This looked like the Cavaliers' year, but in six games they were divided and dominated by Boston. Will their ultimate championship hopes now be dismantled by LeBron James? You might not have heard about this, but he will be a free agent July 1.
• What now, LeBron? "I want to win," he said after Cleveland's 94-85 loss in Game 6 Thursday. "That's my only thing, that's my only concern. It's all about winning for me and I think the Cavs are committed to do that, but at the same time I'll give myself options. Me and my team, we have a game plan that we're going to execute, and we'll see where we'll be at."
Just like that his team is no longer the Cavs. His team is now his closest friends who form his marketing company, his adviser Wes Wesley and his agent Leon Rose. For whatever it was worth, Celtics forward Kevin Garnett was recommending that James forget about feelings of loyalty to the Cavs or Cleveland, which is 45 minutes north of his hometown of Akron. "Loyalty is something that hurts you at times because you can't get youth back," said Garnett, who didn't want to leave Minnesota before he was traded to the Celtics at age 31. "I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I'd have done it a little sooner.
"The world is his ... He's the face of basketball."
All season (as some of you may have noticed) I have been assuming James will return to Cleveland, an assumption based on respect for its deep roster and No. 1 seeding over the past two years. But this loss exposes the Cavs as pretenders. None of James' leading teammates over the last two years -- Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and now Antawn Jamison -- have looked capable of making championship-worthy plays in the biggest moments.
James needs to win multiple championships. All of the other talk of becoming the world's most famous and popular athlete will wither and die if he fails to win multiple titles. But after watching Williams (1-for-8 in the second half of Game 6) and Jamison (2-for-10 overall) and Varejao be ineffectual, is there any reason for him to continue to believe in the only team has known?
Several teams are worthy of his consideration, but each has issues that must be resolved.
The Heat. If they dump Michael Beasley they could sign James, re-sign Dwyane Wade and recruit Chris Bosh. My own feeling -- and I may be wrong -- is that Wade cannot and will not want to play with James. If LeBron goes to Miami then Wade becomes the No. 2 option. Both players need the ball, and each is approaching his peak. Does Wade want to defer when he is the one with the championship ring? Doesn't he want to ultimately beat James and emerge as the best player of his generation? I could see them teaming together in their 30s, when they're all done proving themselves individually, but right now they look more like rivals than teammates. But maybe I'm all wrong on this; maybe Wade and James are on the phone with each other right now working out the details.
The Bulls: He would be joined by point guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah with Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich (if his salary isn't moved) playing secondary roles, so this is not a title-on-the-cusp situation either. James would have to be patient with this group.
Talk of James going to Chicago in a sign-and-trade makes little sense. The potential of receiving Deng or Hinrich in return would not be worth the pain of sending James to a divisional rival. If Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is going to participate in a sign-and-trade, he will do so to ensure that James goes far away to the Western conference. I cannot imagine Cleveland doing anything to help Chicago.
Another recruiting tool for Chicago is to invite James to basically hire his own coach, with the thinking that he would choose his friend John Calipari, the coach at Kentucky. More on that later.
The Knicks: They can add James and another not-quite-max talent, which is not to say James couldn't work out some way to recruit Bosh or Joe Johnson to join him in New York. They would be joined by Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, a couple of bench players, the woebegone Eddy Curry and then a bunch of veteran-minimum fill-ins. That means New York will need at least two years to develop a roster with the depth and heart to get by an Eastern contender like Orlando. Another problem for the Knicks is that team president Donnie Walsh is presiding over a front office that was assembled by his predecessor Isiah Thomas. What does it say about the Knicks that Walsh has yet to hire his own people following New York's failure to recognize the potential in Brandon Jennings at last year's draft? The Knicks have an excellent coach and the world's largest market, but they face practical hurdles in their ability to build a winner around James.
The Nets: They're going to be playing in Newark for the next two seasons, and in the meantime, owner Mikhail Prokhorov's $17 billion can't buy enough talent to quickly turn the league's worst team into its best. Maybe James will take another look at the Nets as they're preparing to move to Brooklyn in 2012.
