Hughes Might Be Best As Sixth Man
The big news out of Cleveland last night was LeBron James coming off the bench for the first time in 333 career games as the Cavaliers snapped a six-game losing streak with a 118-105 victory over the Indiana Pacers. But the real story may turn out to be the emergence of super stud sub Larry Hughes.
The could-be king returned after missing 5 Â½ games with a sprained left index finger, entering the game with Anderson Varejao (who played for the first time after ending a more than two-month contract holdout) and Hughes (who played at home for the first time in a month after missing 11 games with a bone bruise in his left leg).
James hadn't been a reserve since Larry Brown kept him strapped there during the 2004 Olympics, but he definitely will return to the starting lineup when the Cavaliers play New Jersey on Friday. Varejao has been Cleveland's energy off the bench since he came to town in 2004. But Cleveland Coach Mike Brown might need to keep Hughes in his current role.
In his second game back from injury, Hughes scored a season-high 36 points on 13-for-17 shooting and connected on five - yes, five - three-pointers. He came close to breaking Wizards assistant coach Phil Hubbard's Cavaliers record for points off the bench - 37 - set in 1984. Very n-i-ice.
Hughes's performance came three days after scoring 22 points off the bench in a loss against Charlotte. Hughes has played 26 minutes in each of the past two games. He's averaging 1.12 points per minute - or 53.5 points per 48 minutes. He appears to be breaking out of his early season slump, as he played his best game of the season against the Pacers. Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien told reporters after the game, "I thought they had two LeBron Jameses out there."
Some might ask, "Why would you pay somebody $12 million to come off the bench?" I'd answer, do you want to win or worry about money?
A move to the bench is often considered a demotion, disrespect, or - if you're New York Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury - a reason to threaten to blackmail your coach back into the starting lineup.
NBA players usually aren't selfless enough to assume a seemingly lesser role without the glamour and glitz of the electronic lights, smoke and blaring music of pre-game introductions, but the San Antonio Spurs' Manu Ginobili may have changed that perception completely.
Ginobili, the Spurs third-highest paid player at $9 million this season, embraced a reserve role for the 39 games last season, mostly because he had confidence in his abilities and Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who seems to have a pretty good grasp of his job. The move made sense because it allowed Tony Parker and Tim Duncan to work the two-man game on offense in the first few minutes, Ginobili to exploit overmatched second-teamers from other squads, and the trio to be comfortable enough with their individual games to close.
Ginobili failed to win Sixth Man of the Year last season mostly because few voters truly saw him as a reserve and decided to go with the Suns instant cup of caffeine Leandro Barbosa. Ginobili did get an NBA championship ring, though, which some might consider a bit more important than a little trophy.
This season, Ginobili has left little doubt about who is the league's best reserve, as he averages 20.8 points - 24th in the NBA - in just 29.5 minutes per game. He might even get another ring - and a little trophy this season.
Does anybody think any less of him because some public address announcer isn't yelling his name before tipoff? The guy might be an all-star for the second time.
Being on the bench doesn't mean that you won't play, which explains how Jason Terry, who makes $8.3 million, is the top reserve for the Dallas Mavericks yet he still scores about the same as last season in slightly fewer minutes. Barbosa is still explosive off the bench, averaging slightly less than Tim Duncan this season (17.5 points compared to 17.6) in about two fewer minutes.
Although Hughes hasn't said much or complained any about coming off the bench, Brown said he's open to keeping Hughes there. Hughes hasn't always meshed on the floor with James since leaving Washington as a free agent in 2005, but he might excel in a reserve role. He won't have to worry about being a point guard, a shooting guard or running many set plays where James dribbles down the clock at the top of the key, takes his shot or passes. Hughes can just focus on what he does best: scoring.
He also won't have to worry about deferring to James until the end of the game. Remember, it's more about finishing than starting. And if Hughes is comfortable in the final minutes after blitzing through other teams' reserves, it might serve Cleveland best (that is, if Hughes can spends his time on the bench dressed in a uniform and warmups rather than a crisp, clean sportcoat; he has to stay healthy for anything to work).
But, a game-changing sixth man could energize a crowd and a team more than lame pre-game introductions. Brown may eventually put Hughes back in the starting lineup, but I wouldn't blame him if he didn't.
I talked to Hughes briefly when the Cavaliers came to town last week. He didn't sound too concerned about Cleveland's slow start. "We've struggled. We've had injuries. We've had guys holding out. We're fine," Hughes said. "It's a long season. That's what we do now. We have to catch our stride. We feel like we can turn it around."
He also said that it didn't upset him when people claimed that the Cavaliers backed into the NBA Finals last summer because of a weakened Eastern Conference playoff pool. "We don't really worry about that. We can't do anything about that," he said. "We accomplished what we needed to do to make it. We didn't make it all the way, but we are the defending [Eastern Conference] champs. Either respect or you don't. We have the banner."
After a torn plantar fascia made him immobile and ineffective during the playoffs last season - and forced him out of the final two games of the NBA Finals, Hughes said he's anxious to get back and reverse whatever curse has hit him the past two postseasons in Cleveland (remember, his brother died during the conference finals in 2006).
"Big time," he said. "That's what you play for. You play for that big stage, for the people that doubt you to do well. We had a lot of doubters. We feel like we can get there and do a better job."
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