30 Teams, 30 Days
Cleveland Cavaliers Season Preview.
We continue previewing the Central Division with the Cleveland Cavaliers. You can read past previews here.
by John Krolik
Sometimes your luck can change just that fast in the NBA. Before the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs were coming off two crushing sweeps in the first two rounds of the playoffs after posting the league’s best record, LeBron James turned in one of the best statistical seasons in recent history en route to his first MVP award, and everything was looking just peachy. Then the Magic came, Dwight Howard couldn’t be guarded one-on-one, Mo Williams imploded, the Magic moved the ball and shot with precision, and Rashard Lewis hit two clutch threes to send games into overtime. Season over.
The ’08-09 Cleveland Cavaliers were fascinating in that they managed to be an elite team with extremely few moving parts-essentially, the team was LeBron James and four other role players, albeit very good ones. (The only other playmakers on the team were Delonte West and Mo Williams, and while they were heady players capable of getting penetration on an unsuspecting defense and making the correct pass as well as knocking down open shots, neither one was really comfortable making plays on their own with the defense keyed in on them-generally, the best offense you’d see in those situations were a 20-foot Mo Williams jumper when the defense went under the screen.)
The Cavaliers faced a conundrum-when you have a player who can seemingly do anything on a basketball court, and well, is it a good idea to allow him to reach the limits of his capability for production or should you attempt to channel his production? The 08-09 Cavaliers went with the former option, and on an individual level the results were staggering.
John Hollinger’s “estimated wins added” is an extremely rough metric, as any number that tries to show a direct link between individual production and team success will be, but looking at the list of the top individual “win producers” from last season is still interesting.
1. LeBron James EWA: 32.3 Team Wins: 66
2. Dwyane Wade EWA: 30.3 Team Wins: 43
3. Chris Paul EWA: 28.4 Team Wins: 49
4. Dwight Howard EWA: 20.8 Team Wins: 59
5. Kobe Bryant EWA: 20.6 Team Wins: 65
Without getting caught up with which of these players are better, as inevitable as that may be, look at what this number is telling us on a team level. Among the top 5, the relationship between each of these elite players’ team success is directly inverse to how much production they require from their best players: Howard and Bryant are the best players among teams with enough talent and playmakers around them that they don’t need superhuman individual production from their best players, and as fate would have it their two teams ended up squaring off in the finals. Then you’ve got a massive gap in EWA, and on the other side of it you’ve got two players whose team needed a ridiculous amount of production from their two stars just to muster up a first-round exit. This lines up with what we know about dominant players from the past; there’s Kobe in recent years, but even Michael Jordan’s most productive statistical seasons came in the years before he started winning championships, and going all the way back Wilt Chamberlain averaged his career low in points the first year he won the NBA championship.
Then you’ve got LeBron, sitting up there at the top with the highest EWA and the highest total of team wins, completely bucking the mini-trend. So how did the Cavaliers construct a one-man team that still managed to win more games than anybody else in the regular season last year?
First off, LeBron James was really, really good. This phenomena has been noted by a number of outlets. He’s reached the point where there’s nothing he could do apart from winning a championship to raise his status, so laying superlatives on him has become almost moot; if he averaged 40/15/15 on 70% shooting next year but failed to win a championship, would he really change anybody’s mind as to how great or not great of a player he is at this point?
Second, the Cavaliers, hampered by low draft picks, the sins of John Paxson, and a lack of cap space, chose under GM Danny Ferry’s routine to find players perfectly suited to be effective playing around LeBron James. Shooters were brought in; the Cavaliers finished a close second in three-point shooting percentage last season. People who could make plays without needing the ball in their hands were brought in-there’s the previously mentioned West and Williams, as well as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a former point guard in Lithuania before a massive growth spurt. (Seriously.) Offensively, everyone needed to be able to make shots at a high percentage, move without the ball in their hands, and be willing to make plays instead of going off on their own; like the old cliche, the Cavs weren’t able to get the best players, so they tried to get the right ones.
By bringing in players who could do these things, as well as handing the offensive reigns from Mike Brown to assistant Jon Kuester (now head coach of the Pistons), the Cavs jumped all the way up to 4th in offensive efficiency last season, an astounding feat given how offensively anemic they’d been in previous years.
