Many “experts” keep speculating about trades that the Cleveland Cavaliers might make to bolster their supposedly inadequate roster—but in the past few days the Cavs moved to the top of the NBA standings despite losing two key players from their rotation! All-Star guard Mo Williams will be out for four to six weeks due to a left shoulder injury, while Delonte West’s status is uncertain because of a broken finger, but the deep and talented Cavs continue to find ways to win. This is hardly a case of addition by subtraction—the Cavs certainly miss the contributions that West and Williams can make—but it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone to credibly suggest that LeBron James’ “supporting cast” is somehow deficient. This is not meant in any way to disparage how well James is playing; James is once again performing at an MVP level but the point is that he is in an excellent situation: the Cavs are a defensive-minded team whose players have well defined roles and that means that in most fourth quarters the score will be close enough that James can take over down the stretch if necessary. That is the same formula that Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls used to win six championships in the 1990s and that Kobe Bryant’s L.A. Lakers used to win last year’s title: limit the burden placed on the superstar early in most games so that he is fresh enough to be the “closer.”
Last Thursday, the Cavs—sans Williams–beat the L.A. Lakers to sweep the season series with the reigning NBA champions. West suffered his injury during that contest and has not played since then but the Cavs still beat a much improved Oklahoma City team and a solid Miami Heat squad. Coach Mike Brown made some nice adjustments in each of those three games. Versus the Lakers, Brown started West at point guard in place of Williams so that the Cavs would have another ballhandler on the court in addition to James but in crunch time Brown shifted West to shooting guard defensively and had him harass Bryant, a job that West performed much more effectively than starting shooting guard Anthony Parker did earlier in the game. With neither West nor Williams available versus Oklahoma City, Brown started Daniel Gibson at point guard. Gibson is a three point specialist (his .483 three point field goal percentage leads the league this season) who is not a great defender or playmaker. Gibson has started for the Cavs before—including some games in the 2007 NBA Finals—and he is a John Paxson/B.J. Armstrong type, a point guard who can make some plays for his teammates but is best utilized as a spot up shooter. Gibson did not have a great shooting performance against the Thunder (13 points on 5-13 field goal shooting) but he did hit three of his eight three point attempts, including a huge trey with 8.7 seconds remaining to put the Cavs up by two points. Gibson also started versus Miami and this time he was even more productive, contributing 15 points on 5-10 field goal shooting (including 4-6 on three pointers). He only had one assist but he also only had one turnover in a team-high 41 minutes.
Shaquille O’Neal has emerged as an important offensive weapon now that the Cavs cannot rely on dribble penetration by Williams or West. O’Neal scored a season-high 22 points on 8-10 field goal shooting versus the Thunder and he had 19 points on 9-13 field goal shooting against the Heat; during significant stretches of time during both games the Cavs ran their offense through O’Neal in the post. Every possession when O’Neal dominates the action is a possession that preserves James for the stretch run—and a possession that can potentially get the opposing team in foul trouble. Even though O’Neal is a poor free throw shooter, the fouls that he draws help the Cavs get into the bonus, which results in more free throw attempts for James and others.
The Miami game provides a microcosm of the limitations of basketball statistical analysis; a “stat guru” can only go by what the numbers say (O’Neal is averaging just 11.2 ppg this season) but someone who watches basketball with understanding and evaluates players based on their skill sets is able to more completely ascertain exactly how effective individual players really are in the context of their roles on their teams. O’Neal recently referred to himself—quite correctly—as a “high level role player” (which is just another way of saying “Big Bill Cartwright”) but it is important to understand that on any given night he still can present a significant matchup problem for the opposing team (in contrast to other players around the league who may have similar seasonal statistics but are not capable of shouldering a bigger offensive load if called upon to do so); the difference between now and three or four years ago is that O’Neal cannot have that kind of impact every single game or even necessarily for 40-plus minutes in one particular game.
It is certainly true that several other elite NBA teams have had their share of injury problems–Pau Gasol (Lakers), Kevin Garnett (Celtics) and Jameer Nelson (Magic) are three All-Stars who have missed substantial playing time this season—but before the season began the consistent refrain among many NBA “experts” was that the Cavs supposedly did not have the talent to match up with Boston or Orlando in the East, let alone deal with the Lakers. West and Williams comprised the starting backcourt for the Cavs in 2008-09 when Cleveland posted a league-best 66-16 record, so the way that the Cavs have played this season—and the way that they are performing now without those guys, admittedly in a small sample of games so far–provides strong evidence that the “experts” have misevaluated Cleveland’s roster: the Cavs now own a four game lead over Boston in the East and a full game lead (plus the tiebreaker advantage) over the Lakers for best record in the NBA. It will not be easy for the Celtics or Lakers to make up ground, either, because the Cavs have already survived the toughest part of their schedule: eight of their next nine games are at home and the Cavs have no road trips longer than two games for the rest of the season.