Over the past two days, defenders of LeBron James' horrific Game 5 performance have been pointing the fingers at coach
Mr. Potato Head Mike Brown and general manager Danny Ferry for not giving the Self Proclaimed King enough help to advance deep in the playoffs. And while I'm not a LeBron James defender, I'm right there with them pointing the finger in those directions. Mike Brown is clearly in over his head, and Danny Ferry made one big mistake that's really costing the Cavaliers right now.
That's right: one big mistake. I don't have a big problem with any of Danny Ferry's moves from the 2008 trade deadline until the 2010 trade deadline. Dumping Larry Hughes in a package that netted Delonte West was a great move. Getting Mo Williams, a player who is faltering now but is also the exact kind of guy (great spot-up shooter that does just enough playmaking to give LeBron a break from that) you need to pair with the King, for basically nothing was a great move. Signing Anthony Parker (good defender, great three-point shooter) and Jamario Moon (same deal) for bargain contracts was outstanding. Keeping Anderson Varejao not once, but twice was smart, because he's such an important role player. Drafting J.J. Hickson with the 19th pick in 2008 was great value, and even the Shaquille O'Neal trade was a good move because a) Ferry gave up nothing, b) Shaq gave Cleveland a new dimension that Mike Brown overused (not necessarily Ferry's fault) and c) there were tons of games where Shaq did make a huge difference by getting opposing big men in foul trouble (see the Chicago series, for one).
The sum of all these moves was that the Cavaliers went from 45 wins in 2008 to 60+ the last two seasons, and that's without LeBron himself making significant improvements. Ferry erased his own mistakes from 2003-2007, finding a great mix of role players and shooters designed to take advantage of LeBron's passing and driving ability. The 2009/10 Cavaliers entered the season with a roster designed to play any style. They could go big (Shaq) or small (Varejao/Hickson) inside; they could go big (Parker/Moon) or small (West) on the perimeter, and they could throw elite defenders at you from every position. It was a roster that made sense. About the only thing Ferry did wrong during this stretch was holding onto Brown as his coach, but that was owner Dan Gilbert's call, not his.
But that was before the 2010 trade deadline, where Ferry made his fatal error. That error? Trading for Antawn Jamison (and by extension, keeping Hickson) instead of willingly giving up Hickson for Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire. That non-move is what's costing Cleveland right now. That non-move alone.
Just how close was this trade to happening? Here's what ESPN's Chris Broussard reported on February 14, just days before the trade deadline.
The Cavaliers would send Zydrunas Ilgauskas and J.J. Hickson to Phoenix in exchange for Stoudemire, one of the league's most dominant big men.
So then why didn't it happen? We obviously can't know for sure, but a couple days later, the Cavaliers instead traded for Antawn Jamison. Phoenix eventually couldn't get a package together with Miami for Stoudemire and eventually held onto the guy. Those are the facts. The big unanswered question is this: did Phoenix reject a Hickson-led package, or was it the Cavaliers who chose Jamison over Stoudemire?
If you believe ESPN's Marc Stein, arguably the most well-connected reporter out there, it was the latter. Here are some lines from his February 18 story, when he reported the Jamison trade as a done deal.
"Antawn is a great pro. We are very excited to have an experienced all-star player of Antawn's caliber and character join us," Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry said in a statement announcing the trade. "He has the ability to add a special, unique dimension to our team with a strong inside presence and the ability to stretch teams defensively, while impacting the entire court. We think he matches the culture we have built, and continue to build, and will fit well with our group on the court and off."
The Cavs have been chasing Jamison since last season and ultimately preferred this trade in part because they did not have to surrender blossoming young forward J.J. Hickson. The Suns were demanding Hickson along with Ilgauskas' expiring salary for Stoudemire.
In other words, it appears the Cavaliers did choose Jamison over Stoudemire, and did so because Jamison "fit" better and they could still keep Hickson. Now that we've seen the way this has played out, it's clear Jamison isn't fitting in, keeping Hickson was pointless because he never plays and Stoudemire is way, way better than anyone realized.
In making their decision, Cleveland overrated Jamison considerably, both as a player and in terms of his ability to fit in. Cleveland figured that the difference between Jamison and Stoudemire wasn't great enough to risk whatever possible chemistry issues might come. They were very wrong. Jamison may have a little more shooting range, but Stoudemire is way, way more efficient offensively. In his past five healthy years (i.e. not counting the three games he played in 2006), Stoudemire has never posted a true shooting percentage below 61%, which is an obscenely high number. By contrast, Jamison's career TS% is only 52.6%, which is actually below the league average, and save for his one year in Dallas, where he posted a 58.1% TS%, he's never had a year over 54.9%, which, again, is only slightly above the league average.
The long and short of it is that Amare is so much better offensively than Jamison that it's not even worth getting concerned over Amare being the right fit. And speaking of being the right fit - Jamison's not really looking like the right fit right now. He's essentially being treated as a glorified spot-up shooter, and whatever post-up and isolation opportunities he did get in the past aren't there anymore. In the playoffs, he's struggled to adjust to that, and is scoring even less efficiently than usual. I'd say more on this subject, but instead, I'll just point you here and here, where it's covered in depth. In retrospect, the "Amare can't play with Shaq" concerns at the trade deadline look pretty foolish, especially considering that Amare led the league in TS% and had his best offensive season the year the Suns traded for Shaq.
(Oh, and defensively? Even if Amare is a sieve, Jamison is far, far worse. Anyone who has witnessed Kevin Garnett's "rejuvenation" in this series knows what I mean).
All in all, there really was no logical reason to think Jamison approached Amare as a player, even if Amare wasn't playing as well then as he is now. The Amare from the first half of the season easily dwarfs Antawn Jamison. Easily.
As for J.J. Hickson, what's the point of keeping him if he never plays? Since the Jamison trade, Hickson's minutes, and by extension, his play, have nosedived. He lost the starting spot he earned earlier in the season and immediately went into the tank once Shaq came back from injury. When he does play, it's clear he's lost all his confidence. I change my mind a lot on Hickson's long-term potential - sometimes, I think there's something there, and sometimes, I think there isn't - but regardless, that Cleveland frontcourt needed to be consolidated. One Amare is better than one Jamison and one Hickson, especially when your coach can't find minutes for all those pieces he's been given.
At the end of the day, Danny Ferry did a remarkable job finding the right role players for LeBron James, but when faced with the chance to add the kind of co-star LeBron needed to win a championship, he chose the wrong guy. Very few GMs have the chance Ferry had, and instead of getting the co-star, he instead chose the guy that's no better than a role player on a championship team (albeit a role player with a huge, long-term contract despite being in his mid-30s). Don't blame Ferry for getting Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon or even Shaq. Blame Ferry for not getting Amare Stoudemire.
Because with Amare Stoudemire, you can still have a chance to win even if LeBron goes into one of his funks.