Cavs Surge to the Top of the Eastern Conference

LeBron JamesWhile many fans and some “experts” fretted about the Cavaliers’ slow start and made rash suggestions about potential trades and/or strategy changes, I declared that the first significant test for the Cavs this season would be the nine games that culminated in the Christmas Day showdown with the defending champion, league-leading L.A. Lakers. The Cavs rolled to an 8-1 record during that stretch, including an impressive 102-87 win over the Lakers. The Cavs now sit atop the Eastern Conference and trail the Lakers by just one game for the best record in the NBA.

Despite Friday’s loss in Denver, the Cavs have won 13 of their last 16 games (just short of a 67 win pace projected over 82 games) and they have posted some impressive numbers in their past 10 games, ranking first in the league in points allowed (92.4 ppg), first in scoring differential (11.3 ppg), first in rebounding differential (9.3 rpg) and fourth in defensive field goal percentage (.430); the Cavs currently lead the league in defensive field goal percentage (.433) and rank in the top four in each of the other categories.

The Cavs did not storm out of the gates this season because they made three changes to their starting lineup and because key contributor Delonte West was only available on a sporadic basis; also, Coach Mike Brown needed some time to experiment with his player rotation to get a sense of which combinations work the best against various kinds of lineups.

Coach Brown has done an excellent job of managing the difficult and tenuous West situation, utilizing the valuable guard when he is fit to play and seamlessly inserting other players into the rotation on those nights when West is ineffective or completely unavailable. After the Cavs opened with a 3-3 record, Coach Brown put J.J. Hickson into the starting lineup in place of Anderson Varejao and this move has paid numerous dividends: the young, active Hickson has proven to be an excellent complement to Shaquille O’Neal, while Varejao has thrived playing alongside Zydrunas Ilgauskas with the second unit.

Think about that: two thirds of the starting frontcourt for the team that led the NBA with 66 wins last year now comes off of the bench for the Cavs—and yet many people (even some so-called experts) still seem to be oblivious to just how talented and deep the Cavs are!

LeBron James is having another wonderful, MVP caliber season but the Cavs have proven that they can maintain or even extend leads when he is resting on the bench, a luxury that Kobe Bryant does not enjoy with the Lakers; the 2009 champions have been forced to give significant minutes to Cavalier castoff Shannon Brown–a player who would not crack the Cavs’ 10 man rotation this season (which is, after all, why the Cavs could afford to get rid of him in the ongoing roster upgrade process that Danny Ferry has accomplished since the Cavs made it to the 2007 NBA Finals).

The heavy burden that Bryant is carrying—Pau Gasol and Ron Artest being in and out of the lineup, the Lakers’ woeful bench and the injury to the index finger on Bryant’s shooting hand—combined with Bryant’s newly refined post game courtesy of offseason workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon, his career high field goal percentage, his league leading 30.1 ppg average (the third best mark of his career) and the fact that the Lakers still own the best record in the league give Bryant the early edge over James in the MVP race but that contest will surely go down to the wire this season.

Both players have been dominating the player of the week and player of the month awards in their respective conferences. Bryant and James have been more productive, durable and consistent than any of the other supposed MVP contenders, so they really should be considered the clear frontrunners but since Bryant won the award in 2008 and James earned the honor last season the voting members in the media could get the strange idea that someone else is “due,” much like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone received MVPs in 1994 and 1997 respectively even though it was obvious that Michael Jordan was still the best player in the league during those years. Barring unforeseen developments, it would be disappointing—and unjust—if someone other than Bryant or James wins this season’s MVP.

I picked the Cavs to be the best team in the East this season and I see no reason to amend that choice now. The Atlanta Hawks have made nice strides but ultimately it will be a three team battle for Eastern Conference supremacy between Cleveland, Boston and Orlando—the Hawks are capable of competing with any of those teams in a seven game series but cannot beat any of those teams unless the Cavs, Celtics or Magic are depleted by injuries to key players.

The Cavs, Celtics and Magic have each had their ups and downs so far this season but the encouraging signs for the Cavs are that the team has largely been healthy, that despite a disappointing game here or there the overall trend has been decidedly upward in general and that the new additions have strengthened the team’s depth without adversely affecting team chemistry.

