Last Year's Record: 50-32
Key Additions: Cedric Simmons, Devin Brown
Key Losses: David Wesley, Sasha Pavlovic(maybe), Anderson Varejao(maybe)
What Significant Moves Were Made Over the off-season?:
For the first few months of the summer, "quiet" would have been an understatement; not only were we unable to make a major move, but we couldn't even re-sign our own starting shooting guard and 6th man. My thoughts on how all this transpired can be found here.But for whatever reason, shortly after that post, we started to make some decent moves, trading David Wesley for Cedric Simmons' upside, which was startling to say the least, because the best Wesley-related news we were hoping to get this season was that he retired.
Then we went out and signed Devin Brown, a reliable guard who can defend and even score a little, for absolutely nothing, giving us a reliable rotation player essentially for free. The strategy with both signing Pavlovic/Varejao and making a move right now is to engage in a war of attrition-from what I can surmise, Ferry is betting that we'll do just fine without Pavs and Andy, forcing them to sign for less money, and instead of trying to force a deal when every team in the league thinks it's going to the playoffs, he's going to wait until a team gets itself in a "fire sale" position at the deadline and swoop in and pluck a star from them; if Pavlovic and Varejao have reasonable 1-year tender offers, they could be major trade chips to accomplish this. All in all, we ended our off-season with more questions than answers, but it's better than going into the season with the wrong answers, like we did in the Hughes/Marshall/Jones summer.
What are this team's greatest strengths?
Our 3-pronged strategy for getting to the finals last year was defense, rebounding, and LeBron. We were a top-5 defensive team in the regular season, and in the playoffs our defense was second to only the Spurs'. As many have mentioned, the curious thing about the Cavs' defensive excellence is that the starting lineup didn't feature any elite defenders by reputation: Even though Hughes made an all-defense team a few years back, that selection was a fluke because of his high steal totals, which he won't replicate in our defensive system, which differs from the Wizards' in that it actually stops opposing teams from getting to the basket. Also, age and injuries have cut Larry's lateral movement so much that he can't defend anywhere near as well as he once could have. Pavlovic was regarded as another European matador on defense, and actually said to Mike Brown "My offense is my defense." LeBron's defense has long been maligned. Drew Gooden is an outright disaster at the defensive end, and "can't guard a chair" was in the scouting reports on Z for many years.
So how did we get so good defensively? First of all, having LeBron means we don't need a true point guard,(although one would help), so we were able to play the "big backcourt" with impunity, giving us great defensive presence. Pavlovic stepped up his defense tremendously, putting his athletic gifts to work, and even shut down Vince Carter in the Nets series. Illgauskas somehow made himself into a master of the paint. LeBron stepped his defensive intensity way, way, up, especially in the playoffs. And Varejao proved himself an invaluable defender because of his quickness, footwork, ability to never give an opposing player a clean look or comfortable dribble, and unrivaled ability to draw charges. Eric Snow played great defense as well, but his offense is so very bad it that it canceled out the benefits of his defense. A lot of the credit for this goes to Mike Brown, a defensive savant whose rotations, defense-first attitude, and ability to close out the 3-point line made him the most valuable assistant coach in the whole league. Oh, wait, he's our head coach.
Rebounding is pretty simple to explain-again, the "big backcourt" allowed us to get a lot of rebounds cheaply, and Gooden, Varejao, and Z are some of the best rebounders in the league. Devin Brown and even Daniel Gibson are great rebounders as well, and hopefully their extra boards will make up for the loss of Varejao, although I really wish we had him back.
Then, of course, there's LeBron, a top-3 player on any night and a top-1 player when properly motivated, capable of winning any game by himself, sometimes literally. There's not a whole lot more to say about him, but he's carried this team for 3 years now, and he's still 22 and getting better.
What are this team's Major Weaknesses?
Offense. Plain and simple. We were at the middle-to-low end of the pack offensively last season, and when you have a player like LeBron James on your team, that's just plain ridiculous. Our outside shooters were largely ineffective and unable to keep the floor spaced for James. We still don't have a consistent 2nd scoring threat for LeBron-Larry Hughes can't get himself to the hoop consistently anymore, forcing him to settle for his shaky jumper way too much. Z and Gooden are both mainly 15-foot catch-and-shoot guys, getting their points in the flow of the offense instead of posting up and creating their own baskets.
