Johnny Football one week, LeBron the next? Maybe the gods of life are having long-overdue mercy on bedraggled Cleveland, Ohio, because in one shockingly fortuitous sweep, that rust-belt city has become the epicenter of bubbling sports hope. Though the Cavaliers don’t deserve the repeated gift of the No. 1 pick in the draft — seeing how they blew it last year with bust Anthony Bennett, hired and fired a lame Mike Brown in one season and let LeBron James flee in 2010 — they’ve once again landed the top selection and given rise to the notion that LeBron could return home.
No, James isn’t leaving this summer, even if Miami’s three-peat hopes collapse in the Eastern Conference finals. But he could opt-out of his deal next summer, when the Heat’s championship window likely will be closing. And if he returned to northeast Ohio, James not only would be joining his friend and client in the endorsement world, Johnny Manziel of the Browns, but conceivably could be playing for another buddy.
Remember who recently said how he dreams of coaching LeBron? “Are you kidding me? Have a chance to coach the best player in the world? Yes, I would love to coach him,’’ John Calipari said. He added he’s not ready to leave Kentucky “right now.’’ The summer of 2015 is not right now.
Then again, maybe James is thrilled to have escaped Cleveland and never wants to leave Pat Riley’s side in South Beach, even as Dwyane Wade grows old. Even so, the idea of Calipari coaching the Cavaliers — even right now, regardless of his claims — started percolating the very nanosecond that franchise landed the No. 1 pick for the third time in the last four years, which should trigger some sort of investigation just on the improbable face of it. With that choice — which pragmatically would be 7-foot, 250-pound Joel Embiid but from a thrill perspective would be the raw Andrew Wiggins and his 44-inch vertical leap — owner Dan Gilbert might have a future that not even he can screw up. Now, maybe superstar point guard Kyrie Irving, the MVP of this year’s All-Star Game, might sign for the long time. “Luck of the Ping pong balls… Very Exciting!!!’’ Irving tweeted. Now, maybe the Cavs can ship out rotten applies, such as Dion Waiters, and develop a roster of impressive young talent. Maybe they can coax something out of Bennett, among the biggest rookie disappointments ever. To do so, they’ll need a coach.
And who has a grip on developing young talent?
That talent has been on the college level, of course, where he has become known as the irritating master of the one-and-done. Tired of criticism as someone who exploits the college experience for quick benefits — for teenaged players and his own career — it may be time for Calipari, at 55, to try the NBA again. His last experience, back when the Nets were in New Jersey, was brutally miserable, and he needed a bump back to college to salvage a stumbling career. But with one NCAA title and three championship-game experiences in his pocket, Calipari does share a potential career path with Pete Carroll, who was fired twice in the NFL and had to build a college dynasty at USC — before burning it down with a scandal — to get another NFL shot. He has cashed in with a Super Bowl title and possible more ahead. Might Calipari think he’s Carroll?
I’m still not wild about him as a technical coach. But if LeBron and his wife decided to take the family and go home, even Calipari might not get in the way of an NBA title or two. Again, all of this could be speculative folly. Or it may have merit. Such is the fun of the NBA, the most soap-operatic of leagues and filled with gossips.
Should Calipari stay at Kentucky, the Cleveland coaching job is very attractive. It becomes more attractive than the job in New York, where Phil Jackson can’t make free-agent moves or trade for Kevin Love because his roster is hamstrung, one reason Steve Kerr made the wise choice of taking the Golden State job. The Lakers, who wound up with the seventh pick and out of the Embiid/Wiggins/Jabari Parker triad, are looking more and more like an unattractive coaching destination unless a dubious front office somehow can land Love without much to ship to Minnesota. The Knicks, Lakers and Celtics could be down for a while.
As the Cavs, benefiting from the lottery like no team in the ping-pong ball era, look like a goldmine. “What we really need is a better fit. We have an awful lot of talent,’’ said general manager David Griffin, recently named to his position after Gilbert’s dismissals of Brown and previous GM Chris Grant. During the lottery telecast, Griffin had in his breast pocket the lucky bow tie of Gilbert’s son, Nick, who appeared on stage the last two times the Cavaliers won the top draft choice. I don’t know what’s going on here, but Cleveland cashed in on just a 1.7 percent chance to win the first selection. Only the Chicago Bulls, who overcame the same odds to land hometown hero Derrick Rose in 2008, had similarly amazing good luck.
As they might be asking in Milwaukee and Philadelphia — where teams nakedly tanked seasons (the Bucks lost 67 games and the 76ers lost 26 in a row) — what must you do to win the No. 1 pick? Though commissioner Adam Silver should have ordered all tanking teams to issue refunds to fans or let them in for free, the Bucks and 76ers still managed victories by landing the second and third picks respectively. If the Cavs take Embiid, then Milwaukee could end up with Wiggins and Philadelphia with Parker, which would be victories for both teams.
Wiggins thinks he should be the top pick. From a talent perspective, I agree. If you want a ready-made, mature pro who will be a strong role model in the community for 12 years, take Parker. If you subscribe to the view that rim-protectors and shot-blockers still rule, take Embiid, though injuries could be an issue as they are for too many big men.
“I think I’ll do better in the NBA,’’ said Wiggins, who was wildly erratic in his lone season at Kansas. “It’s more my game, more one on one.’’
If the Bucks and Sixers long for Wiggins and watch Cleveland take him, let this be a lesson to the tankers of the basketball world. Besides, didn’t they examine the metrics? Only three times in the lottery’s 25 years has the team with the most ping-pong balls landed the No. 1 pick. The last was Orlando, which took Dwight Howard in 2004.
And if Wiggins, Parker and Embiid all struggle at times in their first seasons, while a lower pick such as point guard Marcus Smart — the Lakers better grab him — ends up as Rookie of the Year, then realize the NBA must push Silver’s stated goal of raiding the minimum age for draft eligibility from 19 to 20. “I think it would make for a better league,’’ said Silver, who surely will face legal opposition, giving the league’s lawyers a double-whammy with the expected Donald Sterling litigation. “I think that the extra year in college will be a benefit for these young men to grow and develop as people and basketball players.”
That is for future contemplation. For now, we’re wondering if LeBron and Calipari are thinking what we’re thinking. And if Cleveland, cursed Cleveland, is about to become the sports city of dreams.
“This is three out of four years,’’ Cavs vice chairman Jeff Cohen said. “It seems surreal.’’
It seems fixed, actually.