Hello: Shaquille O'Neal, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker, Leon Powe, Danny Green
Goodbye: Sasha Pavlovic, Joe Smith, Ben Wallace, Tarance Kinsey, Wally Szczerbiak, Lorenzen Wright
Last season: Finished 66-16, lost to the Orlando Magic 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals
Head coach: Mike Brown, fifth season. Career record: 211-117. Playoffs: 36-24
Finally, finally, basketball season is upon us again. With the '09 Indians dead, buried and forgotten, and the Browns with one foot already in the grave, it's time to reflect on the basketball season to come.
The Cavs did not stand pat after a record setting season in which they won 66 games and were dismissed unceremoniously from the playoffs by the revolting Orlando Magic. That series exposed some serious flaws in the team's makeup, including a lack of perimeter defensive size and the inability to defend a major low post scoring threat. The Cavs vaunted defense had no answer for the Magic, who scored at will all series long. Had they prevailed (and they might have, if not for blowing game one at home), the Lakers were waiting with the same set of challenges.
This season figures to play out in similar fashion. The Cavs will win many games, perhaps enough to take the Eastern Conference for the second year in a row. And here's the thing about that: while I believe the Cavs have gotten better, I'm not sure about the rest of the East.
The East's Elite
The Magic are, no doubt in my mind, the primary obstacle between the Cavs and the finals. In the Magic the Cavs ran into a perfect mismatch in the form of long, tall, sweet shooting perimeter players and a low post powerhouse who basically swatted our big men out of the way. What I can't for the life of me understand is why the Magic let their second best player, Hedo Turkoglu, get away. The guy basically dissected opponents throughout the playoffs with a high pick and roll and proved an impossible guard for everyone except the Lakers. Worse yet, who did they replace him with? That active member of the all-time fool's gold team, Vince Carter. This is a decided downgrade, though some are still drinking the Vince Kool-aid. I'll never forget the '07 playoffs against the Nets, when Sasha Pavlovic reduced him to a puddle of quivering goo.
I'm also not sure why Orlando let go of talented second year guard Courtney Lee. I do know they will be damned good regardless. Enough to win the East again? Doubt it.
By the way, Dwight Howard is possibly the dirtiest player in the league. Don't let his cornball off-court geniality fool you. The guy is dirty and, yes, I hate him.
The Celtics added erstwhile superstar Rasheed Wallace and all of a sudden have been reanointed by many the Team to Beat in the East. Forget the fact that it's been two years since Wallace has been interested in basketball, or any good. The Celtics didn't do themselves any favors by aging a year, either. The quartet of seniors citizens--Garnett, Pierce, Allen and Wallace--can't possibly stay healthy all season long without some sort of remarkable luck (never in short supply in Boston). With the exception of maybe Pierce, all of these guys are on a downward slide. Did you see that crew collectively run out of gas in the second round of the playoffs? Also not helping is that fact that, for a second consecutive year, the Celtics lost their best bench player. Last year it was James Posey. This year, Leon Powe. Super spazz Marquis Daniels won't quite measure up in that role, though he is a decent pickup.
Still, throw Rajon Rondo (one of the more odious Celtics in recent memory) into the mix, and this is a team that wins many, many games.
The Playoff Contenders
The main challengers most likely will be Miami, Chicago, Washington, Altanta, Philadelphia and, yes, Detroit. Not a one of them scares me.
PG: Mo Williams. The Cavs won 66 games last year largely because all-star Mo Williams brought a long-needed dimension: reliable scoring (18 PPG), competent playmaking and lights out shooting. And then? Then the Cavs lost to the Magic largely because Mo could not defend the perimeter, shoot or make plays. His floater abandoned him, and then went his willingness to drive to the hoop. Whatever confidence he had during the season seemed to whither as the playoffs progressed. Having watched Mo all season, and in seasons past, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and predict that postseason history won't repeat itself. The Mo Williams I watched in the regular season was fearless and gritty and always confident enough to take the next shot, certain it would go in. What he lacked was much playoff experience. That's all over. Time for Mo to take the next step. He is 26, just entering his prime. Let's hope he took those playoff failings personally.
