By last April, I was openly against LeBron James playing for Team USA this summer. I had seen how the lag of playing last summer dogged him for the first half of last season when his energy level seemed to be at an all-time low. I wrote about this extensively after he seemed to get his legs back in February and played some great basketball down the stretch. I was even more convinced he needed the summer off in June when he left the Finals vowing to improve his jumper. Most NBA players will tell you it is difficult to improve aspects of your game when you are committed to being at so many practices and games. That's why most players don't develop their games during the season unless they are at the end of the bench.
All that said, at this moment I appear to be wrong as I discuss in this story today. Really what I have done is violate one of my own rules, which I learned years ago and have told people in various forms for years. It is: "Don't underestimate LeBron, he will just prove you wrong." He does this virtually every year on many levels, by the way.
His shooting during the FIBA Americas Tournament in Vegas has been impressive, which has led me to find out just how hard he's been working on his shot. Even with all of his commitments, LeBron is doing exactly what he said he would, he is making time to improve himself.
LeBron hinted a few times at the end of last season that he wanted to hire a shooting coach, which was the answer to many Cavs' fans prayers. He didn't hire one, he has been working very hard this summer whenever he's gotten free hours with Chris Jent, the Cavs' director of development. This, of course, thrills the Cavs not just because he's working on his game when he could be relaxing, but because he's doing it with their guy. This becomes important during the season because Jent will be around him everyday.
David Thorpe, a shooting coach himself and ESPN's guru on player skills, had a nice breakdown of LeBron's improved shot on Truehoop this week. I had a conversation with Jent late in the season asking him why LeBron was always switching his techniques on jumpers and at the foul line. Remember the Ira Newble-esque set shots on 3-pointers for a few days? Jent told me LeBron was looking for something that worked and then was going to try to perfect it. To be honest, I didn't like that answer because I know LeBron and, while he is coachable, often he is only coachable when he decides to be. I wasn't sure he'd decided he wanted to be yet with Jent. But after several conversations with Cavs people this week after watching LeBron's shooting in Vegas there is do doubt he's serious and pouring in the work at all hours and all over the country.
Because I am a card-carrying realist (some would say pessimist), I have to say that shooting well in August isn't like shooting well in March, April and May. And that all this summer work may show up again in some low energy nights in Charlotte and the like. However, LeBron should be commended for his willingness to learn from what happened in the Finals and his willingness to work on his game when everyone would've understood had he just shut it down for awhile.
After getting several dozen e-mails with varying amounts of paranoia, I wrote a story today about how the mortgage industry crisis affects the Cavs. The answer given to me yesterday by the chairman of Quicken Loans and the majority owner of the team, Dan Gilbert, is not at all. I 100 percent believe him.
There seems to be a demand from Cavs fans to explain why they are not signing anybody. It is understandable and explainable but not buyable to all fans, especially those who notice how close the team is to the luxury tax line while they read stories about mortgage companies laying people off or closing altogether.
Cavs fans have had to go through three layers of player additions with no news to chew on, evaluate or get excited about. First it was the draft, where the Cavs had no picks. Then it was the initial wave of free agency, when the Cavs were not in position to land any of the major candidates. Then it was the trade market, when the Cavs were unable to make a deal for Mike Bibby while Eastern Conference rival Boston landed Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. New York got Zach Randolph and Charlotte got Jason Richardson.
There is a belief among many out there that because the Cavs have not yet done anything, they are worse off. There is a belief that everybody else is better. In July, August and September in the NBA you can make a case for a lot of things. But that doesn't make any of them true or false.
Here's the way I look at it: Of the teams that made the playoffs in the East last year, only one of them has made a major addition. That's Orlando, the No. 8 seed, and Rashard Lewis. In my opinion the only other playoff team to upgrade in a way that will help them immediately is New Jersey, which brought in Jamaal Magloire and will pair him with returning Nenad Krisitc to shore up their weak front line that cost them the series with the Cavs in May.
I am not trying to defend the Cavs, just doing what I always try to do, add perspective.
Regardless of the Quicken Loans issue, the Cavs no doubt have been more cautious with money. From people I have talked to and my reading of the situation, one of the major reasons the Bibby deal did not go down was money. The proposed three-way trade between the Cavs, Spurs and Kings would've added about $3 million to the payroll right off the top. Then there would've been free agents Luis Scola, Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic to deal with. The Cavs would've been facing a payroll probably near $75 million. Plus Varejao would have better leverage since Drew Gooden would've been gone. Next year the payroll would've probably exceeded $80 million and you're passing into nonsense territory.
