No team in the NBA has changed more than Cleveland, which has an
entirely new starting lineup and a new up-tempo offense. Last
season the Cavs were so boring--they were the
second-lowest-scoring NBA team since the shot clock was adopted
for the 1954-55 season--that heading into '97-98, management
faced the prospect of a third straight season of declining
attendance. (Average crowds at Gund Arena had dropped from
20,338 in '94-95 to 16,895 last year.) It didn't help that three
of last season's starters (forward Chris Mills, guard Bobby
Phills and center Mark West) opted for free agency and that two
of the summer's major free-agent targets, Rick Fox and Brian
Grant, turned down lucrative offers from the Cavs to play
elsewhere for less money.
Yet the tide may have turned on Sept. 25, the day the Cavs
acquired All-Star power forward Shawn Kemp from the SuperSonics
as part of a three-way trade that also included the Bucks. The
price was high: Cleveland sent to Milwaukee All-Star point guard
Terrell Brandon and stalwart power forward Tyrone Hill.
Nevertheless, the deluge of phone calls to the Cavaliers'
sales-and-marketing department included one from a fan who
ordered six club seats at a total cost of $18,450. Although the
6'10", 256-pound Kemp insists, "I am not a savior," fans clearly
expect that his presence will guarantee that the team will be
entertaining for a change.
Coach Mike Fratello, one of the game's leading control freaks,
promised Kemp that the Cavs would opt for a faster pace in order
to take advantage of his abilities. "Shawn Kemp is a terrific
open-court player," says Fratello. Yet Fratello hasn't employed
that style since his days with the Hawks in the '80s, when
Atlanta featured the high-flying Dominique Wilkins. Last season
Fratello or one of his assistants called the offensive and
defensive set on virtually every play. So what will happen if
the Cavs get off to a slow start? Will Fratello revert to form?
If he does, how will that sit with Kemp? "I can play full-court
or half-court," Kemp says. "It doesn't make any difference. I
just hate losing."
During the preseason Fratello kept his word. The Cavs averaged
105.1 points in seven games, and everybody, including Kemp,
seemed happy with their brisker pace, especially the veterans
who were subs last season--small forward Danny Ferry, center
Vitaly Potapenko and guard Bob Sura (who played shooting guard
in '96-97 but started this season at the point). The Cavs also
acquired shooters Henry James and Wesley Person, and they like
what they got out of the draft: 6'5" swingman Derek Anderson,
6'7" small forward Cedric Henderson and 5'10" point guard Brevin
Still, Kemp is Cleveland's first franchise player in years. "You
won't see me doing a lot of talking," Kemp says, "but you'll see
me doing a lot of playing. By coming here, I've put a lot of
pressure on myself."
Indeed, it will be interesting to see how Kemp plays without
Gary Payton to feed him, how well he adapts to a rebuilding
situation and, mainly, how long he's happy with Fratello and the
rest of Cleveland's management. During his eight tumultuous
years in Seattle, Kemp, known as the Reign Man, was at the
center of a lot of storms. He frequently was late for planes,
buses and practices. But those transgressions were minor
compared with the Kingdome-sized sulk he went into because the
Sonics gave journeyman center Jim McIlvaine a deal ($35 million
over seven years) that put him ahead of Kemp (who earned $3.3
million last season) on the salary scale.
The Cavs wasted little time in redoing Kemp's deal. Owner Gordon
Gund opened the checkbook and presented Kemp with a contract
extension that runs for seven years and is worth about $107
million. After signing, Kemp said, "I feel I'm blessed."
Everybody in the NBA will be watching to see how long the
honeymoon in Cleveland lasts, but Kemp seems intent on stuffing
his critics. "We can be a mix of young and old, a very
interesting team," he says. "It's going to be a learning
experience for all of us, and it may take some time, but I think
we'll get there."