SG: Delonte West. Delonte was arguably the Cavs' second best player in the playoffs last year. Though his size hurt him against Orlando, Delonte is strong, quick and committed to defense. Can he handle Vince Carter? Yes. Can he handle bipolar disorder? Based on last year's revelations that he was suffering from the disease and how he conducted himself afterwards, yes. That he was recently arrested for packing enough weaponry to outfit a small military unit indicates that he may have temporarily misplaced his medication. He's dealing with it. The Cavs are dealing with it. Bipolar disorder is a scary disease, and all parties are treating it as such. Expect Delonte to be ready to play once the season starts. He may not be in the starting lineup, but then that may not be such a bad thing.
Here's why we need him. He is a gifted athlete whose intelligence, speed and length bother the bejeezus out of opposing guards. He's blossomed into a capable shooter who keeps defenders honest enough that he can blow by them and make the pass to a cutting big man, or simply throw the ball down. He's also competitive as hell and will fill any role that results in a win. Will it continue to be a problem that, along with Mo, the Cavs start two undersized guards? Probably in the playoffs it will be, and that's why Delonte off the bench may not be a bad thing. Until further notice, he is the starting two.
C: Shaquille O'Neal
For the first time in 11 years, this slot will be occupied by someone other than the venerable Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Everyone, including Z, seems to be ok with that. Though 37 and every last ounce of a 325 pounder who has played a billion NBA minutes, Shaquille O'Neal is still a dominant force, and Dwight Howard won't be pushing him anywhere. No more one and two-foot baby hooks for the Magic center; Howard will have to work for his points, and he will also have to work on the defensive end too. Should he stray from his man to try and clog the paint, his man will be ramming the ball through the hoop every single time. I love Z, but he could never make Howard pay for cheating like O'Neal will be able to. I loved the effort Ben Wallace gave last year, but my mom might as well have been guarding Dwight Howard. Same story with Varejao. Can't do it. Won't have to.
This acquisition changes everything. The idea that O'Neal will somehow be getting in LeBron James' way is preposterous. O'Neal has 4 rings. He knows how to play basketball. Scoring, rebounding, passing, defending--the package is diminished, but firmly intact, as evidenced by last season's all-star play. I have been cursing O'Neal since I was 17 years old. Now I get to cheer for him. And guess what? He's motivated too. Can't wait to see this.
SF: LeBron James. Pairing the game's best player with one of the greatest centers in the history of the game will transform this team from a regular season wonder into a postseason monster.
The way I see it, there is one area in which LBJ could get vastly better: adding a low post game. Want to see a guy strong enough to back his man down? Want to see a guy skilled enough to demand a double team? Want to see a guy with great court vision pass out of the double team? That's LeBron. Happily, a low post game is exactly what LeBron has been working on all offseason, and it will make him complete. Paired with Shaq, it also makes the Cavs as tough as anyone in the block. LeBron is entering the beginning stages of his prime years. He wants to win. Watch out.
Look for him to nab a second straight MVP award, too.
PF: Anderson Varejao. The trio of Varejao, James and O'Neal will prove a formidable frontcourt, particularly on the defensive end. Anderson's main value on offense is his ability to roll to the hoop and finish. He is not a shooter and not much of a passer, but he's gotten better by degrees in each of these areas over the past few seasons. His improved shot selection is evidenced in a team high 53 percent field goal shooting. He'll never be great, but he's no longer a liability.
But let's be honest; we all know why he's out there. The team's most committed defender, his job is to get in the face and under the skin of opponents, grabbing rebounds all the while. Folks in the media snickered when Varejao was signed to what seemed an exhorbitent six-year contract. That noise has died down somewhat, partially because the deal is laden with incentives and mostly the dude is a damned good player. There are exactly three players left from the team that went to the finals in '07--James, Ilgauskas and Andy. This is no coincidence.
The Cavs bench was absolutely brutalized against the Magic and Mikael Pietrus in the conference finals, who outscored the Cavaliers reserves by himself for the whole series. Danny Ferry was not idle in directly addressing these concerns.
G: Anthony Parker. I love this signing. Parker is a knock down shooter with size who will buy right into Mike Brown's demand for defensive intensity. Parker is just the kind of player the Cavs were missing when Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis and Mikael Pietrus were shooting threes like they were layups during the ECFs. Though he's no spring chicken, he is a late bloomer who seems to have a lot left in the tank. Fans should also like his ability to create his own shot when the offense breaks down. Think of him as filling the role of Szczerbiak, only longer, quicker, less rickety and not terrible.
Parker has been a capable starter in the NBA. Don't be surprised to see him steal minutes when opponents exploit our short backcourt.
