LeBronThe Sky Is Not Falling…

…Or is it? It’s hard to imagine how a season could get off to a worse start. Remember that stellar defense that carried the team through the playoffs last season? That was gone. Remember that new offense we’ve been hearing about all off season? That didn’t show up. Remember that insane shooting performance LeBron showed off in international play this summer? That was missing. In LeBron’s new Nike commercial, he says at the end, “You don’t wanna be me, you wanna be better than me.” Well, this team is gonna need LeBron to be better than himself, too. His line last night? 2-11 from the field, 6 of 10 from the line, for 10 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 turnovers, 4 fouls.

It’s so unfair of us all to place such a burden solely on LeBron’s shoulders. It’s not like anyone else played particularly well last night. But that’s the point….we don’t expect anyone else to play well on this team. Let’s face it, this roster is weak. That’s why we need LeBron to do more than is fair of us to expect from him. And perhaps the blame for this “unfairness” falls squarely on Danny Ferry’s shoulders. There’s no denying the disservice the Cavaliers front office has done to LeBron. Bloated contracts for overaged and underperforming veterans and a lack of any real draft savvy has set this franchise back. Brian Windhorst talks in his latest blog entry about the way this team got to this point, where the team looks so unbelievably distant from each other,

“The natural progression of things has changed and the Cavs family is now feuding as they deal with the transition. Young players are holding out because they want their money now. Veteran players being eased aside are angry about playing time, some wanting more, some wanting to be traded. Mike Brown’s attempts at teaching offense have been bumpy to say the least. The front office is keeping a closer eye on the future than the present.

All of this is combining and has been since the Cavs season ended last June. It was a storm on the horizon. It is the undercurrent of why the Cavs are playing sick since the start of training camp, because they are sick. It shows in they way they conduct themselves, it shows in what they say to the media and to their family members about the team, it shows in the effort and focus level they are putting out on the floor for the last month.”

And that reflects an ugly truth that we have to accept. For this team to get better in the future, and I mean really better, not stop-gap better, it’s entirely possible that we have to go backwards this season. Nobody wants to think this way, especially with a player like LeBron on the roster, but it may be true. There were a lot of risky options for Ferry this summer. He could have overpaid another aging player (Allan Houston, Juwan Howard, etc) just to give the appearance that the team is getting better, but would that have really helped? How is that significantly better than the signings of Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones and Eric Snow, or the Ilgauskas extension? I would make the point that the best way to get better is to sit back and get these ridiculous contracts off the books. In the Plain Dealer today, Bill Livingston writes,

“A long West Coast trip follows Friday night’s game at The Q against New York. Unless the Cavs win that one, is management prepared for an oh-fer of what might become Stepienesque proportions to begin the season after The Finals?

If that happens, will Dan Gilbert and Danny Ferry stay the course on Anderson Varejao, the last holdout? Or will they compromise the future in regard to the salary cap to try to salvage a season that could be badly damaged at that point?”

To me, we are facing a worst case scenario here. If the Cavliers overreact and actually give Andy Vaerjao and his career 5.6 ppg and 5.7 rpg the apporximately $10 million per year he’s reportedly asking for in some phantom attempt to salvage what could be a rough season anyway, then we can kiss the future of this franchise goodbye. If Ferry can sign Varejao for a number closer to $6-$7 million per year, than so be it. If not, let him go. It’s time to rebuild this team in the next 2 off seasons. Clear the roster of the likes of Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones, Eric Snow, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The amount of cap space those contracts would free up will go a long ways toward restocking the franchise around fresh younger players who can actually make something happen on the court. The 2008 unrestricted free agent class could have names like Jermaine O’Neal, Gilbert Arenas, and Shawn Marion in it. If the Ferry can free up some space by moving some of these expiring contracts, it’s not unreasonable to think that the Cavaliers might be able to land a real player next off season. And that’s why it is imperative that this team not overreact to a rough start to this season. Is LeBron really going to want to re-sign with this team when 3 years from now they’re still try to put together a mismatched roster of overpriced veterans? I just don’t see it.

For his part, though, LeBron says he will not let this team fail. As posted in Windhorst’s blog,

“LeBron James, who has a good of a feel as anyone, has said two things of interest to me in the last week. One is “If we don’t get this fixed, we’re going to keep getting blown out.” He’s right about that one. And “‘I’m not going to allow our team not to play well. I won’t let those guys not work hard in practice or not work hard in games.” That one is going to be an extreme test of his powers based on what is going on right now.”

And that’s all we should really expect of this team. At the end of the day, this team will only go as far as LeBron takes it. I still stand by my prediction that if LeBron plays like he’s capable of, then even without Varejao there’s no reason this team can’t win 45-48 games. As John Hollinger said this week in his chat,

Jason (Northfield): John, The Cavs added future hall of famers Devin Brown and Cedric Simmons (note heavy sarcasm), and are currently without the services of Pavlovic and Varejao. Do they have any hopes of being anything better than a 5 seed in the east?

SportsNation John Hollinger: Of course they do. But LeBron will have to play out of his mind to do it. He’s more than capable — if he hits jumpers the way he did this summer, they’ll win 50 no matter who else is on the floor.

There are plenty of people who think this team won’t even make the playoffs, such as Bill Simmons. And there’s a chance they’re right. But I can tell you one thing I won’t do, and that’s bet against LeBron. No matter how bad this roster may be, I feel that we can afford to ride it out, let LeBron lead us as far he can, and then in the next couple of summers go out and build a real team around him. The sky doesn’t have to be falling, it’s all a matter of perspective.