Cavs Might Finally Bring a Title to Cleveland, but Not This Year

While we hold on tight to see if the Reds compete in a weak division or post the major league's worst record, it's worth remembering, for a moment, that no other Ohio team has won a major pro sp

Jun 13, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

While we hold on tight to see if the Reds compete in a weak division or post the major league's worst record, it's worth remembering, for a moment, that no other Ohio team has won a major pro sports championship since 1964. The same franchise that's headed for its seventh straight losing season won the World Series three times over 16 years: 1975, 1976 and 1990.

At the other end of the state, they barely get teased that often. Since the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964, Cleveland has won nothing.

The Indians went to the World Series in 1995 and 1997, losing the first time in the only triumph of the Atlanta Braves and then, against Florida in 1997, becoming the first team to lose the World Series after taking a lead to the bottom of the ninth in Game 7.

Now the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the NBA Finals due to the dazzling magic of LeBron James, and they're sure to lose against the San Antonio Spurs because they have little else. The Spurs easily won the first two games in San Antonio.

The Cavs already have taken their season about a week further than it should have gone. No one with a serious bone in her body believes the Cavs are better than the Detroit Pistons. After all, the Pistons have six players and the Cavs have maybe one and a half.

But that one and a half could be the greatest basketball talent in the last 25 years. Or ever.

The Pistons took a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals by putting a tiny lid on James, though each game came down to him with the ball at the end. The first time, he passed, and it didn't work out. The second time, he shot, and it didn't work out.

Over the next four games against Detroit, James averaged nearly a triple-double (31.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists) as the Cavs swept out for a six-game win. Game 5, in which he scored 48 points with driving dunks and hanging three-pointers, put the prodigy's first mark on NBA playoff history.

Many called that Game 5 performance "Jordanesque," which is meant as a compliment and must be construed at best as a backhanded compliment. Michael Jordan never in his life did so much with so little around him as LeBron James on that night or in the last two weeks.

Jordan didn't take a team to the NBA Finals until his seventh professional season, at age 28, and only after the Bulls added pieces such as Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. If James had the likes of Pippen and Grant on his side, he could win the NBA title today.

James is a 22-year-old kid playing his fourth professional season, which in the old days would have been his senior year of college. He's in the NBA Finals with immortals like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Sasha Pavlovic and Donyell Marshall among his key teammates.

It's a mismatch against the Spurs. James is playing one-on-five. And if the team he's playing against shouldn't exactly be called a dynasty, the Spurs have been consistently in the NBA title hunt for 10 years running, now going for their fourth championship in nine seasons.

A peculiarity about the NBA, illustrated by the Spurs, bodes well for Cleveland's future. Because the teams include so few players and the salary rules incentivize leading players to stay put, a good NBA team can stay together for a long time. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili all have been with the Spurs for five years or more, and a handful of other players have been around for three or four years. In what other league can a team keep 80 percent of its starting lineup intact for five years?

It's up to the Cleveland organization now to find the pieces to put with James. The Cavs need a true point guard, a defensive specialist, a rebounding machine and two more scoring options. If they can add most of those pieces, James will keep them in the title race for a dozen years.

Then they'll become something like the Spurs, which means that the Cavs one day could be so good that the public tires of watching them win. Lovers of excellence are grateful for the Spurs, because an impatient popular culture obsessed with novelty offers so few examples of greatness through time.

Not only have the Spurs excelled through time, but because of it. They play a beautiful game of basketball, run head trips like no one else and seize opportunity with passion.

We might look back on the season and say Golden State guard Baron Davis is the year's most important player, because the Dallas Mavericks couldn't guard him in the first round of playoffs after trouncing to the season's best record. Once the Mavs were out of the way, the Spurs knew the path.

It started in the Western Conference semifinals, when San Antonio's Robert Horry laid that hard foul on Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash. The Suns lost their cool, cleared their bench and ended up with Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw suspended for Game 5 of a series that was tied 2-2. The Spurs won the next two games.

The Spurs win the NBA championship every other year for a reason: They play defense, they hold their cool, they've been there before, they have three reliable scoring options and they understand the team game. That's five reasons.

Cleveland shouldn't go away too easily, yet they're outmatched by the Spurs. Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry, Head Coach Mike Brown and Assistant Coach Hank Egan are all drawn from the Spurs. You might say the Cavs are a Spurs spin-off.

If nothing else, the last couple years of the NBA have demonstrated Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich's influence on the league, as his former point guard and assistant Avery Johnson coached Dallas to the NBA Finals last year. But all that influence starts somewhere, and that's with the Spurs.

Should the Cavs keep adding the right people and ideas to LeBron James, they could be looking at a dynasty. But it won't start this year.