So Lebron gets to take his MVP award and go home, trying to figure out exactly where he’ll be suiting up next season. All along, I’ve been certain that he would remain in Cleveland, but after this, I’m not so sure. More on that later. The Boston Celtics are showing how to win a championship; play tough defense from start to finish and be mentally tougher than your opponent. I picked them to beat Cleveland in 7 even if Lebron was 100% healthy. They won in 6. But the question now is can they beat Orlando?
I don’t think you can glean anything at all from the Magic’s historic beat down of Atlanta. The Hawks lost by a combined 101 points, a record for a team getting swept in a playoff series, but all the laurels shouldn’t go to Orlando. Atlanta didn’t show up in the second round, for the second year in a row. Last season, they lost in the second round to Cleveland in a sweep by a combined total of 72 points. For the record, that’s 0-8 in the semifinals with an average loss by nearly 22 points per game. That’s just embarassing, of the sort that should require, at the very least, a new coach and likely some new players, too. And remember, the Cavs followed up their dominating sweep last year by getting roundly stomped by Orlando.
Boston has the personnel to do many of the same things Charlotte did against the Magic in the first round, namely getting into Dwight Howard’s head and putting him on the bench for long stretches in foul trouble. The difference here being that the Celtics also have the personnel to actually take advantage of it. Orlando has to worry about being over-confident, being undefeated in the playoffs and watching Lebron go home early. The Celtics are playing the best all-around basketball of anyone left in the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if they take game one in Orlando. Hell, they might even take game two, as well. Celtics win this series in 6.
Out West, it’s the Lakers and Phoenix. I have to admit, I seriously underestimated the Suns. Somewhere in my head, I still had them attached to Mike D’Antoni’s defenseless run and gun club that was exciting but not a champion. Despite having many of the same personnel, this team is very different. For one thing, they actually play defense, and pretty well at that. And boy, are they deep. They have the best bench of anyone left playing. For the Lakers, like Orlando, I don’t think you can take much away from their sweep of Utah. The Jazz were undermanned inside due to injury, but even at full strength, they don’t match up well with the Lakers. Look to their first round struggles with Oklahoma City to see a better parallel to how this series will go. Phoenix can win this series, but they absolutely have to, at least, split the first two games in L.A. I don’t think they can win a game 7 in Los Angeles, so it’s either take one early on the road and hold court at home or lose the first two, and win four straight. The former is the only way this happens. Phoenix will be game, and come very close, but I’m sticking with the Lakers in 7. Hey, if the NBA isn’t getting Kobe-Lebron in the finals, isn’t Celtics-Lakers the next best thing?
Now, back to Lebron. Does he stay or does he go? Right now, I think it’s 50/50. James has been getting a lot of criticism for this loss, and justifiably so, but let’s not go overboard here. The reality is that the Cavs simply aren’t as good of a team as their record would indicate. Adding guys like an ancient Shaq, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison are not moves that make you a champion. They never have been, why anyone would think otherwise is somewhat perplexing. I still suspect that the elbow problem was likely a bigger deal than we realized, and it put a lot of the onus onto James’ supporting cast, and they came up far, far short of championship mettle. Remember, Lebron carried a much less talented Cleveland team to the finals a few years ago, so to question his ability to carry a team is somewhat crazy in my mind. But what that team had over this one is defensive intensity. Sure, they added lots of firepower but at the expense of defense. You win lots of games with offense. You win championships with defense. Wherever Lebron goes, you can bet it will be to a team with a defensive stopper or two.
Cavs coach Mike Brown is long gone, regardless. In my mind, Brown gets more blame for the past two post-season flops that Lebron. The real question is not can Cleveland keep Lebron, but can the Cavs retool yet again and actually put a championship cast around him? If they can’t, he’s going to walk. If they can, I think he’ll stay. But, and this is a big but, I’m not sure they can. The Knicks aren’t really all that viable to me because D’Antoni doesn’t play championship ball and everyone knows it. The Nets are too far in the hole for him to take a shot in that direction, barring a Celtics like push that adds two prime-time superstars behind a prime-time coach. Miami doesn’t work either, as Lebron and Wade would basically get in each other’s way, and those two contracts wouldn’t allow the flexibility needed to get stronger up front. The really leaves about one possibility, unless an unexpected one pops up (Charlotte, anyone?), Chicago. Pairing Lebron with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah is a nice base. A shrewd trade or two, and the Bulls can add another big up front and you have an immediate title contender right there. The only question is who’s the coach? Rumors have it at John Calipari right now, which would be a catastrophic mistake. Remember how well that went with New Jersey a few years back? Coach Cal could kill Lebron’s interest in the Bulls.
So James is left with several options. Stay home and keep rebuilding Cleveland to a champion. Realistically, this is his best bet, I think. Remember, he’s only 25. Sign a three year contract to give Cleveland a chance, and he’d still be a free agent in his prime at 28 in a couple years if it doesn’t work out. There’s lots of time left for him to get the support he needs. And by then, there could be another player for his services that would be more attractive that any out there now, the Los Angeles Lakers. Or go to Chicago for a two year run with some big-time talent, at least until Rose and/or Noah need to get paid. Or go to a team that is completely starting over through free agency, trying to throw together two or three big pickups at once and hope it works out. If I were him, I’d stay the hometown hero. If he ever does get the title in Cleveland, his all-time great lineage will never be questioned, even if it’s only one. Play the mercenary game and go to the Knicks or the Bulls, and he’ll need four or five rings to get there, plus he will have alienated his home town fan base. Remember Kobe Bryant getting booed in Philly? That’s nothing compared to how Lebron will be viewed in Cleveland, especially after the criticism that has ended this series.
Any way around it, the off-season this year could actually be more exciting than the playoffs.
I had mentioned that John Calipari as possible head coach of the Chicago Bulls could steer Lebron James away from that team, as Calipari isn’t a particularly good pro coach. He had a two and a half year stint as coach of the New Jersey Nets from 1996-98 and was a pretty non-descript 73-112, with a 56 loss season, then a 43 win playoff season (they got swept in the first round) followed by a 3-17 start to the next season that got him canned. Apparently, Lebron actually wants Calipari as a head coach. Rumor has it that he’s going to pressure Cleveland to hire Calipari, or he will do the same to the team he chooses to sign with, which might explain Chicago’s interest (plus the obvious relationship with former Calipari-coached Memphis point guard Derrick Rose). I can’t envision a worse scenario for Lebron than to force an unqualified head coach into a high pressure situation. If there is any truth to this, James is really threatening to destroy his own legacy, as well as the future of whatever franchise he lands with. At this point, why not just coach the team yourself, Lebron? Magic Johnson may well have gotten Paul Westphal fired from the Lakers back in the day, and Michael Jordan might have had something to do with Doug Collins dismissal from Chicago, but does anyone really think that those guys played lord and master over the replacements, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, respectively? This could be very, very bad for Lebron and the NBA.