Cavs Blow Out Misfiring Pistons

The Cleveland Cavaliers improved to 43-11–the best record in the Eastern Conference–with a 99-78 rout of the Detroit Pistons, who have now lost six games in a row and are in serious danger of not making the playoffs, a stunning collapse for a team that has appeared in the last six Eastern Conference Finals. Delonte West returned to action after missing five weeks because of a fractured right wrist and he scored a game-high (and season-high) 25 points, including 20 in the first half alone. Allen Iverson led Detroit with 14 points.

LeBron James added 20 points, nine assists and five rebounds in just 31 minutes as he once again enjoyed the luxury of sitting out the fourth quarter as the Cavs built a huge lead. On the heels of a season-high 55 point performance versus Milwaukee in which he scored 24 third quarter points, made eight straight shots, shot 16-29 from the field and connected on 8-11 from three point range, James came back to Earth a bit, shooting 6-13 from the field and 0-3 from behind the arc. Even after his remarkable shooting display against the Bucks, James is shooting .313 from three point range this season, making this the fourth straight year that his three point percentage has declined (though this year’s decline is minimal). James has improved his free throw shooting to a career-high .773 but his midrange jumper and three point shot are still erratic. His performance against Milwaukee must have sent a cold sweat down the spines of a lot of NBA players and coaches, though, because if he ever becomes a consistent midrange jump shooter and improves his three point stroke then, as my man Delvis Valentine would say, you can ring the bell and school is out: the only hope that defenders have now is to concede James the jump shot and try to keep him out of the paint but once James extinguishes that hope on a regular basis he will not only be clearly the best player in the league but he will essentially be unguardable. That Milwaukee game provided a glimpse of a possible future that must be absolutely terrifying to anyone who has to guard James and/or devise a game plan to stop him.

Tayshaun Prince opened the scoring with a nice postup move versus James but the Cavs soon took command with a 15-0 run midway through the first quarter. Remarkably, the Pistons never seriously threatened after that, a highly unusual occurrence considering that the 48 minute NBA game is more of a marathon than a sprint. Basically, the final 40 minutes of the game were what Marv Albert likes to call “extensive gar-bage time.”

Detroit played with no energy or effort at either end of the court. Coach Michael Curry lamented to ESPN’s Ric Bucher, “We look like we don’t know each other and we don’t like each other.” It is easy to try to pin the blame for Detroit’s problems on the trade that shipped out Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess (who re-signed with the Pistons after a 30 day waiting period) to Denver for Iverson but Iverson is leading the Pistons in minutes, scoring, assists and steals; he is not playing poorly and is not the reason that the Pistons have become so inept. If any one move can be blamed, it is the decision to bench Richard Hamilton and install Rodney Stuckey as the starting point guard; despite a slow start during the month that McDyess was not with the team, the Pistons had a 23-17 record on January 19 and were still in contention for the fourth playoff seed. However, since that time–with Stuckey starting and Hamilton coming off of the bench–the Pistons have gone 4-10, including their current six game losing streak. The reality is that the Pistons have not replaced Billups with Iverson; they replaced Billups with Stuckey, shifted Iverson to Hamilton’s starting spot and turned Hamilton into a sixth man.

It is breathtaking to consider how quickly and completely the balance of power has shifted in the Eastern Conference. In 2006, the Pistons were coming off of an NBA Finals appearance, posted the best regular season record in the NBA and beat the Cavs in seven games in the East semis before falling to the Heat. In 2007, the Pistons had the best record in the East but lost to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year, the Pistons posted the second best record in the East but could not get past the powerful Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, the Pistons rank seventh in the East and are just 1.5 games ahead of eighth seeded Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, during that same three year period the Celtics and Magic have improved from being sub-.500 teams to being a championship team and a strong playoff squad respectively, while the Cavs have ended a seven year playoff drought by making three straight postseason trips, with a fourth one clearly on the horizon this spring. Not too long ago, the Cavs were struggling to figure out how to beat the Pistons but now Detroit is nothing but an afterthought as the Cavs focus on being prepared for likely playoff showdowns with Boston and possibly Orlando.

Lebron Drops 55 Points over Bucks, Cavaliers win (111-103)

Lebron JamesLebron James put on one of his tremendous offensive displays of his career and it was probably one of the most entertaining games  behind Game 5 of the Conference final at Detroit two years ago.

He nearly broke his own franchise scoring record with 55 points, one shy of his 2005. He did break the Bradley Center opponent record.

The show started in final second of the first half when Lebron James shoot a 3-pointer to end the half. Then the third quarter started and he scored 16 point in 2:50 minutes.

He made eight consecutive shots. six of them 3-pointers and all of those from several feet behind the line. These are the kind of shots that Cavaliers fans cringe and say “NO” but then it goes in. They are also know as the “heat-check” jumpers. Overall, he hit on a career-high eight 3-pointers, which tied a franchise record held by Danny Ferry and Wesley Person.

“I just got in a zone; I just kept on going at it, man,” James said. “Every shot I made, we needed it. That stretch is probably top two for me, this performance and in the Palace in Game 5.”

