This is shaping up to be a great NBA playoff series--compelling match-ups, devious subplots, emotional swings, leveraged advantages and calculated adjustments, individual greatness and personal failure, runs and droughts, aging All-Stars and rising luminaries, punch and counterpunch, and flashes of brilliance leavened by gritty dogged determination. Even beyond the court of play there is no shortage of subplots—impending free-agency for the Cleveland star and half the Celtics’ team, coaching carousel issues swirling around head coaches and assistants, executives racking up fines for tossing towels into the air to distract opponents at the free-throw line, and the looming specter of playoff failure being followed by blowing up the losing team.
Both teams are all-in with salary commitments near $85M which will draw another twenty plus million in Luxury Tax. Add in the coaching and training staff and you are well north of $115M before you start adding in travel, the post-game buffet, tape and liniment, and oh, a couple of basketballs. With 41 home games that’s more than $3M per game in fixed costs and that’s still ignoring the scouting staff, executives, public relations and lawyers. Even with average attendance pushing 20,000 we’re talking $150 a seat to break even. Of course there are a multitude of other costs and a huge TV contract income but you get my point—these teams aren’t doing it on the cheap and the post-season tour is essential to making ends meet.
Make no mistake about it, both teams are staring a loss of the gravy train right in the face. If LeBron leaves Cleveland (a rising possibility with an early elimination) you will be able to hear the thud of the Cavalier’s drop in revenue (and record) on either coast. An early departure for the Celtics could mean the end of the New Big Three era and mostly new (and unmarketable) faces on next year’s squad. Those transition (rebuilding, reloading, restocking, draft-position enhancing, off, down, hiatus—pick a word, they all stink) years may have fans tuning in for the lottery drawing but there will be a lot of hang-ups on the season-ticket renewal calls and advertising on the local broadcasts will be public-service-message heavy.
But all that is management’s problem and we were talking about the drama unfolding on the floor and the high quality of its entertainment value. Throughout the regular season Cleveland seemed to just get stronger and stronger. LeBron was unstoppable and became a defensive force. Mo Williams, last year’s coup of an addition, provided streaks of long-range bombing as well as the point-guard play to relieve James of the need to bring the ball down the court. The off-season free-agent additions of Moon and Parker brought height, defense, and outside shooting for his LeBron-ness’ wingmen and the biggest inside presence on the planet—the Man of Many Nicknames. The midseason addition brought the one ingredient thought to be missing—an outside threat at power forward to stretch defenders and open James’ driving lanes. The punch line of the joke was the cost for Jamison—a month furlough for Ilgaukas who was long enough in the tooth that the four-week vacation could have been looked on as a strategic investment. A classic example of the rich getting richer—and the league left quaking in their sneakers.
The Celtics presented a much different story. Although fast out of the gate, the injuries persisted from the previous season (Garnett and Tony Allen), resumed before the season even began (Glen Davis), and continued throughout the season (Marquis Daniels, Paul Pierce, Tony again, Davis again, Pierce again, Garnett again, Pierce again and again, Perkins, even Scal played [or maybe sat] through a shoulder problem). More disturbing than the constant stream of injuries was the seeming lack of fire in the team’s belly led by Mr. Lackadaisical, Rasheed Wallace, who made a mockery of the Celtic creed of playing hard. There was no boost coming from the paltry contributions of the C’s off-season signings of Sheed and Daniels and that left the faltering C’s another day older and deeper in debt (a nod to Tennessee Ernie Ford and Sixteen Tons). The talk of “throwing the switch” grew tiresome and seemed as likely to refer to an executioner’s mercifully ending the 2010 season as to some mythical resurgence for the postseason.
And then! And then the Cavaliers met Chicago in the fist round. They dispatched the Red and Black but looked distinctly not-invulnerable. They didn’t struggle as much as the Celtics had in 2009 when it seemed the 7-game match in the death-cage brought only a Pyrrhic-victory leaving the Green too depleted to finish their uphill battle. But it was not a rout and the assembled group of custom-fitted Cavs seemed more Frankenstein than juggernaut. The Celtics on the other hand rediscover their defensive base and readily downed the Heat. They made Wade’s supporting cast disappear even though Miami was one of the hottest teams finishing the season. What had seemed a sad mismatch two weeks earlier, now looked like a toss-up between a name-brand collection of disparate parts and a cohesive aggregate of surprisingly hale and hearty pieces all attached to the same string. Hey, we may have a series on our hands.
The story lines just keep on coming. What had appeared to be a made-for-TV break in the series that was so long it threatened rust, now looks like a fortuitous break for both teams as Cleveland hopes for LeBron to return to full strength and the Celtics pray their starting interior can shake off their hobbling injuries. Mo Williams and Rasheed Wallace have pulled now-you-see-it now-you-don’t performances out of their hats and left the odds-makers fuming and the fans rolling their eyes. So far the match-ups favor the Cavs at small forward and the C’s everywhere else. Superstar LeBron has a sleeve over the right arm that he carried (between deft executions with same) like a bloody stump in the final Bulls’ game. That hasn’t kept him from hitting 50% (on 24 shots and 3 of 6 from 3-point land in the first game), throwing down dunks and smashing lay-up attempts from behind, and playing 40-plus minutes every game. Lord knows whether the riot police would have been enough to restore order had the King been served the regular helping of floor that has been dished out to Rajon Rondo on a nightly basis. As glitzy as the King has been, so too has Rondo amazed. Despite repeatedly being smashed to the hardwood, Rajon has sliced, diced, and toyed with the Cavaliers serving out ample helpings of points and assists and leading a team with three All-Stars taking supporting roles.
Now neither of these teams (nor any of the others in the Association) is without flaws. Both feature declining veteran stars (nearly half of the Celtics rotation and 74 years of age in the Cavaliers’ two centers and Jamison approaching 34.) The Cavs’ point guard is a notoriously streaky shooter and Rondo aspires to streaky jump shooting. Both benches disappear for games at a time. Neither front court handles active athletic opponents well. But while there are no candidates for all-time great teams this year there are interesting and exciting contests. Add in the numerous subplots both on and off the court and you have compelling entertainment. So pull up the Barco-lounger, pop a cap on a beverage, put on the popcorn, and settle back (to be interspersed with leaps with fists shooting into the air) for the show.