Apart from the money issue is strategy. The coaching staff and front office have been reluctant to sign a free agent guard that would potentially stifle Daniel Gibson, whom they see as potentially being a Mo Williams type of player. If they are able to trade for a front-line point guard who instantly makes them better, like Bibby, and it doesn't smother their flexibility they will do it. They have been trying for months now and eventually I believe Danny Ferry will make a significant/major trade. But that trade doesn't have to be made today or next week or next month regardless of the impact on the NBA news cycle in the offseason. More important for the franchise is that the trade is smart, because they are close.
As for Pavlovic and Varejao, there is nothing going on. Most GMs and agents are off on vacation this time of the year. Varejao and Pavlovic's position isn't any different today than it was three weeks ago, so from their standpoint why not wait and see if market events change their demand. If you want to watch something as a fan, keep an eye on the teams that are going to be forced to release players soon. The Knicks, Timberwolves, Mavericks all have too many guaranteed contracts and still need to sign draft picks. Meanwhile there are lots of teams that have decisions to make with partial-guarantee guys and draft picks. So the Cavs sitting there with 11 contracts (10 considering David Welsey's will be gone at some point) right now and may be able to land a quality player by waiting around.
As for Allan Houston, nothing new I can report. I know the Cavs have interest in him and I've read he's interested in the Cavs. We'll see. Signing a guy coming out of retirement isn't something you would normally do until near the end of the summer because you want to see what kind of shape he's in close to training camp.
And a final note, I don't think you can expect Charles Oakley playing for his hometown team anytime soon. In this fantastic interview on ESPN.com, Oak says, among other wild stuff, that he's only coming back for a contract of two years and around $10 million. Good luck.
Tim Donaghy pled guilty to some stuff yesterday (link has a photo of Mike Brown and Donaghy conversing). What he didn't plead to, though, was attempting to fix or point shave/point inflate games. Which is pretty surprising to me, but we'll talk about that in a moment.
Donaghy's sin, he said, was leaking inside information about which referees will work games and certain refs relationships with players. Well, actually, what he did was use that information and his own inside knowledge of the league to make picks that he gave to gamblers. My reaction to that is: Really? Is that all?
Which refs work NBA games is secret but it isn't like the nuclear codes. Most officials and NBA beat writers stay at Marriott brand hotels during the season. I'd say about half of the road games during the season I'll see some or all that night's officials in the concierge room having breakfast, in the lobby or out on the street near the hotel. Maybe I am naive, but I guess I didn't know this info had much value. I know a handful of officials personally and I got to know all of them from such chance meetings in hotels and airports. We almost never discuss the league or games directly, more just small talk.
I do remember once a few years ago I was talking to veteran official Bob Delaney in the lobby of a hotel near O'Hare Airport in Chicago just before Christmas. He and other officials were driving to Milwaukee for a game that night and I was telling him that I wasn't going to be home for Christmas in a few days because the Cavs had a game in Orlando. I asked nonchalantly if he was getting a chance to be home for Christmas and he ended the conversation nicely but immediately and walked away. Three days later he was on the floor in Orlando, where he lived at the time, doing the Cavs-Magic game. Just before the jump ball he came over to the scorer's table and we laughed about it. So the officials do protect their schedules.
More to the point, the game's officials are announced to everyone at least an hour before games. Which is plenty of time to get a bet down. As for ref/player relationships, I naively didn't know that was so valuable either. I know that Marc Collins (EDIT: I mean Marc Davis, somehow I combined him with Derrick Collins) generally holds LeBron James to the traveling rules more than others, I know Dick Bavetta almost always gives Anderson Varejao the benefit of the doubt on block/charge calls, but so do most officials. I know Sean Corbin has a hair trigger on calling technicals and Mike Brown isn't allowed to look cross-eyed at Joey Crawford. Donaghy obviously would have much deeper knowledge as I'm sure some refs and players have deep dislikes for each other that even insiders like me don't detect. But, again, can this actually affect the final outcome of a game? My guess is very, very rarely.
Which is why I believe now, as I did at the outset of all of this, that most of Donaghy's picks had to be over/under picks. In that case, officials and their tendencies would be valuable. That is a line that might move when the officials' names become public, especially in the playoffs. So having advance knowledge would have a certain value because certain officials are known to call more fouls than others. As this post at Truehoop points out, Donaghy's foul-calling style and over/under percentage changed drastically over the last two seasons.
