CHICAGO – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .”
— Charles Dickens, writing about the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks.
Perhaps Dickens would have been writing about those two NBA teams given their own themes of resurrection and insurrection in this NBA season.
The Cavaliers, of course, always are a subject for history because of LeBron James. No one is writing off James’ chances to be in his eighth consecutive finals this season, though no one also expects James and the Cavaliers to win if they get there.
The intriguing story is that for the first time in these last eight seasons, there is serious doubt James will be in the NBA Finals.
And with that where James will play next season, though that’s for columns later this season.
The Cavaliers figured to take a bit of a step back this season with the trade of Kyrie Irving to Boston. But not far enough back to not represent the Eastern Conference again, especially when free agent All-Star Gordon Hayward was declared out for the season after being injured in Boston’s opening game.
But a funny thing happened on the way to James’ continued immortality:
Suddenly, James was back in the MVP conversation, averaging his most points in five years. That was not a good thing because James knows, almost instinctively, what he needs to do for success. That he needed to score so much was not good. But that presumably would be temporary with the return of Isaiah Thomas from the Irving trade figured for midseason.
Along the way, free agent Derrick Rose left the team to consider his basketball future after another injury. He returned, but with limited minutes off the bench. Dwyane Wade was demoted to the bench as his game continued to decline. Jae Crowder, the supposed defensive presence from the Boston trade, was ineffective. Iman Shumpert was hurt and J.R. Smith played like he was.
Then there were team meetings — never a good thing — rumors of coach Tyronn Lue being fired, which is an annual event on James teams, Thomas louder with his mouth than his game and the Cavaliers suddenly in a race to get one of the East’s top four places just for first-round home-court advantage.
The Cavs just aren’t a very good team, atrocious defensively and with a chemistry that may produce only dynamite. But I’m still putting them in the finals to lose to Golden State because there just doesn’t seem to be anyone else.
Yes, Boston is playing more intensely on both sides of the ball than anyone in the NBA now, even Golden State. But without Hayward come playoff time, they just don’t seem to have enough offense.
Toronto? The Raptors are the only other possibility. They changed their offense from the DeRozan/Lowry iso to more ball movement and shooting.
Will it carry over under playoff pressure? Not likely.
What about the Pistons now that they traded for Blake Griffin? They still have to make a good run to get to eighth. Not because they can’t, but the teams ahead of them, the 76ers, Heat and Pacers, don’t look like they are falling away. The Wizards might with John Wall having knee problems, but no one ever expects them to do much, anyway.
Ah, the Bucks. We thought they might do something, though they haven’t had Jabari Parker, who is only returning this week after a second ACL surgery and on playing time restrictions for perhaps a month.
Should the Bucks have been better, anyway?
That’s what most expected, apparently the owners, as well, who fired coach Jason Kidd Jan. 22. The Bucks weren’t doing that badly, really, and star Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to like Kidd.
Usually a star can prevent such a firing, which tells you something about how detested Kidd was. Usually, NBA coaches and coaches association leader Rick Carlisle of Dallas protest every firing like it’s an old lady being mugged. There was silence about Kidd.
Of course, this is the guy who makes Machiavelli look like a team player. He’d make Mitsuhide Akechi look loyal.
Kidd on his resume led an insurrection to get coach Byron Scott fired in New Jersey, helped run out Scott Skiles in Phoenix and Jim Cleamons in Dallas, his college coach (Lou Campanelli), too. He ran out on a promise to re-sign in Dallas and as Nets coach tried to get his GM fired to get his job.
Treachery doesn’t get tossed around much other than in stories about Kidd.
Kidd was friends and business associates with one of the new owners of the Bucks, who apparently had enough, also.
Though it’s somewhat misplaced ambition. Parker was injured and Eric Bledsoe wasn’t so much a point guard as another guy who could score some.
Antetokounmpo had the ball, anyway, when the Bucks needed something done.
The point is they have a star; just not enough to go with him. No Scottie Pippen, as it were.
For NBA success, you need a true star. Most teams don’t have one. Guys like Wall and DeRozan are not quite good enough. Kyrie is, but also needs a bit more.
Remember, when the Bulls had Michael Jordan they were 1-9 in the playoffs his first three seasons. It took five years to get beyond the second round of the playoffs.
The Bucks have one star in Giannis. It’s a big time start. If Parker is another, then they can be taken seriously.
Though Parker publicly denied it — what else could he say? — the rumors were if he did recover he wasn’t going to stay in Milwaukee if Kidd were there.
Even if it wasn’t true, which most in the NBA believe it is, guys like Kidd wear out their welcomes after about three seasons. This was Kidd’s fourth.
Here was one of the greatest guards in NBA history, a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer who played for four teams. OK, sometimes great ones are traded once or maybe even twice.
But four different teams? With his jersey retired by his third team? No, Kidding.
The Eastern Conference playoffs should be a wonderful tournament spectacle since the Cavaliers have stepped back into the pack and it’s difficult to ascertain the differences between one and eight. But even as the Cavs seem unlikely to have the most wins, which they didn’t last season, they have the best player in LeBron James. They’re still looking to trade, Thomas is getting in shape if not size and maybe Wade and Rose have one more run in them.
It’s still probably LeBron and the Cavs, but no longer their reign of terror.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5