Wow. It’s still surprising to think about—the Cavaliers losing—though it appeared increasingly likely after Game 5. If the magnitude of a surprise is measured by its durability, then this has to rank up there with the biggest sporting surprises in a long while.
It’s certainly the biggest basketball surprise since Golden State upset Dallas a few years back. There are a few important similarities between the upset and one important difference. The difference? Well, frankly, more people thought Golden State could win than Boston did coming into the series. There was some chatter about Golden State winning, I remember that clearly; whereas even the few people who picked the Cavs admitted they were homers. The similarities are more revealing, I think. Like Cleveland this year, Dallas that year had one superstar (Dirk, who remains underrated) and lots of quality depth, but didn’t have that wow! second player. Like Cleveland this year, Dallas relied on isolation sets in big situations. Like Cleveland this year, Dallas’s coach emphasized defense and panicked on offense in close situations. Like Cleveland, Dallas’s owner relied on spending megabucks to establish depth and make trades with aplomb.
What these similarities suggest is the importance of luck in building a team. Dallas’s management was and remains high-quality, and it has reeled off 11 straight years over 50 wins, and yet it seems unlikely that the present iteration of the team will win a championship (unless the unlikely event of sign-and-trade for LeBron happens, in which case the LeBron/Nowitzki pick-and-pop would be the most lethal play…ever.). Why is this? Well, a great deal of it was luck. Why did Chicago win its championships? A great deal is luck (a steal of a trade for Scottie Pippen). Even beyond acquiring that first superstar (given the lottery, inherently lucky), the second star is difficult as well: after the first guy, you’re hoping to get lucky on a later pick than before, possibly in a later draft. Perhaps you can get it done in free agency, but that’s difficult to rely upon: generally, if someone’s a free agent, it’s because something went wrong; you’re also reliant on the talent drafted oh, say, four, five, six years ago to mature correctly and fit well with the superstar you already have. It’s a difficult process. Look at Cleveland’s relatively high draft picks since 2003: Luke Jackson (could have had Andris Biedrins, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith or Jameer Nelson) and Shannon Brown (could have had Paul Millsap or Sergio Rodriguez). Perhaps your conclusion is that the Cavaliers made a mistake drafting, but this is the tyranny of the retrospective: at the time these picks seemed perfectly reasonable. Once you get past the first tier of players, drafting is often about luck: of the player developing right, having the right head on his shoulders, etc.
So it’s hard, very hard, and while the Cavaliers made obvious mistakes, it’s not like there’s an obvious opportunity staring them in the face that they obviously missed. (Well, actually, rumor had it that they were interested in Andre Iguodala but traded for Jamison because he was cheaper. If so, as a blunder, that would be an all-timer.) So while you can and should give them guff for their management failures, just know that it’s a tough hand to be dealt: there’s only so much skillful GMing can do.
What could have been done will always haunt Clevelanders. This last game was evidence of that. LeBron played with evident passion and attacked most of the game, but something is clearly wrong. Is it is elbow? Something else? Just know that at times in this series LeBron has looked like his most dominant; most of the series, obviously, he did not. And if you want to criticize LeBron for something, criticize him for this: I remember vividly LeBron backing down Tony Allen and then getting stripped. It was a brutal reminder of the fact that for all LeBron’s skills and all of his development, so much of the potential of his game remains unrealized. He should have that by now, shouldn’t he? While it’s not all his fault he lost, it is his fault he doesn’t have more skills. So, LeBron, here’s my pitch: come to Chicago, get to play with a real point guard, and you’ll get to expand your game exponentially. And win championships. Plural.