Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cavaliers Dream Season. The End of Season Report and Playoff Preview

Waaay back in September I predicted the Cavs would win no fewer than 55 games this year. What I couldn't have predicted was how absurdly conservative that number was. Sixty-six wins later, the Cavs finish the regular season with the NBA's best record and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. They set records all over the place, including an outrageous 39-2 record at home that included a one-point final game loss to the 76ers in which Lorenzen Wright played 34 actual NBA minutes. Oh, and there were a few other milestones along the way:

66 wins. A franchise best by NINE games.

A team record 39 home wins (2nd best in NBA history).

A team record 27 road wins.

A team record 13 game winning streak.

I hope you enjoyed it, Cavs fans, because you may never experience a regular season like this one again.

What accounts for such a vast improvement over last year's 45-37 squad? Let's start with the easy answers.

LeBron James. Not only is he the MVP, he put up what is without question one of the 10 best seasons ever recorded by an NBA player. He is far and away the best player in the NBA now and he does it on both ends of the court. End of argument. Sit down and shut up. Oh, and yes he should be all-NBA defensive first team, in case you were wondering. (And to all you Dwayne Wade supporters out there: Wade earned raves this year for exactly the same situation that dropped LeBron to 4th in MVP voting last year. Great players leading weak teams to the playoffs. So why is the media drooling over Wade for winning 43 games when they criticized LeBron for winning 45 a year ago? Because the national media love Wade and, in fact, know absolutely NOTHING).

Mo Williams. The addion of Mo cannot be overstated. In Williams, the Cavs got a Mark Price-like shooter who is an absolute killer in clutch situations. He can get his shot off anytime and over anyone and he is a much better passer than his 4 assists per game would indicate. His beautiful, high arcing stroke is almost enough to make us forget the misery that was watching 'shooters' Damon Jones, Lucious Harris, Jiri Welch and JR Bremer try spread the floor over the past 5 years. And let's not forget the knuckleballs that Eric Snow, Milt Palacio, Smush Parker and Kevin Ollie subjected us to for far too long. Trading Damon Jones for Mo Williams should earn Danny Ferry the Executive of the Year honors that will probably go to the dude in Denver.

Anderson Varejao. He would be the 6th man of the year if he hadn't started so darned many games. Andy had a fitful season last year, but the injuries and the contract situation are behind him. Now I'm convinced that he should be the Cavs' starting 4 for the next 8 years at about 10 million per annum. At his best, Anderson is the most disruptive defensive force in the NBA. His offense improves every season, he has perfect chemistry with LeBron and he is an absolute fan favorite. Pay. Him. Now.

And here are some less obvious reasons why the Cavs won 66.

Combo guard Delonte West. Usually 'combo guard' is a euphemism for 'can't really play any position well.' Remember Dajuan Wagner? Well, that rule doesn't apply in this case. The understated D-West has been as devastating at the 2 as Mo has been at the point. Analysts like to comment on how unselfish Delonte is. They call him an X factor. They praise him for putting team first and doing everything well. You know what? They're right. But he doesn't just do everything well. He has exceeded everyone's expectations one hundred fold and more with his passing (he's basically a second point guard out there), rebounding, shooting and, particularly, defending. Credit Danny Ferry for not casting Delonte off when Mo came to town. I thought the guy was ancient history. The Cavs should be praised for letting him play his true position.

Big Z's D. He remains among the most underrated players in the game, a center who can shoot, post up, rebound and, lately, bury a corner three. You have to see him play every day to know that he defends the paint waaaay better than people give him credit for. Trivia: What team had the best defense in the league? If you said the Cavs, you're right. You can't have the best defense without having a rock-solid anchor in the middle. That's Z.

Depth. The Cavs had a lot of injuries this season, with Z, Delonte, Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic all missing significant chunks of time. They kept winning because someone always filled a role with aplomb, whether it was Sasha (yes, I have a crush on the guy, but I really think he's going to get some serious minutes in the playoffs because he's way better than Boobie Gibson or Wally Szczerbiak guarding the perimeter, which is vital in the postseason) filling in for Delonte (12-2 record in those games btw), Anderson for Big Ben or Z, Wally for Sasha (and vice-versa), and so on and so forth. Holes appeared, as they will in any season. They were plugged on almost every occasion.

Mike Brown. The Cavs coach deserves credit for his defense, which should prove spirit-breaking in the postseason, but Brown's best coaching this season may have been the coaching he didn't do. Putting ego aside for the sake of the team, he allowed his assistants to address a notoriously uneven offense. 66 wins later, the payoff is obvious. Does he deserve Coach of the Year for doing less? Who cares? All Mike Brown wants is the ring.

