Competition Discussion: Cleveland Cavaliers

The season is still two months away, but most of the rosters are set, barring the requisite Michael Jordan comeback rumor (just kidding, but only a little).  We have an idea where our team stands, but we can't really know unless we discuss everyone else.  In that spirit, I'm going to throw up a "competition discussion" thread for each of the other 29 teams over the next month or so.  We'll go in alphabetical order from A to Z.  Today's team: Cleveland.

 

Last year's record: 45-37

In: Maurice Williams, J.J. Hickson, Lorenzen Wright, Tarence Kinsey, Darnell Jackson
Out: Joe Smith, Devin Brown, Damon Jones, Shannon Brown.

Projected starting lineup: Maurice Williams, Wally Szczerbiak, LeBron James, Ben Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Key themes:

  • They were so solid in the playoffs after a down regular season.  Which team will we get?
  • Specifically defensively, can Cleveland maintain the level they were at in the playoffs?
  • What does Maurice Williams do for them?  Is he the sidekick LeBron's always needed?
  • Will they get the production they need out of their old frontcourt (Wallace and Big Z)?  Do they need another body up there?
  • Now that they no longer have contract issues to settle, can Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic bounce back?
  • What role does Delonte West play now that he's re-signed?
  • Are they done making moves?
  • Can LeBron possibly be better?  Can he possibly become more of a crybaby?

Common logic dictates that when an 82-game sample (the regular season) is contrasted by a 13-game sample (the Cavaliers in the playoffs), the 82-game sample is far more reliable.  Similarly, a Wizards' fan logic requires them to hate everything about the Cavaliers, considering how they've ended our season three years in a row and are led by a star that is so unlikeable when juxtaposed with the quirky Gilbert Arenas.

Therefore, one could argue I'm going to completely ignore logic when it comes to projected the 2008/09 Cleveland Cavaliers.  Why?  Because I believe they, and not offseason darling Philadelphia, old reliable Detroit or up-and-coming Orlando, are the biggest threat to Boston in the East.  Furthermore, I strongly believe that if Cleveland and Boston meet again in the playoffs, it will be Cleveland that prevails.  And since I've already established that I believe Boston will have the best record in the East, that means I believe it'll be Cleveland that represents the East in the NBA Finals.

Last season was a really strange one for Cleveland.  Coming off a Finals appearance, they played hardball with two key cogs, Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, and neither was in rhythm by the time their contract situations were resolved.  Daniel Gibson, 2007's playoff hero, got injured.  Drew Gooden's shot deserted him and he became a complete non-factor offensively.  Larry Hughes, meanwhile, got even worse and still sucked up a starting spot.  The defense, which was Cleveland's calling card on its way to the Finals, fell off tremendously with all this flux in the rotation.

Only the brilliance of LeBron James was keeping the Cavs afloat.  Last year, Cleveland won 45 games, but they had a negative point differential.  They would play close games and hope LeBron bailed them out, which he often did.  Other than LeBron and Big Z, there wasn't even one average player on the roster.

Then, they made the big trade with Chicago, which further threw off their chemistry.  Integrating four new pieces with just two months left in the season is never an easy thing, and Cleveland really struggled with it initially.  Considering all these problems, it's a wonder they won 45 games, really.

But during the playoffs, when Cleveland had their rotation set for the first time all season, they were much better than a 45-win team.  The first-round series win over us was not as close as the results indicated; the Cavs slaughtered us in Game 2 and Game 6, two games we desperately needed to have.  Three of the games were close, but we were constantly playing from behind.  Then, against Boston, the Cavs were a missed LeBron layup in Game 1 and a few jumpers by P.J. Brown in Game 7 away from defeating the eventual champions.  Cleveland actually outscored Boston in that series, but lost all the tight ones. 

Now, you add Maurice Williams to that mix, subtracting only Joe Smith.  Mo's not the ultimate answer to the "LeBron sidekick" search, but he's most definitely a part of the solution.  All this talk about Cleveland needing a pure point guard is silly because LeBron is such a good offensive initiator, but the Cavs did need somebody else who could handle the ball and create shots.  West was sort of playing the role during the playoffs, but he doesn't possess Mo's offensive capabilities.  In every way imaginable, Mo's an upgrade.  The only question is Mo's defense, but on a team that schemes as well as Cleveland, I don't see it being a problem (they made Wally Sczcerbiak into a competent defender, after all).

The other thing is that Cleveland's in prime position to make a major upgrade at the trade deadline, with 20-million dollars in expiring contracts (Sczcerbiak, Eric Snow).  It's a stretch to say that Danny Ferry is definitely making a major upgrade, but the way he's been talking, I'd say there's a strong possibility something big will happen.  Cleveland can use their trade chips for a real inside guy (the return of Carlos Boozer, perhaps?) or someone like Shawn Marion or Andrei Kirilenko.  If they do that, they're absolutely dynamite. 

There are some things that could slow Cleveland down.  I don't like their old frontcourt -- Ben Wallace is done, Joe Smith is gone and Big Z probably isn't going to duplicate his awesome 2007/08.  I also think they made a mistake letting Devin Brown go, because if they trade Wally for an inside guy, they're going to have a small backcourt (West, Williams, Gibson).  There's also the question of whether they'll take opponents lightly like they've done in past years. 

Still, I'm confident in saying Cleveland is going to be really scary next year.  There are teams in the East that many are picking ahead of the Wizards that boggle my mind, but the Cavs aren't one of them.

Prediction: 54-28, 1st in Central, 2nd in East

Previously (predictions are me/Jake/Truth)...

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