“You have to give LeBron his due during that time period, too,” Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. “He hit some shots 3 or 4 feet behind the 3-point line.”

With Cleveland leading 92-89 with 6:54 remaining, Villanueva took a hard foul on the Anderson Varejao by grabbing his face and knocking him down to the floor. Ilgauskas went after Villanueva and a shoving match started, with officials assessing a flagrant foul-2 on Villanueva and ejecting him.

Ilgauskas was called for a technical foul and initially was ejected as well, but officials allowed him to stay in after a review.

“I thought the way that he fouled Andy was unnecessary, and I was trying to protect my teammate,” Ilgauskas said. “After that, he grabbed me by the throat, the whole melee went down.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a quarter like that from anybody,” Brown said. “And I’ve been in the NBA since 1992.”

Mo Williams, who had 23 points including 18 in the second half, when he and James put on an amazing offensive play. Williams put out a couple hard picks and then was floored by a Dan Gadzuric elbow.

Joe Smith can be a viable option for the Cavaliers

The trade deadline has passed without the Cavs making any moves. But that doesn’t mean the Cavaliers can’t add to their roster before April.

According to Brian Windhorst, “former Cav Joe Smith, who was traded to the Hornets before the deal was rescinded Wednesday, is expected to seek a buyout from the Thunder within the next week. Though reports have indicated the Boston Celtics will pursue Smith, a league source said if Smith can get a buyout, he will consider the Cavs. In December, Smith said he’d have interest in going back to Cleveland if he became a free agent.”

Joe Smith would be a great addition to the Cavaliers. He played big minutes for the Cavaliers last season during the playoffs and can shoot the ball and rebound. He knows the system and understand Mike Brown’s defense first philosophy.

Ather big men might also be available. The Cavs may consider Earl Barron, a versatile big man who played for the Miami Heat last season as a free agent.

Also, yesterday Sacramento Kings released veteran big man Mikki Moore.

The Cavaliers have $5.1 million left from their mid-level exception and can be used to go after free-agents.

Sometimes the Best Trades are the Ones You Don’t Make

cavaliers_pregameAlthough the prospect of teaming up Vince Carter or Shaquille O’Neal with LeBron James sounds exciting on the surface, in the long run Cavs’ fans will be happy that those proposed/speculated/rumored deals did not happen; the trade deadline has passed without the Cavs making any moves.

The Cavs are 41-11 this season, 12 games ahead of their record at the same time in the 2007-08 season; even though last season’s record is deceptively poor due to the Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic holdouts, it is obvious that the 2008-09 team has a better and deeper roster than any other squad in the LeBron James era. In order to acquire a big name player like Carter or O’Neal, the Cavs would have had to sacrifice a lot of that depth and that would entail a big risk, particularly considering the injury histories of those two players. While Carter could provide terrific scoring punch and O’Neal is obviously a huge presence in the paint, if the Cavs traded away several quality players and then their new star got hurt the Cavs suddenly would not be a viable championship contender at all. In contrast, the Cavs as they are currently constructed can survive an injury to any single player other than James.

It is also far from certain that Carter or O’Neal would fit in with the way that the Cavs play offensively or defensively. Carter is used to having the ball in his hands a lot and being isolated against his defender but the only person who is going to play that way for the Cavs is James; Carter would have to be a spotup shooter or else anchor the second unit and neither of those possibilities optimizes his talent. Although Carter is not as bad defensively as his reputation suggests, he is not as intense a defender on a nightly basis as Coach Mike Brown expects his players to be.

As for O’Neal, he notoriously clogs up the paint on offense, something which became a bone of contention both for Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and for Steve Nash currently in Phoenix; for a short period of time in Miami, O’Neal accepted a reduction in his role in order to maximize Dwyane Wade’s talents and win a championship but the delicate chemistry on that team soon imploded and the Heat endured one of the quickest and most stunning falls by any championship team that did not have its roster dismantled. If O’Neal is camped out on the left block then you can forget about seeing James swooping to the hoop and dunking, at least in the half court set; O’Neal on the block means James will be shooting more jump shots and that is the last thing that any Cavs fan should want to see.

Although O’Neal has a gregarious personality and made the most of being Bryant’s teammate in this year’s All-Star Game, O’Neal has had an acrimonious ending with every single team that he has played for in the NBA: he left Orlando on bad terms with Penny Hardaway and team management, he very famously left L.A. on bad terms with Bryant and team management and when he recently left Miami he did not speak highly of team management or the training staff that he alleged had not treated his injuries correctly. Team chemistry in Phoenix has noticeably gotten worse since O’Neal’s arrival last year and the team has already gone through two coaches in his brief time there. This is not to say that all of these negative situations were entirely O’Neal’s fault but it is beyond dispute that wherever O’Neal goes controversy is not too far behind, something that is not true of Tim Duncan, the other dominant big man who has won four championships in the post-Michael Jordan era.