The Mavericks: They are the dark horse, and they should be taken very seriously. They don't have cap space, but they do have an ambitious owner with a tradition of spending big in hope of winning championships, they have James' good friend Jason Kidd at point guard and they have a future Hall of Famer in Dirk Nowitzki -- and how would rivals match up against a front line of Dirk and LeBron? If James tells the Cavs he is leaving, wouldn't they prefer to participate in a sign-and-trade to retrieve assets from Dallas instead of enabling James to freely join with an Eastern conference rival like Chicago, New York or Miami? It stands to reason that Cleveland would much rather see James move to the West than remain in the East to haunt them. The Mavs have enough depth to work a sign-and-trade and still compete for the championship next year, especially since they could employ their mid-level exception to fill in with tough-minded role players. I guarantee that Mark Cuban was cheering loudly for Boston Thursday night.
The Trail Blazers: Another potential sign-and-trade partner with a rich, ambitious owner and a deep roster, but Portland's young roster should appear less attractive than that of the win-now Mavs. People will talk about a tie-in with Nike, but being near company headquarters won't develop James's brand. Only winning can do that for him.
• The next Cavs coach. It's a no-brainer that Cleveland will replace coach Mike Brown, but there are few proven options that may yet lure back James. Only five coaches have championship rings and four of them -- Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and Pat Riley (who is hinting at returning to the bench for Miami) -- won't be coming to Cleveland. But Larry Brown might, so long as compensation can be arranged with Charlotte. People may shudder at this, but Cleveland's best hope of retaining James is to provide him with a coach who can provide hope of an instant championship. No one else has that pedigree.
Coaching is going to be important to James. He looked frustrated throughout the Boston series as he found himself in no-win situations. As the series wore on he was either turning the ball over or sulking uncharacteristically through Game 5, and when it was all over his demeanor was one of acceptance. Did he refuse to give interviews last year after the postseason loss to Orlando because he was angry with the coaching of Mike Brown? When James played a thoroughly disengaged second half in Game 5, he looked very much like he believed Cleveland had no hope against the Celtics and Rivers' game plan.
Another option for Cleveland is to bring in Calipari, a highly charismatic recruiter who is able to build tight relationships with the players of James' generation and younger. From everything I've been told, there is no doubt James believes he would flourish in Calipari's dribble-drive offense. Between his player relationships and his experience with the Nets, there is reason to believe Calipari can succeed as an NBA coach. But James is going to demand success of the highest level, and he won't need to be reminded that Kentucky lost in the NCAA Tournament because Calipari couldn't overcome West Virginia's surprise tactic of the 1-3-1 zone. If Calilpari has been unable to deliver an NCAA championship, will he be able to outcoach Rivers or Stan Van Gundy or Phil Jackson on his way to an NBA title?
This can't just be about manipulating the system and working out a big-money deal for James and his friends. The bottom line is that James needs to win, because he's at the stage in his career where every loss is going to be viewed now as being his fault.
• Cleveland's roster. Could a new coach -- Larry Brown, for example -- turn the Cavs roster into an instant champion? It will be a smaller, quicker team when Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas come off the books. They would be looking at Anderson Varejao as a center (similar to Noah in Chicago), with Jamison or J.J. Hickson at power forward and Jamario Moon providing athleticism off the bench.
Otherwise, there aren't a lot of options. Neither Jamison nor Williams can be traded for anything close to market value. The Cavs could use their mid-level exception to fill in with a couple of role players, but the only way to dynamically change the team is to bring in a coach to change the style and ultimately salvage talents like Williams and Jamison.
There is going to be a lot of second-guessing of Cleveland's midseason decision to acquire Jamison instead of Amar'e Stoudemire, who has thrived in Phoenix since the trading deadline came and went. But would Stoudemire have played so well in Cleveland while sharing the front line with Shaq and others? Probably not.
• The need for stability. The irony of this need is that fears of James' eventual departure have helped drive Cleveland to make major moves during the recent trading deadlines and summers.
