USA TODAY Sports
The expectations for Shaun Livingston were once as high as the point guard now leading the Cavaliers. Can the journeyman find a spot in Cleveland?
The night Shaun Livingston walked across the stage of Madison Square Garden during the summer of 2004, Clippers hat loosely affixed over a sea of cornrows, Kyrie Irving was just a 12-year-old kid running post-dinner drills in his driveway. A true point guard with immense talent and measurables -- a seven-foot wingspan, for instance -- that made scouts salivate, Livingston came equipped with top-shelf court vision, could seemingly glide down the entire court in just a few swift strides, and maintained ball-handling skills that could only be found on inner-city blacktop courts. In his essence, Livingston possessed an arsenal that a scrawny and shy Irving was working tirelessly to obtain.
The wiry Livingston would commit to Duke University only to later decide that making the jump straight from his high school in Peoria, Illinois would be the best path for his long-term success. He would be one of eight high school players taken in the first round -- Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, JR Smith and Al Jefferson are just a few others who would make the leap; it was undoubtedly the height of the prep-to-pro wave. Irving would commit to Duke University due to collectively bargained mandates which force NBA-bound athletes to register for at least one year of classes regardless of readiness.
Livingston would take to the league as a raw-yet-waiting-to-burst talent. The NBA-caliber offense would have to develop, but his ability to run the floor and effortlessly slip the ball through reaching would-be defenders only to find teammates for easy baskets was awe-inspiring. Living in lore with the help of YouTube, we can find highlights of Livingston slashing through an opposing defense only to deliver a crisp pass to then teammate Chris Kaman. The burly center would be so wide open thanks to Livingston's crossover that the perfectly delivered pass would deflect off of his hands forcing him to regroup. The defenders had been so wowed by Livingston's choreography that once Kaman finally obtained possession of the basketball, the nearest opponent was still a step and a half away leading to an easy two points. And that size -- good God, that size.
Irving came equipped with his fair share of question marks. He's not as tall as many -- including himself -- would prefer. He only played 11 games at Duke. What Livingston had in terms of a work-in-progress offensive skill set, Irving is among the worst at his position when it comes to defending on the ball.
Eight years and one gruesome knee injury later, the two paths collide as the 27-year-old Livingston was claimed off of waivers by the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team in dire search of someone who can provide depth behind their everything-but-bubblewrapped 20-year-old star. Both men speak softly of living day-to-day -- Irving is attempting to improve; Livingston is attempting to prove that he is worthy of the three-year contract he was afforded in 2010. There were grumblings that Livingston was outplaying Jeremy Lin when both players were with the Houston Rockets earlier this summer, but with Lin being the a 6-foot-3-inch marketing machine, Livingston was waived in order to not bring on any undue controversy. Just three months later, the same player was waived by the worst team in the league, the three-win Washington Wizards.
If any player in the 2004 draft class understands the business aspect of the game, it's Livingston. While Howard and Jefferson and Smith have grown to seemingly map out their own respective futures, Livingston has been forced to deal with the harsh realities of a player who has had to scrape merely to survive on the end of an NBA bench.
Given the flexibility possessed by the Cleveland front office, there's a very good chance that Livingston's tenure with the Cavaliers is short-lived -- they are, after all, his eighth employer since 2008. Irving commands 35 minutes per evening and the ball is in his hands roughly 30 out of every 40 possessions. But just as Livingston has has a career most notably known for the night his knee was torn to shreds, Irving has played in just 70 games while missing 22 with injuries to his head, shoulder, and -- most recently -- a finger. This tally does not even include the missed summer league and preseason play due to a broken hand and the missed flight following a fractured face. Of course, there's also the toe injury which limited Irving's collegiate career to just 11 more games played than Livingston. Alas, the Cavaliers would certainly love to limit the opportunities that their star could once again wind up in the team's world class infirmary.
The once-flashy Livingston has been forced to recreate himself into a heady guard who can utilize his size advantage in the post while using his ability to analyze angles without the ball, weak-side slashing leading to incredible efficiency -- an integral ingredient in a Byron Scott-coached offense. Over the course of his recent vagabond career, Livingston has shown flashes of brilliance, but has quickly followed them up with a stark reminder that the man who takes the floor today is a shadow of the kid who was selected fourth overall on that mid-summer night in New York. For now, Livingston will be forced to watch Kyrie Irving attempt to lead a young team to victory. For now, Livingston will be forced to sit idly while Irving changes directions and spins with the utmost of ease, only to find a wide-open teammate for an easy two points. For now, Livingston will be forced to watch as Irving utilizes all of the tricks that once had him labeled as the future of a star-crossed franchise.
But maybe, just maybe, Shaun Livingston will get his chance -- another chance -- to show that he still has some gas left in that 175-pound tank. The narrative is ripe for a happy ending. The end result will likely be at the peril of the cruel business-based realities of the NBA. But if there is to be any ounce of luck and good fortune thrown Livingston's way, the present -- serving as a safety net to a kid seven years his junior -- would surely be an opportune time.