Monday, September 22, 2008

Cavaliers 2008-09 Season: The McBone Preview

Team Capsule

Hello: Mo Williams, J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson, Lorenzen Wright, Tarance Kinsey, Ronald Dupree(???)

Goodbye: Damon Jones, Joe Smith, Devin Brown, Billy Thomas

Last season: Finished the regular season 45-37. Lost 4-3 to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Coach: Mike Brown. Career record: 145-101. Playoffs: 26-20


Here's the thing about last season for the Cleveland Cavaliers: it stunk. The trouble started with the ludicrous holdouts of Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic (thanks, agents), was exacerbated by myriad injuries and culminated with a late season trade that, yes, rid us of Larry Hughes, but also never allowed the team to gel. The sum of the equation was a seventh-game, second-round exit from the playoffs. But for all that, the Cavs gave the eventual NBA-champion Celtics all they could handle. If not for a horrid 2-18 shooting night from LeBron James in game one, the Cavs might have been hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy. Alas, that is ancient history.

This year is already shaping up quite differently. The Cavs signed free agent guards Delonte West and Daniel Gibson to multi-year deals and avoided any messy holdouts. What's more, everyone is healthy entering camp. Danny Ferry drafted and signed an intriguing pair of rookies. LeBron James, coming off a gold medal olympic run, is primed for another trip deep into the playoffs. The icing on top is a major offseason aquisition that could prove the missing piece of the puzzle. To get where they want to be, however, the Cavs will have to get through an Eastern Conference that has mostly gotten better:

The East's Elite

The Celts earned the title "team to beat" after an historic season and a hard-fought trip to the finals. I hate Paul Pierce, but he had an amazing game 7 against LBJ and Co. I'll give him that. Still, how far can this team ride the big three? I believe that depends on Ray Allen, who has declined.

The Pistons remain a aging but viable threat. I think. Maybe. Maybe they're too old. They have to get too old someday, right? Maybe this is the year they fail to make the ECFs.

The Sixers are young and explosive and added a star in Elton Brand. Paired with all-time underrated point guard Andre Miller, this team is legitimate.

The Magic will win a lot of games as usual, but Dwight Howard needs to get better to deserve his nickname.

The Wizards will lose to the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs. Again.

The Raptors took a chance on Jermaine O'Neal, and I don't think it will pay off. If it does, though, an O'Neal-Bosh frontcourt is scary.

Scrubby playoff contenders

The Heat. Are a healthy Dwayne Wade and Shawn Marion enough to propel this squad to the playoffs? They very well may be.

The Bulls were a mess last year, but may rally around their new point guard. I'm not betting on them.

The Bucks swapped Yi for Richard Jefferson. Big deal. They will struggle to make the postseason.

The Hawks had a rough summer losing Josh Childress. They are, in my opinion, going to take a step back.

The garbage

The Bobcats, Pacers, Nets and Knicks are lottery-bound scrubs for sure.

Now, let's take a look at the Cavs roster, position-by-position.

Starting Five

PG: Mo Williams. In a major coup, Danny Ferry excised perennial loudmouth Damon Jones and Joe Smith for Milwaukee's Mo Williams. Damon Jones' tenure with the Cavs is mercifully over. While he may have hit a big shot here and there, I don't think anyone will lament Damon's missed jumpers or his annual, late-season benching for lax defense. Joe Smith is another story. I never realized what a sweet player Smith was until he was in a Cavs uniform. The Cavs will miss his jumper, his rebounding, his defense and just his general presence on both ends of the floor. Still, you'd trade an aging Smith for a young Maurice Williams a thousand times without hesitating.

And in Williams, the Cavs finally have their point guard. I spent a lot of time hating Mo Williams while he absolutely killed the Cavs all last season. Now he brings his 17 points and 7 assists to a team desperate to add another playmaker. Know what? Williams is a good rebounder too at the guard spot. While his detractors say he won't fit into Mike Brown's defense-first philosophy, I beg to differ. This kid is an athlete. He can learn. He'll fit in or LeBron James will have his head roasted and served on a platter with rosemary potatoes.

And the best part of this pickup is that Williams is only 25. His best years will coincide with James'.

I love this move no matter how you look at it. Williams brings a hefty contract, but if you look at his production, the dollar amounts are right on.

