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  Wed, March 10, 2004


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The Last Word
There's little doubt LeBron James will be the NBA's rookie of the year. But, more importantly, he has led the Cavaliers into the playoff hunt.

By BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

As preposterous as this seemed mere weeks ago, LeBron James might be in the playoffs and Carmelo Anthony might not.

The NBA certainly would prefer it if both those high-profile rookies were available to bolster post-season TV ratings. Think about it: In the West, does the NBA want Anthony and the Denver Nuggets or Raul Lopez and the Utah Jazz? In the East, does the NBA want James and the Cleveland Cavaliers or Rod Strickland and the Raptors?

Be that as it may, the Cavs are in the thick of a six-team race for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Heading into their game against the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre tonight, the retooled Cavs have won four games in a row and eight of their past 10.

For those and other reasons, there's no cause to be less than blunt about this: James is the NBA rookie of the year.

"I'm so tired I can't get dressed," the 19-year-old James said after scoring 34 points -- it was the 10th time he has scored 30-plus this season -- in a win against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday. Well, if this is what James can do when he's tired, his opponents had best hope he never gets a full night's sleep.

As a sports culture, we've become so accustomed to touted athletes not living up to expectations that we don't know how to react when one does. But what James has accomplished this season is so impressive, he has put considerable distance between himself and Anthony in the would-be rookie race, at least in the eyes of this observer.

CLOSE NUMBERS

James' numbers (averaging 20.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 39.9 minutes) and Anthony's numbers (averaging 20.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 36.1 minutes prior to the Nuggets' game in Washington last night) are pretty close. But James has taken on an increased leadership role as the season has progressed, and the Cavs have improved month by month. The Nuggets, meanwhile, are headed in the other direction and Anthony appears reluctant to take charge of a Denver locker room that features numerous stoic veterans.

You have to acknowledge Cavs general manager Jim Paxson and coach Paul Silas have been smart this season. Once they perceived James was ready to be a true leader, some prescient trades were made. Gone were problem children Ricky Davis and Darius Miles. In came Eric Williams, Tony Battie and Jeff McInnis.

The chemistry experiment produced a cure.

So the next time some coach, GM or team owner suggests it's impossible to make big changes on the fly and become cohesive fairly quickly, you can point to the Cavs and say that's a load of bull crap. The Cavs have proven what can be done when you have a star player who's willing to lead, a versatile supporting cast (Carlos Boozer, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ira Newble) that is better than the sum of its parts, and a GM and coach who work in tandem rather than subtly using each other as scapegoats for their own deficiencies.

This is not to suggest the Cavaliers, whose overall record is 28-36, are world-beaters. They're new to all this, so they may still hit a slump that scuttles their playoff drive. Then again, you almost would have to blindfold them to take them out of contention in the forgiving East.

Either way, the Raptors should be well aware that the Cavs team providing the opposition tonight is not the same team Toronto handled twice previously this season.

The Cavaliers presently are both exciting and improving, not to mention the fact they have the most famous and most talented young player in basketball. With the lucrative playoffs on the horizon, you couldn't blame NBA commissioner David Stern for secretly wearing a wine-and-gold Cavs jersey under his business suit.









Do you like the new-look Raptors heading into the 2013-14 NBA season?
  Yes, new GM made great moves
  No, they will still be a terrible team
  Unsure what to make of it


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