If the Cleveland Cavaliers had mailed out a collective Christmas card, it would have shown them scratching their heads and searching their souls. Around Yuletide, center Brad Daugherty branded the Cavs "a team in recovery" from injuries and recent personnel changes. Coach Lenny Wilkens, citing the gradual comeback of point guard Mark Price from knee surgery, tabled all discussion of Cleveland's prospects until January. General manager Wayne Embry vowed that his high-priced bench would pay dividends someday. And team owners George and Gordon Gund lined the players' lockers with black-leather jackets in a gesture of generosity and, maybe, symbolism. Says Price, "They might have been saying something about our image."
But the days of the recuperating, reticent, dubiously deep and frequently meek Cavaliers have been tossed aside with the Christmas wreaths and shelved with the tree ornaments. With blue-collar efficiency and black-leather ruggedness, the Cavs, as of Sunday, had ripped off 11 straight wins since Dec. 20, roaring to a 24-9 record and establishing themselves as a serious threat to their most formidable Central Division rival, the NBA champion Chicago Bulls. Eight of those victories came against playoff-caliber teams, and the average winning margin was 12.8 points. By beating the Philadelphia 76ers 108-102 last Saturday, Cleveland ran its record to 15-1 at Richfield Coliseum. "I like this team," says Wilkens, typically sotto voce. "I like it very much."
Wilkens's measured stewardship is reflected in the Cavs' balance. When they blasted the Miami Heat 148-80 on Dec. 17 to set an NBA record for margin of victory, no Cleveland player scored more than 18 points. Since that game, the Cavs' bench has emerged as a force, out-scoring the opposition's subs by an average of 15.6 points. The bench has been so effective that seldom does a Cavalier starter play more than 40 minutes or score more than 30 points.
The emergence of the reserves, led by guard John Battle, has helped Cleveland carve out a reputation for unrelenting unselfishness. Sharing time and the ball seems second nature to the Cavs, an easygoing bunch raised mostly in down-home, count-the-stoplights towns that Barney Fife could have covered on foot patrol. "Everyone has similar backgrounds, the same values," says Nets center Chris Dudley, a former Cavalier. "They don't care who scores, who doesn't. Everyone helps out on defense. They get along really well, and they play together well as a team."
The latter has been made easier by the return to action in mid-November of Price, who is about 80% fit after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee 14 months ago. When Price, who came back six weeks ahead of schedule, led Cleveland to a 110-103 win against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 2 with 22 points and seven assists in 32 minutes, Knick coach Pat Riley labeled him one of the handful of franchise players in the league. Through Sunday, with Price in the lineup, the Cavs were 30-12 over the last two seasons; without him, they were 27-46.
However, Price's brilliance as a playmaker may be less pivotal to Cleveland than the sustained dominance of the 7-foot, 265-pound Daugherty is. "This team's really built around Brad," says sixth man John (Hot Rod) Williams. "Mark controls it, but Brad is the focus."
Consider that after 33 games this season Daugherty had outscored the opposing center 29 times. On the first through ninth days of Christmas, Daugherty got the best of five future Hall of Famers: Moses Malone, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Robert Parish. At week's end Daugherty was scoring a team-high 22.2 points and pulling down a team-high 10.3 rebounds a game while shooting 57.3% and leading the league's pivotmen in assists with 124.
Daugherty, 26, already has five seasons—three of them as an All-Star—under his steadily shrinking belt, and he continues to add more skills to his repertoire. This season, for instance, he is on pace to block a career-high 104 shots. "I feel like I'm at a five on a scale of one to 10," he says. "I've gotten halfway; I know what to do. Now it's just application, application, application."
Daugherty's game has always been an unassuming blend of finesse and strength. On offense he can back down on the dribble, bury a righthand hook from either side of the lane, hit a floater in transition, square up from 15 feet and drill a jumper or pump fake and power dunk. With his ability to see the floor and his willingness to spread the wealth, doubling down against him is a dangerous gamble.
His strength was not always easily discernible. When he came out of North Carolina as the No. 1 pick in the 1986 draft, 16% of his total body weight was fat. Some observers considered him soft; others, just wide. "I remember being behind him in college and thinking he was three people," recalls Cleveland forward Danny Ferry, a Duke graduate. "But he's country strong. That's probably the biggest compliment you can give him."
Indeed, from his ostrich-skin boots to his warbling rendition of Mirror Minor by the group Diamond Rio, country is king for Daugherty. Having grown up on a farm in Black Mountain, N.C. (pop: 5,418), with a father who was a retired Army staff sergeant, a working mother and two older brothers whose combined weight is more than 500 pounds, Brad developed discipline and learned the value of hard work. "I've always known I was tough—I grew up getting stepped on by bulls and had my fingers broken messing with horses," he says. "And I've always known I'm as strong as any player in the league. I know I'm a bright-faced guy, a light-skinned guy and people have always mistaken my kindness for weakness. But I'm not going to take anything off anybody. You come to play me, I'm going to try to kick your butt. I may not do it, but I'm going to try."
