Goon Squad Rising

How violence and a lack of formal leadership helped the NBA create a perfect storm of unaccountability


They have it all: the most popular and, on most days, the best player in the league. The feel-good narrative of homecoming and eventual redemption. The rise of yet another potential team star. Battling through injury-plagued adversity. And they are currently two games away from the franchise’s first NBA championship game appearance since 1964. The Cleveland Cavaliers are sitting pretty, it seems.

Then one looks beneath the surface: a coach in name only. A player who is the de facto coach. A player threatening violence to the opposing team. A player doing violence to the opposing team. An owner who refuses to adequately address or fix any of it. Suddenly, the world of the wine and gold doesn’t seem that rosy.

It all came to a head during game 3 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals: Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks got tangled up with Matthew Dellavedova of the Cavaliers in the second quarter. Dellevedova rolled into Horford’s knees, prompting Horford to retaliate with a elbow to Dellevedova’s head. After lengthy discussion, Horford was ejected from the game with a Flagrant-2 foul and Dellevedova merely received a technical foul. Mind you, this is’t the first time that Dellevedova enacted what was perceived as a dirty play: in game 2 against the Chicago Bulls during the Eastern Conference semifinals, Dellevedova got tangled up with Taj Gibson of the Bulls, fell to the ground, and put a leg lock on Gibson’s leg. When Gibson tried to break free, the referees called it a kick on Dellevedova. The verdict? A flagrant-2 foul and game ejection, while Dellevedova was issued a technical foul the next day (though he received no call during the game). The Cavaliers went on to win that game and eventually move past the Bulls to the finals. Then there was Kyle Korver of the Hawks, who received a high ankle sprain courtesy of yet another rolling move by Dellevedova, and which resulted in Korver missing the rest of the ECF series. Again, Dellevedova received little sanction. Things seemed to calm down for a bit, then this happened during game 3 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors: Dellvedova made another one of his “hustle” plays and nearly took out Draymond Green’s knees.

Of course, conspiracy theorists are salivating: Dellevedova manages to take out the hot players for two teams during the Cavs’ eastern conference run? And does’t receive anything more than a technical foul? And the Cavs steamroll their way toward the championship game? Then Dellevedova almost takes out another opposing player during the championship series? Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. The opposing teams made their shares of mistakes that enabled Dellevedova and the Cavaliers to put themselves in the position to do mental and physical damage, so the Cavaliers can’t be blamed for everything. Still, where there’s smoke, there is often fire, and the Cavaliers are smoldering — and not in a good way.

Playoff ball is different than regular-season ball. There is no shaking it off until the next game. The playoffs are really, as the current NBA playoffs motto states, “Win or Go Home.” There is less of a concern for injury when you know you have the next three or four months to rest and rehabilitate, but only one real shot at this moment in time for a ring. The holy grail of every NBA team is a championship, and so few have reached that rarefied air. This leads to a much more physical game because there is no tomorrow, and who know what will happen next season?

That being said, and even given the propensity for players to leave it all out on the floor — especially during the playoffs — plays that are perceived as dirty are generally frowned upon. Once upon a time, rough play was commonplace (Bill Laimbeer, anyone?), and teams took it in stride. Not in today’s sanitized, TV-friendly NBA, though. Most coaches among the thirty NBA teams put the kibosh on any hint of what may be perceived as deliberate impropriety; not only because they are not fans of the financial sanctions and giveaway points that come along with calls against such plays and players, but also the potential of injury and payback.

“I really didn’t see too much, but then I looked at the replay. I just seen Dellavedova diving. You know, he did it to Kyle. He’s one of our starters and he gotta have surgery, he’s out 4–6 months. And he did it to Al. I think Al said, ‘Enough of this.’ And he did what he did.” — DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta Hawks

“We’re out there competing, but he’s gotta learn, I mean he’s only been in this league for a couple of years or whatever, but he’s gotta learn that at the end of the day it’s a big brotherhood here. Guys look out for each other and, I don’t think that it was malicious, but he’s gotta learn.” — Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks

While Dellevedova’s playmaking gets the preferred results — indeed, he is giving a career-changing performance in the Finals and is a significant reason for the Cavs’ 2–1 edge over Golden State. However, his playmaking abilities are not given the begrudging respect of other NBA players who manage to draw fouls in crafty, seemingly innocuous ways (e.g., Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers and James Harden of the Houston Rockets). Plus, if Dellevedova has to resort to such trickery to help his team win, what does that say about his confidence in his abilities as a player, and the team’s confidence in its collective talent as a whole? Dellevedova is quickly gaining a reputation as a dirty player and this has less to do with his playing style than with the ball of confusion that is the Cavaliers power hierarchy.

It is no secret that head coach David Blatt has been criticized in public and private for his handling of the Cavaliers — and, more specifically, his handling of the franchise player, LeBron James. Despite unwavering support (for now) from team owner Dan Gilbert, who hired Blatt away from Israeli basketball powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv, Blatt is perceived as having little control over this Cavaliers team. From time-out blunders to ignored plays, to lack of player buy-in, it seems as if the inmates are running the asylum — hence Dellevedova’s hat trick of roll-and-ejects.

Despite James’s influence on the team and the entire Cavaliers organization, it is not incumbent upon him to set Dellevedova straight. Why should he? Dellevedova’s playing tactics are only serving to further James’s quest to bring a championship to the franchise and cement his status as the Savior of Cleveland, so don’t look for anything but defense of Dellevedova’s playing style from James. The task of correcting Delevedova’s potentially negative career trajectory falls upon the coach, which mean Blatt should be having a sit-down with his scrappy player and making the potential consequences of his actions clear. Then again, Blatt’s fortunes are currently tied to James’s, so there is not much hope of him initiating any pushback against a player who is not only helping the Cavaliers to reach the NBA Finals, but who has been drawn under the protective arm of James.

Then there is the financial aspect. The Cavaliers, by virtue of James’s presence, is a big media draw . While implying that the referees are helping the Cavaliers get a ring, it can’t be argued that the Cavaliers’ appearance in the championship game brings in millions of TV dollars in additional revenue to the league, not to mention sports paraphernalia sales (As of April, James has the number-one selling jersey, among all thirty teams, for the sixth straight year). Any punitive measures, if they happen at all, will be handed down well after the Larry O’Brien trophy is hoisted.

It would behoove the Cavaliers to tread lightly, though. Bullies get their way until a bigger bully comes along. Dellevedova will not get away with his tricks against the Warriors, the team closeness of which is becoming legend throughout the league. Draymond Green is a clever, physical player that would be more than willing to give back to Dellevedova what the latter is dishing out to others. Not to mention, if reigning league MVP and overwhelming fan favorite Curry gets so much as a paper cut from Dellevedova, it would not be surprising to have league (and fan) fury raining down upon the Cavs. It’s fine to play physical when the goal you seek is so close you can taste it, but decorum and good sportsmanship are always in style.

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