But first, an assessment of how loudly Cleveland's bubble will burst.
The Works Season Previews: Cleveland Cavaliers
The question of whether the Cavaliers are worse off after losing LeBron James is not debatable. Of course the franchise is worse off -- today, tomorrow and possibly forever. The question is how far will Cleveland fall, and how long will it take to recover.
The latter is a bit misguided in the sense that Cleveland's recent performance (at least in the regular season) is so rare it's hardly regularly achievable. The Cavaliers won 66 games last season, becoming only the fourth team since 2000 to do so. The other teams had magnificent stars, as the Cavs did: the 2000 Lakers boasted peak Shaquille O'Neal and rising Kobe Bryant; the 2006 Mavericks had Dirk Nowitzki at his best; the 2008 Celtics had an near MVP-level Kevin Garnett. You don't reach these heights without serious, serious star power.
The Cavs' revival, then, relies on the addition of a serious star. One can only assume said star is not currently on the Cavaliers' roster, which has been left a mixture of mid-level youngsters, veteran role-players and that weird leading tandem of Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams. Everyone is disposable, and when everyone is disposable, everything is disposable. It's quite possible -- perhaps even probable -- that the next 50-win Cleveland team will not have a single current Cav on it.
It is established, then, that regaining the Cavs' LeBronian stature will be difficult if not impossible in the foreseeable future. But what of the period before the climb? What of the crash? For that, we look to the past.
Above, a collection of the most stand-out boom-to-bust teams of the 2000s. Each team had at least one 50-win season; most had a few. All crashed at some point in the decade, most due to personnel loss (to injury, trade or free agency). Most fell below the awful 20-win barrier before the bleeding ended. Portland, in its post-Jailblazer slide, only dipped to 21-61; the post-Billups Pistons registered 27 wins last season, and hope that's the low point. A serious injury to Jonas Jerebko doesn't help.
In a song titled "Phages," Toronto-based band The Most Serene Republic has a line that goes: "This town is dead / from too much living." That lyric certainly applies in the NBA, where team success so frequently results in the sort of hopeless dips outlined above. The draft is a major contributor; the eons-long success stories of the league -- the Spurs, Lakers, Jazz -- work around it, either by picking up the rare stars available on the back end of the draft (Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker) or by acquiring fresh talent on the open market (Pau Gasol, Carlos Boozer).
Living fat on 50-win seasons, the Cavaliers are nearly bereft of young talent, and are certainly bereft of young superstars-in-the-making. It's a pattern we see so often. Look at the Kings, for example, who picked no higher than 19th from 1998 through 2006. The Nets were unable to bolster their ranks during Jason Kidd's heyday, picking no higher than 15th from 2001 to 2007. The Pistons had the fortune of acquiring what would become the No. 2 in 2003; no matter, as the choice was wasted on Darko Milicic. Detroit wouldn't again pick in the top-10 -- where a super-majority of stars are selected -- until this past June.
In the NBA, success has a real cost. Suddenly barren of top-level talent, the Cavs have so far to fall. The good news is that once the team crashes -- perhaps this season, perhaps in 2-3 more years -- it can win the chance to choose a star and begin the arduous climb back to the top. The bad news is, as any fan of the teams shown above, the crash will test the bonds a fan has with its team. It is a painful reality, and though Cleveland fans have suffered already this summer, they haven't seen anything yet.
Of course, pre-LeBron Cavs fans actually do know what it feels like, because this team's been awful before. But after the boom years, the pain will be real and jarring. Ahh, sports. (TZ)
Before the Positional Revolution, There Was the Positional Revolution
If there's one thing Gilbert Arenas is sure about, it's that he and John Wall can co-exist just fine. When asked about it again on Wednesday, Arenas responded: "I haven't seen a situation where you have two good guards and it doesn't work out. When you have good players, it works out." To anyone who saw Tyreke Evans and Kevin Martin together before Martin was dealt out of town, or had the pleasure of watching Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis try and figure out what to make of each other last season, this may sound absurd.
To understand where Arenas is coming from on this one, though, you have to know where he's been. Namely, the 2004-05 pairing with Larry Hughes that while it should have been so wrong, proved to be so, so right. Both brought the ball up, initiated the offense, and worked off of each other brilliantly. The interplay between them was mesmerizing, and at the same time, neither was shy about getting their points. Those two, plus Jamison, were enough to get the Wizards to the second round, where they were swept by the Heat.
By standard positional roles, this backcourt didn't make a ton of sense. Arenas, while nominally a point guard, was a volume scorer with decent court vision. Hughes, an utter enigma of a player, who rebounded extremely well for his size and specialized in mid-range jumpers. Both were experts at playing the passing lanes, making them deadly on the defensive end -- and always liable to take off on a two-man break. Way before everyone starting messing with and re-defining position, Arenas and Hughes threw the blueprint out the window, discovered chemistry, and rode their ability to bring out the best in each other all the way to the playoffs.
