Say it in your best Rudy Tomjanovich voice: Don’t EVER underestimate the heart of an underdog!
When I wrote the Cleveland Cavaliers 2010-11 season preview, I thought maybe, possibly, the defending Central Division champions would muster enough motivation to surprise the critics and snatch a playoff spot. After all, this was a 60-win team that had only lost a couple key players, right? As I put it then:
“New head coach Byron Scott has to prove he can win in the NBA without the luxury of arguably the best point guard in the world (Jason Kidd, Chris Paul) on his roster. Scott’s new PG, Mo Williams, has to prove he has legit All-Star talent and wasn’t just feeding off LeBron‘s teat. Antawn Jamison has to prove he’s more than a paper lion who puts up big numbers in meaningless games. Jamario Moon, Joey Graham, and whoever else is getting minutes at small forward have to prove they won’t be the worst replacements since Flash took over for Eddie King in The Five Heartbeats. And the franchise and city in general have to prove their society won’t crumble without the King.”
The crumbling is in full effect. In last night’s 112-57 loss to the L.A. Lakers, their 21st L in 22 games, the Cavs put on the worst performance of any NBA team this season, their worst performance in a half-season full of bad outings. The once-inspiring underdog story, played to the soundtrack of 2Pac‘s “Me Against the World” before LeBron and the Heat came into town on Dec. 2, now deserves something from B.B. King or J.B. Lenoir‘s library of blues classics.
“It can’t get any worse than this,” Jamison was quoted in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer after the 55-point beatdown. “If it is, y’all going to have to help me. I don’t know how much of this I can take. This, by far, is the bottom.
“Fifty-five points?” Jamison confirmed. “That’s, like, impossible. We’re professional athletes. How do you lose by 55 points? I don’t care who you’re playing against. I mean, if this doesn’t hurt … I don’t understand how we’re able to have conversations in the locker room. There’s nothing to talk about. We have to do some soul searching quick because no matter who we play, right now they feel like they can beat us. If we don’t have a sense of pride and just play for yourself or something … this might be one of the worst teams to go through a season.”
He wasn’t done.
“In 13 years, I can honestly say I never felt that embarrassed to be on a basketball court,” Jamison went on. “We knew what we were up against — the defending champions, playing at home. I don’t know. I guess as soon as we saw the ‘Lakers’ on their jerseys we just … I don’t know. But it was definitely, by far, one of the most embarrassing moments that I’ve been a part of affiliated with the game of basketball. There’s nothing else you can really say.”
The Cavs are now 8-30, and the upcoming February trade deadline has to be looking like a parole board meeting date for some guys on the team. Maybe they’ll let me go.
Jamison is 34 years old and he can still play (16.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg). Somewhere, a playoff contender could use his skills. Daniel Gibson is the kind of shooter good teams want to stick in the corner. J.J. Hickson is young, tall and talented. Anthony Parker is 35 years old and didn’t leave superstar status in the Euroleague for this. Ramon Sessions is a solid backup point guard. Mo Williams can be a good starter. How much longer before they mentally check out?
Scott took the Cavs job before LeBron made his free-agent decision, so he had to prepare himself for the possibility of a lot of losing, but even he couldn’t predict what’s happened to his team.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Scott said of last night’s game, “but to come out and not compete? There’s no excuse for that. I’m embarrassed because of the way we performed. I’m a Cleveland Cavalier right now and the way we performed last night, that’s embarrassing to me.”
Right now, he said. Although bailing on Cleveland obviously isn’t a popular move right now — at least if you’re LeBron and people feel you owe the city something — will Scott want to stick around for the remainder of his contract? Would he bolt if another mildly attractive job, even a college job, became available?
The positive in this is that the Cavs can’t get much worse. They’ve established themselves as the worst team in the League, but surely they’ll win the two games necessary between now and April to avoid the worst win-loss record of all-time (9-73 by the Sixers in ’73). They’ll get a good Lottery pick, maybe even good enough to land a future franchise cornerstone like Baylor big man Perry Jones or Ohio State bruiser Jared Sullinger or Kentucky’s do-it-all star Terrence Jones.
And maybe the L.A. debacle will be a turning point. These are still NBA players in the Cavs’ locker room, and as Jamison said, at some point pride has to play a factor. Last night’s loss could wake the Cavs up and spark a run to some kind of respectability. If it doesn’t, this could be the beginning of history in the making. This could be, even with more than 9 wins, the worst NBA team of all-time.