The Cavs were able to push the Celtics to seven games two years ago in the Eastern Conference semifinals despite having a roster that was much less talented than the current edition and despite the fact that James was not the defender, free throw shooter or three point threat that he is now; at full strength the Celtics are still a suffocating defensive team featuring three future Hall of Famers in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen but each of those stars is on the wrong end of age 30 and thus it has become increasingly difficult for Boston to keep all of them healthy at the same time—and that situation is unlikely to improve during the playoffs in the wake of the 82 game grind of the regular season.

The Magic are a younger team than the Celtics but they have also suffered their share of injuries to key players; more significantly, their offensive attack featuring Dwight Howard in the paint flanked by three point shooters will not be nearly as effective versus the Cavs in the playoffs this season now that the Cavs can single cover Howard with Shaquille O’Neal plus utilize Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon as perimeter defenders alongside James–and, hopefully, West, who actually did a quite credible job during last year’s playoffs versus Hedo Turkoglu, who the Magic since replaced with Vince Carter.

Matchups to Watch in the Cavs-Lakers Game

Lebron James leading Kobe Bryant for the MVPThe 22-8 Cleveland Cavaliers have won seven of their last eight games and have gone 2-1 so far on their four game road trip, which concludes with a Christmas Day showdown versus the defending NBA Champion L.A. Lakers. The Lakers own a league-best 23-4 record, are riding a five game winning streak and have won 16 of their last 17 games. Here are some key matchups that will determine which team wins this much anticipated and much hyped game:

1) Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James

What, did you think that I was going to feature Sasha Vujacic versus Danny Green? Naturally, much attention will be focused on the battle between 2008 regular season MVP/2009 Finals MVP Bryant and 2009 regular season MVP James. They will likely guard each other at some point during the game and they will each have a lot to do with their respective teams’ success at both ends of the court. The Lakers brought in Ron Artest as Trevor Ariza’s replacement specifically to guard bigger small forwards like James, Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony, so I expect Artest to guard James at the start of the game and likely for most of the contest (a bit of a change from the past when Bryant would guard James more than James would guard Bryant). It will be very interesting to see what the Lakers do defensively late in the game if the score is close. Will Bryant insist on guarding James in that situation? Now that the Cavs have Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon in addition to Delonte West I think that James may guard Bryant even less often one on one than he did in previous seasons, though foul trouble (and West’s availability) will influence Coach Mike Brown’s thought process in that regard; also, James is much better equipped physically to check Artest than the other Cavs’ wing players are, so James will likely guard Artest when Artest is in the game (Parker, Moon or West could easily guard Ariza, a player who is both less physically imposing and less offensively versatile than Artest).

This season, Bryant–who for many years has possessed the best all-around skill set in the league–added yet another weapon to his arsenal, training with Hakeem Olajuwon to learn the finer points of the post game. Bryant was already an excellent scorer in the post, but working with Olajuwon enabled Bryant to add more moves to his repertoire; early in the season before Bryant broke the index finger on his shooting hand and before the injured Pau Gasol returned to action, Bryant ranked second in the league in points in the paint, an amazing statistic for a shooting guard. In many ways, Bryant is playing better than ever, posting a career-high .488 field goal percentage, tying his career-high with a 2.2 spg average (third in the NBA) and producing the fourth highest scoring average (29.3 ppg) of his illustrious career.

James is having another excellent season, featuring career-high shooting numbers from the field, the free throw line and beyond the three point arc in addition to his usual well rounded stat line of roughly 28 ppg-7 rpg-7 apg. However, despite his size and athletic gifts he has still not developed a post game, nor is he a reliable midrange jump shooter. According to the “Hot Spots” tracker, James is “cold” in four of eight midrange areas, “lukewarm” in three of them and “hot” in just one (left baseline); in contrast, Bryant is “hot” in four midrange areas, “lukewarm” in three and “cold” in just one (ironically, left baseline). Overall, Bryant has six “hot” areas, six “lukewarm” ones and two “cold” areas, while James has two “hot” areas, eight “lukewarm” areas and four “cold” areas. James shoots nearly .700 in the paint but less than .340 outside of the paint, while Bryant shoots .604 in the paint and .423 outside of the paint. James’ inconsistent shooting outside of point blank range does not matter so much against inferior teams, because James can simply punish them by going to the hoop at will–but elite defensive teams that limit his drives and force him to shoot midrange jumpers can hold James to a low field goal percentage and induce him to commit more turnovers by sagging off of him and picking off his passes. Although James is a willing passer he still has a bad habit of wasting time dribbling laterally and then settling for long jumpers as opposed to attacking the basket to score, draw a foul or dish to an open teammate.