They were one of my favorite backcourts ever to watch, seemingly for reasons that should set no basketball purists on fire. Like any sensible man, I balk at calling them one of the best backcourts ever. But I got to wondering: had there ever been a mismatched, a-positional, or unconventional pair of guards who meshed as well as Arenas and Hughes?
The answer, surprisingly, is "not really." After talking my way through the NBA's history with FanHouse's staff, I came up with a list of backcourts that don't conform to the usual playmaker/scorer template. Some of these are two combo guards; others, two points. Using combined PER as a measure, it turns out that only one twosome has been more effective together than Arenas and Hughes:
|Best Seasons by These Unconventional Backcourts|
|1971-72||Gail Goodrich/Jerry West (Lakers)||43.2|
|2004-05||Gilbert Arenas/Larry Hughes (Wizards)||42.9|
|1980-81||Magic Johnson/Norm Nixon (Lakers)||41.2|
|1975-76||George Gervin/James Silas (Spurs)||41.2|
|1984-85||Micheal Ray Richardson/Otis Birdsong (Nets)||38.9|
|1978-79||World B. Free/Randy Smith (Clippers)||38.7|
|1988-89||Fat Lever/Michael Adams (Nuggets)||38.1|
|1969-70||Dave Bing/Jimmy Walker (Pistons)||37.7|
|1974-75||Walt Frazier/Earl Monroe (Knicks)||37.6|
|1978-79||Gus Williams/Dennis Johnson (Sonics)||37.1|
Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars could be on here, owing to Dumars' versatility, but their numbers are thoroughly unremarkable. Curry and Ellis managed a 32.0 last season; Thomas and Dumars, one of the most storied guard duos of all time, had their high score of 34.5 in 1989-90 -- and that was the high watermark. Interesting, too, that Frazier-Monroe and Williams-Johnson fall so low on this list, considering their reputations. To be fair, PER isn't ultimate measure of basketball performance, and we shouldn't necessarily think less of these backcourts because of these numbers; just writing that felt stupid.
It says something, though, that the 2004-05 Wizards tandem is so ridiculously high on this list -- second only to Jerry Freaking West and Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich, whose Lakers won 69 games and a title that year.
What's the moral of the story? Gilbert Arenas has been spoiled by his improbable track record (another bit of against all odds, underdog maverick-y mythos to add to his name, if ever we see him that way again). The weirdness of him and Hughes wasn't unprecedented; nor are the two PG line-ups many times experimented with this past year. And, luckily for Gil, the success of Frazier and Monroe bodes well for this year's Wizards. This fact has not been lost on the DC media; do a web search for "Earl Monroe point guard" and practically all the results come from Washington writers since the Wizards won the lottery.
Frazier, while he scored, was always a floor general at heart. Monroe got assists in Baltimore, but for the most part, he was a scoring machine who wasn't totally one-dimensional. As Mike Prada said to me, "I know the Pearl as being awesome, not necessarily one position or the other." The clash was more about playing style -- Frazier was controlled and team-oriented, Monroe a natural showman -- and perceived egos than actual overlap. Yet for DC today, Monroe has become a point guard, because Arenas was a point guard, and thus there's hope in the situation.
Or maybe, as we all should have learned from 2004-05, maybe Gil isn't a point guard after all. Maybe Mike's description of Monroe works just fine for Arenas. And while this still doesn't make him and Wall the archetypal backcourt, it's less a stretch to see them together. Certainly, stranger things have happened. (BS)
The Miami Heat spent their training camp at an army base, which was good PR and, on a serious note, was a pretty cool gesture toward our men and women in uniform. Part of this experience was a demonstration of the awesome weaponry kept on hand, to which the Heat responded with varying degrees of hootin' and hollerin'. Via Early Termination Option:
Guns can be very dangerous, but also kind of awesome if used in a controlled setting to blow up inanimate objects. There's also, as Eric notes over ETO, something to be said for a team that thinks of itself as a pyrotechnic blockbuster getting off on this stuff. It's like the movies, but better.
Except while we're on the subject of movies, how about that one about the super-violent, anti-social Miami cocaine kingpin, whose most memorable moment involves heaps of cocaine and a small arsenal? Yeah, it was just one innocent gimmick shirt, one of many, but if it seemed off at the time, how about now? The juxtaposition is such a bad look, you would think Maverick Carter himself had engineered it. Maybe I'm being unfair. After all, what's the difference between Scarface and Bad Boys, or Miami Vice, or Heat (has that happened?) ... except that those movies are cops having a blast, not a drug-fueled, psychopathic spiral into depravity that has become a hood icon.
Making the Heat into gangsters is a lot more convincing than likening them to Will Smith with a side arm. It's also the right note to strike when it comes to intimidating opponents. Because let's face it, they are a scourge unto the rest of the league, not fun for the whole family with some loud noises thrown in for kicks. I say either identify with the bad guy, or giggle at gunfire. Otherwise, things get awfully complicated awfully fast. But that's a column for another day. (BS)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.