Religion & Jewish Life | Sports

Cavs’ Omri Casspi courting his opportunity to contribute

Omri Casspi of the Cleveland Cavaliers, atypically on the court rather than riding the pines, driving against the Chicago Bulls, Jan. 7, 2013. (NBA Photos)
Omri Casspi of the Cleveland Cavaliers, atypically on the court rather than riding the pines, driving against the Chicago Bulls, Jan. 7, 2013. (NBA Photos)

BALTIMORE (JTA) — Even as he sits on the Cleveland Cavaliers bench, watching yet another game proceed without him, Omri Casspi is working to improve.

He studies his teammates and his opponents, focusing on the player he’d likely be defending if he were on the court. Casspi uses the time to prepare for whenever he is summoned to participate — now or the next game or the one after.

For Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, his fourth season in the elite league for pro hoopsters has been the most trying. The 6-foot, 9-inch forward doesn’t play much — and he’s not sure why.

Casspi believes he’s practicing as hard, working as diligently and is as devoted to his sport as when the Sacramento Kings drafted him in the first round in 2009. And the Cavs’ front office doesn’t disagree.

Last month, when Casspi rarely left the bench, Yahoo! Sports reported that Casspi’s agents had requested a trade from the Cavs. But in an interview with JTA, Casspi said he had never made such a request.

“It’s not anything that has to do with me, so I have no comment,” said Casspi, a native of Yavne, a city in central Israel of some 33,000 people.

At 16-35 following a loss on Saturday night, the Cavs own the fourth-worst record in the National Basketball Association. But after a disastrous start they have stabilized, going 11-12 in their last 23 games. Beginning in late January, they even won four of six, including a victory Feb. 2 over the Oklahoma City Thunder, which had the second-best record in the league and reached the NBA finals last season.

But Casspi contributed little to the Cavs’ improvement, playing just 16 minutes and totaling two points in home wins over Boston and Milwaukee. And he didn’t leave the bench against the Thunder or in the Cavaliers’ thrilling Jan. 26 victory at Toronto on guard Kyrie Irving’s long three-pointer with seconds remaining.

“Last time I saw you, I was flying,” Casspi, 24, told a reporter, referring to an interview in November.

That was when Casspi played in 14 consecutive games, averaging nearly 16 minutes per appearance. He even scored 15 points in Cleveland’s two-point road loss against the defending champion Miami Heat. But the Cavs lost 11 of the next 14, and Casspi soon found himself again planted firmly on the bench, which is where he had been early in the season.

It was an unusual spot for a player who entered the league with such fanfare, Jewish fans turning out en masse at many games carrying Israeli flags and cheering his name.

In two seasons with Sacramento, Casspi had started 58 of the 148 games in which he played and averaged 9.5 points per game. He was traded to Cleveland for the 2011-12 season, switching one last-place team for another.

But some numbers told another story. Casspi’s average minutes per game — a good indicator of a player’s prominence in a team’s rotation — was declining steadily. Over his first three years, his average minutes dropped from 25.1 to 24.0 to 20.6. And his points per game dropped, too, from 10.3 to 8.6 to 7.1.

This year, the bottom fell out. Casspi, the NBA’s lone Jewish player, has played in just 29 of Cleveland’s games, started only one and averaged 11.4 minutes and 4.0 points.

A Cavs official said that Casspi’s inactivity speaks to the success of Coach Byron Scott’s current rotation of players.

“It’s not so much anything Omri has done. Boobie Gibson isn’t in the rotation, either,” the official said of Daniel Gibson, a guard.

Scott, the official said, expects backups to prepare even harder, both before and after practice.

“Omri certainly has done that, without question,” the official said. “Omri’s routinely one of the last guys off the court.”

His status now is “stuff I can’t control,” Casspi explained. “That being said, I’m working for an opportunity. When I got an opportunity, I played — and played well. It’s the coach’s decision and I have to live with it.”

One Cavalier who’s done just fine is Irving, and Casspi revels in his teammate’s rise. Last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year, Irving was selected recently to the Eastern Division squad that will play in the All-Star Game on Feb. 17 in Houston. With a recent injury to Boston guard Rajon Rondo, Casspi said, Irving should be elevated to All-Star starter.

“Kyrie’s a special player and an up-and-coming superstar, no doubt about it,” Casspi said. “The kid is special.”

Coming out of Israel, Casspi was considered special. He had a strong outside shot, especially from three-point range, and played tough defense. His coach in Sacramento, Paul Westphal, said Casspi added a spark to the team with his committed play.

To broadcast his Jewish identity, he took uniform No. 18 (the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word “chai,” or life) with Sacramento. In Cleveland, that number was worn by Anthony Parker, who had played professionally in Israel. So Casspi took No. 36 (similarly symbolic, as a multiple of 18) and still wears it, even following Parker’s departure last year.

As he watched the snow falling heavily outside his window last Friday afternoon, Casspi spoke about the positive attitude he maintains despite his travails.

“It’s a privilege to be part of the league. I thank God every morning,” Casspi said.

Every morning for the last two or three years, both at home and on the road, “I put on tefillin, say Shema Yisrael and I talk to God,” he said.

“I like to pray when things go good, not only when things go bad. People tend to pray only when things go bad,” he said.

Then Casspi bid a caller good-bye to shower before departing for the arena, less than a mile from his Cleveland apartment.

The Cavs would defeat Orlando that night. Casspi would have 48 more minutes to watch and analyze from the bench.