2) Andrew Bynum/Pau Gasol versus Shaquille O’Neal/Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Pau Gasol missed the first 11 games of the season due to injury but largely thanks to Kobe Bryant–who had four games with at least 40 points during that stretch, with the Lakers winning each time–the Lakers went 8-3. The Lakers are 15-1 with Gasol, losing only on the road versus Utah in the game after Bryant broke the index finger on his shooting hand. Ever since coming to L.A., Gasol has thrived as the team’s second offensive option; he never shot better than .538 from the field during his six-plus seasons in Memphis but he shot .589 in 27 games as a Laker in 2007-08, .567 in 81 games last season and .543 so far this season. Players do not generally become better rebounders as they get older–rebounding is usually a task for the young and bouncy-legged–but Gasol is averaging a career-high 12.6 rpg this season, nearly three rpg better than his previous best. A significant portion of that increase has taken place on the offensive boards, where Gasol is averaging a career-high 4.0 rpg; defenses are tilted so heavily in Bryant’s direction that Gasol and Andrew Bynum have a free run to the offensive boards, much like Allen Iverson’s big men did during Iverson’s prime (except that Bryant has a better shot selection and higher shooting percentage than Iverson).

Bynum emerged as the Lakers’ second offensive option during Gasol’s absence but since Gasol returned Bynum has not only regressed offensively but his rebounding has also dropped off tremendously; Bynum is a young player whose effort defensively and on the boards is still far too linked to how many touches he gets offensively and you can be sure that Lakers’ Coach Phil Jackson is once again emphasizing to Bynum that when the Lakers are at full strength his primary role is defender/rebounder, not scorer.

The Cavaliers acquired Shaquille O’Neal specifically to match up better versus physical post players like Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Kendrick Perkins, the starting centers for championship contenders Orlando, L.A. and Boston respectively. When O’Neal is in the game the Cavaliers should not have to double team any of those guys and thus should be able to guard more effectively on the perimeter instead of always having to rotate defenders. In the first quarter, the Cavaliers generally make a concerted effort to feed the ball to the “Big Bill Cartwright” in the post, so the challenge for Bynum will be to avoid picking up two quick fouls–but I suspect that Bynum will fail that test, thus providing Lamar Odom with extra playing time and forcing the Lakers to use a smaller lineup with Gasol at center and Odom at power forward.

Two-time All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas started nearly every NBA game that he played in prior to this season but the acquisition of O’Neal relegated Ilgauskas to a reserve role. A very reliable outside shooter who loves to run the pick and pop play with James, Ilgauskas struggled with his shot early in the season–probably adjusting to his new, reduced role–but he has shot .543 from the field in December, highlighted by a season-high 25 points on 10-14 field goal shooting in Cleveland’s 117-104 overtime victory versus Sacramento on Wednesday. When Ilgauskas is in the game his shooting ability will force Bynum or Gasol to leave the paint to guard him, opening up lanes for other Cavs to drive or cut to the hoop. When Ilgauskas goes in the paint his length makes him an effective rebounder–particularly on the offensive glass–and enables him to alter/contest shots.

3) Lamar Odom versus Anderson Varejao/J.J. Hickson

Some Cleveland observers who do not watch many Lakers games have developed an exaggerated fear of Odom’s capabilities, largely based on Odom’s 28 point, 17 rebound outburst when the Lakers beat the Cavs in Cleveland last February. Contrary to what some people think, Odom’s production did not necessarily reflect some fatal weakness in the Cavs’ frontcourt; Odom took a season-high 19 field goal attempts (in part because Bryant was under the weather) and thus tallied a season-high point total but he is unlikely to match those numbers against Cleveland–or anyone else: Odom had just six other 20 point games all season long and in the Lakers’ other game against the Cavs he managed just eight points and 10 rebounds. Odom is averaging a career-low 8.6 ppg on .423 field goal shooting (his worst field goal percentage since 2001-02) and has yet to exceed 16 points or 14 rebounds in a game this season. Anderson Varejao’s scoring and rebounding numbers are nearly identical to Odom’s but Varejao is shooting .509 from the field. J.J. Hickson’s role has expanded this season but if he is not in tune defensively and on the boards then Coach Brown will likely use a quick hook and insert Varejao.