Varejao can't create his own offense. Pavlovic has shown flashes of being a capable slasher and outside shooter, but he's still inconsistent, and has games where he can't get anything going regularly. Also, he might be in Europe all year. Boobie is an intriguing question mark, and Shannon is a depressing question mark. Compounding all of our problems is Mike Brown's offensive genius, which can't get LeBron the ball in spots he likes or get our team in the full-court, often leading to a bad fadeaway from LeBron or Larry with 3 seconds left in the shot clock. Having a true point to take the pressure off LeBron could help, but there's no use wishing for what you don't have.
What are this team's goals?
Championship. Now. They got sort of close next year, and that's the only hurdle left. The next year or two could either be the beginning of a powerhouse for years to come or the tail end of an ultimately failed attempt to surround a singular talent with a team that he could carry to the promised land. Other than a championship, I would say that this team's biggest goal is to form a solid Kobe/Shaq, Nash/Amare, Duncan/Ginobili/Parker-type core that will make sure Cleveland stays important for the next few years instead of continuing to go to war with LeBron and the E Street Band, which will help us avoid a Heat-style championship hangover.
What is LeBron going to do this year, after the most disappointing and best season of his career?
Whether LeBron comes out with passion and fury this year is something that remains to be seen-I wouldn't be surprised to see him spend the first month or two of the year trying to get an offensive flow working with his teammates, working on his jumper, and experimenting in the post instead of driving with a vengeance and trying to take over every game. Last year, it too often looked like there was a switch LeBron was turning on and off-he'd sit around, pound the ball, over-pass, and fire 20-foot fadeaways for a quarter, then start weaving through defenders and dunking with authority the next. More than any mechanical sort of adjustment this year, I'd like to see LeBron do away with the switch and have the freaky sort of season we all know he's capable of having. Better free throws, a consistent jumper, and a low-post game are all great, but it will be the intensity with which he goes about the game that will determine how his season goes. I want to see him play every game like it's his last.
Is the third season going to be the charm for Larry Hughes?
The fact is this: Larry Hughes has been horrible the past two years. Forget the injuries for a second; even when healthy, Larry has been completely and utterly ineffective. His shooting percentage has been abysmal, his defense has been slightly above average at best, and he doesn't impact the game with his rebounding or playmaking. For some reason, many NBA writers have decided that the problem with Larry has been one of "fit": Larry is most effective as a slasher, so putting him with a driver like LeBron has forced him to be a catch-and-shoot player, which is all wrong for him. If there are NBA GMs reading this, and that's what you believe, call Danny Ferry right now. Also, I'm thrilled to inform you that you've won $5,000,000 in the Ukrainian lottery; all I need is your credit account number and we'll get you that money.
The real story is that Larry has just been flat-out bad, regardless of his tendencies. If he's such a slasher, why does a quick look at his stats tell us that he goes to the hole much less, draws less fouls, and finish worse inside than Michael Redd, the kind of "shooter" who's supposed to work well with LeBron, despite the fact the exact same number of their shots come off of assists? Watching Cavaliers games, what Larry will do is take the ball at the 3-point line, pump-fake, try to get to the basket, fail, and end up pulling up for a 20-footer that he seldom makes. LeBron never enters into the equation. We'd love a second slasher on this team, and Sasha Pavlovic was successful doing that in the 2nd half of last year, but Larry is not that slasher; age and injuries have sapped his explosiveness to the point where he can't get to the basket or finish when he does get there.
Oh, and as for the "Larry's really just a big point guard!" argument, fueled by the fact that we had a hard time losing games when we started Larry, Sasha, and LeBron in the backcourt, remember that the lineup was mainly effective because of its defensive capabilities, and that it also marked the first time Sasha, our 2nd-best offensive player by the end of the year, saw time in the starting lineup. Larry's preference to look for his own shot and inability to drive by his man make him a horrible offensive point guard.
This year, however, it might be time for everything to change. Larry's last year in Washington let us know he's talented when healthy and motivated, and all the reports from this off-season say that's exactly what he is this year. Not only have there been "Hey, Larry worked his booty off during the off-season and worked on his shot with Mark Price!" stories, but Brian Windhorst reported that Larry has been dunking with authority in training camp and looks like he might actually have his explosiveness back, which would be huge news, and I'm ready to believe in Larry Hughes again, even though his preseason performances (4-11 with 0 free throws in his last game) seem to suggest that he might just go back to being Cleveland Larry again this year.
What Kind of Impact are the 2006 Kids Going to Make On our Abysmal Backcourt?
