Cleveland Rolls the Dice

At literally the last minute before the trade deadline, Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry decided to get rid of half of his active roster, shipping out Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall, Ira Newble, Shannon Brown and Cedric Simmons in a three way trade with Chicago and Seattle that brought Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West to Cleveland. Normally, a team that wins a conference championship does not make such a huge trade midway through the next season; teams need a certain amount of time to develop enough continuity to perform well in the playoffs. However, the majority of the contending teams have made significant offseason and/or in season moves, so most of them will be developing their team chemistry and continuity on the fly.

The Cavaliers are coming off of the best postseason performance in franchise history and are right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race this season despite battling injuries and having to overcome lengthy holdouts by Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic. One might think that there would be a positive vibe around the Cavaliers but that has not been the case for most of the season. LeBron James openly lobbied for the team to acquire Jason Kidd, vowing that this move would be all it would take to bring a championship to Cleveland.Cavalier fans roundly booed Larry Hughes every time he shot the ball and urged the team to trade him, disregarding the fact that the team’s record has consistently been much better with him in the lineup than it is when he is sidelined.Ferry offered a very simple and direct explanation for his actions:

“I didn’t think we were good enough to win the championship. I thought we had a very good team. But I do believe if we have a chance to make ourselves better we should try. Was it a risk in doing so? Yes, it was a risk. But we’re going to have to make some decisions that have some risk in them if we want to continue to build and grow.”

There is an old saying to the effect that if a coach listens to what the fans in the stands are shouting he will soon be sitting next to them. The same reasoning can be applied to general managers. Another saying is “Be careful what you wish for–you might get it.”

Fans have been pleading with Ferry to get rid of Hughes and now they have gotten their wish.

What puzzles me most about this trade is that, in the best case scenario, I think that it only makes Cleveland a little better—and it is certainly possible that it will make Cleveland worse.

Let’s look at the best case scenario first: Wallace rebounds and defends like he did two years ago (or even during last year’s playoffs), Smith reliably drains midrange jumpers, Szczerbiak spreads the floor on offense by consistently making three pointers and West solidifies the point guard position. If all of those things happen then the Cavs will be a little better than they were previously—but not much better.

Don’t forget that Gooden and Hughes started for a team that won 50 games last year, defeated the vaunted Detroit Pistons four straight times in the Eastern Conference Finals and, when at full strength, was on pace to win at least 50 games this year.The newly minted Cavs are certainly a 50 win caliber team but are they a 60 win caliber team? If not, then at best they are only marginally better than they were before Ferry pulled the trigger on this deal.

The worst case scenario mainly involves questions about team chemistry, effort and perimeter defense.Regardless of what one may think of each of the individual players who the Cavs dealt away, collectively they played well enough to help the team make it all the way to the NBA Finals. There are serious questions about how much effort Wallace has put forth since he received his big contract and there are also some concerns about his impact on team chemistry.

While the Pistons have clearly missed Wallace’s shotblocking and intensity since letting him go to Chicago, Wallace was not willing or able to bring a high level of energy to the Bulls on a nightly basis. Hughes was able to defend three positions, while Szczerbiak will be a defensive liability regardless of whether he matches up with small forwards or shooting guards (there is of course no way that he can defend any point guards).

The Zydrunas Ilgauskas-Drew Gooden-Anderson Varejao frontcourt rotation—with cameo appearances by Donyell Marshall—had a nice blend of size, shooting skills, rebounding and the ability to play screen/roll with James.Wallace and Smith are talented individuals but it is not clear that their skill sets will blend smoothly with how the Cavaliers play.

For instance, Wallace and Varejao probably cannot play together because then the frontcourt will not have enough scoring punch.Cleveland’s recipe for success under Coach Mike Brown is defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James. The numbers show that Cleveland’s defense has slipped a bit this year, particularly in field goal percentage allowed and point differential, but one could argue that the absence of Varejao for a major portion of the season had a lot to do with that.

If Wallace does not give a good effort on a nightly basis then the Cavs could very well be worse defensively now than they were before the trade; with the previous group, there was at least the hope—based on last year’s performance—that once the team got healthy they would again play good defense.James tried his best to sound enthusiastic about Ferry’s bold move and even actually said, “I’m excited,” but when he elaborated he hardly sounded excited: “This isn’t the type of deal I expected. You guys heard what I wanted but I am grateful for the situation.

We got some good caliber guys that are coming in. It was very surprising, you come into the locker room today and it is very different. We’ve added some depth to our front line, which we needed, and we added some more shooting, which we needed. We don’t have much time, but what is good about the guys that came in is that they have playoff experience.”Contrast that with what James said in the wake of his All-Star MVP performance on Sunday: “We (the Cavaliers) know we’re still not going to get the respect we should get.

That’s never been a problem for us. We don’t care. We just go out and play. We’re always going to be (perceived as) the third or fourth or fifth best team in the Eastern Conference. You know, we still go out there and win ballgames and we know when the postseason happens, you know, you’ve got to come get it from us, because we’re very good.” As much as James hoped to be able to play alongside Kidd, he also knew that he could at least get to the Finals with the previous group.

Less than a month ago, I asked “Is the Status Quo Really So Bad for the Cavs?” Here is how I answered that question: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.

Cleveland has acquired “name brand talent”–two former All-Stars (Wallace and Szczerbiak) and a former number one overall draft pick (Smith)–but only in the playoffs will we find out if the roster has truly been upgraded.

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

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