Thursday December 6th, 2007

It was a sight that would make even the most fair-weather Cavaliers fan cringe. As the seconds ticked down to zero in Cleveland's disappointing 100-79 loss to New Jersey on Tuesday, the Cavaliers' fourth consecutive defeat, the cameras panned along the end of the Cleveland bench. There, in strict adherence to David Stern's dress code, sat LeBron James, Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall, otherwise known as sprained finger, bone bruise and sprained wrist.

Not pictured was forward Anderson Varejao, who was still waiting for Cleveland to officially match the three-year, $17.4 million offer sheet (which includes a player option for the third year that Varejao almost certainly will not pick up) he had signed with the Charlotte Bobcats.

Not to be lost on the Varajao signing is the influence of agent Dan Fegan, who represents Charlotte's Jason Richardson and Matt Carroll. Fegan, in all likelihood, exerted some influence to get the Bobcats to offer Varejao a contract they knew Cleveland would match.

While Varejao has been enjoying the high life in Brazil, the defending Eastern Conference champs have been in flux. At 9-10 going into Wednesday's game against the Wizards, Cleveland is desperately trying to tread water until the core of its roster can get back on the court. The Cavaliers have averaged 76.3 points per game in their four losses. Some two hours before the opening tip against Washington, James and Hughes took the floor to warm up with a Cleveland assistant coach. Back in the Cavaliers' locker room, Hughes claimed he would be back in the lineup while a barefoot James offered a "you'll see me soon" when grilled by a reporter about his return.

Not soon enough. Much like Michael Jordan's Jordanaires, King James' court isn't so regal without him on the throne. Against the Wizards, Cleveland started Sasha Pavlovic (who is still rounding into shape after a holdout of his own), Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shannon Brown (who was thought so highly of before the season that Cleveland refused to pick up his $1.1 million third-year option) and second-year point guard Daniel Gibson.

"We absolutely do not want to play without LeBron, Larry or Andy," said Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. "But we have to start finding ways to win. We haven't done that yet."

Expecting Varajeo to come in and play like, well, Varejao, probably isn't one of them. Reports of Varejeao's physical condition have varied, so much so you expect the Brazilian forward to arrive looking like either Mr. Universe or the Pillsbury Doughboy. But even if Varejao comes in looking like an Adonis, it is unrealistic to expect him to play at the same level he did a year ago -- though he still may lead the league in flops, er, charges taken.

For their part, Varejao's teammates aren't expecting the energetic forward to play the role of savior.

"I don't expect much," said Ilgauskas. "He's missed two months of basketball."

Said Hughes: "This team doesn't need a Band-Aid. We understand because of Sasha that it's tough for a guy to come in and help right away. It's not going to happen overnight."

"Andy was a big part of what we have done the last two years," said Brown. "[But] I don't even know when he has to report. He has to come in and start banging bodies. There's not a ton of practice time [for him to get in shape]."

What would help -- immediately -- is getting James back. Before getting whacked on the finger against the Pistons last week, James was a virtuoso. In a seven-game stretch between Nov. 14-27 that culminated with a win over Boston, James averaged 37.6 points (on 51.4 percent shooting), 9.3 rebounds and 10.0 assists. Take that, Jason Kidd.

It remains inexplicable why James remains out of the lineup unless the injury is more serious than Cleveland is letting on. In a competitive Eastern Conference, every game counts and the Cavaliers can ill afford to let any of them slip away.

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