But the Cavs were beaten in part because the Celtics trusted and relied upon each other, a result of the three years shared by their four-man core of Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Not only did they match up well against Cleveland, but their sum-of-the-parts unity exposed the Cavs' divisions. How was Jamison supposed to fit in when the pressure was on? What was Shaq's role exactly? None of this was fully understood because the players had spent relatively little time on the floor together.
If James walks out on Cleveland, the Cavs will realize close to $6 million in cap space to fill in around Jamison and Williams. They'll be the team that couldn't convince their hometown star to stay home. It will be the death of their franchise.
While it appears more than likely that James will leave, the emotions will cool over the next month and Cleveland may yet be able to reach an agreement to retain him. Cavs fans shouldn't give up hope -- especially if James' intention is to sign a three-year contract with an option to leave after two, which would enable him to continue to dominate the free-agent buzz over the seasons ahead. If he doesn't see a compelling reason to leave this summer, he could postpone his decision for a couple of years.
• What this says about James. Whatever he does now, he needs to make certain that he has put himself in position to win championships. Because whatever he creates now will belong to him. The team and coach and GM and owner for whom he chooses to play -- he needs to make sure it works, because in the end he'll receive the blame if it doesn't.
• Ian, what is with all the blowout victories in games in which the team getting blown out has a very strong reason to get a win? Denver's egg in Game 6 against Utah. Atlanta goes into Game 1 against Orlando and no-shows to the tune of a 40-point loss. Boston steals a game against Cleveland, comes home and loses by 30. How in the world can teams no-show like that in the playoffs when there are two and three days between games? Stunning to say the least.-- Barry, La Jolla, Calif.
Let's start by looking at each of your examples. In Boston's 29-point loss in Game 3, the Celtics were dwelling on bad habits. The Hawks were beaten before they played a postseason minute against Orlando - they'd lost to the Magic by a combined 65 points over their first three meetings during the season, and they looked very much like they had zero confidence. The Nuggets' loss was an extension of their dwindling play over the last month without GeorgeKarl and a diminished Kenyon Martin. In hindsight, you can see how each of those blowouts came to be.
But the same kind of lopsided trend led to sweeps in all but one of the second-round series. My feeling is that cap-management and the constant shuffling of role players makes it more difficult than ever for teams to grow cohesive. They're thrown together and, when pressured, they don't pull together because they haven't been together long enough -- they crumble.
• Not sure how you mean Magic Johnson and Larry Bird failed in their own way and were driven to succeed by those failures. Bird turned around a moribund franchise and led it to 60 wins in his first season, winning Rookie of the Year, and I believe Magic won the title his rookie year. Magic was reportedly upset to lose Rookie of the Year, but that's just more a great player making something up to motivate himself rather than failing. Bird, of course, lost the NCAA final to Magic but your statement seemed to imply that they all failed in the NBA at some point, motivating them all to the lofty heights they eventually achieved. Seems like you are just making up something because it sounds good and it fits nicely into the point you are trying to make concerning LeBron.-- Jerry Durant, Boston
Magic Johnson played horribly by his standards to lose the 1984 NBA Finals and was re-named "Tragic" Johnson for a year; he has long referred to that lost Finals as a turning point in his career. When Bird's Celtics were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the 1983 playoffs, he promised to make amends by working harder than ever that summer -- which led to his victory in the Finals the following year against Magic's Lakers.
James is in his seventh NBA season and has more in common with these incidents. Your reference to the early years of Magic and Bird has little relevance to James' troubles in Game 5 this week, as well as his defeat in this series.
• I don't understand how you can criticize LeBron's efforts when it should be clearly obvious that he has not been 100 percent in the last two games. We all know how badly he wants a championship and if he's not giving his normal effort it's because he can't. Give a guy a break.-- Dennis, New York City
I did make note of his elbow injury, which is why it was all the more surprising that he relied on his jump shot instead of driving the ball inside to earn free throws in Game 5. You're defending LeBron like he's already playing in your city, Dennis -- do you know something we don't?
• I thought your declaration of the Spurs as the new favorites in the West just midway through their first-round series was a knee-jerk reaction, and here it is -- swept from the second round.-- Jordan, Bethesda, Md.
