O’Neal Injury Could Imperil Cavs’ Championship Hopes

Don’t be fooled by Cleveland’s 124-93 rout of the hapless New York Knicks—the Cavs will miss Shaquille O’Neal during his six to eight week absence as he recovers from thumb surgery and the Cavs very much need to sign Zydrunas Ilgauskas as soon as they are permitted to do so by league rules.

“Small ball” with J.J. Hickson starting at center looks good against the Knicks and for short stretches versus certain teams but a month of “small ball”—even for a team anchored by LeBron James—is not a championship recipe. While it is true that the upcoming schedule is not particularly daunting—in the next 10 games before Ilgauskas’ likely return to Cleveland, the Cavs play Detroit three times, Indiana once and New Jersey once—I am not sure that sans O’Neal and Ilgauskas the Cavs will continue to win at their current league-best .767 pace; an “extra” loss or two will probably not matter in the race for the top seed in the East but it could enable the L.A. Lakers to reclaim the best record in the NBA: thus, even if the Cavs are at full strength come June they may not have homecourt advantage in a possible NBA Finals matchup with the Lakers.

That is an important factor to consider because the Finals—unlike the preceding playoff rounds—use a 2-3-2 format that puts a lot of pressure on the team with the lesser record to sweep the middle three games, which historically has proven to be a quite daunting task. Admittedly, that is looking very far ahead into a hypothetical scenario that makes many assumptions about how both the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs will unfold but it could turn out that the most significant result of Glen Davis’s bludgeon/tug job on O’Neal’s thumb is the determination of the location of game one of the 2010 NBA Finals.

Assuming that O’Neal returns in time for the second or third round of the Eastern Conference playoffs and Ilgauskas rejoins the team in three weeks, the Cavs will have an incredibly deep and balanced team for the stretch run, including four players who have earned multiple All-Star selections (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, LeBron James, Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O’Neal) plus 2009 All-Star Mo Williams, Sixth Man of the Year candidate Anderson Varejao, versatile guard Delonte West and a host of players who have previously started and/or played significant minutes for playoff teams (Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson, Jamario Moon and even Leon Powe, who has looked solid in limited minutes since his recent return from knee surgery). That is the good news; the bad news is that the NBA playoffs are not fantasy league basketball: you cannot simply throw the players’ numbers out there and win.

Newly acquired power forward Antawn Jamison has fit in very well with Cleveland after a rough first game with his new team. However, Jamison has had very limited court time with O’Neal—and no court time at all with Ilgauskas, obviously—and the next time Jamison and O’Neal are on the court together will be during the playoffs, hardly the optimum situation for developing chemistry.

Chemistry in this instance has nothing to do with how the players get along off of the court but rather how they function together offensively and defensively in crucial moments: when/where to cut offensively, when/where to rotate defensively. It is one thing to discuss such matters or even to walk through certain scenarios in a non-contact practice but it is quite different to perform at optimum efficiency against a good team with a playoff game on the line.

The Cavs lost a few games early in the season before fully integrating their offseason acquisitions into Coach Mike Brown’s offensive and defensive systems and they lost two games in a row after Jamison’s arrival; fans are quick to senselessly blame Coach Brown for supposedly not making the right adjustments but the reality is that it is not easy for any team to incorporate new players into the rotation on the fly, particularly when the new players are expected to log heavy minutes.

It is a great tribute to Coach Brown that the Cavs still have the best record in the NBA despite dealing with injuries to various key players, Delonte West’s off court problems, the departure of Ilgauskas and the arrival of Jamison but Coach Brown will face the greatest challenge of his head coaching career when O’Neal returns in the middle of the playoffs; not only will the starting lineup change but it is likely that someone who played significant minutes during O’Neal’s absence could end up out of the rotation completely, a switch that will not only affect that player but also the other players who got used to playing with him.

The biggest X factor of all—literally and figuratively—is O’Neal. Let’s assume the best case scenario, namely that O’Neal’s thumb surgery and the ensuing rehabilitation process go off without a hitch—there is still the not insignificant issue of a soon to be 38 year old player who has not always been known for being in tip top shape maintaining the necessary fitness level to play big time playoff minutes versus (in all likelihood) Dwight Howard and/or Kendrick Perkins/Kevin Garnett/Rasheed Wallace. When O’Neal was a Laker he once infamously declared that he had suffered an injury on company time so he would heal on company time; it seems unlikely that at this late stage of his career he will take such a petulant and immature attitude but even assuming that O’Neal has the proper mentality it will not be easy for him to stay in game shape without playing in an NBA game for six to eight weeks.

Also, though it seems like a foregone conclusion that Ilgauskas will return to Cleveland he, like O’Neal, will be battling some conditioning issues initially because he will not have played in an NBA game for a month. This is the time of year when NBA coaches of contending teams like to have their seven or eight man rotations set, with all of those players hopefully being healthy—or as healthy as they can be after an 82 game regular season grind—and fully used to their roles in terms of minutes, shot attempts, defensive rotations and so forth. The Cavs will presumably spend the next three weeks playing “small ball,” then they will likely close out the season and begin the playoffs with Ilgauskas starting at center and at some point O’Neal will return, moving Ilgauskas back to the bench and knocking one big man out of the rotation completely; that is a lot of change for a championship contender to deal with as the regular season closes and the postseason begins.

No one should—or will—feel sorry for the Cavs. The Ilgauskas-James-Varejao starting frontcourt propelled the Cavs to the best record in the NBA last season and will likely perform quite well from late March until O’Neal comes back. With O’Neal and Ilgauskas in the fold the Cavs will have the deepest roster in the NBA and I still expect them to—at the very least—represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals but during the playoffs the Cavs will have to do an outstanding job of adjusting on the fly versus tough competition.