F: Jamario Moon. Another late bloomer. Another great signing! Seriously, I think we got this guy at just the right time. Always an emphatic dunker, Moon has been showing signs of maturity by displaying a (yes, it is ug-ly) competent three point shot. Not that we want him to stop running the break and throwing 'em down, which he will have ample opportunity to do. Most importantly, he is a rangy defender who would have given the Magic shooters something to think about last season.
C: Zydrunas Ilguaskas. Big Z is now a backup center. Think about this. Our best midrange jumpshooter. Our best offensive rebounder. The third best center in the East. Will he be traded during the middle of the season? His large expiring contract tells me...possibly? But I doubt a team with two aging centers will put all their eggs in one basket by dumping one of them.
*All right, here is where I take a bit of space to gush about Zydrunas Ilgauskas and why he belongs among the all time athletes ever to don a Cleveland jersey. When they drafted Ilgauskas, the Cavs acquired a rare talent. A blend of speed, agility and size that we had never seen in a Cavs uniform before. Three foot surgeries reduced this freakish athlete to a mere NBA all-star, the lone bright spot on a team that, until winning a draft lottery, had no prospect of winning except by grace of the talents of a towering Lithuanian center. McBone salutes you, Big Z, and hopes to see you remain and retire a Cavalier.
G: Daniel Gibson. I don't know. I just don't know. Boobie is perhaps the purest shooter since the days of Mark Price and Steve Kerr. Unfortunately, he is closer to Steve Kerr than Mark Price, and that means he is a shooter only. Except I don't think he's actually made a shot since the '07 finals. For two (injury marred) seasons, Gibson has displayed that he is only marginally better than me as a ballhandler, and his defense will never be strong. I have a feeling that this guy will fade into obscurity unless he can prove himself more durable and more capable of hitting a wide open shot. If he shoots less than 38 percent from behind the arc, he is basically useless to us.
F: J.J. Hickson. J.J. trained with LeBron all summer long. Smart move and a good way to ingratiate yourself with coaches who, more than anything, wanted to see hard work and maturity from their talented second-year forward. Combine that and his insane athleticism and you get THE player to watch this season. Should become a member of the rotation, provided coach is pleased with his defense and rebounding efforts. Added to his arsenal of low post moves (let's hope he can cut out the traveling calls) is a nifty 15-foot jumper--my absolute favorite shot in basketball. Hickson is also a gifted shot blocker who has shown flashes of the kind of defender he can be.
F: Darnell Jackson: In direct contrast to Hickson, Darnell Jackson is a hard-working big man with a very (based on last season) limited ceiling. A marginal rebounder, defender and shooter, Darnell's biggest asset may be his sheer size, but so far what I've seen is a guy who plays smaller than his height. He could have decent value as a bench defender, but I can't get too high on him in spite of his rugged, blue collar ethic. Perhaps I'm undervaluing him, but I don't think so.
F: Leon Powe. Maybe the most intriguing free agent signing in Danny Ferry's short tenure. Powe starts the season on the injured list due to another knee surgery, but he was a major force on Boston's championship team in '08. A nasty around the rim player, Powe absolutely destroyed the Cavs every time they played the Celts. I hated him then. By the time the playoffs roll around, he should be in top form. If he's close to the player he was before--a gritty rebounder, defender and low block scorer--the Celtics' loss will be the Cavs' gain.
G: Danny Green. The Cavs second round draft pick wasn't all that impressive in the summer league and he's been injured most of the preseason. I don't know what to expect from him, except that he's a long, athletic wing player. Whether he can duplicate his success at North Carolina at the next level remains to be seen, and it won't happen this season anyway.
F: Jawad Williams. I have a feeling this guy can be a serviceable role player in the NBA, I'm just hoping we don't see a lot of him this year.
Coach: Mike Brown. There is no nice way to put this: Mike Brown got the shit coached out of him by Orlando's Stan van Gundy last year, whose clever offensive schemes ran circles around the sets of his defense-minded counterpart. Brown couldn't have liked that. Making matters more complicated, offensive whiz John Kuester departs to assume head coaching duties in
Though they may not break as many records as they did last year, the Cavs will win in excess of 60 games, enough to easily capture the Central Division and possibly the East. They will beat the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals rematch, 4-2.
The Cavaliers will then end Cleveland's 46-year-old drought by winning the NBA finals, topping the Lakers in a legendary seven-game series.
And yes, LeBron James will stay in Cleveland, regardless of whether the Cavs win it all this year.