The Cleveland Cavaliers are two games ahead of the defending champion L.A. Lakers in the race for the NBA’s best regular season record—and the Cavs’ lead is really in effect three games because the Cavs swept the head to head season series—yet the Cavs only have one participant in the various All-Star Weekend activities: LeBron James, the 2009 NBA MVP who made the All-Star team for the sixth straight year. Mo Williams is putting up roughly the same numbers he did while earning a 2009 All-Star selection (averaging slightly fewer points but slightly more assists) but his shoulder injury shortly before the All-Star break likely killed whatever opportunity he may have had to be selected as a reserve by the Eastern Conference coaches. Shaquille O’Neal’s slow start statistically damaged his chances of earning a 16th All-Star berth even though he played a major role in Cleveland’s victories over the Lakers and the Orlando Magic, last year’s NBA Finalists. While it is perhaps understandable that due to the aforementioned reasons the Cavs only have one All-Star, it is strange that the Cavs’ three point shooting prowess failed to land either Anthony Parker or Daniel Gibson in the Three Point Shootout.
In the long run, though, such perceived slights may simply provide extra motivation for the Cavs as they position themselves for the stretch drive of the regular season in preparation for the 2010 playoffs. During Saturday’s All-Star media availability session, James said, “I think that it’s just an ongoing story with our franchise being the butt of jokes…not getting the respect that we thought that we should have had last year: it took three or four injuries last year for Mo (Williams) to be an All-Star when we were the best team in the league. Once again we are the best team in the league but Mo got no consideration and Shaq got no consideration. We have three of the top three point shooters in the league but we have no three point shooters in the Three Point Shooting contest tonight. But at the end of the day we have to earn it by going out and playing basketball.”
I obtained what I like to call “pole position” (i.e., standing right next to him) during James’ media availability; unless you are a TV cameraman, you have a long boom mike or you possess exceptional hearing, “pole position” is very important. Here is a sampling of what James said about a wide range of topics. Questions that I asked directly are in quotation marks; other questions are paraphrased because it was not always possible to understand them verbatim. James’ answers are presented in bold typeface:
You have said that the Cowboys are your favorite NFL team. How much are you looking forward to playing in Cowboys Stadium?
It’s going to be fun. I think it’s exciting. I think it’s going to be electrifying. There are going to be a lot of people there, 90-100,000, so it’s going to be really exciting and really fun.
“How would you compare Cleveland’s roster this year with the roster you had when Cleveland made it to the NBA Finals in 2007?”
Oh, we’re better. I think potential-wise we’re a better team than we were in 2007 but we did catch a hot streak in 2007, got hot at the right time in the playoffs, played well in the playoffs and that’s why we were able to advance to the Finals. But, I think that potential-wise we are better than we were three years ago.
Do you regret that the All-Star break happened right as you are riding a 13 game winning streak?
Yeah, of course, you want to play well and continue to play well going into the break and after the break. We wish we could have continued to play but guys need rest. We have a lot of veterans. We had a lot of nicks and bruises, especially with Delonte (West) and with Mo (Williams), so it gives guys an opportunity to rest their bodies and get ready for after the break.
Omri Casspi is the first Israeli player in the NBA. What do you think of his game?
He’s a very good player. He’s going to continue to get better. He’s young and the good thing about their team (Sacramento Kings) is that he has young guys to grow with him, Tyreke Evans being one of them, Jason Thompson being another one—they can all grow together. He’s very athletic and he can shoot the ball extremely well, so he’s going to have a good career.
“The Dream Team is a Hall of Fame Finalist this year. What are your memories of watching that team play and what kind of impact did that have on you as a kid?”
The most obvious thing is how badly they just dominated the rest of the world and one of my real memories, though, is how they dominated teams and the teams wanted to take pictures with them. That is a memory I will never forget.
What do you like to do off of the court?
I play video games a lot. I play six, seven times a week. I play a lot of video games, a lot of hours out of my day. I play Xbox 360, Army of Two and I play NBA2K10. I just finished my season of Madden—I played three or four teams.
What do you think of the Boston Celtics this year? They have not been playing well recently.