SG: Delonte West. While Williams and West are really both combo guards, Williams is the better ballhandler/distributor, while West is better suited at the two. I was never a West fan until I saw his gritty play in the playoffs last year when he seemed to make strides as a player as the games got more intense. West will sell out on defense, hit a clutch three, drive to the hoop, and make a nice pass. He does nothing great, but everything pretty darn well. While I'd prefer Sasha Pavlovic in this role because of his size and sheer ability, Sasha has to start living up to his talent before he gets his job back.

Delonte and Mo in the backcourt give the Cavs two guards who can bring the ball up floor and get the offense going. Put them together with LBJ and watch the offense take off.

C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Sportwriters just love to say that LeBron needs a Robin to compliment his Batman. I say, what about Big Z? I don't care what the national media writes about Ilgauskas' age, or slowness, or frailty. All of it is bollocks. Big Z is coming off his finest season as a pro, notching a career high in rebounding and continuing to be one of the most talented offensive centers in the Eastern Conference, all at the age of 32. Ilguaskas will give his team 14 points and 8 rebounds per contest and will antagonize oppenents all day with his offensive rebounding. No one in the league is a better tip artist than Z, and that 10-18 foot jumper is, as ever, automatic.

SF: LeBron James. James has already been anointed the next MVP by ESPN, which doesn't mean much. That he hasn't already won the trophy shows what a farce it is. Anyway, in LeBron the Cavs have, simply put, the most talented and, yes, best player in the NBA. Always a beast with the ball in his hands, the addition of Williams will allow LeBron to play off the ball, maybe even post up more. James is an excellent rebounder too and an absolutely terrifying defender. I don't know if I've ever seen a player defend the fast break better than LeBron did all last year. Ask anyone who never saw LeBron coming until after he swatted their easy layup into the tenth row from behind.

Basicallly, the entire season depends on LBJ staying healthy, which hasn't been much of a problem in the past. While the addition of Mo Williams may reduce his offensive numbers, you can still pencil in 28,7,7 on a nightly basis. Throw in defense and leadership and you have your MVP.

PF: Ben Wallace. Everyone knows that Big Ben has lost more than a step. At 34, he's slower and doesn't seem to be able to jump at all anymore. That said, Wallace did help the Cavs when he was acquired just before the trade deadline. He defended Kevin Garnett admirably in the playoffs and created a lot of problems for opposing offenses with those long arms and quick hands. If Wallace's back holds up this season, he will be a valuable presence in the starting five, an intimidator whose length and knack for the ball can still wreak havoc.

Still, Ben is indisputably on the downside of a great career. His free throw shooting makes him a fourth quarter liability. Look for him to start games and give around 20 minutes. He won't see too much fourth quarter action, I predict.

Sixth Man: F/C Anderson Varejao. Varejao's name comes up almost every time in discussions of a midseason trade. I don't think the Cavs have any intention of trading the Brazilian big man. Yes, he had a frustrating, sometimes maddening season last year. But people forget that before suffering a bad ankle injury, Varejao was easily, easily the Cavs' second best player. While he brought his trademark rebounding and defense off the bench, he also provided a nice jumper and a great ability to finish around the hoop. All that changed after 1) a high ankle sprain, when he lost much mobility, and 2) the acquisition of Joe Smith, when he lost his mind and suddenly thought he was Earl Monroe.

Now Anderson is healthy and, from all indications, happy. Smith is gone. Drew Gooden (whose baseline jumper will be missed, if not his tendency to space out) is gone. Wallace is old. Hickson and Jackson are very young. If the Cavs have a weakness, it's depth in the frontcourt. Varejao will get 35+ minutes a night at the 4 and 5. His play will largely determine how far the Cavs go this year.


G: Daniel Gibson.
I hope the addition of Mo Williams means that Daniel Gibson is done running the offense, which he does passably, sort of. Boobie's great talent is spotting up for jumpers and and hitting teardrops in the lane. After only two seasons in the league, he has made a bunch of big time, high-pressure, clutch playoff threes. He too was struck by the injury bug last season, but Gibson is fearless and one of LeBron's very favorites, so him staying healthy is critical.

G: Sasha Pavlovic. For three seasons I've been expecting Sasha to explode into the player I know he can be. There have been flashes, to be sure. Last year he did himself no favors by holding out and missing training camp. Then he suffered a sprained foot and never seemed to find a rhythm at all. Still, he remains a tantalizing piece. At 6'7", 240, he is a real physical specimen, one who bangs regularly with LeBron in practice. He's known for his offense, but he's really a gifted defender, a lock-down type player with a mean streak when he puts his mind to it. Let's hope this is the year Sasha learns how to finish at the hoop and to stroke his jumper at about 45 percent. Ideally, he is the starting shooting guard, just like he was when the Cavs went to the finals in '07.

