Enemy Activity - Part I

This is the first in a series of breakdowns of player movement on the upper echelon of Eastern Conference competitors. 

Let's start with a team that already made a very high profile move, but looks to be basically done for this summer.

                        PER                 Wins per 3000 minutes

In:

Player A           22.3                 8.2

Out:

Player B           14.8                 7.9

But, another way of looking at Player E is:

Player A           18.9                 5.9

Player A's name and a breakdown of the move's impact, after the jump. 

The first "Player A" line is Shaq, version 08-09.  The second "Player A" is Shaq, versions 06-07 and 07-08. 

Player B is an amalgamation of the minutes a relatively healthy Shaq should crowd out from the Cavs 08-09 center rotation:  a combination of some Joe Smith, Ben Wallace, a dash of Andy Varejao (have to think it will be hard for him to get as many center minutes with Ilgauskas AND Shaq on the roster-he'll probably be more limited to PF), and a bit of Ilgauskas, who can be expected to lose some minutes to Shaq.

Observations:

(1)  The Cavs improved their offense at some cost to their D.

You might notice that Shaq's big advantage in PER does not translate to a big advantage in Win Shares.  This is because on the one hand Cleveland mostly got pretty sound defense out of the center position and on the other Shaq's defense has been statistically weak for a while now.  He still blocks some shots, he still gathers defensive rebounds at about the same rate, and he still looks like a decent one-on-one defender, but by advanced and team-based defensive metrics he just hasn't been contributing all that much since his first two seasons in Miami.  And this is not a "well there is no D in Phoenix Suns" phenomenon.  His advanced D stats have been in a slow, fairly steady decline for four or five years now.

Maybe Ben Wallace is "done" as an overall effective NBA player.  (Maybe not, though.  If the Wiz could take a flier on him for the LLE, I sure wouldn't mind.)  But he still contributed on defense last year.  And Varejao is a good defender and Joe Smith is quite useful.  Ilgauskas is a much better defensive center than he is typically given credit for and posted defensive win shares at almost twice Shaq's rate last year.

Someone could reasonably look at the Cavs and conclude that they could stand to sacrifice a little D at the center position for some more efficient scoring there.  I wouldn't quarrel with that.  But, it takes us to observation 2:

(2)  Maybe the Cavs didn't really improve their offense quite as much as they think.

Shaq without a doubt enjoyed a mini-renaissance in Phoenix.  A lot of credit has been given in the media, especially by Shaq himself, to the well-regarded Phoenix training staff.  But, I have to wonder whether more of the credit should go to the man who probably cost Shaq an MVP award or two:  Steve Nash.

If Shaq really was feeling and moving better, it seems to me one might expect an uptick in his numbers across the board, including defense and rebounding.  That is not, however, what happened.  As already mentioned, his defensive rebounding and shot blocking essentially held steady while his advanced defensive stats continued to slip some more and his offensive rebounding went down a tick.  Meanwhile, he was the NBA leader in both FG% and effective field goal percentage during his Phoenix stay.  And both jumped the moment he set foot in the Phoenix locker room.  What's more, they were the best of his ENTIRE CAREER.  Let that sink in for a moment.  He was over .600 in both true shooting percentage AND effective field goal percentage for the first time in his entire, Hall of Fame career.  And he was well over .600.  He also cut down on his turnovers last season to a level not seen in a couple of years. 

Who knows, maybe these things really were just the result of him moving better and/or being smarter about choosing his opportunities, but I'm a bit more inclined to credit the brutally efficient pick and roll and penetrate and dish PG he was playing with, as well as Grant Hill, who is a very good at entry passes in his own right.

Don't get me wrong.  The Shaq who left Miami was still one of the most efficient scoring big men in the league of all time.  But, given his apparent defensive limitations and eternal FT shooting woes, he maybe will not be quite as Shaq-tastic as the last season and a half might suggest.

------------------------------------------------

I also realize the Cavs have essentially swapped out Sasha Pavlovic for Anthony Parker and could still sign another reserve SG/SF-type (Matt Barnes has been linked to the Cavs and Magic).  Anthony Parker was without a doubt a better player last year.  (Though Matt Barnes is fairly comparable to Pavlovic at this point.)  I have a hard time crediting the Cavs with much of an upgrade for this move, however, as (1) they aren't going to be upgrading all that many minutes, unless LeGetsDunkedOn is out for an extended period or the backcourt is seriously depleted, in either of which cases they have bigger problems and (2) Parker just turned 34 years old last month and already showed decline last season.  Parker's PER for the two prior seasons was 14.4.  It was 12.1 last year.  Given the age and signs of decline, that pickup is rather meh.  And if the decline continues but the Cavs keep running Parker out there, this could be a very small step in the wrong direction.

The Verdict:  Improved.  Probably.

Despite the apparent lack of progress (or even decline) in the Win Shares column, I'm not going to argue that the Cavs didn't improve.  Shaq is still really good.  He looks like a substantial upgrade to the Cavs offense, and they could certainly use more efficient scoring options.  Even the Shaq who left Miami was better than might have been recognized at the time.

But, for fans of other EC contenders looking for hope, I'd note:  (1) If Shaq takes more of Ilgauskas's minutes than I assumed (I used about 4-to-5 minutes per game), this might not be so good for the Cavs.  The offensive improvement Shaq represents is worthwhile compared to the other centers the Cavs used last year.  That's less true of Ilgauskas.  (2) Shaq uses A LOT more possessions than the non-Ilg centers used. You never know what effect a high-usage player might have on a new team.  (3)  Maybe this is the year Shaq hits the infamous aging Center wall.  And (4) The Cavs still don't look to have much frontcourt depth (warning:  Wizards' pot calling Cavs' kettle black), especially given the age of their centers.

This was an interesting move and one it is hard to argue with, but does not make them a slam-dunk-on-Lebron sure thing for the Finals.

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