Even though LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance last season, it has become popular among fans and so-called experts alike to disparage both the team and that accomplishment.
Supposedly, James is surrounded by a bunch of stiffs and the Cavaliers only made it to the Finals because they faced favorable playoff matchups. We will look at the composition of the roster momentarily but let’s first dispel the notion that the Cavs were “lucky” to win the East.
Yes, the depleted Washington Wizards were wounded prey but the Detroit Pistons hardly faced a juggernaut when they swept the young Orlando Magic in the other bracket. It is easy to take the New Jersey Nets for granted in retrospect but they have a dangerous trio in Kidd-Carter-Jefferson and they pulled off the second biggest upset of last year’s playoffs by knocking off Toronto.
I don’t understand how analysts can continually praise Detroit’s greatness and then just brush off the fact that the Cavaliers spotted the Pistons a 2-0 lead before sweeping the last four games. The Cavaliers trounced the number one seed in the East, so it makes no sense to act like they just sneaked into the Finals.
The Cavaliers’ 0-5 record this season without James in the lineup is often cited as proof of how poor his supporting cast is. A closer look at those games shows that this is not an entirely fair verdict. Four of the losses came on the road—including one in Boston–and the losing streak included a stretch in which the Cavs played four games in six nights. Anderson Varejao did not play in any of the five losses and Larry Hughes only played in the last one, a 96-93 defeat at Charlotte.Not many teams are going to win road games without two starters and their best reserve big man. James is obviously a great player but his absence was not the sole cause for the losing streak.Let’s take an objective look at the Cavaliers’ strengths and weaknesses.The number one strength is obvious: James is one of the best players in the NBA, someone who leads the league in scoring yet is also a very gifted playmaker. James is a good rebounder and his defense continues to improve.The second strength of this team is not as well understood or appreciated by many fans: the Cavaliers have a tremendous frontcourt rotation—one of the very best in the league. Small forward James is part of that but the Cavs also have a versatile three man rotation of bigs: Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Varejao. Strength up front translates into defense and rebounding, which—combined with James’ brilliance—were the cornerstones for the Cavs’ playoff run in 2007 and will continue to be the foundation for whatever success Cleveland has in the future.
Most people who have seen the Cavaliers play realize that it would be a good thing if the team acquired a solid playmaking point guard and a wing player who is a good scorer. The team’s fans wonder why General Manager Danny Ferry does not simply make some moves to take care of those two concerns.
Cavaliers’ fans dislike Larry Hughes’ shot selection and want Ferry to trade him, preferably in exchange for a true point guard—but running an NBA team is nothing like playing fantasy basketball. It is not easy to make trades in the real world, particularly if one of the players involved in the deal has a large contract. In order for a trade to take place, it has to conform to NBA rules and both teams have to feel like they are gaining something, whether that is in the form of more talent, salary cap relief or draft picks that can be used to build for the future.
There has been much speculation about the Cavaliers acquiring Mike Bibby from Sacramento. Contract-wise, Hughes could be swapped for Bibby but how exactly does that deal help the Kings?
The Cavs have put Hughes at point guard out of necessity but if he lands somewhere else it is almost certain that his new team would put him back at his natural shooting guard position—and the Kings already have Kevin Martin at shooting guard. The only other players the Cavaliers have who make more than $10 million per year are James and Ilgauskas. We know that James is not going to be dealt. Trading big for small rarely works, getting rid of Ilgauskas would weaken the Cavs’ great frontcourt rotation and it is unlikely that the Kings want Ilgauskas anyway, based on the composition of their roster. Also, Bibby missed the early part of this season due to injury and his field goal percentage has declined each year since 2002-03.
Cleveland fans who are dreaming about pairing James with Bibby have been watching too many ESPN Classic airings of old Lakers-Kings games from the early part of this decade, back when Bibby was a deadly jump shooter on pick and roll plays. As things stand now, there is no realistic deal to be made between Cleveland and Sacramento and it is far from certain that Bibby would actually be a big help even if the Cavs could obtain him. It is also worth mentioning that Bibby would not be an asset on defense—and defense is the main reason that Cleveland Coach Mike Brown made Hughes the starting point guard.
After Brown settled on a starting backcourt of Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic, the Cavs closed the 2006-07 season on a 17-7 run. Hughes scored in double figures in the first eight playoff games and the Cavs won seven of them. Hughes is much maligned because his individual statistics do not match what fans expected him to produce based on the size of his contract but the fact is that the team has consistently played better with him in the lineup than with him sidelined. His defense and versatility are assets and the Cavs would not necessarily be better off by replacing him with a player who “looks” better statistically—assuming that such a deal could even be made given the considerations that I listed above.
The Cavaliers got off to a slow start this season because Varejao and Pavlovic held out and injuries affected key players in the rotation, including Hughes, who was not healthy to start the season and eventually had to shut things down for three weeks. Since he returned to action on December 8, the Cavaliers are 14-7.
A big part of that resurgence—literally and figuratively—is Varejao; the Cavaliers are 14-6 since he made his season debut, are currently riding a five game winning streak and have won nine of their 10 games in January.
Let’s spin this ahead to the playoffs. The top two teams in the East right now are Boston and Detroit. The Cavs handed the Celtics their second loss of the season on November 27 even without Varejao and Hughes; less than a week later, playing without James, Varejao and Hughes, the Cavs lost by just 10.
Cleveland matches up very well with Boston. James will consistently win the matchup with Paul Pierce.
Ray Allen is having the worst shooting season of his career and is scoring fewer points than he has in any season since his rookie year.
Kevin Garnett puts up good all around numbers but he is not the kind of player who will take a playoff game by the throat and dominate it, let alone do so for an entire series. Boston’s team defense has been better than expected this season but it will be interesting to see how well the Celtics perform at that end of the court in the playoffs; the game slows down in the postseason, meaning that they will need to be able to score in the halfcourt (putting pressure on young point guard Rajon Rondo to make good decisions) and if they are not able to do so consistently that will make it even more vital for them to get stops.
It is easier to play good defense when you are scoring well and playing from ahead than it is when shots are not falling and the other team is getting rebounds or steals and pushing the ball back at you. The Cavaliers proved last season that they can advance to the NBA Finals. This Celtics team, both individually and collectively, has yet to enjoy such playoff success.
As for Detroit, the Cavs almost knocked off the Pistons in 2006 even as a neophyte playoff team and then they got the job done last year without even needing a seventh game.
The bottom line is that if this Cleveland Cavaliers team stays healthy there is no reason that they cannot return to the NBA Finals. It would not be wise to tinker with the roster unless it is clear that the move markedly improves the team’s chances to make it to the Finals and/or beat the Western Conference representative. Adding players for the sake of having name brand talent does not automatically produce success—just ask the New York Knicks or the turn of the century Portland Trailblazers.
David Friedman is a freelance writer specializing in professional basketball. His work has been published in several magazines, including Hoop, Lindy’s Pro Basketball, Basketball Times and Basketball Digest. He has also contributed to NBCSports.com, HoopsHype.com and ProBasketballNews.com and his articles are frequently reprinted at Legends of Basketball, the official website of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). Friedman wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog: 20 Second Timeout