Thoughts on James Harden: Part I: The Collective (the part that doesn’t really talk about James Harden)

November 2nd, 2012 by Nate Smith

CavsTheBlog is a collective: a hive mind of disparate thinkers: literary scholars, technicians, high school students, college dropouts, fanboys, video gamers, drinkers, tea-totallers, wizards, trolls, engineers, saints, sinners, idiots, and savants coalescing into a chorus of the blog: readers, writers, editors, commenters — oh,  the glory of the feedback loop.

Ruminating in the guts of the collective is the current crisis of our favorite intellectual opiate: are we (the collective royal we) winners or losers?  Will we be winners or losers?  The first game back from our basketball exodus revealed beautiful highlights and ugly flaws.  The players we call the core, Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller, and Tristan Thompson all played well.  The players on the periphery of that core: Daniel Gibson, Alonzo Gee, and Darius Miles played with varying degrees of success, and the rest of the team played poorly or did not even play at all, forcing us to question whether those players are fixtures or placeholders for future athlete entertainers.  This forces the crisis: should the Cavs do everything now to win in the immediate future, or should they do just enough to develop the “core” and sacrifice winning now to exchange those place holders for better fixtures?

The “we” here is reflexive, as we at once identify with the team, the sport, the brand, the city and speak with assumed authority on it, yet have no direct influence on the players on the court, the plays they run, the employ of their coaches, the direction of them and their future teammates, and whether or not the ball goes or doesn’t go in the basket as often as we’d like.  All “we” can influence is our voices.  We can only make our chorus part of the larger chorus of general fandom, and hope the truth or farce of our words filters somehow back to the power brokers of the team: the owners, the managers, the coaches, and the players.  Oh, the glory of the feedback loop.

Many of the collective want the Cavaliers to win now: to go for a playoff spot: to establish a “culture of winning.”  But what many fear is the curse of mediocrity.  In the NBA, the popular notion is that a team now needs three “stars” to win a championship.  If a team is just good enough to make or miss the playoffs, they’ll lose early, and then never get the players they need to improve.  Trapped in this cycle over the last several years seemed to be the Golden State Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers, the pre-destruction Charlotte Hornets, the Magic, the Hornets, The Bucks, Nuggets, Rockets, and Cavaliers.  Conversely, some teams live at the bottom, consistently make bad decisions, and fester with incompetence.  The Sacramento Kings: a team of lunatics would be an example.  This is a crisis of two different fears: the fear of never being good enough to win more than honorary mention and the fear of developing “a culture of never really trying.”

On a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Brian Scalabrine, NBA journeyman talked about “culture changers.”  The White Mamba noted that Jason Kidd , Kevin Garnett, and Tom Thibodeau were culture changers: players and coaches whose presence and influence changed every aspect of the culture of their organization from the weight rooms, to the locker room, to shootarounds, to games.  Kidd, whom Scalabrine playedwith  on New Jersey’s finals teams in the early 2000s, changed the culture of the Nets with his knowledge of the game and how to do the little things to make himself and the team better.  KG changed it with his unabashed intensity and desire to win and cement a legacy.  Tom Thibodeau changed the culture with his work ethic, and his preparation.  It led me to the question: do the Cavs have a culture changer?  Do they need a culture changer?

Sometimes a culture changer is talent.  Sometimes a player is so talented that he changes the expectations and vision of everyone involved with the team.  LeBron James was such a player.  Kyrie Irving could be that kind of player.  But for every LeBron James, there’s a Keith Van Horn.  Keith Van Horn was perceived as so talented that he’d change the culture in New Jersey, but he wasn’t nearly that gifted… or driven.  But maybe he changed the expectations:  and the subtle culture change led to eventually trading for Jason Kidd and Chris Carter, which led them to the finals (coached by the current Cavs Coach).   So what does a “culture changer” even mean?  A team is a hive mind too:  a collection of individuals working together towards a higher goal.  Maybe the culture of winning revolves around an organization who individually all want to win: every game, every practice, every rebound.  Working every day to do every little thing it takes to win like that is a learned process and an emulated process.  If the leaders and the most talented people in the organization don’t believe in that, then the individual players, trainers, coaches and ball boys cannot emulate it, because they don’t see it.  Do we have the players, coaches, and managers on this team to create this culture?  Can we conjure it when we reach the tipping point of contention?  Will it require an outside force?  Will a new coach or player be the catalyst?

