players who didn’t have a clue how to play.’’

If teams had to draft over again, Roy would be the No. 1 pick and Rondo, the 21st pick, would move into the top five. And players such as Paul Millsap and Leon Powe would move into the first round. The unpredictability of the 2006 draft is hurting a lot of teams that were depending on potential cornerstone players to contribute.

ETC.
You’re not going to read all about it
Tim Donaghy (left) is not going down quietly, and the NBA wishes he never blew a whistle. The banished official, who admitted to making calls during games to raise the overall scores to erase his gambling debts, was set to release a tell-all book, but Random House halted publication, though the NBA maintains it never threatened legal action. “Blowing the Whistle: The Culture of Fraud in the NBA’’ could have been a Jose Canseco-type revelation unearthing years of unscrupulous actions by officials. But NBA fans may never find out what Donaghy has to say. The league would like for fans to believe that Donaghy, who was convicted of federal wire fraud and has served 15 months in prison, acted alone in his illegal dealings with bookies. So far, no other official has been implicated in betting schemes, although Donaghy attempted to implicate some to lighten his prison sentence.

Start and stop for Griffin
Blake Griffin (left) got dressed and grabbed a bite to eat at a Los Angeles restaurant after the Clippers’ Oct. 23 preseason win over the Hornets, unaware that he had sustained a stress fracture of his right kneecap just an hour earlier. Griffin, last spring’s No. 1 overall pick out of Oklahoma, battled shoulder injuries in training camp but appeared to adjust well to the rigors of the NBA in the early going. Now he will miss six weeks. “He’s very athletic,’’ Kobe Bryant said. “It looks like he has tremendous upside. He has good poise, good tempo. It’s him getting used to the NBA game, getting a feel for what he wants to do out there. But it looks like he has a world of talent.’’

Corn is out of season
Add Pistons forward Chris Wilcox to the group of players who have cut off their cornrows in favor of a shorter cut. Wilcox, who rocked the cornrows since his days at Maryland, joined Carmelo Anthony, Ricky Davis, Allen Iverson (briefly), Jermaine O’Neal, and Richard Hamilton as players who have opted for the fade haircut. Denver’s Nene is among those sticking with the hairstyle.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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