“People may look at me crazy, but I don’t put ceilings on anything. Why would I be happy just making the playoffs? What’s the point of that? Why would I be happy just playing until April and going home? Why can’t we just go to the championship? If that’s not your goal, we should just go home right now. Who cares if you got the free T-shirt they hand out for the first round? So what? No one remembers that. If you take a test, why would you try to get a 72? Why wouldn’t you try to get a 100? Who wants to be in fifth place?” — Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jarrett Jack
Media Days stand as one of the more unorthodox afternoons that have become commonplace within the National Basketball Association. Every team orchestrates them a bit differently, but the crux of the occasion is that players are introduced to the media for the first time in a given season. They field questions, take pictures and generally act the fool in order to start the season-long marathon with a side dish of levity. It’s really the only time where the entire team, front office members and coaching staff are together in one room where the sole purpose is to be interrogated.
Reporters ask questions that vary between softballs and insightful, radio folks sift through the masses in hopes of getting a few drops recorded, multimedia mavens break out their flip cams and mic’d up iPhones, and photographers look for the best shots they can get—those that will last well beyond a run-of-the-mill in-game shot. Three years ago, kicking off a season in Cleveland that was rife with uncertainty, one of the more popular photos was of the then backcourt rotation of Daniel Gibson, Mo Williams and Ramon Session, standing exactly in that order, with their jersey nos. 1, 2 and 3, (proudly?) displayed. Williams was holding a basketball while the three players were laughing with one another, having absolutely zero idea about what the next nine months would entail.
That season coupled with the two that would follow ultimately paved the way to this coming season where the Cavaliers enter the year as one of the more captivating teams in the league due to their new(ish) head coach, an All-Star point guard, a young supporting cast and a few boom-or-bust types that could play a role in a team that visits the NBA postseason for the first time since the Gibson-Williams-Sessions image was snapped. Perhaps an attempt to bring things full circle, perhaps suffering from a complete lack of ideas when it comes to picture-taking, there they were once again: Numbers 1, 2 and 3. But this time, instead of Gibson, Williams and Sessions—two traded away, one still looking for an employer—it was Jarrett Jack, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. Two are first-round draft selections and the other may very well be the most important free agent signing to take to Cleveland in quite some time.
Certainly, Nick Swisher had a substantial impact on the Cleveland Indians of 2013 what with his veteran leadership and ability to ensure positive morale even in the darkest of times. The whole top-five wOBA thing was just an added bonus.
And of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Paul Kruger or Desmond Bryant, both players having a measurable impact on what is looking to be one of the best front sevens in the entire NFL. Their ability to get to the quarterback has led to really good things for the 3-2 Browns.
Andrew Bynum was the focus of the summer; a former All-Star center deciding to sign with the lowly Cavaliers after spending two stints in considerably larger markets. But it is Jack who marries the ever popular veteran leadership—think Anthony Parker, Luke Walton and Antawn Jamison—with the ability to, well, produce at a consistent level. The broad-shouldered veteran guard is coming off of back-to-back seasons, in two different locations, where he has provided double-digit scoring averages and at least five assists per game be they in the starting lineup of off of the bench. He’s his own worst critic, piling on himself even in the event of a victory if he happens to turn the ball over. And he unfurls quotes like the one above, owning the Cavaliers’ Media Day podium as if he was Winston Churchill with ball-handling skills.
“Any time you have a guy like that, who has the characteristics of a winner, you can’t do anything but embrace that,” said head coach Mike Brown late last week. “When you are away and they are in the back of the bus or at lunch or in the locker room with a couple individuals, your message is getting reiterated. That’s a comforting feeling having a guy like that on the roster.”
Signing a four-year, $25.2 million deal, Jack heads to Cleveland without any delusions. The true definition of a team-first player, he went to Golden State knowing full well he would be playing behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He also arrived the year after the Warriors provided a disappointing 25-win season. Coming to the Cavs, Jack knows that he will be spending the vast majority of his time behind Irving and Waiters, the younger players who represent an investment into the future. And in the event that Irving has to miss time (as has been known to happen over the last two seasons), gone are the days of relying on a Donald Sloan or Lester Hudson to run the offense—Jack provides as seamless of a transition as you will find in the NBA.
Having taken Marvin Williams third-overall in 2005, passing on Deron Williams and Chris Paul, it was Jarrett Jack whom Chris Grant coveted in the second round when working in the Atlanta Hawks’ front office. Unfortunately for Grant, his gamble did not pay off as the Georgia Tech product would wind up in Portland after being acquired 22nd overall1. Almost a decade later, Grant was able to make up for lost time, adding a player who has not only proven to be worth that first-round selection, but continues to add value well into his late-20s. “He’s one of the most highly regarded leaders in the game,” said Grant.
There’s a difference between saying that a championship is the goal and actually believing that a championship—this season, anyway—is attainable. But during a stretch where people are merely wondering if the Cavs will once again play basketball beyond the 82 games that are afforded to them by the regular season schedule, it is refreshing to see a player of Jack’s ilk immediately instilling accountability. There’s a reason that Mark Jackson, Jack’s coach in Golden State, referred to the news of his former player’s deal with the Cavs as “torture.” There’s a reason the Cavaliers spent their free agent money on a player who may never crack the starting five.
“He’s going to help Mike Brown just as much as he helps Kyrie Irving,” said Jackson. “The things that he does to protect the locker room, to protect the team, to make sure that you’re doing things the right way…he’s just incredible. It was the best money that the Cavs could have ever spent.”
As the 2013-14 version of the Cavaliers take to the floor for the first time, hosting the Milwaukee Bucks in preseason action, many eyes will be on Irving and Waiters and even this year’s first-overall pick Anthony Bennett. Jack may fly under the radar, leading a group that will be comprised of veterans (CJ Miles, Earl Clark among them) as well as some raw talent like Bennett and fellow rookies Carrick Felix and Sergey Karasev. His role and impact may ultimately be similar to that of a season ago where the credit largely went to the superstars and the head coach; Jack settled for a third-place finish in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But if the Cavaliers are able to turn this ship around this fall and winter, whether he takes credit or not, it is tough to envision any type of improvement without Jack being instrumental.
- The Hawks settled for Arizona’s Salim Stoudamire. Ouch. [↩]