Willed To Win

No LeBron, no problem: Why new Cavs coach Byron Scott is the guy to fix our deflated basketball ego.

The number 12 can be an ugly little thing. It's not nearly as inviting as fat, round figures like 66 and 61 — the number of wins the Cavaliers have put up each of the past two seasons.

Twelve is not confident. It's twisted like a question mark, and on a late-September day, the number 12 heaps added doubt upon the Cavaliers franchise when Yahoo's NBA blog declares the LeBron-less Cavs will win just a dozen games this year and finish dead last in the league.

New coach Byron Scott has not heard about this dire prognostication until I mention it to him. He laughs, seeming genuinely amused.

"It gives me more firepower for the guys who are here," he says. "It's a slap in the face to them as professional basketball players. A lot of them should feel disrespected coming into training camp and coming into this year."

It's a variation of what Scott will repeat a few weeks later during Cavs media day when asked about the doomsday talk that a Cavaliers team without No. 23 has lost its leader, its contender status and its soul. Byron Scott does not let such talk concern him. He's the guy who inked a four-year deal with the Cavs a week before LeBron announced he was signing with the Miami Heat.

"People ask me all the time, 'Why didn't you wait just one more week?' " Scott says. "To me, that's crazy. To me that says you're taking the job for all the wrong reasons."

What got lost this summer in the Cavs' attempted stunt casting of college coach Tom Izzo and the confusion over whether Lakers assistant Brian Shaw had been offered the Cavaliers coaching post is the fact that Byron Scott was the best guy for the job all along.

LeBron stays, and you have a proven coach, who was a three-time champion with Pat Riley's Lakers. LeBron leaves, and you have that pedigree plus a guy who can get teams on their feet and into contention quickly. Under Scott's leadership, the Nets went from a 26-56 record in 2000-2001 to the NBA Finals the following two seasons. He took the Hornets from a sub-.500 team in 2006-07 to a 56-win season and playoff berth the following year.

Many have characterized the Cavs job as Scott's next rebuilding effort, but he doesn't see it that way. "This is a team that's going to compete every single night. In New Orleans and New Jersey, I knew going into every game it was going to be hard to win. I don't feel that here. ... This is a team that I feel will still make the playoffs."

Scott says he likes the team's core of experienced players and their defense-first mentality. That may be where you stop recognizing the Cavs, though. Scott's offense will be very different than the get-it-to-LeBron approach by which the Cavs once lived and died. "It will be a much more up-tempo basketball team," Scott says. "Guys won't just be sticking with the ball. It's all about movement and spacing and getting guys to catch the ball and make something happen. ... The No. 1 goal is to be much more of a transition basketball team. Get it off the glass, into our guards' hands, and look to run it up and down the floor."

The 82-game season will determine whether Scott's plan works, but he is unwavering in his belief that a team without a superstar can win in a league that's more superstar-driven than ever. "If you have a group of basketball players who are very good — not the so-called next-level superstars but very good NBA players — you can still be very successful," Scott says. "I've always said I'd rather have great chemistry and good talent than great talent and no chemistry. Watching these guys, already ... I can see we've got chemistry."

It's a retro idea, one that seems lifted from the Richfield Coliseum days, when fans saw a scrappy Cavs team rise to prominence in 1976. And just as the Cavs uniforms have reverted back to the look and feel of the team's early days, it's fitting that a self-proclaimed "old-school" coach is now leading the way.

"My mentality has always been the same — it's always about winning," Scott says. "Nothing is promised tomorrow, so you need to leave it all out there that particular game, and hopefully you wake up the next day and get the chance to do it again."

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