As teams gear-up for a new season, we present Profiles In X-Factordom: Where unsung and potentially important players get their shine.
The Cavaliers have managed to have the best player in the Eastern Conference for a few years now, but have never really come all that close to fielding a roster that could, on paper, compete at a championship level.
However, with the acquisition of Mo Williams, who is not only the most proven scorer the Cavs have acquired in the LeBron James era but fills the team’s dire need for someone else who can create shots, the Cavaliers are closer than ever to having a roster that is good enough not only to have a chance against any team in a 7-game series but could actually run with the league’s elite for the full 82.
With Williams now holding down the point, Cleveland’s rep company of elite defense-and-rebounding mavens giving the Cavaliers extremely strong production in the front-court, and LeBron at the 3, the Cavs’ gaping holes are a lack of a starting-quality 2-guard, one more legitimate scoring option, and the mythical consistent outside shooter who can play legitimate starter’s minutes to stretch the floor for LeBron.
Already the Cavaliers have (reportedly) pursued J.R. Smith and Vince Carter to fill that very role this off-season, coming up short both times. The current plan for getting the next big piece of the puzzle and giving the Cavaliers a “Big Three” – three being the number of high-level players requisite for both being an NBA franchise and allowing sportswriters to use a 25-year-old phrase over and over again and still claim it’s fresh, is to trade a young player and Wally Szczerbiak’s $13 million expiring contract.
Cleveland is gung-ho about trading Wally’s contract or somehow finding a “solid 2-guard,” but Wally himself is:
-2 years removed for scoring 20 ppg over 50 games with the Timberwolves on 50/40/90 shooting numbers
-A Career 40% 3-point shooter
-Someone who’s averaged double figures in scoring every year of his career
-A guy who loves catching and shooting more than anything else
-A good decision-maker with the ball who rarely tries to do too much
So why was Wally, by all accounts, a disaster of epic proportions with the Cavaliers? Thought by many (okay, mostly me), to be the most important player in the massive 3-way deadline deal for the Cavaliers, Wally ended up playing easily the worst out of all the Cavalier players and eventually played himself out of the playoff rotation with an 8-point scoring average and his worst shooting percentages since his 2nd year in the NBA. First of all, acquaint yourself with Wally’s game. Although Wally has been playing in the NBA at a reasonably high level for 9 years, even appearing in an All-Star Game, very few people are actually familiar with how Wally Szczerbiak plays basketball. This is because Wally Szczerbiak has a very specific fanbase. The following people are Wally Szczerbiak fans:
1. Die-Hard Timberwolves fans. Actually, they might hate him now. I wouldn’t blame them for hating everything at this point. I offer all of you only my deepest sympathies. Hey, at least you get to watch Al Jefferson and Kevin Love orchestrate a layup line under your basket for the next 7 years.
2. People who are intrigued by the idea of European players and are thinking about jumping on the bandwagon, but just aren’t ready to make the full jump quite yet, so instead cheer for Wally, the O’Douls of European people. (See also: Kosta Kufos)
3. Women “Sports Fans.” Now, there are Women Sports Fans. Don’t get me wrong, ladies. I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about the girls that sit down with a bunch of guys trying to watch the game and pretend to love sports, then get uncomfortable when they realize that their mere presence does not trump the importance of the game itself, as it would with normal television programs. So that’s when they start to draw attention to themselves by saying “Wow, that was such a good play!” at completely random moments, trying to get the guy with the remote to change the channel during commercials, and deciding to “root for” whichever team the guys in the room are by making a sound like a wounded guinea pig every time they score a basket and emitting a nonstop twitter of “ohmygodohmygodohmygod” whenever the other team has the ball, gradually crescendoing as the ball inevitably gets closer to the basket.
Anyway, at some point, the fake crush on a player inevitably comes up, and if Wally Szczerbiak is in the game you can be damn sure he’ll be the guy. (Wally’s been pro basketball’s resident “male model/athlete, for a while, although the Korver/Wally parallels to Hansel/Zoolander are genuinely disturbing, both in look and relevance.)
4. People who like the way Wally plays “fundamental” basketball, like Steve Nash, Mike Miller, Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, and Jason Kidd half the time, and think the league started going to hell when Allen Iverson missed that practice and Kobe Bryant started hogging the ball so much. Good luck with your fireman’s exam.
5. People in Ohio who fell in love with Wally during Miami of Ohio’s Cinderella sweet-16 run. That this is a memorable Ohio sports moment nearly 10 years later should help to inform you why LeBron grew up a Yankee fan.
For the rest of you, here’s a brief attempt at a diagnosis of why Wally has struggled so much in Cleveland:
-Wally came over at mid-season, going from a completely irrelevant Sonics team to a wannabe contender in Cleveland, probably the best team Wally had played for in 9 years. A day or two after the trade went through, Wally’s wife had their third child. Things were not stable for Wally, and when your job is to make a 25-foot shot in the middle of 10 gigantic men in full-paced chaos, anything less than total focus is going to affect you very adversely. And if you struggle out of the gate, things can snowball, especially if the team isn’t in a position to be able to let up a little so that you can get your confidence back.
-Furthermore, as a spot-up shooter, it’s crucial to be in sync with the rest of the team, since as a stationary player you’re more or less at the mercy of your teammates’ ability to create and get you opportunities. Coming over at mid-season, it’s hard to fit in with the rest of the team, especially when you can’t do much to contribute by creating opportunities on your own.
-The Curse Of the Cleveland Swingman: Since LeBron came to town, the Cavaliers have suited up Ricky Davis, Darius Miles, Larry Hughes, and Wally Z as their backcourt scoring option. All of them have had horrifying things happen to their careers-only Ricky was really productive after being unceremoniously dumped. And before you say that the issue is that slashers can’t work with LeBron, look at the way Larry Hughes was moving in his last year or two with the Cavs. Larry Hughes is explosive the way Shawn Johnson is intimidating. Dude can’t get penetration at a UCSB Halloween party at this point.
-Spot-up shooters like open shots. Open shots come from ball movement. The Cavalier offense does not feature ball movement. The Cavalier offense is where ball movement comes to die.
-The one way to get open looks in the Cavalier offense is off of LeBron James’ forays to the basket. There are two reasons why Wally hasn’t thrived from this: first off, unlike playing in an offense with ball movement, getting an open look off an improvised drive means you have to be able to get to spots on the floor very quickly. Daniel Gibson and his point guard wheels are very adept at this; Wally Z’s legs are quite simply not up to the task. Also, LeBron didn’t really trust Wally last year-he’d regularly see Wally with an open three and just wouldn’t give him the ball, while he’s practically adopted Boobie Gibson.
-Mike Brown, who’s vastly underrated essentially by necessity, has absolutely no idea how to use Wally. Wally needs other people to create shots for him, so naturally MB decided to make Wally the leader of the 2nd unit for Cleveland, which features absolutely nobody who can draw defensive attention, and let Wally attempt to create offense. This led to Wally firing 21-foot turnaround jumpers and rushed 18-foot catch-and-shoots off of down-screens, all of which was bad. Also, at some point last season, Mike Brown uttered the phrase “Let’s get Wally Szczerbiak down on the block.” That worked out exactly how you’d think it would.
So there you have it-Wally Szczerbiak could conceivably be the missing piece that allows the age of LeBron running the East to begin in earnest, or he could officially become “Wally Szczerbiak’s expiring contract” and be useful for spurring a bevy of ridiculous Chad Ford rumors at the trade deadline. Really, no outcome would be all that surprising.
That’s the beauty of an X-Factor.