LeBron's next assignment: powering past the Pistons
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- As we ponder the question of whether the Cleveland Cavaliers are coming to the Eastern Conference finals to compete, or whether they're happy just making it this far, we turn to a story their coach told Sunday after practice.
The story dates back to 1992, which also happens to be the last time the Cavaliers played in the Eastern Conference finals, and Mike Brown was finishing up his final year of college at the University of San Diego.
His coach, Hank Egan, had hooked him up with an unpaid internship in the basketball operations department of the Denver Nuggets, and Brown was happily making photocopies, picking up cars and basically doing anything the higher-ups told him to do.
He was 22 years old and happy to be working for nothing -- and even more thrilled at the end of the season when general manager Bernie Bickerstaff invited him to join the staff full-time the following fall as the video coordinator for an annual salary of $15,000.
"I thought they were overpaying me, especially since I was getting free sneakers and free sweatshirts with the team logo on them. I was like, 'OK,'" Brown recalled Sunday. "But I soon learned that $15,000 isn't a whole lot of money."
That story bears retelling for one compelling reason: We now have another 22-year-old feeling like he's on top of the world, and this year's Eastern Conference finals will be a litmus test of whether he's satisfied with how far he has come in this life, or if he wants more.
It bears noting that the man in question, LeBron James, was only 7 years old the last time the Cavs got this far.
"I didn't even play organized sports until I was 9," LeBron James said. "I was a WWF fan at that time."
And like Brown when he was 22, James at 22 is a guy who seemingly has the world at his feet: He makes millions of dollars annually, he's a global marketing icon, he has been an Olympian, he has four different personas in his Nike commercials and he works for an organization that coddles him like a baby.
But despite all his tangible riches, James hasn't come as far as he can.
He is still a player without any championships, a player who in the big picture really hasn't achieved anything yet -- and he still has a long way to go before he puts together the kind of career résumé that forebearers like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan have.
Then again, LeBron is 22. Jordan was 28 before he won a title. Bird was 25.
So while this is a big test, he has time.
Like the young Mike Brown sitting and counting his $15K and his free gear, one of these days James is going to realize that money and fame will get you only so far. And the next step, the hardest step, is the one that'll come to define him: Whether he wants more, and whether he'll go down as a winner.
A year ago he almost went down as a winner, but the Cavs -- after rallying to win three straight games -- dropped Games 6 and 7 against the Detroit Pistons and were eliminated in the second round.
"Me being a winner, it hurt a lot," James said Sunday in Cleveland before the Cavs made the short trip to Detroit. "We didn't play well enough to win, and they definitely took it to us in Game 7. We just didn't have it."
No one had it less than James on that late afternoon last May when the Cavs went down in flames, the significance of their turnaround overshadowed by the totality of their failure.
James made only one field goal in the second half of that 79-61 drubbing. Brown explained afterward that James -- who later disagreed with his coach's assessment -- had simply run out of gas.
If that loss is motivating him, James isn't saying.
"We have enough motivation. We don't need any added motivation. It's the Eastern Conference finals, and the opportunity to play for the biggest thing in the world -- the NBA Finals -- so we don't need any added motivation," James said, noting that the Cavs' ability to close out games and win on the road has made them a more formidable opponent than they were a year ago.
Whether that assessment holds water will be discovered beginning Monday night, when the Pistons and Cavs play Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
"It's going to be paramount that we continue to defend the way we're defending, and offensively move the ball from one side of the court to the other, especially when you face their different kind of traps and double-teams and so forth," Brown said.
Just as was the case in the previous round versus Chicago, the Pistons are faced with an adversary that realizes the road to the Finals -- and the road to respect -- goes through Detroit.
"It's not going to be easy. They're a tough team, great on both ends, but anything can happen at any time," Brown said. "Whether we go up 2-0 or down 0-2, we need to take each game individually."
Both teams enter this series with identical 8-2 playoff records, the Pistons having swept the Orlando Magic in the first round before defeating Chicago 4-2 in the second round, and the Cavs having swept the injury-depleted Washington Wizards in Round 1 before taking care of the New Jersey Nets in six games.
In Detroit, the big question has been about the Pistons' collective mentality. When focused, they have looked unbeatable. But when they take their foot off the accelerator and ease back, they become their own worst enemy -- a beatable team.
In Cleveland, the big question is whether James has been deferring too much on offense, letting Larry Hughes take too many shots in an offense that routinely bogs down when James gets the ball on either side and the defense starts sagging over to help. James' playoff average of 25.9 points is nearly five points below his postseason average from a year ago, and Hughes is shooting only 36 percent from the field.
The Cavs also have been going without a traditional point guard, using Hughes at the position, and therein may lie the first weakness that the Pistons will attack, especially with two of the best on-the-ball defenders in the league in Chauncey Billups and Lindsey Hunter. It could mean we'll see more of Eric Snow than might have been imagined, or it could mean that James will be forced into becoming even more of a playmaker than he's been thus far in the playoffs (averaging 8.1 assists, compared to 5.8 in the 2006 postseason).
The biggest change for the Pistons from a year ago is the absence of a final line of defense, the one Ben Wallace used to provide with his shot-blocking presence before leaving Detroit for Chicago as a free agent. The Pistons played a lot of zone in their previous series against Chicago, but when the Bulls were able to get in the seams and get to the basket, they met very little resistance around the bucket -- something James undoubtedly noted.
Both sides are predicting a physical series, and the pace of play figures to result in a game or two with the play-by-play man saying, "And at the end of one quarter, it's 17-14 "
But over the course of the next two weeks this series will come to life in some way, shape or form, and it'll end by providing the answer to the question of whether James is on his way to becoming a winner.
"You can ask him, but I don't think we need any motivation at this point. Just being here in itself should be a motivator. This is uncharted territory for a lot of the guys," Brown said. But others are certainly thinking about what to make of the Cavs, and what this series will tell us about James.
If he loses, he finishes in the NBA equivalent of a tie for third, so there will be another third-place chapter to add to the LeBronze résumé (third in Athens with Team USA in 2004; third in Japan with the U.S. national team in 2006).
If he wins, he'll encounter the feeling that his coach felt back in 1993, back when the euphoria of earning $15,000 and a few free sweatshirts in '92 wore off. He'll realize that as good as things may seem today, they might be even better tomorrow if he can get past the satisfaction of saying, "How great is this?"
Is James ready to take that next step? Or will he be satisfied by leading the Cavs somewhere they haven't been since he was 7 and Brown was 22, one of them transfixed by Ric "Nature Boy" Flair, the other by Bernie "The Benevolent" Bickerstaff?
We'll have our answer within two weeks.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.