So here we are. It’s not even November yet and the Cavaliers find themselves at 0-2. This normally wouldn’t be so bad, but there are two problems. First, if we can be honest for a minute, Cleveland fans don’t handle adversity well at all. Whenever the slightest thing goes awry, we can’t help ourselves but to expect the absolute worst. Second, it’s not just the fact the Cavaliers are 0-2, but it’s the manner in which they have been defeated. Both games have seen the Cavaliers play extended stretches of horrific basketball which exposed some major flaws.
Which leads us to the question of the day. Is this a time for patience or for panic? It’s not all that easy of a question to answer. After all, while the Cavaliers have yet to show any signs of life we’ve seen Eastern Conference rivals Boston hold Charlotte to 59 points for an entire game and Orlando score 70 points in just the first half of their first game. In other words, those teams are coming out of the gate full bore while the Cavaliers look like a team who is just now meeting each other for the first time. It’s a problem.
Before we submit to panic, though, it’s perhaps more beneficial to try to identify the problems that exist and then determine a) how easily they can be fixed and b) how likely they are to be fixed. If we can determine the answers to these questions, we can have a better handle on where our emotional barometers should lie.
Offensively, there are several major issues. First and foremost, with Shaq in the starting lineup, the Cavaliers are trying to play 2 different offensive schemes at once. If you’re going to have Shaq in your starting lineup, you have to feed the ball into him to initiate the offense. If you’re not running your offense through him, then what’s the point of having him on your team anyway? I said in my preview for the Celtics game that I was hoping to see LeBron and Shaq play a lot of 2-man game off each other. That would seem to be the most logical way to involve both of them in the offense, and it would also open up cutting lanes for Varejao and would start to create some open shots for Anthony Parker and Mo Williams. Unfortunately, nothing even remotely close to this is happening.
The Cavaliers look completely clueless on how to utilize Shaq, and that falls squarely on coaching and the players themselves. Sure, right now the team will occasionally give Shaq a few token touches, but that’s it. There’s no rhythm being developed there. I can’t help but wonder why they pulled the trigger on the Shaq trade if they’re not even going to try to use him. Instead, the Cavaliers are using Shaq as if he were Ilgauskas, having him come up and set high screens for Mo or LeBron. What we’re seeing happen then is the defenses are just packing themselves in tight because they have no fear of Shaq setting up outside off the pick. In fact, to be honest, the way the Cavaliers are using Shaq is more like Ben Wallace than Ilgauskas. They are making it extremely easy to defend Shaq, and rather than having to double team him, they’re actually allowing defenses to cheat off him when he sets the high screens.
It’s not just Shaq who’s being hurt by this, either. Mo Williams has been taken completely out of his game and is finding no space on the court whatsoever. It’s fine for LeBron when Shaq comes out and lets the defenders pack the lane because LeBron can still get to the rim pretty much whenever he wants. Mo Williams, however, doesn’t have that luxury. Last year Mo thrived when Big Z was able to draw larger defenders out of the lane, but now this year he’s struggling with the defenders crowding the middle.
The solution to this is easy, but it’s one the Cavaliers won’t do. I realize we’re only 2 games into the season, but it’s time to put Zydrunas Ilgauskas back in the starting lineup. This would help the Cavaliers on multiple levels. First, it will allow the starters on offense to find their comfort zone a bit. Even though Big Z isn’t exactly lighting things up with his outside shot this season, you have to wonder if part of it is being uncomfortable with coming off the bench. As a guy who likes to shoot from outside, it can be tough to go through warm-ups before the game and then have to go sit on the bench and cool down, and then come into the game later and try to rediscover your stroke. I realize plenty of guys in the NBA do this all time, but my point is that it’s something Z is not familiar with doing whatsoever and to my eyes, it’s hurting his performance.
The other thing that starting Z does for the offense is it allows the Cavaliers to separate LeBron and Shaq. As of right now, those 2 are not showing any signs of being able to coexist in this offense. Furthermore, the Cavaliers bench is getting destroyed when LeBron sits. Because Shaq relies on his inside post game, coming off the bench cold isn’t quite as big of an issue. By moving Shaq to the 2nd unit, you can allow the first team offense to run as normal, and then when Shaq comes in you can focus on running the offense through him. It would give the bench unit an offensive presence to lean on, which is something sorely missed right now.
Currently, the Cavaliers bench is getting destroyed. JJ Hickson has been a nightmare, particularly after such a promising preseason. Not that Rob Kurz played well enough to earn a roster spot, but had the Cavaliers known Hickson would revert right back to last year’s form, you wonder if maybe they would have given Kurz a spot. As a result, Mike Brown is foolishly using a lineup of Shaq and Z together. It’s a pairing that literally everyone who watches basketball knows can’t work…..everyone except Mike Brown, that is. You will not find a bigger Mike Brown defender than myself, but even I find this to be patently offensive and inexcusable.
