As the playoffs are drawing near for the Cleveland Cavaliers, an awful lot is going right for them. They currently stand at 60-13 and are the proud owners of the best record in the NBA with a 2 game lead over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavs have all but locked up the top seed in the East, and with a 34-1 home record, there’s a reason for plenty of optimism for the wine and gold.
One of the best things for the Cavaliers is that they are finally getting close to having their whole roster healthy and back in uniform. With Wally Szczerbiak’s return on Sunday against Dallas, the Cavs are missing only Ben Wallace, and Wallace is expected to be back soon enough. When Wallace does return, though, coach Mike Brown is going to have a difficult decision to make, whether to give Ben his old starting job at the 4 back, and to allow Anderson Varejao the chance to keep the job he has so admirably filled since Wallace went down with the broken leg.
It won’t be an easy decision for several reasons. First, there’s the chemistry issue. All season long the Cavaliers have prided themselves on their team unity and chemistry, and so Mike Brown is certainly going to have to weigh that into his decision. LeBron James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, and Ben Wallace constitute the group of leaders that Brown has gone to all year long to help him gauge the state of his team, and there’s a decent chance Brown will look for input from this group on the decision. How would Wallace, a team leader, handle the demotion? Would it create waves, or would Wallace handle it in stride? The last thing the Cavaliers need is something that would divide the locker room and have players taking sides. Anytime you have a veteran player losing his starting role due to injury, it’s going to be touchy.
Secondly, Mike Brown will have to weigh the team’s performance with both Wallace and Ilgauskas in the starting lineup. We saw earlier in the year that Anderson Varejao is not capable of being a starting center when he filled in for the injured Ilgauskas, but since taking over at power forward for Wallace, both Varejao and the Cavaliers have flourished. Not that they were struggling with Wallace, either, for that matter.
The starting lineup of Mo, Delonte, LeBron, Ben, and Z is 25-5 (.833) and they average 101.5 ppg while giving up just 90.33 ppg to opponents. When the starting lineup features Mo, Delonte, LeBron, Andy, and Z, the Cavs are 15-1 (.938) and score 98.69 ppg while allowing 90.13 ppg to their opponents. Either way, the Cavs can’t seem to go wrong.
So perhaps the chemistry will be the bigger issue. But if you’re considering chemistry on the team as a whole, you should also consider chemistry on an individual level as well. Particularly, the chemistry between LeBron James and Anderson Varejao is key. With Andy at the 4, the Cavaliers’ offense has been playing some of the best, most efficient offensive basketball of the season. Assists are up and turnovers are way down. The ball movement has been the best its been all year.
Varejao also frees up Zydrunas Ilgasukas and LeBron James to operate. For all the good things Ben Wallace does for this team, he still allows defenders to more or less ignore him, which frees up someone to clog the passing lanes and make life a little more tricky for the Cavs on offense. With Varejao on the floor, and with the precision he operates the pick and roll with LeBron, it forces defenders to take him seriously, which has allowed Ilgauskas to enjoy some wide open looks to knock down his trademark 17-foot jumper. It has also given LeBron a little more space to drive and distribute to the perimeter shooters.
Conversely, though, there is still a lot to say for the energy that Varejao gives to the Cavaliers when he comes off the bench, something that Wallace would be much less likely to give the Cavaliers. There’s no question that without Varejao, the Cavaliers’ bench unit has looked a good deal more pedestrian. Bringing Wallace off the bench probably wouldn’t do as much for this problem as simply returning AV to the bench would. Beyond that, the Cavaliers must consider also whether AV or Ben will work better with Joe Smith on the court. Whoever comes off the bench will be playing more minutes with Smith, and so chemistry there will be important as well.
The good news is, at the end of the day, it probably doesn’t make a huge difference who ends up starting. Whichever guy is coming off the bench, the total number of minutes for each will likely stay more or less the same. Varejao will still probably see the bulk of the minutes down the stretch in the 4th quarter either way. The Cavaliers will still probably win a lot of games either way. Perhaps Mike Brown will take the easy route, then, and just say that Varejao will keep starting as they bring Wallace back slowly from the injury. Then, if the Cavs keep winning, he can say Varejao will keep starting in the name of continuity. Or if bringing Wallace off the bench isn’t working, he can then make the move to change starters. The biggest issue will likely be chemistry, and as long as both Varejao and Wallace are able to not let this become an issue, this seems to be a win-win decision for Mike Brown, and a welcome “problem” for the team compared to some of the tougher issues this team has faced this year in regards to injuries and playing time.