4) Bench play

As I explained last summer, “the 2008 Lakers were a deep team but not quite as talented as some people suggested. Although the 2008 Lakers had eight players who averaged at least 16.8 mpg in the playoffs, the talent level at the top of their rotation could not be compared with the Celtics, whose roster includes three future Hall of Famers. This year’s Lakers are probably a little more talented than last year’s Lakers but because the production of several bench players declined markedly the 2009 Lakers are not as deep as the 2008 Lakers; only six Lakers averaged at least 16.8 mpg in the 2009 playoffs.” The 2010 Lakers strengthened their starting lineup by swapping Ariza for Artest but their bench is at least as thin as it was last season. As NBA TV’s Chris Webber correctly observed after the Lakers needed every one of Bryant’s 40 points to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday, “They have Shannon Brown coming off the bench and that’s about it.” Technically, Odom is a bench player as well but the way that the Lakers use him he is a de facto starter; Odom and Bynum split the minutes as the big who plays opposite of Gasol and Odom is often the closer at that spot, which is more important than being designated as a starter. Webber added, “You look at other teams with the guys they have coming off the bench they have a whole other team ready to bring energy and a different type of play.”

Webber’s description of what the Lakers lack fits Cleveland’s roster perfectly: the Cavaliers currently are bringing three players off of the bench who started for the team that led the NBA with a 66-16 record last season (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Delonte West). The Cavs’ top five reserves–Ilgausaks, Varejao, West, Daniel Gibson and Jamario Moon–have all started playoff games at some point during their careers; other than Odom–who, as mentioned above, is not playing particularly well or efficiently this season–the Lakers’ top reserves are Brown, Jordan Farmar and Josh Powell. While the Cavs have 10 players who average at least 18.6 mpg and have appeared in at least 20 games, the Lakers’ ninth man is the seldom used Josh Powell (10.8 mpg in 21 games, .387 field goal percentage) and their 10th man is the oft-injured Luke Walton (10.6 mpg in just nine games, .424 field goal percentage). Sasha Vujacic–who was a decent reserve during the 2008 regular season but who did not perform well in that year’s playoffs and has not been the same since then–is averaging just 6.6 mpg (13th on the team) and shooting just .375 from the field; the self-nicknamed “Machine” seems to be broken beyond repair.

5) Three point shooting

The Lakers and the Cavs are both just a little bit above the league average for three pointers attempted per game but the Cavs rank second in the NBA in three point field goal percentage while the Lakers only rank 20th. Both teams do an excellent job of defending against the three point shot: the Lakers lead the league in that category, while the Cavaliers rank fifth. Four Cavaliers have attempted at least 70 three point shots–Mo Williams, LeBron James, Anthony Parker and Daniel Gibson–and three of those players are shooting well over .400 from beyond the arc, with Parker and Gibson ranking first and second in the league in three point field goal percentage. Delonte West has shot just 1-12 from three point range in spot duty this season as he battles personal and legal problems but he was a top notch three point shooter last season (.399) and is certainly capable of hitting big shots from long distance.

The Lakers also have four players who have attempted at least 70 three point shots but only Ron Artest has shot better than .350 from long distance (42-115, .365). Jordan Farmar (24-74, .324) and Lamar Odom (21-73, .288) are hardly pure shooters, so their numbers are not likely to increase by much. Bryant has spent most of the season camped out in the post or feasting on midrange jumpers, so he is on pace to attempt his fewest three pointers since the 2003-04 season. Bryant is shooting just .278 (25-90) from three point range; in a five game stretch after Gasol came back and before Bryant broke his finger he shot 11-23 (.478) from beyond the arc but since suffering the finger injury Bryant has yet to make more than one three pointer in a game and his percentage from that distance will likely not increase much until that finger heals a bit. Derek Fisher has shot 24-69 from three point range, a .348 percentage that is his worst since the 2006-07 season and one of the worst of his entire 14 year career.

The overall key to this game for the Cavaliers is to find a way to contain Bryant without committing so much of their defense to him that Gasol, Bynum and Odom have free runs to the rim for dunks, layups and putbacks. Offensively, the Cavs will try to get Bynum in early foul trouble by posting up O’Neal. If the Lakers have to double team O’Neal and/or James then the Cavs must punish the Lakers by draining three pointers.

The Lakers want to see consistent effort and production not only from Bryant and Gasol but also from Bynum and Artest, plus whichever bench players see action alongside Odom. The Lakers are obvious favorites considering their record and the fact that they are playing at home while the Cavs are playing their fourth road game in six nights but if O’Neal makes the most of his early touches, Delonte West plays like he did last season and Mo Williams makes open jump shots then the Cavs are certainly capable of winning.