Good call there, Jordan. At that time the Lakers were struggling and the Spurs looked like their old selves. I think most people were surprised to see the Spurs lose to the Suns, but that doesn't change the fact you are right. I was wrong to believe so quickly in San Antonio's revival.
I reached out to an NBA pro personnel scout to examine the next moves for these three evicted playoff teams.
• For the Spurs. I asked the scout why San Antonio would consider trading Tony Parker when he -- a peaking 27-year-old - isn't the problem. "The only reason they'd move Parker is because of George Hill's development," he said. "Parker has one of their most expensive contracts, and moving him would give them some flexibility. But I agree with you, I don't think they're going to blow it up as long as Tim [Duncan] is there."
Duncan is signed for two more years. The Spurs could use their No. 20 draft pick and sign 25-year-old Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter from the Spanish ACB to add vitality to their front line (provided he is able to come to terms, which is no sure thing). "Remember how good [Fabricio] Oberto was for the Spurs because he had a great IQ, he knew his role, he was a complementary player?" said the scout. "That's what Splitter could be for them - he'd play a different style but he would have a very similar effect on the team as a complementary guy who would bring some toughness, and he's a pretty good guy who would understand the team concepts. He will do lot of the dirty work and give them the physical style. He's not going to be flash, he's going to be substance."
Could Hill be ready to flourish in his third NBA season should coach GreggPopovich decide to move Parker? "It's a hell of a risk, but I know George Hill is one of Pop's absolute favorites. Everybody looks for the curve of their players -- have we ridden out the curve of this guy, have we gotten the most out of him? When Devin Harris was traded [from Dallas], everybody lauded the Nets for making a great trade; but as time has gone on, now you hear people saying that maybe Dallas knew what they were doing by trading Harris. It's hard to know what the Spurs should do or will do, because nobody knows your own players like you do."
My own feeling is that the Spurs won't deal Parker because it is so difficult to make a fair trade in basketball terms anymore. The Spurs would need to receive talent in return, but in this market most teams will be seeking to steal him for expiring contracts. I'm guessing they'll look forward to acquiring Splitter and a promising rookie while counting on further improvement from Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair after their boot-camp year in the Spurs' system.
• For the Jazz. The decision in Utah is whether to re-sign Carlos Boozer and then trade Paul Millsap, or watch Boozer leave knowing that Millsap will be his replacement. "That's a tough one," said the scout. "I know that Jerry Sloan loves Boozer. It doesn't make sense to have both of them, but you don't want to give up an asset for nothing."
Millsap has three years left at $24.3 million on the contract he originally signed with Portland, which Utah matched last July.
"I don't think they believe Millsap is an $8-million player, but they could not give up the asset for nothing. If they still believe that [Millsap is overpaid] today, then they should move that asset. Keep the guy you like the best -- if you like Boozer then re-sign him, and if you can't then the decision is made for you. It may be that Boozer already has something done to go to Miami or New York and there's nothing you can do about it if you're Utah. The problem is the agent won't tell you that up front because he wants the competition from Utah trying to sign Boozer in order to drive the money up and up."
Another big question facing Utah is whether to keep Andrei Kirilenko for his final year at $17.8 million, or trade his expiring contract for a longterm asset. "To me, Kirilenko's contract is the big one. They might want to have him coming off their books [in 2011], but what if you could move Kirilenko in order to be able to afford to keep Boozer?" In other words, their decision on Kirilenko may depend on their negotiations with Boozer.
• For the Nuggets. "They believe they have two more years, because that's when Chauncey's contract is up," said the scout of 33-year-old point guard Chauncey Billups. "They've got to figure out a way to get Ty Lawson on the floor more because Chauncey is looking older and older every day. He had his rear end handed to him by Deron Williams in that opening series.
"I don't know how they can do much with their roster. You've got this upper-echelon player in Carmelo [Anthony], and then they're relying on older guys like Chauncey, Chris Andersen, and Nene is no youngster. Are they satisfied with what they're getting out of Nene for $11 million a year? But it's going to be very hard to trade him."
The Nuggets hold an option on Billups' contract. If they pay him $3.7 million after next season, they can escape his final year worth $14.2 million in 2011-12 (which is the anticipated lockout season).
