The season is still a ways 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 couple months or so. We'll go in alphabetical order from A to Z. Today's team: Cleveland. Jump to the comments to discuss the LeBrons and make a prediction on their record.
Last year's record: 66-16 (Pythagorean record: 65-17)
Offensive Rating: 112.4 (4th)
Defensive Rating: 102.4 (3rd)
Pace: 88.7 possessions/game (25th)
Projected starting lineup:
- How will the team be affected by arguably the most highly-anticipated walk year in NBA history?
- It wasn't a very good end of the season for LeBron James, but otherwise, he was incredible last year. What does he do for an encore?
- How will the trade for Shaquille O'Neal affect on-court and off-court chemistry?
- Who starts?
- How will the offense perform now that offensive guru John Kuester is coaching the Detroit Pistons? Is Mike Brown really a good enough coach for this team after Stan Van Gundy significantly outcoached him in the playoffs?
- Mo Williams was very good during the regular season and absolutely dreadful in the playoffs. Can he turn his postseason performance around this time around?
- Did the moves to bring in Anthony Parker, Shaq and Jamario Moon help Cleveland match up better with Orlando, their kryptonite last year? Did those same moves possibly hinder Cleveland's ability to match up with a healthy Boston Celtics squad?
- How much does Zydrunas Ilgauskas have left? When will Leon Powe be able to help them this season?
Alright folks, throw aside your hatred of everything Cleveland and try to think as objectively as possible.
Done. Okay. I know it's tough, but we have to do it.
Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers won 66 games, easily the best in the NBA. Their Pythagorean record of 65-17 was also the best in the NBA. They did this despite injuries to two key starters -- Delonte West and Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- during the season, which kept them out of 18 and 17 games, respectively. The Cavs lost just two home games, the second of which occurred on the last day of the season when they rested their key players.
Only two teams came close to matching up well with Cleveland last season. One was the Lakers, who beat them twice during the regular season. The other was Orlando, who just so happened to play them in the Eastern Conference Finals. Those two teams were not necessarily better overall than the Cavs; they just posed difficult matchup problems for them. As we all know, in the playoffs, it's all about matchups, so even though Cleveland was the better team, Orlando was the one that went to the Finals.
Now, consider the following altercations to Cleveland's playing rotation from last year.
- Ben Wallace has been replaced by Shaquille O'Neal
- Wally Szczerbiak has been replaced by Anthony Parker
- Sasha Pavlovic has been replaced by Jamario Moon
- Joe Smith has been replaced by an eventually healthy Leon Powe
It's hard to argue that all four of those changes are not upgrades. Even if Shaq is old and whiney, he's still way, way better than a washed-up Ben Wallace. Same with Parker and Moon -- they were poor as starting wings in Toronto, but as reserve guys, they significantly outperform Szczcerbiak and Pavlovic. Don't sleep on Powe either; his knee injuries will keep him out for a while, but when he's played, he's been tremendously productive.
Mike Brown has so many possible lineup combination to choose from, it's scary. For example, last year, one of the keys to Cleveland's success was putting Mo Williams and Delonte West together in the backcourt. Both could make plays on their own, so it took some of the load off LeBron and opened up their offense. However, against Orlando, their lack of size on defense really hurt the Cavs. West is a great defender, but he was too small to do anything against Hedo Turkoglu. The addition of Parker, however, allows the Cavs to match up with bigger wing players that give West trouble because of their size.
Want another example? Anderson Varejao was a huge key to Cleveland's success last year because of his annoying style, but he had no chance against Rashard Lewis in the playoffs. The addition of Moon, however, allows Cleveland the flexibility to guard perimeter-oriented power forwards. Moon's an excellent defender and can play the small forward on offense in smaller lineups.
Then, there's Shaq. At this point in his career, Shaq brings a lot of negatives to the table. The veterans in Phoenix were not thrilled with his off-court demeanor in the locker room, both because he was a jokester and because he was such a dominating ego-driven presence. On the court, he can still score if he gets the ball in the post often, but struggles to play off others and is slow guarding screen and roll on defense. However, it became clear in the Orlando series that Ilgauskas was too worn down and slow to stop Dwight Howard. Bringing Shaq aboard will give Z more rest and enable Cleveland to match up better with bigger post options.
Those are all reasons for Cleveland to be even better than last year. Why, then, do I have them winning fewer games?
It comes down to coaching. Mike Brown won Coach of the Year last year, but the award might as well have gone to former lead assistant coach John Kuestner. The biggest reason Cleveland improved so significantly was because their formerly-stagnant offense improved significantly, jumping to fourth in the league (and they were higher most of the year). For the first time, Cleveland was running sets that took advantage of all their players rather than just LeBron. That was all Kuestner's doing, not Brown's.
Now, Kuestner's gone, and he could threaten to take Cleveland's offensive improvement with him. Even in the early rounds of the playoffs, before the Orlando series, the Cavaliers' offense was bogging back down into LeBron and four statues. The only reason it didn't cost them was because Detroit sucked and Atlanta was too banged-up to compete. With so many new faces to integrate, the offense bogging down again is a very real possibility.
That will then leave us with the Brown of previous years; the guy who is an unbelievable defensive coach, but not a very good in-game coach. He was badly outcoached against the Magic, and you have to wonder how he'll be able to handle all the new faces. What happens when the LeBron offense returns and Shaq starts complaining about getting his touches? What happens if Brown doesn't delegate perimeter minutes between Williams, West, Parker, Moon and Daniel Gibson effectively? These are real possibilities and Brown does not inspire a ton of confidence.
I still think Cleveland has too much talent to fall off considerably. They will again be the best team in the East in the regular season -- Orlando has even bigger adjustment questions and Boston will likely take it easy during the regular season to preserve energy for the playoffs. But I can't help but think that last year was Cleveland's best chance to win a ring. Injuries beset the other three contenders (Lakers with Bynum, Celtics with KG and Magic with Jameer Nelson), and they still couldn't win. The road isn't going to get any easier in the playoffs.
(Oh, and I think LeBron's staying no matter what. Just throwing that out there).
Mike's prediction: 63-19, first in the central, first in the East
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