Reexamining Cleveland’s Offseason Moves

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.

Upcoming Road Games Will Test Cleveland’s Mettle

Before any Cavs’ fans become overly concerned about Cleveland’s two game losing streak, it is worth remembering that in the long 82 game NBA season even the eventual NBA Champion struggles at times: almost exactly a year ago (December 9, 2008), the L.A. Lakers lost 113-101 to the Sacramento Kings, the team that finished with the worst record in the entire league (17-65). The 2007-08 NBA Champion Boston Celtics displayed remarkable resolve and defensive consistency but even they had some clunker losses: they dropped a 95-83 decision at home to the Charlotte Bobcats and also lost both ends of a home and home set to the Washington Wizards. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls never had losses like that, though, right? It is funny how the passage of time tends to make people forget things: Jordan’s 1995-96, 72-10 record-setting NBA Champions lost 104-72 to the New York Knicks–and those Knicks were hardly a powerhouse, finishing 47-35. Those Bulls also lost to the 21-61 Toronto Raptors, an expansion team. Both of those losses came before the Bulls set the regular season record for wins, so it would be incorrect to suggest that the Bulls had shut things down.

It is true that a “bad” loss—a loss to a clearly inferior team—could potentially cost a team in the battle for playoff positioning; last season after the Lakers finished one game behind the Cavaliers in the overall standings they surely rued that loss to the Kings but the Lakers ended up with homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals anyway and went on to capture the title. One complicating factor for the Cavaliers this year is that while the 2009 Lakers were the class of the West—finishing 11 games ahead of the pack—it looks like the 2010 Eastern Conference race will turn out to be a four team dogfight between the Celtics, Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. In that regard it would be a significant advantage to earn the East’s top seed not only because that team will play the weakest team in the first round but because the top seed will face the fourth seed in the second round while the number two and three teams face off in the other bracket. Assuming that Orlando stays in front of Atlanta, if Cleveland finishes first overall then the Cavs could potentially play Atlanta in the second round with homecourt advantage and then only have to beat the winner of a Boston-Orlando matchup to advance to the NBA Finals. The Hawks are a much improved team but they have yet to demonstrate that they can win on the road in the postseason, so the Cavs would surely prefer to face them in the second round as opposed to possibly having to beat Orlando and Boston in consecutive series.

All of those scenarios are purely hypothetical right now and there are two factors that are even more important than the race for playoff positioning: the overall trend for a team and the likelihood that a team is properly constructed to win a championship.

As I discussed a couple years ago, two important statistical indicators for possible championship success are point differential and defensive field goal percentage. Despite Cleveland’s slow start and the two recent losses, the Cavs rank sixth in the NBA in point differential and are tied for second in defensive field goal percentage; the Lakers ranked second and sixth respectively in those categories last season en route to winning the championship (the 2008 Celtics led the NBA in point differential and defensive field goal percentage). The Cavs have some well known problems in screen/roll coverage but they are still a top notch defensive team; just as significantly, defense has always been a focal point for Cleveland Coach Mike Brown, so it is likely that the Cavs will maintain or improve their rankings in these categories as the season progresses.

The Phoenix Suns are an excellent example of a team that is not properly constructed to win a championship; since acquiring Steve Nash they have posted two 60-plus win seasons and they won at least 54 games for four straight years but during that time they never made it to the NBA Finals. Their run and gun style can catch a lot of teams flat-footed during the regular season but in the playoffs there are no back to back games and an opponent can zero in on nullifying a team’s strengths and exposing a team’s weaknesses. When the Suns brought in Shaquille O’Neal to provide a paint presence at both ends of the court, several Suns’ players chafed at the idea of playing a slow down, defensive-oriented style, causing ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy to declare that this attitude is a “blight” on the careers of Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Grant Hill.

In contrast, the Cavs are a defensive-minded team, so the coaching staff and players welcome the addition of O’Neal because O’Neal can help them match up better against Dwight Howard and other top flight big men. LeBron James is averaging his fewest field goal attempts per game since his rookie season and his scoring average is at a four year low but he is not complaining about the ball going into O’Neal in the post; instead, James has increased his offensive efficiency (he is posting career-high shooting percentages from the field, free throw line and three point range) and he is averaging a career-high 8.2 apg, using his passing skills to create easy scoring opportunities for O’Neal in the post and for other Cavs when James or O’Neal are double-teamed.