This is our problem with the Cavs: they’re not designed to win.  They’re designed to win… eventually.  “Greatness” in sport is a term reserved for players who win, and in order to win, one must play like there is no tomorrow.  Jack Youngblood played in playoffs with a broken leg.  Ronnie Lott cut his finger off.  Michael Jordan played with the flu.  Emmitt Smith played with a separated shoulderVincent Freeman saved nothing for the swim back to shore.  And for every success, there are forgotten failures, like Brandon Roy, who may have ruined his career by playing in the playoffs on a just repaired knee.  The Cavs aren’t at these win or die trying straits yet.  That is what so frustrates elements of the CtB collective.  We know that this will must be cultivated.  It cannot be called upon at a moments’ notice.

When you consider Baron Davis’s amnestied contract, the Cavaliers have the lowest payroll in the league.   They are only paying $46 million* in active player salaries: approximately tying them with Houston.  When looking around the league it is a little bit maddening to look at the players who were affordably available, or could be traded for, one realizes that hey, we could have signed Aaron Brooks, re-signed Ramon Sessions, or traded for Devin Harris.  Leandro Barbosa was available on the cheap.  We did not have to be playing Donald Sloan and Luke Walton together for extended minutes.  Let us realize that the Cavs are not trying to win.  They’re not trying to lose, mind you, but the Cavs are walking the fine line between fan expectations for improvement and the NBA draft lottery: a system that rewards on-court incompetence.  Take, for instance, the Luis Scola amnesty claim.  We bid less than $4.5 million for a player who averages 14 and 7 and shot 50% from the field at power forward – someone who at the  least would have been a very competent bench player.  Because of fan expectations for improvement, the Cavs couldn’t not bid, so they put in a bid they knew would probably lose.  It can seem like they’re not really trying.

A lack of effort seems especially apparent when we watch Luke Walton point power forward for 12 minutes and garner 1 rebound and no assists.   There must be method to the madness.  Scott must be a master, not a hack.  Right?  He knew he had time to try something, and there were no dire consequences if it didn’t work out.  Against the NBA’s worst team, he knew he could try to teach the team to play through adversity.  And when that failed, he knew he could teach the starters a lesson in rescuing a game from the bench.  One thing I like about Scott is that he never looks like he’s panicking.  He always looks like he knows what is going on and that he has a plan.  Sometimes I watch the product on the court, and I don’t believe it, but his stoic resignation assures me.  So when watching games, I ask the congregation to treat the games like the construction of a cathedral or a great painting.  Because that’s what we’re going for here.  It’s going to take years.  There are going to be setbacks.  We’re going to question our sanity.  But many great arts and endeavors live on the edge of faith, confidence, and sanity.  Trust the process.  Say your prayers to Saint Weirdo.

I am trying to keep the faith in the painter.   Anything that is a collection of lesser things is going to look like crap at more than one point before it’s done.  Aesthetically, it can be breathtaking to watch the drama inherent in greatness.  It can be the height of frustration watching the drama inherent in creating greatness.

I'm sure this thing looked like crap before Seurat was finished.

Another thing I ask, is that when I talk of what I believe the Cavs’ goals are, the collective doesn’t assign my perception of those goals and how the organization is operating to what they perceive are my goals and my preferred methods of operation.  (We’re getting very meta here).   For the one thing that most exacerbates our crisis, is that the Cavaliers seem to have no clearly articulated goals.  No talk is forthcoming from the organization of a desire to “make the playoffs.”  We must read Chris Grant like a text.  In the age of new media, we’re supposed to interpret the text through the silence of the waiver wire, the persistence of the D-League backups, the tantalizing trade teasers.  The goal is implied: player and roster improvement: we will get better, but not until it is conducive to putting the Cavaliers in position to contend for a championship.  We do not aspire to be lovable losers: entertainingly mediocre.  We’ve been gouged before.  Until that undetermined time, enjoy player development, frustrating bench play, and entertaining losses. The worry for collective: is the text we’re reading a thesis in strategy or an organizational farce?  Will the Cavs have their Daryl Morey/James Harden moment, or will we be like the Browns: in year 13 of the 5 year plan?  Are we reading Machiavelli’s The Prince or Heller’s Catch 22?

*Corrections: The article originally listed the Cavs’ active salary number at $40 million.  Thanks to CtB commenter, JAG for the correction.