Prior to Cleveland’s 102-93 win over Orlando, ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy said that the “rush to judgment is wrong” about the Cavaliers and that often you cannot tell exactly how good a team is going to be until the regular season hits the 20 game mark. I completely agree with Van Gundy but now that the Cavs have finished nearly 10% of the season (eight games out of 82) it is worthwhile to at least take a preliminary look at what has happened so far. The Cavs are 5-3 and have won five of their last six games after a disappointing 0-2 start; last season at this time the Cavs were 6-2 in the midst of an eight game winning streak that would push their record to 9-2. Prior to the Orlando game, the Cavs ranked fifth in the NBA in points allowed, sixth in defensive field goal percentage and were tied for 10th in scoring differential. In 2008-09, the Cavs led the league in points allowed and scoring differential and tied for the league lead in defensive field goal percentage. Although the Cavs have slipped in all three rankings, it is actually an encouraging sign that despite some roster upheaval they still are solidly among the league leaders in those important categories—and based on Coach Mike Brown’s excellent defensive track record there is every reason to believe that the Cavs will finish the season in the top five in all three departments. The Cavs did not have all of their key players available during the preseason, so Coach Brown is still figuring out how to best utilize his newly constructed roster and his efforts in that regard have been hamstrung by the uncertainty surrounding Delonte West, a key player who led the team in minutes played during last year’s playoffs.
Although the Cavs finished with a league-best 66-16 record in 2008-09, they went 1-2 versus the Orlando Magic in the regular season prior to losing 4-2 to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. So, even though it is early in the season and both teams are still putting their rotations together, it was important for the Cavs to beat the Magic on Wednesday; after all, the Cavs clearly made their various offseason moves specifically with the idea of matching up better versus the Magic—and the early returns are quite positive in that regard: Shaquille O’Neal (10 points, four rebounds in 20 minutes) played Dwight Howard (11 points, seven rebounds in 32 minutes) to a virtual standstill, which has to be considered a victory for the Cavs. Howard is obviously Orlando’s best player—and an MVP candidate—while O’Neal is Cleveland’s third offensive option behind LeBron James and Mo Williams. The scoring and rebounding statistics don’t tell the full story of O’Neal’s impact in this matchup; the most significant statistic is that O’Neal drew two fouls on Howard in the first 2:18 of the game. Howard’s foul trouble altered Orlando’s rotations and affected how aggressively Howard could play for the rest of the game.
Although it is only a few months since the Magic eliminated the Cavs from the playoffs, both teams looked a lot different on Wednesday. The Cavs added O’Neal, Anthony Parker (nine points, three steals) and Jamario Moon (0 points, seven rebounds in 15 minutes) in place of Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak but were without the services of West, who was placed on the inactive list for the Orlando game, apparently because he missed the team flight. The Magic added Vince Carter (team-high 29 points), Jameer Nelson (19 points, five assists, four rebounds)—a 2009 All-Star who missed the Eastern Conference Finals due to injury–and Brandon Bass in place of Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston but were missing Rashard Lewis (suspended by the league for using a performance-enhancing drug). Both teams will improve when West and Lewis return but the most important matchup factors are not likely to change: the Magic still have no one who can even slow down James (36 points, eight rebounds, four assists), O’Neal can single cover Howard well enough that the other Cavs can stay at home on the three point shooters and Howard will be prone to getting in foul trouble if he has to single cover O’Neal. Although Howard is an amazing athlete and an impressive physical specimen, he is—as Fred Carter would put it—“light in the cakes” compared to O’Neal; Howard’s broad shoulders and bulging biceps do not make up for his relative lack of lower body heft and that is why he struggles to keep O’Neal out of the paint.
With all of the talk about how the Cavs matched up with the Magic last season and how the Cavs match up with the Magic now, I still stand by what I wrote during and after last year’s playoffs: if Mo Williams had simply played in the Eastern Conference Finals at the level that he did during the regular season then the Cavs would have won the series. On Wednesday, Williams poured in 22 points on 9-9 shooting in the first half, finishing with 28 points on 12-20 shooting. Obviously, Williams should not be expected to shoot 100%–or even 60%–from the field but if he plays aggressively and with confidence then he can create good shots not only for himself but also for his teammates (Williams finished with a game-high six assists).
The bottom line after eight games is that the Cavs are still in the midst of a feeling out process in terms of what the player rotation will be and what each player’s role is offensively and defensively; despite those uncertainties, the Cavs are already playing at a relatively high level. They are deep enough and talented enough that O’Neal does not have to shoulder a heavy burden in terms of minutes and/or field goal attempts and that should enable Coach Brown to keep O’Neal fresh enough to be fully effective during the games that count the most: possible playoff showdowns with Boston and/or Orlando. The Celtics are clearly the best team in the East right now but don’t forget that a Cleveland team sans West and searching for an offensive identity nearly beat Boston in the first game of the season.
One interesting sidebar story from the Orlando game is that James declared that until the season is over he will not answer any more questions about his upcoming free agency status. Frankly, this is a long overdue move on his part, because the only reason that this is such a big story regarding James is that he has encouraged media speculation by (metaphorically) batting his eyelashes at various suitors. Did you know that 2008 MVP/2009 Finals MVP Kobe Bryant will also be a free agent next summer? Bryant will obviously command a maximum contract just like James but because Bryant has steadfastly refused to discuss this subject it has not become a big media story. Everyone understands that James is just entering his prime years and that it makes sense for him to keep his options open but the time for him to handle that business is after the season is over; letting the story fester for so long the way that James did provided a needless distraction to a team that should be focused on nothing other than trying to win a championship and it was disrespectful to the Cleveland fans who cheer for James. In general James has handled himself in an exemplary manner on and off the court, so it is good that he has finally taken steps to silence the talk about the summer of 2010.