G: Wally Szczerbiak. A fan favorite, an Ohio boy, Wally will be one of three guards called up from the bench and asked to burn on offense. In spite of last season's inconsistency, Wally is a career 50% shooter and there is no reason why he can't do the same as a Cavs backup. He is also one of three guys who will be looked at as a starter at the two. His poor defense isn't as bad as advertised (he made Ray Allen all but disappear in the playoffs), but he's not going to keep up with the quicker twos and threes in the league, which is why he belongs on the bench. If anyone is trade bait this season, it's Wally and his outrageous and expiring 13 million dollar contract.

F: J.J. Hickson. Few Cavs fans knew much about Hickson when he was drafted out of North Carolina State. After a standout summer league performance, expectations are high for this young forward, who led his conference with a 59% shooting percentage. The Cavs will take it slow with Hickson, but hopes are high for what looks like a first-round steal.

F: Darnell Jackson. The Cavs had the future in mind when they drafted Hickson. Same goes for Jackson, another big man with a big upside. Jackson made a major leap his senior year at Kansas, but he is raw and could see time in the D. League.

F: Lorenzen Wright. A career underachiever, the Cavs added Wright as an insurance policy. If he gets minutes, it means the Cavs are in a blowout or there have been some major injuries.

C-F: Dwayne Jones. Dwayne Jones is one of these guys who is always just a step behind. He has good size and a good work ethic, but unfortunately he is a bit short in the talent department. Because of injuries, he was pressed into action WAY too much last season. Let's hope that doesn't happen again. Please.

G: Tarance Kinsey. I don't know much about Kinsey, other than he's a young, athletic guard who won't get many minutes.

F: Ronald Dupree. This journeyman forward is expected to sign with the Cavs, and I'm not sure why they want him.

G: Eric Snow. Will never play another game in the NBA. Still on the Cavs roster, riding out that decades-long contract he signed before I was born.

C: Lance Allred. Will be cut soon.

Head Coach: Mike Brown. I love Mike Brown. I love his defensive, let's-win-in-the-playoffs-when-it-counts mindset. He won't win any awards for his offense, and who cares? All he's done in three seasons of coaching is win as many playoff series (5) and two fewer playoff games (26) than all other Cavs coaches combined. Critics have long bemoaned his unsophisticated offense, and not always without justification, but the addition of the dynamic Williams is certain to mask some of his shortcomings in ways that Larry Hughes never could.

Prediction. This is the year of the Cavalier, the year it all comes together. The Cleveland curse will be broken; the drought will end. The Cavs will win no fewer than 55 games, capture their division (for once) and they will beat the New Orleans Hornets in the NBA finals in 6 games. LeBron James is the real deal, a leader, a superstar and a champion in the making. Now he has a crew that can help him get there.

Go Cavs!



Anonymous said...

Good post, Nate.

The Cavs have got a great chance this year. At least, contenders for the Eastern Conference finals. However, if they screw this year up playing mediocre through the regular season, I think we might be hearing whispers of LeBron making the move to NY.

I'm looking forward to this C's season as well.

Can they do it again?

Will KG unleash himself from his shackles now that he's won a ring?

Can they make Darius Miles replace James Posey?

Will Tony Allen's knee hold together?

Can PP stay away from wheelchairs?

Or will Ray Allen begin the season in one?

And, most importantly, will Doc Rivers try for a twelve man rotation this year?

Big questions remain.

I have the C's and Cavs meeting in the E. Conf. Finals. Whoever wins that will either face Utah or New Orleans in the finals.


Nate and Jeff Bowler, Co-Captains said...

Darius Miles? He was a Cav when our guys won 17 games. He is an absolutely awful basketball player.

Otherwise the Celts are sitting pretty. The best thing they have going for them is Rondo's growth into a fine PG. He could make people not notice R. Allen's decline.

PP can go to hell.

They fall to the Cavs in 6 in the ECFs.

Anonymous said...

Rondo needs a better jumpshot (and not those floaters he got away with during the finals). Perkins will definitely be an animal on the boards this year. And Miles, well, we'll have to wait ten games into the season to see his worth.