Tag Archives: Shaquille O’Neal

Cavaliers and Lebron are eager to start the Playoffs

Lebron James Shooting StarsThis is the first time the Cavaliers will face the Bulls in a playoffs series since the Michael Jordan era. It is also the time to erase a lot of bad memories for Cavaliers’ fans and Cavaliers’players.

Shaquille O’Neal will start at center, his first game since he injured his thumb on Feb 25. He is back 20 pounds lighter and in a much better shape than when he went down with an injury. He is also hungry to fulfill his goal of winning a Championship for the city of Cleveland and “win a ring for the King”.

“It’s a chance for me to do something special, personal-wise, city-wise, LeBron-wise and everybody wise,” Shaq said. “We have a pretty good shot at it. If we go out and do what we’re supposed to do, then we’ll be fine.”

Lebron James is more focused than ever before and ready to release “different monster”. He has been waiting for this day since the early exit last season when the Cavaliers lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference and Lebron stormed out the court with disgust.

“I’ve been waiting personally on this since Game 6 of the Orlando series,” James said. “It kind of hurts for a long time. You kind hold that in for all summer and all regular season to get back to this point. I’ll be happy Saturday when I get the opportunity to release it.”

Last week, James made a speech to his teammates, reminding them of what’s at stake.

“I basically just said this is the time,” he said. “This is what everyone was brought here for. This is what everybody worked hard in the offseason all year long. This is the time now. There’s no time to look backwards. It’s all about straight forward and just the vision of us winning an NBA championship.

“We want to win every series, we want to take every game like it’s our last. But our whole vision is to win an NBA championship and we have to believe it first.”

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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.

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.