2009 Playoff Preview. Round One: Cavs vs. Pistons

Few people knew it at the time, but the Pistons reign of terror in the Eastern Conference came to an end in 2007, when Daniel Gibson shot them into oblivion in game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. Sure they made the ECFs a year ago, but who the hell was going to stop them? This year, after trading away their best player and trying to operate with a me-first scorer on a traditionally team-first franchise, they drag a 39-43 record to the playoffs. Iverson is done, so here are the matchups:

PG: Mo Williams vs. Rodney Stuckey. After trading Billups, Stuckey was handed the starting PG duties. He responded by proving himself a perfectly capable backup. There were stretches this season when Stuckey looked completely lost, and now he will be called on to handle one of the premier lead guards in the game. Some point to Williams' lack of playoff experience. I say, if you watched the dude play all season, if you saw him thrive late in games like I did, then you know he's not real prone to the jitters. Stuckey has talent, yes. He has had some big games, sure. Mo Williams should gobble this guy up all series long. Advantage: Mo

SG: Delonte West vs. Richard Hamilton. Hamilton remains a handful for any defender with his constant movement, ability to score in bunches and that idiotic facemask, but he'd better be ready to have a younger and extremely hungry Delonte West draped over him at all times. Hamilton probably also remembers 2007, when Sasha Pavlovic bumped and bothered him relentlessly for 6 games. The bottom line is: the guy can play; he'll get his points, but he's not going to carry a team through a playoff series by himself. Oh yeah, and Hamilton has the arduous and uneviable task of guarding West during his career season, lest we forget. Advantage: Even.

SF: LeBron James vs. Tayshaun Prince. See 2007 Eastern Conference finals. LeBron will soon be accepting Tayshaun's manhood, which the Pistons forward will hand over on a silver platter. Advantage: LBJ

PF: Anderson Varejao vs. Antonio McDyess. These are two fierce competitors. Only one of them is over the hill. McDyess is still a decent player, a good rebounder with a reliable jumper. That said, Varejao is going to absolutely torture him and, actually, this whole team. I can't wait until he and Rasheed Wallace match up. Advantage: Andy, by a mile and a half.

C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas vs. Rasheed Wallace. As the Rasheed goes, so go the blah, blah, blah. Look, everyone knows what Rasheed brings to the table. When he's on his game, he is a force who can post up, defend and hit back-breaking threes. At his worst, he is a flesh eating virus that will quickly spread through the locker room consume his team. He has not been on his game all season. At this point he is much more likely to have a nuclear meltdown than a double-double. Big Z brings the same competitive fire, only without the imbecility. Rasheed's flagrant elbow to Z's dome four seasons ago remains one of the dirtiest, most cowardly plays you'll ever see in a professional sport.

Advantage: Z.

Bench. Joe Smith, Daniel Gibson, Wally Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic (I'm assuming that Ben Wallace will see little or no action in this round) vs. Aaron Afflalo, Will Bynum, Kwame Brown, Jason Maxiell and Walter Herrmann. Here's where things get even more brutal. How bad does Jason Maxiell have to be that he loses minutes to Kwame freaking Brown? Honestly, who among these Detroit backups scares you? Afflalo and his 4.9 ppg? Will Bynum and his 7.2? I thought not. Now, I'm not going to sit here and say that the Cavalier bench is flawless. They rely pretty heavily on some streaky shooters and questionable ballhandling (yeah, you, Boobie). That said, it is very, very unlikely that all three of these bench guards will be cold at one time. All have extensive playoff experience that the Pistons bench does not have to match. Remember, Sasha Pavlovic is buried on the bench right now, who not long ago was starting in the NBA finals. And then there is Joe Smith. Ah, Joe Smith, with his long arms, feathery touch and lock-down defensive presence. Joe Smith, who grabs offensive boards in traffic. Joe Smith, who sat out most of the season and is rested. Joe Smith, who contributes off the bench no matter how many minutes he is asked to play. The Pistons have no one who can touch this guy, and don't be surprised if you see him teamed with Varejao late in the fourth quarter. Advantage: Cavs, by 47 light years.

Coach: Mike Brown vs. Michael Curry. This is one of the bigger mismatches of the series. Curry has had trouble corralling his team from day one, and the rookie coach was in way over his head with the tiresome Iverson drama that lasted a whole season. And let's not forget how well he and Rasheed have gotten along. Mike Brown counters with 3 years of postseason experience and some of the best defensive schemes in the NBA. Mike Brown has never lost in the first round. Don't be surprised if Curry is jettisoned by his team when the season ends for Detroit. Advantage: Brown.

Prediction: The Pistons suck and have no business in this postseason. I'm pretty sure they don't even want to be here. I foresee a physical first game that will end nonetheless in a sizable Cavalier victory. Wallace will mentally check out for the season sometime in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, and his team will quickly follow. I suppose this scrap heap of a team can steal a win at home, but I doubt it. My real hope is they care so little about this series that they will spare us the cheap shots that are a longtime trademark of Pistons basketball. Ultimately, the Cavaliers are hungry, loaded, well-coached, and they have the greatest single talent in the NBA, who all season has been in an athletic state of grace. That spells trouble for the lads from Detroit.

The Cavs win this series 4-0.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amen Brother! Love the CAVS! Just ordered myself an old school shirt for the playoff run with the logo from the Mark Price days.....cant wait! JSF