The funny thing about it is they are still one of the top teams in the NBA. I mean, you lose a few games—people get so spoiled and think that you can win all the time, so when you lose a few games people wonder what is going on. They are a very experienced team, a great team. They’ve got three of the best players in the league on one team with Paul (Pierce), Ray (Allen) and KG (Kevin Garnett), plus (Rajon) Rondo is having an unbelievable season—he absolutely should be an All-Star. So I’m not looking too far into it (in terms) of this team going down. There is no team in the NBA as players who look at Boston and say, “They’re falling off.” That is still a team to be reckoned with.
What will it be like playing basketball in a football stadium? Have you ever done that before?
I’ve never played in one before. I watched (a basketball game in a football stadium) once before, when Davidson played Wisconsin two years ago I think it was, when Stephen Curry played in (the NCAA Tournament) in Ford Field in Detroit. I have no idea how to prepare for something like this—90,000 people at a basketball game, that will be like a rock concert…It’s going to be really loud and it’s going to be fun…It won’t take me long (to adjust); when the lights go on I’ll be ready.
Do you have any advice for Gerald Wallace in the Slam Dunk Contest?
I have no idea what to do in the Slam Dunk Contest. That is why I decided not to be a part of it but I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun. There are some athletic guys in it. I look forward to seeing it.
What kind of guy is Dwight Howard?
What you see is what you get with Dwight. People see him having fun, loving the game, laughing and enjoying life and that is exactly how Dwight is. He’s a big kid and you want to have fun when you play the game of basketball because there is so much that goes on with the game that if you take it too seriously it can definitely bring you down.
Are you concerned about the Cavs possibly peaking early?
You would rather be riding a high wave than a low wave. It’s something that you can’t control but at the same time we know that we want to play our best ball in late March, towards April, once the playoffs start. But I’m not going to say that we don’t like what is going on with our team now because I’d be lying to you but we definitely want to play our best ball in late March going into April.
After you lost your first two games people were down on your team. Talk about how you responded to that.
We lost our first two games and since then we are 42-9 (laughs). I’ll take that.
“When you lost your first two games do you think that a lot of people underestimated how difficult it is to integrate so many new people into the team in different roles?”
Well, what happens sometimes in our league and in sports in general is that people (think) that paper rosters are automatically supposed to be on the floor. People look at the roster and say, “This is who they’ve got, so this is what should happen” and automatically crown someone as the champs because of who they’ve got (on the roster). It takes time. You can’t rush chemistry. You can’t rush teamwork and things like that. It took us a few weeks. It took us the whole training camp plus two or three weeks of the regular season to finally get it going and we’ve had it ever since.
“Was part of the issue getting the newer players used to how to play in Coach Mike Brown’s defensive system?”
Early in the season it was our scoring. We got a lot of stops. The first game of the season we played Boston and we couldn’t score. Second game we played Toronto in Toronto and we couldn’t score. Defense is very easy to adjust to when you have new guys because at the end of the day it is all about communication, talking, flying around and helping each other. If you expect a guy to be in a certain place on the offensive end and he’s not there then it can result in turnovers and things like that. That’s all about chemistry, building that.
What would it mean to you to win an NBA championship in your home state?
It would mean everything. It would mean everything. I was able to do it three times in my high school career, winning three state championships and winning a national championship my senior year, so I’ve seen how the community grasps at the game at basketball. So at the professional level you can (multiply) that by 100. It would mean a lot and I’m doing whatever it takes. I work my tail off every single day to try to get better and put ourselves in position to win an NBA championship.
Who would win if you played Kobe Bryant one on one?
I don’t know, man. I’m not a one on one guy and I’ve never been a one on one guy. We are two unbelievable talents who just try to do whatever is possible to help our respective teams win every time on the court.
Who is your favorite international player of all time?
Dirk Nowitzki is my favorite international player.
“Why is Dirk Nowitzki your favorite international player?”
His abilities are unbelievable. To be 7-1 and handle the ball the way as well as he does, to post up and to shoot the ball as well as he can shoot the ball at that size—I love it. It’s effortless to him, like Kevin Durant. These guys just score effortlessly, it seems like they never sweat, they just go out there, play basketball and score 30. Those guys I love.
After the media availability ended, James stopped to give his Team USA teammate Jason Kidd a hug. James jokingly apologized to the Dallas star for bringing the cold weather from Cleveland to the Lone Star State and James told Kidd, “I had to go to the mall to get a skully and thermals.” It is a bit hard to picture James just visiting the mall to pick up winter clothes during the middle of All-Star Weekend, so Kidd kind of gave James a funny look and then James laughed and said, “Well, I sent someone to the mall.”