The other tenet of the Cavaliers’ success was defense; since you don’t need the ball to play defense, it’s much easier to create a great defense out of role players than a great offense. Mike Brown is a defensive coach at heart, and under his watch Mo Williams went from liability to passable, Delonte West transformed into a true stopper, Zydrunas Ilgauskas went from glacial liability to steadfast protector of the rim,(and against Dwight Howard, back to glacial liability), and LeBron James became a defensive dynamo. Varejao was probably the night-in-night out key to the defense because of his ability to show and recover on the pick-and-roll, which was a key in Brown’s no-switching defensive system. And of course, James’ improvement on this end was a big deal in this regard. While he generally wouldn’t guard the other teams’ best scorer until crunch-time,(although he wouldn’t nap on his own man-his opponent PER was the 2nd-lowest in the NBA) his ability to cover ground and play the weak-side made a huge defensive impacts in flashy ways (his chase-down blocks) and more subtle ways. (Few in the NBA were better at helping and then closing down on shooters without biting for an up-fake, and it was a huge part of why the Cavaliers were better than any other team in the NBA at stopping the three-pointer-in the regular season.)
With a great player, role players perfectly suited to his strengths, a suffocating defense, and a ridiculously high level of team chemistry, the 08-09 Cavaliers were a great team with very good talent. But they lost. Two Rashard Lewis threes find rim, maybe the whole conversation changes. (Although that Laker team was REALLY good, and in my minds would’ve been the favorites in a Cavs-Lakers finals.)
However, the threes went in. And since history is the propaganda of the victors (NEVER FORGET THIS), what the Cavs had was a losing formula. So they changed it, giving up very little talent in the process. If he stays healthy and produces at the level he did in Phoenix last season, Shaq will easily be the best individual player LeBron has ever played with. However, he’s also the first player LeBron’s played with whose strengths overlap with his own. (Some people will say that this was the case with the “slashing” Larry Hughes. This is untrue. Larry Hughes just sucked. Trust me.)
Shaq likes the ball on the block, and LeBron wants to be in the paint. While Shaq is a great interior passer, as is LeBron, it’s going to be crowded down there next season, especially with the shooting-challenged Anderson Varejao at the 4. Shaq also hasn’t been the most ferocious of defenders in recent years-while he should fit in Mike Brown’s system, seeing as to how it was built with Ilgauskas as the center, he’s a question mark at that end, which the Cavaliers generally don’t do. The Cavs have upped their overall talent level significantly, but for the first time in the LeBron era have risked fit by doing so.
The other two major Cavalier additions are more traditional Cav additions-Moon and Parker are solid spot-up shooters (Parker more so than Moon), and good athletes who can defend and play without the ball in their hands, and their most glaring weakness is their inability to create their own shots, which is obviously not a problem with how LeBron-centric the Cavs’ offense is. They might open up more chances to go small-ball with LeBron at the four, or they might end up relegating Delonte West to the bench. (Delonte was a revelation at the two last season, but while most recent reports have him back at practice, I don’t think anyone’s quite sure what his role on the team is right now, although I hope he can pick up where he left off.)
A lot of the questions facing the Cavs won’t be answered until late in the playoffs, if ever. Can Shaq really be a Howard-stopper? Is Mo Williams for real, or will he melt down again when real pressure’s on? Can you win big in today’s NBA starting two guys who can’t shoot?
And finally, there’s that whole little walk-year thing, which has been talked about. Hanging over the season is this: if the Cavs win the championship this year, LeBron would have to be the first major sports superstar to leave a championship team for another franchise since Wayne Gretzky. With today’s insta-pundit, 24-hour sports news cycle, the internet, and the fact that this is America (sorry, Holly), it’s almost unfathomable-the stigma of leaving a hometown team after a championship would almost certainly outweigh any potential marketing benefits of going to a bigger city. However, if they don’t win, well that’s a different ballgame, and one the city of Cleveland really doesn’t want to see played.
To wrap it up, a lot of teams have said at the beginning of a season that their mentality for the upcoming season was “championship or bust.” I can’t remember a team where both scenarios seemed as real as they do for the 09-10 Cleveland Cavaliers.