"The only problem with that is Chauncey is a favorite son, and Denver has very few favorite sons in the NBA," said the scout in reference to Billups' college career at Colorado. "He's a local kid who made well, and when he came home they made it to the conference finals with him. If you don't do that guy the right way on his way out, they could sour a lot of people. What they're better off doing is to suck it up and figure out how this guy is going to help them run their organization down the road. Whether he's a coach or a scout or whatever, he has to continue being an ambassador for that team."
Then there are questions of whether George Karl will recover from cancer treatment to coach the Nuggets next season. "Everybody seems to think he'll be OK and he'll be back for them -- which is big, because over the last few years George has salvaged that team," said the scout.
These opinions come from an NBA advance scout.
• The West: Suns vs. Lakers. "I admit, I'm pulling for Phoenix, but I don't see how the Suns can win. If [Andrew] Bynum is going to play a lot, then [Suns center Robin] Lopez has to play some just to give Phoenix a similar guy in terms of size. Other than Amar'e [Stoudemire] the Suns have no size and that's the big issue. When the Lakers go with Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Bynum, that will cause problems for Phoenix.
"Which means [Channing] Frye has to play great, which is scary. He has to end up making big shots and causing problems. But Lamar has a chance to be effective against him, because Channing Frye is not go to put the ball on the floor and dribble by him.
"If Phoenix goes small, that should create a strength at the offensive end, but not at the other end. Oklahoma City showed if you can make the Lakers run, you can put them at a disadvantage. But if it's a half-court set, the Lakers are much better suited.
"Then you look at [Steve] Nash and [Derek] Fisher -- Fisher is smart enough that Nash is not going to kill him. Plus, I think Kobe [Bryant] ends up playing on Nash a little bit more in this series.
"I don't see how Phoenix wins more than a couple of games in this series, but let's give credit to Nash. He has been the best point guard in the league the last three years, in my opinion. He is the embodiment of all the things a point guard is supposed to be: First, he's a great teammate and leader, and they feed off his energy. He's the only guy to do the 50 percent [of field-goal attempts], 40 percent [threes], 90 percent [free throws]. You can't go under screens because of his threes, and you can't stay in front of him physically. He makes everybody better. He'' a great passer, runner and shooter -- and while he's not a great defender, that's not going to get exploited by the Lakers. Steve is not a great defender, but he's not terrible, and Fisher is not going to blow by him."
• The East: Celtics vs. Magic. "I would've given Orlando the advantage over Boston or Cleveland, because Orlando is going to be well rested and they're playing with a lot of confidence and shooting the ball so well. They've been so good at home with such great starts to their games that I think they have a pretty good chance at starting this series up 2-0 against Boston.
"Jameer Nelson has been the difference-maker in both of Orlando's series. Charlotte had the two point guards, and between Raymond Felton's strength and [D.J.] Augustin's quickness they thought they could give him more resistance, but Jameer just kicked their butts. If he gets by his man, now he's got three shooters around him and a post-man to dunk the ball. So you can't help on him.
"I think Boston is going to make a better series of it than Cleveland would have, because the point guards will be going at it. It's going to be entertaining to see [Rajon] Rondo and Nelson going against each other. Boston has some wings who can get out there and play on the perimeter against Orlando's wings. [Kendrick] Perkins is physical and has some size to deal with Howard, and Rasheed [Wallace] has done a good job off the bench against Howard. The Celtics don't have the star power they used to have, but they've obviously been playing better defense lately.
"I still think Orlando beats them. They're not scared of going there, because they've won in Boston. The Celtics really need to come out playing hard, because Orlando shoots so well in the first quarter that they can bury you early."
• For Jackie MacMullan. Her election as a print journalist to the Basketball Hall of Fame was announced last week, and I don't think I've ever been happier for anyone in our business. As I proudly tell anyone who will listen, Jackie and I arrived at the Boston Globe as interns in 1982 and have been friends (and occasional rivals as Globe colleagues) ever since. I have never known anyone in our business who is more respected or more deserving of that respect. I could go on and on about her, but you get the gist.