The Evolution of Cleveland’s Roster Since 2007

In 2007, the Cavaliers surprised many pundits—but not this writer—by making it to the NBA Finals, where a veteran San Antonio Spurs team promptly swept them. The Cavs had perhaps reached the championship round “a year early,” but rather than stand pat to see if that group could return to the Finals, General Manager Danny Ferry soon blew up the roster, adding more depth and versatility. Injuries and holdouts prevented the Cavs from completely jelling in 2008 but the new unit–buoyed by the addition of Mo Williams—posted the best record in the NBA in 2009 and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

True to form, this summer Ferry has again made aggressive moves to strengthen the roster, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Parker while discarding Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic. Joe Smith and Wally Szczerbiak are not certain to be back; youngsters J.J. Hickson, Tarence Kinsey and Darnell Jackson could work their way into the rotation and/or Ferry may yet make additional trades/free agent signings.

Now is a good time to take a detailed look at exactly how significantly Ferry has changed Cleveland’s roster since the team’s 2007 trip to the NBA Finals.

Here are the top 10 players in Cleveland’s playoff rotation from the past three years (based on mpg):

2007 Playoffs

LeBron James 44.7 mpg

Larry Hughes 35.5 mpg

Zydrunas Ilgauskas 32.5 mpg

Sasha Pavlovic 30.8 mpg

Drew Gooden 30.3 mpg

Anderson Varejao 22.4 mpg

Daniel Gibson 20.1 mpg

Eric Snow 12.8 mpg

Damon Jones 12.6 mpg

Donyell Marshall 10.7 mpg

2008 Playoffs

LeBron James 42.5 mpg

Delonte West 34.8 mpg

Zydrunas Ilgauskas 30.2 mpg

Wally Szczerbiak 28.8 mpg

Daniel Gibson 25.8 mpg

Ben Wallace 23.4 mpg

Joe Smith 20.2 mpg

Anderson Varejao 18.5 mpg

Sasha Pavlovic 13.9 mpg

Devin Brown 11.5 mpg

2009 Playoffs

Delonte West 42.2 mpg

LeBron James 41.4 mpg

Mo Williams 38.6 mpg

Anderson Varejao 30.0 mpg

Zydrunas Ilgauskas 29.1 mpg

Joe Smith 16.7 mpg

Wally Szczerbiak 12.8 mpg

Ben Wallace 12.6 mpg

Daniel Gibson 12.3 mpg

Sasha Pavlovic 8.3 mpg

Cleveland’s increased depth has enabled the coaching staff to give more rest to LeBron James, whose playoff mpg decreased from a team-high 44.7 mpg in the 2007 playoffs to 42.5 mpg in the 2008 playoffs to 41.4 mpg in last season’s playoffs, when James ranked second to Delonte West. Starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas has also seen his minutes decline slightly as forward/center Anderson Varejao assumed a much more significant role. Daniel Gibson made a name for himself with his clutch shooting in 2007 and moved up to fifth in playoff mpg in 2008, but injuries—and the addition of Mo Williams–limited Gibson to just 12.3 mpg in the 2009 playoffs. James, Ilgauskas, Varejao and Gibson are the only players who ranked in the top ten in playoff mpg for the Cavs each of the past three seasons.

Larry Hughes was James’ “sidekick” in 2007, first playing shooting guard and then shifting to point guard so that Sasha Pavlovic could start at shooting guard. When injuries sidelined Hughes in the last two games of the Finals, Gibson started at point guard. Just two years later, both Hughes and Pavlovic are no longer on the roster and Delonte West is firmly entrenched as the starting shooting guard.

One obvious indicator of just how much depth Ferry has added to the roster is that Pavlovic and Gibson combined to average more than 50 mpg for the 2007 Finalists but barely played 20 mpg in last year’s playoffs. The 2007 and 2008 teams did not have a legitimate, top flight point guard, but the 2009 squad featured Mo Williams, who earned his first All-Star selection; Williams may not be a prototypical pass first point guard but—unlike Hughes—Williams is not playing out of position and he is a much better long range shooter than Hughes.

Three of the top six players from the 2007 playoff rotation—including Hughes plus two players who started in the Finals, Pavlovic and Gooden—are no longer on the team; in 2009, their roles were filled by Williams, West and Varejao. The signing of free agent Anthony Parker means that the Cavs are deeper than ever on the perimeter, as Williams, West and Parker are all proven shooters. West and Parker are also good defenders, while Williams—who was not previously known for his defense—earned raves from the coaching staff last year for his work at that end of the court.

The Cavs’ three man rotation of bigs changed from Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao in 2007 to Ilgauskas-Wallace-Smith in 2008 to Varejao-Ilgauskas-Smith in 2009. With the addition of Shaquille O’Neal this summer, Cleveland’s new three man rotation of bigs will be O’Neal-Ilgauskas-Varejao. The talent upgrade since 2007 is clearly evident:  O’Neal will have more of an impact than Gooden did and Varejao is a better player now than he was in 2007, while Ilgauskas has remained consistently productive for the past several years. The only cautionary note regarding the frontcourt is that under Ferry’s watch this group is getting older (Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao had an average age of just under 27 in 2007, while O’Neal-Ilgauskas-Varejao have an average age of more than 32); it remains to be seen if Ferry will be able to draft/acquire/develop adequate younger replacements for O’Neal and Ilgauskas.

During last year’s playoffs, TNT commentator Mike Fratello noted that the Cavs had at least 10 players on their roster who had been starters for playoff teams at one point in their careers. That statement is still true now but the current Cavs team matches up better—at least on paper—with the league’s other top contenders such as the Lakers, Magic and Celtics. If Ferry succeeds in prying restricted free agent Jamario Moon away from the Miami Heat, then the Cavs will add yet another player to the mix who has started for a playoff team and has the length and athletic ability to defend top notch wing players.

Published by Luke Ross

Luke Ross, is the founder of Luke grew up watching and playing soccer but his heart was always in Basketball. Luke arrived in Cleveland in 1993 and turned into a Cavaliers fan since.