Six of Cleveland’s next nine games are on the road, including a stretch of four games in six days that culminates in the much anticipated Christmas Day showdown with the Lakers, owners of the best record in the NBA. Road trips challenge teams to execute efficiently despite fatigue and provide an opportunity for teams to bond together. This season will not rise or fall on the outcome of any one particular regular season game—even though the game with the Lakers will obviously be treated as if the fate of the world is at stake—but this upcoming nine game run provides a good litmus test for the Cavaliers, particularly in light of the fact that the Lakers will also play six of their next nine games on the road. The Lakers’ schedule was frontloaded with a lot of home games, so this stretch will be a big test for them. If the Cavaliers play well and the Lakers stumble slightly then Cleveland could move to the top of the NBA standings by the end of the month; conversely, if the Lakers continue to roll and the Cavs fail to keep pace then the Lakers could create some real separation. Either way, what happens in the next two-three weeks will turn out to be a lot more meaningful than an overtime loss to an energized, young Memphis team or a road setback versus a scrappy, well rested Rockets team that generally beats Cleveland in Houston.

More Than a Game’ nominated for indie Spirit Award

Lebron James is set to get another award. However, this time it is not in sports.

“More Than A Game” has been nominated in the documentary category for the Spirit Awards honoring independent film. The Spirit Awards honor movies that cost less than $20 million to make. The awards will be presented March 5, two days before the Academy Awards.

Award winners will be presented with a trophy depicting a bird sitting atop of a pole.


Shaq: The “Big Bill Cartwright”

Shaquille O’Neal has many nicknames, several of which he has bestowed upon himself, including the “Big Aristotle” and the “Big Deporter” (coined after his Lakers eliminated several playoff teams that started foreign-born players at center). In order for the Cavaliers to maximize their chances to win a championship this year, O’Neal may have to turn into the “Big Bill Cartwright.”

That comparison may sound like an insult to future Hall of Famer O’Neal but it is not insulting at all: Cartwright made the All-Star team in 1980 as a New York Knick and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting that year (behind Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), averaging nearly as many points (21.7 ppg) as O’Neal did in his first season (23.4 ppg in 1992-93 with the Orlando Magic). Cartwright averaged 20.1 ppg in his second season but then injuries—and the arrival of Patrick Ewing in 1985-86—reduced his role. In 1988, the Knicks traded Cartwright to the Chicago Bulls for power forward Charles Oakley; the Knicks now had the perfect complement for Ewing, while the Bulls had a legitimate center to team with Michael Jordan and young, promising forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. The Bulls won the first of three straight championships in Cartwright’s third season with the team (1990-91); that year, Cartwright averaged fewer than 10 ppg (9.6) in a full season for the first time in his career but he still ranked fourth on the Bulls in scoring while shooting a solid percentage from the field (.490). Cartwright finished third on the team in rebounding (6.2 rpg, trailing only Grant and Pippen) and provided a solid defensive presence in the post while playing 28.8 mpg; in the playoffs Cartwright’s minutes (30.1 mpg) and field goal percentage (.519) increased as the Bulls rolled to a 15-2 postseason record.

What does this have to do with O’Neal and the 2009-10 Cavaliers? When O’Neal teamed with Kobe Bryant to lead the Lakers to three straight NBA titles (2000-02) O’Neal routinely produced 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds per game in the postseason but O’Neal has not averaged 20 ppg or 10 rpg in the playoffs since 2004. O’Neal averaged 40-plus mpg in the playoffs during his prime but in each of his last four trips to the playoffs O’Neal has averaged 33 mpg or less. Even though O’Neal made the All-NBA Third Team and won co-MVP honors in the All-Star Game last year he can no longer carry a team on a night in, night out basis—but he can still be a force in the post at both ends of the court and that is a critical component for any team that is trying to win a championship.

Cartwright averaged a then career-low 8.2 field goal attempts per game during the 1991 championship season but he was still an important part of Chicago’s offense; Bulls Coach Phil Jackson often went to Cartwright in the post early in games, forcing the opposing team to reveal when/if they planned to double team in the paint. By establishing the threat of a post up game, the Bulls spread out the court for Jordan and Pippen to operate. Jackson told Jordan that if Jordan had the ball all of the time then the defense could shine a “spotlight” on him but that if he passed the ball into the post and cut then he could obtain easier scoring opportunities early in the game, conserving energy for the fourth quarter if the team needed him to perform game-saving solo operations. In his book “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson explained that his assistant coach Tex Winter—the developer of the famous Triangle Offense—believes that there are “seven principles of a sound offense,” with the first one being “The offense must penetrate the defense.” This penetration can happen by a drive, a pass or a shot but Jackson said that the preferred method is “to pass the ball directly into the post and go for a three-point power play” (p. 88, “Sacred Hoops,” paperback edition).