We all know about Daniel Gibson; after all, it was his 31-point assault from beyond the arc that finished off the Pistons, and he was one of the few bright spots in the Massacre at the Alamo. All through the season, he would come in for a few minutes, hit a few threes, then watch Eric Snow play 30 minutes, not get covered, and force Cavs fans to put pins in their Mike Brown voodoo dolls. He was a spot-up shooter who wouldn't shoot a whole lot, but seemed to be able to make them when he did shoot them. Then, in the playoffs, a whole new Boobie showed up. He kept on drilling 3s, but he also attacked the hole with abandon and started drawing fouls. He's got good size for the PG position, blinding speed and a good crossover, so the optimistic among us seeing him learning to combine his athleticism with his deadly shot to become an offensive force in the very near future.
The super-optimistic among us see him as being our point guard of the future, because he's point-guard sized and actually good, which you can't really say about any of our current point guards. I'm skeptical about this one, mainly because a lot of point guards like to pass, and Boobie really doesn't. He averaged 3.4 assists per 48 minutes in the regular season, and that number went down in the playoffs. To provide context, no other point guard in the league, be they a starter, shoot-first guard, or backup, averaged less than about 6 per 48 minutes, and the good ones are comfortably over 10. Technically, the ability to pass can be taught, but I'm not comfortable projecting that type of jump in any player. The ability to pass is like the ability to work the count in baseball; it seems easy enough to learn, but few players actually do it, and the type of jump needed to make Gibson a true point would be like Rocco Baldelli turning into Barry Bonds. There are exceptions to every rule, and I'm hoping Boobie will be one of them, but he won't come out of the gate looking like John Stockton. In a perfect world, Boobie would turn into a Ben Gordon/Earl Boykins type of scorer off the bench-look at the shooting (eFG% on jump shots), % of shots that were jumpers, assist, and foul drawing numbers from Boobie, Gordon, and Boykins in his breakout year with Golden State:
Even though even those guys passed more than Gibson, it's clear they score effectively by shooting from outside well and often and getting themselves to the line a disproportionate amount.
Shannon Brown was not the type of rookie success story that Gibson was; despite the fact he was our first-round draft pick,(ahead of solid point guard Jordan Farmar and the potentially transcendent Sergio Rodriguez), he never cracked the rotation consistently, and played poorly when he did get a chance. His suspect ballhandling relegated him to being a spot-up shooter, which he isn't that good at, and his defense was not up to Mike Brown standards. Shannon is another point guard who isn't a point guard, and while his shot is passable, it certainly isn't a strength. Shannon has a lot of (rhymes with "puptide") because of his wingspan and athleticism, and with some freedom, he could evolve into a great player in the NBA. His 14 free throw attempts in the last preseason game is the most promising thing I've heard all summer. Given an opportunity, Shannon could be a much better player than Devin Brown, Pavlovic, or even Hughes, but more than likely he'll be worse than all three. I'll have my eye on him.
Will a slimmed-down Donyell Marshall and revenge-motivated Damon Jones make the type of impact they were supposed to when they were signed?
No. They're terrible. I'm pretty sure swear TNT asked for Damon's suit measurements at one point during the playoffs.
How will the new guys be?
Wow, there's not a whole lot exciting about Devin Brown. He plays good defense, drives decently, shoots decently, is of average age, and should be a solid rotation player; he could be better than that, or he could be worse. I'd still rather have Sasha back, especially since he's younger and has more (rhymes with "truckslide"), but Brown at the minimum isn't too bad at all. Cedric Simmons is much more interesting: He was the #15 pick one year ago, he's got a freak body with a monster wingspan, is a real-live shot blocker, can dunk with authority, and has nothing resembling an actual offensive game or defensive discipline. There's a good chance he'll spend most of the season buried on the bench; he reminds me of Andris Biedrins in Golden State, who I wished we hadn't drafted for 2 years and then watched him become our most valued young asset overnight, even though he still looks like he's shooting a ball made out of Kryptonite. Hassan Adams is the type of solid young player who makes you say "Wait, nobody wanted him? Really?" and Darius Rice could be a rich man's Donyell Marshall. Hooray.
55-27. Even with the East being a lot stronger, we could have a motivated LeBron James with a new bag of weapons, a healthy and effective Larry Hughes, an effective offensive strategy, an 82-game season from an athletic young point who can shoot the lights out, a young uber-athletic shooting guard, a solid guard with a chance to prove himself on the big stage, and an athletic young big with mountains of upside. Just a couple of those things coming together would make this team hugely improved, which is why I'm predicting a record jump this year. Have a good season and Go Cavs!