The three bedrock foundation blocks for the Cavs in recent years have been defense, rebounding and LeBron James’ brilliance. The Cavs currently lead the league in point differential while ranking second in defensive field goal percentage and third in rebounding differential. James is playing a career-low 35.7 mpg because the Cavs have been blowing out so many opponents but he is authoring another superb all-around season: 27.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 6.3 apg, 2.0 spg, 1.2 bpg. He is averaging career-highs in blocked shots, field goal percentage (.497) and free throw percentage (.796) while committing a career-low 2.3 turnovers per game.
James played at a very high level last season, too, but the Cavs were subpar defensively and on the glass for most of the year, due to roster instability stemming from holdouts, injuries and trades. It is important to remember that Cleveland’s roster has been almost completely reshaped since the opening game of the 2007-08 season. In addition, Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao—a starter and key reserve respectively for the Cavs during the 2007 NBA Finals—did not play in the early part of last season due to contract disputes. They both eventually returned to the fold but Varejao later suffered some injuries that knocked him out of action; all told, the Cavs went just 17-17 in the games that he missed, compared to a 28-20 record when he played. In 2008-09, Varejao is averaging career-highs in scoring (9.2 ppg) and field goal percentage (.576) while posting the second best rebounding average (6.8 rpg) of his career. He, Zydrunas Ilgauskas (before his recent injury) and Ben Wallace comprise a formidable frontcourt three headed monster, with each player averaging between 23 and 26 mpg.
Just having the frontcourt healthy and playing well—thereby solidifying Cleveland’s defense and rebounding—would have been enough to help the Cavs get off to a better start than last season. What has elevated the Cavs’ record to its current level is the addition of Mo Williams, a point guard who can create shots for himself and his teammates—a type of player that many people have said for years was sorely lacking on Cleveland’s roster (other than James, of course, but it is good to have two creators to put more pressure on the opposing team’s defense).
Mark Twain popularized the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics.” The boxscore numbers say that Williams is averaging fewer points and assists than he did last season while shooting worse from the field and the three point line. The reality is that Williams’ speed, shooting touch and passing skills have helped the Cavs leap from 24th in scoring last season to fifth in scoring this year. He was not known as a defensive player in Milwaukee but Williams has completely bought into Coach Mike Brown’s emphasis on defense and has done an excellent job pressuring opposing point guards. Playing for a championship level team often requires sacrificing some individual statistical glory—just compare the statistics of Boston’s “Big Three” before and after they became Celtics. Williams is second on the Cavs in scoring (15.6 ppg) and assists (4.2 apg) and he is providing exactly what the team needs from the point guard position.