Which all brings me to my final point on the matter. Despite the absence of a reference to it in his plea, I'd be shocked if Donaghy didn't take actions to hit his bets/tips in the games he worked. Why? Simple common sense. When I talk with friends about steroids in baseball I reference Sammy Sosa and Albert Belle. These guys corked their bats, which is blatant cheating and cheating they could be caught at. So they weren't cheating in ways they couldn't be caught? C'mon. So Donaghy -- who was having secret meetings, setting up code language over the phone, and using bag men and intermediaries between him and gamblers like he was Pauli in Goodfellas -- wasn't blowing his whistle a little extra or a little less to hit his bets? C'mon.
Been away for a little bit, here's some points on recent Cavs goings on. Most of it is from this story that ran Sunday, which had the most Cavs news I've been able to report in awhile.
--There has been no official announcement on John Kuester being named an assistant coach yet, but my sources on the matter are rock solid. From the people I have talked to, the decision to hire him is a solid one. I don't know John, but he has been described to me as a pro's pro who is very experienced. He's been a head coach on the college level and been with numerous NBA teams. Experienced with a championship ring, he is exactly the type of candidate the Cavs said they wanted when they started the process. He is known as a guy who is a strong all around coach. I know this is not the type of candidate many fans wanted, but as I've been writing for a year now Danny Ferry and Mike Brown do not believe they need a so-called "offensive coordinator/guru." I have talked to both men about it and they have presented their reasoning to me and I don't see it changing any time soon. One theory is that you can't call offensive sets like defensive sets, which are usually changed in timeouts. Second, Mike Brown believes he's learning and getting better at coaching offense. That doesn't mean there won't be changes, I'm just trying to explain their thinking on the offensive coordinator issue.
How did Kuester get the job? He got a strong recommendation from Gregg Popovich among other things. He is a part of the extensive Larry Brown coaching tree, first playing at North Carolina and then coaching with him in Philadelphia and Detroit. It was Popovich who gave Mike Malone, in my mind one of the brightest young assistants in the NBA, a recommendation when Mike Brown was looking to assemble his staff two summers ago.
--On to Allan Houston, who has been planning this comeback and has been on the Cavs radar for some time now. The reason he made it public now is the recent signing of Penny Hardaway and the Celtics' pursuit of Reggie Miller. Houston let it be known to ESPN, who he works for, that he's on the market, too. At 36, he might have something left in the tank if his knee is truly OK. I know the Cavs are thinking about it and they'll probably work him out or watch him work out if they haven't already. If he wants to play in Cleveland and he can help there is no reason for the Cavs not to pursue this option because he was and probably still is a great shooter. Houston is also known for his high character, which the Cavs put an emphasis on. He's six years young than Miller, but then again Miller didn't have to retire years early because of chronic knee problems.
If the Cavs are somehow convinced he can contribute, a deal may come down to two factors. Just what his role would be, considering the Cavs want to continue to develop Daniel Gibson. Houston told ESPN that he wants to be a role player, but it sounded like he wanted a defined role. And perhaps whether the Cavs or anyone else is willing to guarantee him a contract. The Heat signed Hardaway to a nonguaranteed deal, but Houston surely will want his guaranteed.
--Assuming Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic re-sign, the Cavs are looking at having three open roster spots. Scot Pollard is now in Boston and that is a loss because he was a quality fifth big man. They Cavs just never needed him, which didn't make him happy to be sure. So that spot is open. The Cavs have been trying to trade for a versatile backup big man. With the news of Adonal Foyle being bought out by the Warriors, I wouldn't be surprised if they put in a call to him. Foyle is a good shot blocker and is an excellent character guy to have in the locker room. We'll see what his market is.
It sounds like David Wesley is going to retire. His contract, as has been reported, is only partially guaranteed ($250,000 of $1.75 million.). Unlike some veteran contracts, which become fully guaranteed in August or September, Wesley's doesn't until Jan. 10. So the Cavs will have until then to trade the contract, which can be used to reduce another team's salary. So they are not in a rush to make a move with it. However, their $2.2 million trade exception expires in mid-October. This is also an empty roster spot and could be filled with a guy like Houston. Or not filled at all before the season, the Cavs are up against the luxury tax and they have lots of guards.
The third empty spot is Dwayne Jones' role. It may be filled by Jones again, who looked terrible at the start of summer league but improved afterward and has a legit shot at making the team. He has the potential to be a very good rebounder, but his hands and footwork need improvement. We'll have to see what the roster looks like come training camp.
--This is vacation time in the NBA for players, agents and GMs. Things don't get done in August very much. Never say never, but I don't expect there to be much movement on any front for the next few weeks.