Fans and even many so-called expert commentators do not seem to appreciate just how deep and well balanced the Cavs’ roster is—and there is a difference between being “deep” and “well balanced.” A “deep” team is one that has a large number of players who can competently play at least 10-15 mpg, while a “well balanced” team is one that has a large number of such players at each position. Consider the Cavs’ depth chart: the main “bigs”—Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao—play between 24 and 28 mpg, meaning that neither foul trouble nor fatigue is an issue. Also, rookie J.J. Hickson has shown that he can be productive in limited minutes.

Ilgauskas is a long player who is active on the boards, blocks shots, has a feathery shooting touch and is a good passer. Wallace is a four-time Defensive Player of the Year who is still a presence at that end of the court even though he has obviously lost a step. Varejao is an extremely active player whose energy and physicality make him an irritant to the opposing team. Ilgauskas can very effectively run pick and pop plays with James, while Varejao and James are a deadly pick and roll tandem, so much so that the Cavs run that action even in late, critical moments of playoff games. How many teams have a backup power forward/center who can be trusted to run pick and roll plays with the team’s star in crunch time? It is important to remember that the goal of the pick and roll play is not always necessarily to free up the screener or even the man with the ball; the result may very well be an open shot on the weak side for someone like Mo Williams or Daniel Gibson.

At the wing position (small forward/shooting guard), the Cavs have James, Wally Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic and Delonte West. Injuries to Pavlovic and West have made the Cavs a little thin here—which may explain why Carter’s name popped up in trade rumors—but James will always play 40-plus mpg in the playoffs and in a pinch the Cavs can either go big by moving him to shooting guard or go small by putting him at power forward. Adding Carter at the expense of giving up multiple players would not make the Cavs deeper or more balanced, though they would have more pure talent in their starting lineup (assuming that Carter stayed healthy).

At point guard, the Cavs have All-Star Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson and West (who can play either guard position). Of course, James leads the team in assists and is the de facto playmaker. As noted above, depending on matchups, the Cavs have the roster flexibility to go with a big lineup or a small lineup in which the normal positional designations do not apply.

Once Pavlovic and West return, the Cavs will have 10 players who can competently play at least 10-15 mpg and they will enjoy superior depth at each position compared to just about any other team in the NBA. Would the Cavs like to add one more dependable big man? Sure–and so would the Celtics, the Lakers and just about every other team in the NBA. Who would not like to add a solid big man, particularly if this could be done without much cost? The Cavs still have until March 1 to acquire a reserve big man via free agency.

The Cavs already have a championship caliber roster and therefore it should not be tampered with lightly.

The Cavaliers Remain Intact

It has been a day full with rumors and speculations but ultimately the Cavaliers stuck with their plan to stand pat at the NBA trading deadline.Wally Sczcerbiak was mentioned in most of the rumors but the biggest one that captured the media attention for most of the day was the Cavaliers interest in acquiring Shaquille O’Neal from the Phoenix Suns.

According to Cavaliers beat writer Brian Windhorst, the Cavaliers offered Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic for Shaquille O’Neal, but the Suns were asking for Szczerbiak. The Cavs then tried to find another team to get involved, but couldn’t make anything work.

If the Suns were willing to accept Wallace and Pavlovic, they would slice $5.5 million from next season’s books, as Wallace’s salary decreases from $14.5 million this season to $14 million in 2009-10 and because only $1.5 million of Pavlovic’s $5 million salary next season is guaranteed.
If the Cavaliers substituted Wallace with Szczerbiak and Pavlovic then Phoenix would erase $19.5 million from next season’s payroll.

“Szczerbiak said he had been a little bit nervous the last couple days and was reading newspaper and Internet reports. His reaction matched that of the rest of his teammates, who were lighthearted and joking around once the deadline finally came and went.”

Cavaliers stand pat – No trade

Wally Sczcerbiak sat and watched the giant digital clock inside the gym at Humber College this afternoon until it struck 3. Then he smiled and relaxed for the first time in what seemed like weeks.

Despite lots of talks and several potentially high-profile deals, the Cavaliers ultimately stuck with their plan to stand pat at the NBA trading deadline. The team was simply unwilling to give up any of its valued assets, and that turned out to be a stumbling block in getting any sort of major deals done.

Most of the talks today centered onund Phoenix center Shaquille O’Neal. It was thought the Cavs were offering Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, but the Suns were asking for Szczerbiak. The Cavs then tried to find another team to get involved, but couldn’t make anything work.

Szczerbiak said he had been a little bit nervous the last couple days and was reading newspaper and Internet reports. His reaction matched that of the rest of his teammates, who were lighthearted and joking around once the deadline finally came and went.


Bulls trade Nocioni, Gooden for Salmons, Miller

The Sacramento Kings are the latest NBA team to engage in cost-cutting moves that will pare money from the team’s books next season. The Kings agreed on Wednesday to a trade that sends forward John Salmons and center Brad Miller to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for forwards Drew Gooden and Andres Nocioni, according to league sources. The deal will reduce Sacramento’s obligations next season, saving the Kings millions on the salary cap and keeping them well under any potential luxury tax payments. Gooden, making $7.15 million this season, will likely come off the team’s cap after this year, and now, the team is free of the $5.4 million due to Salmons in 2009 and the $12 million due to Miller in ’09.