Cavaliers, WWW

On LeBron James, the Toronto Raptors, and contention windows: While We’re Waiting

On April 20, ESPN published a story where Rachel Nichols sat down with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. It was the standard, terrific Nichols-led discussion that was eventually turned into a story for ESPN The Magazine with the title “DeRozan and Lowry Have Their Sights Set on a Title For Canada.” The players were all smiles, discussing the rough start to their relationship and crediting the front office for putting together a roster that was able to win 59 games over the course of the regular season. A top five offense. A top five defense. The No. 1 seed in an Eastern Conference that was littered with injuries (Kyrie Irving), inexperience (the 76ers), and uncertainty (the Cavs).

“To be the best, you gotta beat the best, and that’s what we’re preparing for,” Lowry said.

Fast forward to May 7, and the tone changed drastically. Lowry and DeRozan sat at the podium, together, following their Game 4, season-ending loss to the Cavaliers. Lowry had his hat pulled so the brim shielded his eyes, appearing to do post-game media solely out of obligation to the league. DeRozan’s answers were more questions—”Maybe they just got our number,” he said following Monday night’s drubbing.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (or, BPI for the acronym-friendly) gave the Raptors an 88 percent chance of winning the series, and here Toronto was, never better, getting obliterated by the same team for the third time in three postseasons. Tony Kornheiser called them the Washington Generals. Dan Le Batard called the entire unfolding “embarrassing.” As the Cavs were up 20 in the fourth quarter on Monday, the in-house operations folks blared Drake’s “God’s Plan”. Toronto was quickly named LeBronto.

All I could think about at the time, as Lowry and DeRozan spoke in short, deflated tones, was how weird it was to be on the other side of that coin. Now don’t get me wrong: Winning a second-round series is not a championship by any stretch. But as a Cavaliers fan who watched a well-crafted team led by Daugherty and Nance and Price fall short because of poor timing and a kid named Michael Jordan, I could empathize with what the two Toronto guards were feeling. That 88-89 Cavs team won 57 games, had five players average double figures (Price, Daugherty, and Ron Harper all sniffed 20 per night), and felt destined to finally be the team do break through.

For the younger fans, think LeBron in 08-09, or 09-10. Those Mike Brown teams couldn’t stop winning in the regular season. Exciting offense, a high-chemistry locker room, and the feeling that it was finally going to happen—Cleveland would get its title. But after years of trying to find the right pieces to help put the team over the top, they run into a horrible matchup with the floor-spacing Magic. Then, adding Shaquille O’Neal to help combat Dwight Howard, the Big 3 is formed in Boston and the Cavs simply didn’t have the top end talent required to win at that level of the postseason.

Dwane Casey was named NBA Coach of the Year by his peers on Wednesday morning, less than 24 hours after reports circulated that the Raptors are considering firing him to change directions of the team. Think about this for a second: You already have the Coach of the Year, and it’s not good enough. And yes, hardware is not an guarantee of a future employment. Mike Brown was fired one year after being named Coach of the Year. George Karl was fired from the Nuggets weeks after he won in 2013. Mike Budenholzer won in 2015 and is no longer with the Hawks.1

Tuesday, on the Dan Le Batard show, they were discussing the options in Toronto, essentially settling on the only thing to do is wait for LeBron James’ continued domination to eventually regress. Of course, that option involves time, and time in professional sports costs (a lot of) money. And to assume that it would be their “turn” is ultimately silly as other teams—younger ones, namely Boston and Indiana, maybe Milwaukee—appear ready to take the throne when the King steps down.

When Jordan retired for those two seasons in the mid-90s, it wasn’t the Cavs who were ready to finally stake their claim. By that point, they were black and electric blue, win totals were in the 40s, Mike Fratello took over for Lenny Wilkens, and their highest scoring player was a 32-year-old Hot Rod Williams. The Knicks were younger and had a star in Patrick Ewing, the Magic had Shaq and Penny, and Reggie Miller was hitting his stride in Indiana.

Those contention windows tend to close much quicker than anyone would have originally thought. Feelings were high just three weeks ago. To watch them evaporate in real time on Monday night was surreal.

This Week in #ActualSportswriting:

This Week in #ActualNonsportswriting:

More on “This is America”:

Everything Donald Glover has touched as turned to gold. “Atlanta” is amazing. His Saturday Night Live monologue (and ability to look just like Jeff Green) was terrific. He can act and direct, create music and poke fun at Migos. Now with the immediate success of “This is America,” Glover is giving Justin Timberlake a run for his money as the preeminent multi-platform creative mind of today’s pop culture age. Unfair levels of talent is bound to bubble up at some point, and it appears that point is right now.

Trent knows:

“This is America” debuted on May 5. Fifty million views and counting.

  1. Also aided by LeBron James, for what it’s worth. []
  2. Tom Verducci is always a must-read. This story is no different. []
  3. Lee Jenkins is also a must-read. This story is no different. []
  4. After three games, LeBron attempted nearly as many fadeaway jumpers as he did layups, and he hit a higher percentage of them than the Raptors did all of their shots combined. []
  5. A fantastic Q&A with my favorite member of the Cleveland Indians. []
  6. A money-based crime story that’s also a reader experience. Tremendous work here. []