In other words, Daugherty plays the way his hero, stock car legend Richard Petty, drives—all out. In fact, as a tribute to Petty, Daugherty wears the same number, 43, that Petty has on his car. "He's been my idol since I was a knot on a log," says Daugherty.
It was while sponsoring a car at a Grand National race in Daytona Beach four years ago that Daugherty met his wife-to-be, Heidi Rost, who at the time was a waitress at Friendly's. She thought he was adorable in spite of his grease-monkey attire and Copenhagen dip. He noted that she was as cute as a "speckled pup." By steering Brad's diet away from steer and other livestock, Heidi has helped lower his body fat to 10%. When she recently greeted him with the news that a 300-pound pig had been slaughtered on their farm in Fletcher, N.C., Brad was proud and pleased, but he didn't plan to partake of the pork.
On a front line with two leapers, Williams and Larry Nance, Daugherty once looked like a van sandwiched between two dragsters. Now the ripples in his arms outnumber the folds in his stomach, and he dunks on the break with grace and power. He is also coming into his own in the locker room. "Who is our leader?" says Wilkens. "Who is emerging? Brad is. I see him."
Nance, known as Pops because, at 32, he's Cleveland's oldest player, tends to work behind the scenes, while Price admits he is not "the rah-rah type." Says Daugherty, "We've never really had a vocal leader, so this year I've elected to take on that role myself."
Given the nature of this team, Daugherty's assertiveness has been doubly valuable. "We aren't a really hyper, big-city, playground type of team," says assistant coach Dick Helm. "There's a certain small-town reservedness about us at times. We need to work to stay away from being too laid-back."
When the Cavs traded guard Ron Harper to the Los Angeles Clippers for Ferry in November 1989, they lost a good deal of audacity on offense. They got some of it back last summer when they acquired Battle, a 6'2", seventh-year shooting guard who is capable of piling up points with microwave speed. He is a fearless penetrator whose self-described range is "right in the guts of the big men." Raised in Washington, D.C., Battle also has emotional fire, which was apparent when he hopped nearly to midcourt after missing a free throw in a 113-98 win over Minnesota last week.
The Cavs, who were above the league salary cap of $12.5 million, signed Battle, a free agent from the Atlanta Hawks, by using half the salary of Price, who was injured at the time. Battle also is rounding back into shape after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee in October. "I'm pretty sure I could have gone somewhere else and got more money," he says, "but I thought about the peace of mind, the opportunities I'd have here."
During Cleveland's 11-game winning streak, Battle averaged in double figures while shooting 58%. He and rookie point guard Terrell Brandon, one of the team's few big-city players—he's from Portland by way of the University of Oregon—give the Cavaliers a more explosive backup backcourt than starters Price and Craig Ehlo do.
Battle and his wife, R&B singer Regina Belle—"Brad keeps saying that he and Regina are going to going to do a duet together," says Battle—are still getting a feel for the Cleveland style. So is Brandon. At 5'11", he is trying to mesh his own R&B virtuosity with the Cavaliers' C&W folksiness. Daugherty must occasionally coax him into running the offense, but he believes Brandon has star potential. "There's a lot of flash in my game," says Brandon. "I look at this ball club, and there's not a lot going on. We keep it simple. But I can do some things that are going to surprise people."
For frontcourt depth Cleveland turns to 6'9" shootaholic Henry James and its two highest-paid players. Williams, who at week's end was averaging 7.4 rebounds and two blocked shots, has cashed a couple of checks totaling $9 million in the past year. Ferry's 10-year deal pays him $34 million, but he has yet to deliver much bang for the bucks at power forward or center. "I'm still thinking more than playing, and a feel for the game has always been one of my strengths," says Ferry.
Embry stands by his investment in Ferry. "It's a matter of him developing the confidence and us helping him build it," says Embry. "But we're patient. We've got plenty of time."
Time indeed is on the Cavs' side. Because Wilkens has skillfully parceled out the minutes, he can ask his starters for that little extra if need be, as they gave him in digging out of a 17-point hole in a 99-92 road win over the Washington Bullets last Thursday. Nance delivered 20 points and 15 rebounds in 41 minutes, while Price added 25 points and eight assists in 36 minutes, his longest stint since returning to the lineup. "I'm playing as flat-out as I can," said Price. "It's been great that the first couple of months I haven't had to do this as much."
The Cavaliers need to be well rested. Without much of a transition game, they have to labor hard for baskets. They're also going to need their legs to correct their most glaring weakness: an inability to control the lane and seal off the boards. In addition, they have failed to control the tempo as well as they did in winning 57 games in 1988-89. "They dismantled that team, and we're still trying to fit the pieces together," says Daugherty. "It's a little bit more of a struggle, but if we stay together and stay mentally ready, we're going to be tough."
As of now, 'tis the season to consider Cleveland a contender.