O’Neal averaged 18-20 field goal attempts per game during his prime years but this season with Cleveland he is averaging a Cartwrightesque 9.1 field goal attempts per game. O’Neal is the focal point of the offense early in the first and fourth quarters, establishing a post presence, easing the load on LeBron James and potentially creating foul trouble for the opposing team; this season we have already seen O’Neal take Dwight Howard out of the game with foul difficulties and almost singlehandedly put the Cavs in the bonus in the fourth quarter versus the undersized Mavs. O’Neal is averaging career-lows across the board (11.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, .510 field goal shooting, numbers that are much like Cartwright’s 1991 statistics) but O’Neal’s impact cannot be judged by numbers alone, particularly considering his role with the Cavaliers; if O’Neal is compressing the defense into the paint and/or creating foul trouble for the opposing team then he is doing his job even if his statistics are not exceptional. In “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson wrote (p. 117, paperback edition), “The incessant accusations of the judging mind block vital energy and sabotage concentration. Some NBA coaches exacerbate the problem by rating every move players make with a plus-minus system that goes far beyond conventional statistics. ‘Good’ moves—fighting for position, finding the open man—earn the player plus rating points, while ‘bad’ moves—losing your man, fudging your footwork—show up as debits. The problem is: a player can make an important contribution to the game and still walk away with a negative score. That approach would have been disastrous for a hypercritical player like me. That’s why I don’t use it. Instead, we show players how to quiet the judging mind and focus on what needs to be done at any given moment.” There is no substitute for watching NBA games with an educated eye, whether you are a coach, a member of the media or a fan; neither highlight reels nor reams of statistics tell the full story about a team or a player.

O’Neal also should strive to emulate Cartwright’s defensive role. Cartwright was not particularly mobile defensively—and even in his prime he was never a great shotblocker—but he used his size and “educated elbows” very effectively, making it difficult for All-Star centers like Ewing to score. O’Neal used to be a highly mobile, powerfully athletic player—and a devastating shotblocker—but at this stage of his career his most important defensive assets are size, strength and intimidation; he can use his body to keep opposing post players out of the paint and he can be a physical presence discouraging opposing wing players from casually strolling through the paint on the way to the hoop: O’Neal has never hesitated to deliver a hard foul.

“Big Bill Cartwright” is a nickname that is not as flashy or grandiose as O’Neal’s other nicknames, but if O’Neal can play like Cartwright did for Jordan’s Bulls then O’Neal can help LeBron James win his first NBA championship in James’ seventh NBA season, much like Cartwright’s statistically modest—but important—contributions helped Jordan capture his first NBA title in Jordan’s seventh NBA season.

Behind the scenes: Cavalier Girls Swimsuit Calendar

The Cavaliers Girls released some of the behind the scenes pictures of the 2009-10 Cavalier Girls Swimsuit Calendar photo shoot in hope to promote their annual calendar for the holidays.


The calendar features all 16 members of the 09-10 Cavalier Girls squad. Complete with two bonus months (November 09 and December 09). The Calendar was photographed exclusively in Cleveland, you’ll see shots from all around the city, showcasing all that Cleveland has to offer.

The Calendar is available for $13.92 and can be purchased online or at the teamshop at the Q.

Shaq practices, ready to play Wednesday

Shaquille O'NealShaquille O’Neal practiced with the team today and he will be ready to play Wednesday when the team travel to Detroit to face the Pistons. O’Neal missed five games after he injured his shoulder when he tried to block a dunk by Miami’s Michael Beasley.

Shaquille asked for cortisone injection but the team refused and gave him time off and rehabilitation instead.

“You can tell it’s a great organization,” O’Neal said. “I was cursing and screaming and trying to make them shoot me up, but they wouldn’t do it.” Shaquille said.

“My hat goes off to them for being above board,” O’Neal said. “I’m from the old school. If it ain’t broke, let’s just keep going, shoot it up with whatever is legal. But they refused me many times.”