LeBron's future hangs over Cavs' slow start

TORONTO – As soon as Mikhail Prokhorov reached agreement on the $700 million purchase price for the New Jersey Nets, sources say his emissaries were relentless in securing something they believed to be of the highest importance for the Russian billionaire: a sit-down with Jay-Z.

It is rare that an owner with such a small controlling interest in a franchise could inspire such dogged pursuit, but Jay-Z is no silent partner with the Nets. Immediately, insiders understood Prokhorov’s plans to woo Jay-Z pushed far beyond the music mogul’s global celebrity and Brooklyn roots. This was part of the Russian’s ambition to become intimately involved in the summer of 2010 and the most valued free agent in professional sports history: LeBron James(notes).

As the Nets floundered with legal red tape and financial issues that threatened the proposed Brooklyn arena, the threat of Jay-Z and a flashy new building would come and go over the years. Now, it could be a far more real threat than the blah New York Knicks and historic Madison Square Garden.

Suddenly, the Russian’s staggering $9.5 billion fortune and alluring charisma threaten to transform the fledging Nets into a fully loaded weapon again.

“Prokhorov and his people know that the way to LeBron is through Jay-Z,” one high-level source connected to the Russians and Nets said. “From the start, that’s right where they’ve wanted to go.”

The Russian’s influence was everywhere in the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, where the Cavs trudged through another discombobulated performance. Even a LeBron triple double – 23 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds – couldn’t elevate the incompetence surrounding him in a 101-91 loss to the revived Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors have been deftly restored under general manager Bryan Colangelo’s watch, but beside him in the tunnel stood Maurizio Gherardini, the assistant GM out of the Euroleague whom Prokhorov tried to hire for his Moscow power, CSKA. He is considered Prokhorov’s top choice, sources say, to eventually run the Nets – despite the mistake it would be to replace Rod Thorn.

Small world, yes, and this was one of those nights when it felt like it was closing on Cleveland. For the Cavs to hold onto their hometown hero, they’ve always believed there was one unimpeachable recruiting tool: winning. Make it impossible for him to leave a champion for a lottery loser, whatever its proximity to a major market.

So, Cleveland’s Mike Brown had a long postgame meeting Wednesday with his boss and close confidant, GM Danny Ferry, with the coach emerging to eventually decry, “We’re not giving effort all the time.” With the season barely 48 hours old, this was a disturbing declaration in the franchise’s telltale season. For the Cavs, the basketball issues are multiple and unlikely to work themselves out in the short term. Boston and Orlando are far more advanced – something everyone expected – but few imagined the Cavs to be confounded on offense and defense.

Even so, James’ postgame mood hardly mirrored the grim-faced GM and coach. As the dressing room emptied of coaches and teammates, as cameras and reporters waited for the better part of an hour for him to spit out his nightly clichés, James planted himself on a stool to watch the late innings of his old Cleveland pal, CC Sabathia, trying to pitch the New York Yankees to a World Series title.

Nevertheless, the incorporation of Shaquille O’Neal(notes) into the Cavs has been sluggish, and several fresh faces – including Anthony Parker(notes) and Jamario Moon(notes) – are so far clueless in the company of James’ greatness. Brown is experimenting poorly with O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) on the floor together, and James, perhaps, suggested that part of the solution – former assistant John Kuester – had left to become the Detroit Pistons’ coach.

For now, Cleveland has time to work through its problems because LeBron is a superstar who has learned the lesson of patience. “If it was 35 games into the season, I’d be disappointed,” James said. “But it’s not at this point. …I get frustrated when guys make the same mistakes, but that hasn’t been happening here.”

It isn’t the worst thing for the Cavs that they’ll stay out on the road this week because back home owner Dan Gilbert has turned Quicken Loans Arena into a campaign headquarters to get a casino gambling proposition passed in the state of Ohio. Gilbert stands to make millions upon millions building and operating casinos in the city and throughout the state. The barrage of propaganda that overtook the Cavs’ opening night loss to Boston was embarrassing and beneath the standards – however loose – of good taste in the NBA

No one should have to buy a ticket to a basketball game and watch the owner turn the event into a political rally for his own personal gain. It felt like winning Issue 3 in Ohio was far more important than beating the Celtics, and that was a distracting vibe with which to start the final season of James’ contract.

Gilbert kept insisting that gambling is good, and rest assured: His franchise has two gambles itself to consider in November. First, it has to decide when to activate troubled guard Delonte West(notes) for games. After he was arrested on a motorcycle with a small arsenal this summer, after going AWOL to start training camp, West, who suffers from bipolar disorder, is traveling with the Cavs and waiting for Ferry and Brown to activate him.

Those close to West believe he manages his life best with basketball in it, and would like to see him on the floor sooner than later. The Cavs want to know they can trust West, that his behavior won’t cause him to be jerked in and out of the lineup. To a man, the Cavaliers will tell you they desperately miss him. “He’s the glue guy for them,” Celtics star Paul Pierce(notes) said. “I think they really miss him.”

Eventually, the Cavs will bring West back, but here’s what rival GMs and agents have wondered: At what point does Cleveland believe that Boston and Orlando are simply better and the Cavs need to make a move for Golden State’s Stephen Jackson(notes)? The Cavs have had the most serious discussions with Golden State because they’re the rare team able to absorb the $28 million left on his contract, as well as his unbalanced persona.

As an assistant coach in the San Antonio Spurs’ championship season of 2003, Brown’s job was to manage the overheated emotions of a young Jackson. Brown believes he has the history and relationship with Jackson to make it work. “Mike might need to realize that coaching [Jackson] when he was a young player trying to get a big contract is not the same as coaching him now already having that big contract,” a league source close to the coach and player said.

For the Cavaliers to make this deal, Ferry would have to trade Ilgauskas and Cleveland doesn’t want to part with size for the playoffs.

Anyway, Cleveland is 0-2 and there’s a long, long way to go this season. When a conversation with Ferry on Wednesday turned to next summer, the GM talked for a few minutes about teams clearing salary-cap space and challengers sacrificing success now for a puncher’s chance at a max-out star later.

Ferry has crunched those numbers over and over, and ultimately understands there’s just one thing in his control: these Cavs and this season. Eventually, his eyes narrowed, his face stiffened and he said, “We’re trying to win right now.”

They’re trying everything in Cleveland and still nothing has worked. For now, Shaq is calm, LeBron is patient and there’s time to untangle this team. Perhaps far away, the Russian billionaire plots with the rap mogul. Whatever. Another problem for another day.