In my previous Cavs News article I suggested that Cleveland’s two game losing streak was not a cause for major concern and that it would be much more significant to see how the Cavs performed during the next nine games, six of which would be played on the road. The Cavs have now won five games in a row; these victories may not have been artistic and the Cavs surely face a tough test with four road games in six days—culminating with a Christmas Day visit to L.A. to play the defending Champion L.A. Lakers—but despite a slow start, some inconsistent performances and the ongoing Delonte West saga the 20-7 Cavs now own the fourth best record in the NBA and they only trail the Boston Celtics by one game for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
There is no denying the fact that the Cavs are still figuring out how to best utilize offseason acquisitions Shaquille O’Neal, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon but it is clear that the Cavs upgraded their overall talent level and improved their chances of beating teams like the Celtics and Orlando Magic in a seven game playoff series. Although the agate type listing NBA transactions tells a slightly more complicated tale, essentially the Cavs swapped Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak for O’Neal, Parker and Moon. More than a fourth of the way into the 2009-10 season it is interesting to compare how those players are performing.
Wallace is averaging 4.1 ppg and 9.8 rpg in 26 games for Detroit. He has started every game for the Pistons. Wallace’s per minute productivity this season is very similar to how he performed last year for Cleveland, with two main differences: he is maintaining that effectiveness despite logging nearly seven more mpg and he has been much more active on the offensive boards. Wallace played very solidly for Cleveland when he was healthy but he had trouble staying healthy during his brief tenure as a Cav; this season, so far, he has been healthy.
Pavlovic is averaging 4.7 ppg in 15.5 mpg for Minnesota. He is shooting a career-low .355 from the field, including .286 from three point range. Szczerbiak has yet to play in the NBA this season as he recovers from injuries and mulls a possible retirement. If he decides to play he could possibly end up in Cleveland late in the season.
O’Neal leads the Cavs in blocked shots (1.4 bpg), is second in field goal percentage (.516), is tied for second in rebounding (7.0 rpg) and ranks third on the Cavs in scoring (10.9 ppg). His per game averages are career-lows across the board but he is also averaging a career-low 23.4 mpg. On a per minute basis his rebounding and shotblocking numbers are better than they were last year when he made the All-Star team, was co-All-Star MVP and earned selection to the All-NBA Third Team. The Cavs do not need or expect for O’Neal to play at a superstar level; they need for him to be the “Big Bill Cartwright” and so far he has filled that role very well. The only mildly disappointing number is the field goal percentage but after a slow four game start in October O’Neal shot .531 in November and he has shot .524 so far in December.
Parker is averaging 7.3 ppg and currently leads the NBA in three point field goal percentage (.500). Moon is averaging a career-low 5.5 ppg but he is shooting a career-high tying .485 from the field; his per game averages are down because his minutes have been slashed to 18.6 mpg after he averaged at least 25.9 mpg in each of his first two seasons.
The bottom line so far is that the Cavs gave up an effective but limited and undersized center, a shooting guard who is shooting very poorly and a shooting guard/small forward who is not currently in the league for an All-Star center who is aging but still effective in limited minutes, a shooting guard who spaces the court extremely well because of his three point shooting range and an athletic small forward whose minutes have been limited because he plays behind the league’s best player at that position. Furthermore, the impact of Cleveland’s roster adjustments goes beyond simply adding up and comparing the individual numbers of these players; O’Neal’s presence means that the Cavs have a legitimate low post option on offense and that on defense they do not have to double-team the opposing team’s primary low post option, a factor that proved decisive in the first matchup of the season versus Orlando, the team that derailed Cleveland’s championship plans last season.
It is not surprising that the per game numbers for the Cavs’ three new players are lower than they were when those players had bigger roles on lesser teams; in order to win a championship, players have to be willing to fill defined, appropriate roles and to sacrifice minutes/shot attempts for the greater good of the team. I am puzzled by commentators who suggest that the Cavs lack talent and are too dependent on LeBron James. As noted above, the Cavs own one of the top records in the NBA—and they have accomplished this by relegating two starters from last year’s NBA-best 66-16 team to the bench (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao) and with only sporadic contributions from Delonte West, who not only started for the Cavs last season but led them in playoff minutes played. The 2010 Cavs are obviously much more talented than the 2009 Cavs, let alone the 2007 squad that made it to the NBA Finals; Shannon Brown was the 12th man for the 2007 Cavs and would not likely be receiving much playing time for the Cavs this season yet he is a key member of the eight man rotation for the defending Champion Lakers.
The Cavs are on pace to win 60-plus games and contend for the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. There is every reason to believe that they will play better as the season progresses and their new players become fully integrated into Coach Mike Brown’s system. The biggest wild card for this team—and the factor most likely to potentially be their downfall—is Delonte West’s uncertain status. West is an extremely versatile player who is not exceptional in any one category but who has no skill set weaknesses. If by playoff time the Cavs are able to rely on him to either be a regular starter or at least a consistent force as a 25-plus mpg sixth man then the Cavs will be very formidable.