Friday, April 14, 2006

Second guessers always win

Lebron James scared Cavaliers fans to death when he pulled up lame after driving the lane against the Detroit Pistons in a game that was not only out of hand but completely insignificant as the Cavs had wrapped up the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Naturally this led people to question Mike Brown's decision to put Lebron in harm's way with the playoffs looming and nothing to be gained from a victory and his detractors make a great point, but is it really a bad decision?

There are two lines of thinking late in the season. You can rest your starters and protect them from injury in meaningless games, thus ensuring they'll be rested and ready for the rigors of the post season. Many coaches take this approach and it's a very reasonable course of action. Especially when your team's success revolves around one or two players. The Cavaliers have no chance to win a title if Lebron James gets hurt. They have other important players on the team and losing any of their starters is bad news, but Lebron is the best player in the league. The team is built around him.

The other train of thought is that you don't want your starters getting cold. For every team that has lost a key player to an injury in an unnecessary game there are five teams who have lost in the playoffs because their star players didn't step up. The Chicago Bulls struggled in early playoff rounds and only managed to advance because Michael Jordan did not have the mentality that allowed him to get cold. Had Jordan displayed the same characteristics of Scottie Pippen one could argue that the Bulls dynasty might have consisted of one or two titles over eight years instead of six. Look at what happened to the Colts over the past two seasons in the NFL. Disapointing playoff performances followed several weeks worth of rest for the starting players.

Why do you suppose Wild Card Teams win in the NFL and Major League Baseball? We just watched the Pittsburgh Steelers claw their way through the AFC after fighting tooth and nail to get into the playoffs. The World Series has been dominated by teams who would not have made the post season 15 years ago. In spite of risking fatigue and injury it seems that the teams who have to play hard down the stretch manage to maintain a sharp mental edge through the playoffs. That translates into wins.

The numbers don't lie. With so much parity in professional sports right now, teams can't expect to walk through the first round of the playoffs and improve as they go. They have to step up with the "A" game from the very start and not let up. There are no more free rides.

Knowing this, Mike Brown's decision to keep Lebron in the game when victory seemed impossible isn't so bad. It makes even more sense when you consider the fact that Larry Hughes has been sidelined for most of the season and never had much of a chance to develop his game along side James. Brown could use the remaining regular season games to give Lebron and Larry a chance to get on the same page.

One good thing that came from the injury is the fact that the Cavaliers were forced to play the Knicks with Lebron in street clothes. While the Knicks aren't much of an opponent, the game gave Mike Brown a chance to work his reserves out. Larry Hughes also had a moment to shine, getting back his confidence and showing his teammates that they can count on him to lead the way if Lebron is struggling. It also sends a message to playoff opponents that containing Lebron might not be the best way to stop the Cavaliers.

While Mike Brown probably feels pressure to hold his starters back, he can't afford to let them get complacent. The Cavaliers are a solid competitor and have a legitimate shot at getting to the finals. Don't let the huge loss to the Pistons fool you. The Cavs have the players available to give the Pistons serious trouble, but they have to be hot. Sitting them out in the last few games could have negative repercussions later.

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