On the Cavs and the crippling inevitability of failure

June 23rd, 2010 by John Krolik

The 2nd half of Season 3 of The Wire was recently available On Demand; hence, I ended up finishing season 3 of The Wire (for the second or third time) tonight.


Season three of The Wire is the kind of program that inspires hope even if you know things will ultimately end badly. Stringer Bell founds the Baltimore drug co-op and comes achingly close to making drug dealing a murder-free business. Bunny Colvin creates Hamsterdam, the open-air drug market that cleans up drug corners and, again, comes achingly close to making drug dealing a murder-free business. McNulty comes achingly close to actually catching Stringer Bell on the wire. Heck, the B+B Crew come achingly close to gunning down Marlowe. Season 3 of The Wire pulls off what few other “topical” pieces of entertainment ever have; not only does it make the case that a major institution is broken, but it actually lays out realistic ways to make that institution less broken. (Heck, Traffic is one of my favorite movies, and all that movie does is do the former well. And most of the Zeta-Jones scenes should have been cut. Moving on.)

But even as we see these potential solutions materialize, we know, deep down, that these solutions will not work. (For the first 3.5 seasons of The Wire, we knew that the solutions wouldn’t work because we knew that we were being given a window into how bureaucracy prevents positive change from happening. In the last 1.5 seasons of The Wire, we knew that the solutions wouldn’t work because we knew we were watching a show about how bureaucracy prevents positive change from happening.)

At its best, The Wire reminds us that we are dealing with an institution that is fundamentally broken. There are no good guys or bad guys; there is simply a city without the ability to sustain itself, and a system that promotes self-interest over trying to help a city sustain itself.

This feeling of inevitable failure brings me to the institution of the LeBron-era Cleveland Cavaliers. To clarify, I am not trying to tap into the “God hates Cleveland Sports” thing here. While that is certainly something I have felt and a reason I shout “okay, nobody do anything stupid” at the TV when the Cavs are up eight with six seconds to play, it’s not what I’m getting at right now.

The post-LeBron Cavs are, fundamentally, a broken institution. They blew their chance to add an impact player in the lottery before LeBron led them to the playoffs, they never managed their cap well enough to grab a major free agent, and they never had the assets to trade for a second All-Star. They have done what they can to put the best talent they can around LeBron, and for the most part they’ve done a wonderful job. But it’s still been LeBron and the best The Island of Misfit Toys has to offer — tell me adding Shaq to a drive-and-kick team built around defense wasn’t as outlandish a concept as Hamsterdam.

Could this all have been different? Of course. The Cavs could’ve taken somebody other than Luke Jackson with their lone post-LeBron lottery pick. They could’ve not risked giving up a lottery pick for JIRI FREAKING WELSCH. JIRI FREAKING WELSCH. They could’ve resisted giving Larry Hughes all that money. They could’ve pulled the trigger on the Shaq deal during the year they actually faced Orlando in the playoffs. Hell, maybe Phoenix could’ve kept Rajon Rondo’s draft rights instead of selling them to free up the money necessary to sign Marcus Banks. Maybe Rashard Lewis misses one of those two threes he made. Whatever it was that happened, LeBron’s Cavaliers were a fundamentally broken team who came achingly close to making it work a couple of times.

My 2nd Wire/Cavs point is this: despite the fact that the Wire is a terrifyingly depressing show on a macro level, it manages to be downright inspiring on a micro level. Every season ends with a montage of the majority of the major characters featured, and a lot of them are shown finding their own individual happy endings.

With your permission, I’m going to play this game for a second: imagine that the 09-10 Cavs weren’t a giant, fundamentally broken system whose sole goal was to win a championship and whose sole relevant agent was LeBron James. Judge them like any other team, not one who had crippling pressure put upon them all season because of one player and like a team that whose success wasn’t defined by the legacy of that one player.

If you did that, you might see things like:

— Delonte West fighting through his depression and playing nearly a full season of NBA basketball, and keeping his status as the one player on the team who never quit under any circumstances

— Anderson Varejao finally getting recognized for what his defense, rebounding, and energy has always brought to this team

— Anthony Parker going from playing in Israel to being the starting shooting guard on a 61-win NBA team

— J.J. Hickson emerging as a solid starter, intriguing athlete, and potential future star

— Antawn Jamison finally getting the chance to prove he belongs with the big boys

— Zydrunas Ilgauskas proving that NBA basketball isn’t just about the money

— Daniel Gibson never letting the fact that the Cavs didn’t ask enough of him keep him from doing what the team did ask him to do

— Leon Powe getting an ovation from a Celtics crowd that desperately wanted the Cavaliers to go down

— Jamario Moon going from Globetrotter to the man who played a huge part in helping the Cavs take a playoff game against the Bulls

— Jawad Williams proving he belongs in the NBA

There were those stories, and so many more. Those players’ job wasn’t to make sure LeBron James got his glory. It was to do the best they could to help the Cavs win, and they all did that. More than that, they all deserve the adoration that’s due to them. These are men who played great basketball and took this team pretty darn far, all things considered. They were more than LeBron’s elves. And that means something. I’m not sure what, but it does mean something. I suppose that’s all I can really say on this matter for the time being.