By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
If there is one team in the NBA that doesn't have any sympathy for the injury and roster issues that have plagued the Cleveland Cavaliers, it is the Washington Wizards.
When the Cavaliers swept the Wizards in the first round of last spring's Eastern Conference playoffs, Washington all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler were on the bench wearing street clothes because they had suffered season-ending injuries in the final month of the regular season.
Tonight, when they meet for the first time this season at Verizon Center, both teams will be short-handed, but Cleveland could have it worse.
Arenas is expected to miss at least three months following left knee surgery. Tonight, the Cavaliers are expected to be without star LeBron James, who sprained his left index finger in a loss to Detroit last Wednesday and hasn't played since.
Cleveland, which fell to 9-10 after last night's home loss to New Jersey, also has been playing without former Wizard Larry Hughes, a starting guard who is expected to be out at least two more weeks with a bone bruise on his left knee. Power forward Anderson Varejao, a key component to last spring's run to the NBA Finals, signed an offer sheet with the Charlotte Bobcats yesterday after several months of contentious negotiations with the Cavaliers.
Cleveland is expected to match Charlotte's three-year, $17.4 million offer to Varejao, a restricted free agent, and James should be back soon, but that won't help tonight against a Wizards team that has gone 5-4 without Arenas and is in the midst of a season-long five-game homestand.
"We're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said of James, who is not expected to play, according to a report in the Akron Beacon Journal. "Preparing for the worst is preparing for LeBron, no doubt about it. He is a major, major force and he makes them win. He can win any game against anybody on any night."
The Cavaliers have lost three straight without James after last night's loss, and the streak is really four games considering that he suffered the injury midway through last Wednesday's loss to Detroit.
James already has posted four triple-doubles this season and is averaging a league-best 30.7 points, along with 8.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists, while shooting a career-best 48.6 percent.
The team's next leading scorer is forward Drew Gooden (14.4 points per game), and in losses to Detroit, Toronto and Boston, the offense was bogged down by turnovers and poor shooting.
Still, the team is taking a cautious approach to getting James back.
"It's a slow process, the injury he has," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown told reporters on Monday. "It's a funny injury when you're talking about your knuckles and fingers. When you get that ball in your hand, you have a lot of guys swiping at it. Officials think he's the strongest human in the world, but it's a tough thing to have to deal with."
If anyone understands what James will go through it is Butler, who injured his right pinkie while playing for the Lakers four seasons ago and re-injured it with the Wizards two years ago. The finger has never fully healed and Butler said he will eventually have to undergo surgery to straighten it out.
Also, Butler missed five games with a sprained right thumb late in the 2005-2006 season and played with a protective splint when he returned.
"I'm pretty sure that LeBron will be able to play with it but at the same time, it's going to be a target," Butler said. "He'll probably be able to put some tape around it and take some precautions, but guys will be hitting at it so he has to be careful and make sure it's pretty much healed so he can handle a hit because during the course of a game, it's going to get hit."
Butler has overcome his hand injuries to the point that he's posting career-high numbers in several categories. He is one of three players, along with Utah's Carlos Boozer and Orlando's Dwight Howard, averaging more than 23 points per game while also shooting better than 50 percent, and plans on being at his best tonight, regardless of Cleveland's injury woes.
"They're fighting that injury bug, but we're fighting the same thing," Butler said. "So we just have to prepare as though they are all there and not take them lightly."