I realize he can’t play Hickson in late game scenarios, but why hasn’t Darnell Jackson earned a single minute of playing time yet? Jackson may not exactly be the most athletic guy on the team, but he’s certainly a hundred times more athletic than Z or Shaq. He’s not going to be an impact player, but he’s a solid enough role player who should at least be given a shot at this point. If Mike Brown feels that using a lineup that has no chance whatsoever of working is better than letting Jackson show what he can do, then why is Jackson even on this team?
So far this season Mike Brown has only played 9 players: Mo, Parker, LeBron, AV, Shaq, Boobie, Moon, Hickson, and Z. Coach Brown clearly has no trust in Hickson at all, which essentially means the Cavs are at an 8 man rotation. Then you consider how worthless Daniel Gibson has been (he PER is currently 5.7……FIVE POINT SEVEN!!!), and you’re down to 2 guys on the bench. Oh, but Big Z has been awful coming off the bench, too, and now you’ve got one bench player who is playing decent enough basketball, and that’s Jamario Moon. We lauded this team’s depth in the offseason, but right now, there is zero depth whatsoever.
Another glaring issue for this team is the lack of shooters. Who on this team do you feel comfortable with knocking down key shots in the 4th quarter? Mo Williams? He has a True Shooting % of .505 and an eFG% of .364. Anthony Parker? His TS% is .483 and his eFG% stands at .429. Jamario Moon’s TS% is .517 and his eFG% is .375. The only player with decent (but not spectacular) numbers in those categories is, of course, LeBron James (TS% of .577 and eFG% of .524). The Cavaliers are playing basketball as if they were a jump shooting team, except right now they have nobody on this roster who can shoot. From top to bottom, the issues with this team just keep piling up.
In fact, this is how bleak things have been. Let’s look at the PER of everyone on the team after 2 games (remember, a PER of 15.0 is league average):
- LeBron James – 29.4
- Jamario Moon – 12.8
- Shaquille O’Neal – 10.6
- Mo Williams – 8.7
- Zydrunas Ilgauskas – 7.5
- Anderson Varejao – 6.8
- Anthony Parker – 6.7
- Daniel Gibson – 5.7
- JJ Hickson – (-5.3)
There you have it. Your 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers. Only one guy with an above average PER and only 3 guys with PERs just in double digits. The Charlotte Bobcats, who lost their first game 92-59 have 3 guys above average efficiency ratings and 4 guys in double digits. Heck, the Knicks have 5 guys over 15.0 and 2 guys over 30.0 while the Nets also have 5 guys over 15.0. We know the odds of the Cavaliers continuing to play this poorly are slim, but things need to change quick and that fact is so painfully obvious.
What changes could we see? We could see this team show some life, energy, heart, hustle, and effort on defense. You can say that’s coaching, and to an extent it is, but if this is a Championship team the players need to take that upon themselves. You think Kevin Garnett would allow his team’s defense to be as lackadaisical as Cleveland’s has been? Not likely.
We could see Delonte West return to the team. This, above all else, would make a world of difference. I hate to keep harping on the same points, but again, last year Delonte was 2nd on the team and 10th in the entire NBA in Net +/- (right behind Garnett and right ahead of Rashard Lewis) and he was 8th in the NBA in Defensive +/-. In fact, even his Offensive +/- rating of +3.2 was the same as Paul Pierce’s and again, was 2nd on the team only to LeBron. By these measures of impact, Delonte West was the 2nd most important player on the team last year. If he comes back, and can earn back the starting spot that is rightfully his, it will vastly improve the Cavaliers’ defense, it will give the team more depth, and it will give the Cavaliers another shooter that they so desperately need.
We could see Mike Brown deepen his bench to give some guys a chance to prove themselves instead of giving so many minutes to starters who are playing like they have a sense of entitlement. If I were the coach of this team, I would give Darnell Jackson, Jawad Williams, and Danny Green some minutes just to see if they can spark some life into this team. We don’t see any of the joyous chemistry that this team displayed all last year, and after 2 games this team is suddenly playing like a bunch of guys who can’t stand each other.
We could see the Cavaliers make a trade. Obviously, the Stephen Jackson rumors are heating up again. Trading Ilgauskas for Jackson would at least solve the “twin towers” problem and make it so Mike Brown could no longer hurt this team with that lineup, and the team always knows (hopes?) they have Leon Powe in their back pocket to give them another big man eventually. And you know Stephen Jackson would instantly help this team. He would be another offensive weapon, although he’s not a great shooter. You have to wonder if the Cavaliers would struggle to figure out how to utilize another slasher on this team.
The two main reasons why the Cavaliers are unlikely, in my opinion, to do this trade now are because 1) Stephen Jackson’s contract is atrocious and 2) the Cavaliers need a stretch forward who can shoot more than anything else. To blow your best trading chip now in a move of desperation and panic doesn’t seem particularly wise. Danny Ferry has never been one to rush things and to make desperate moves, and I just don’t think he’ll start doing it now. Ferry is much more likely to take a deep breath and sit back and wait for other trade options to open up. In doing so, he’ll be much more likely to find someone who is a natural fit for the Cavaliers, not a guy who is just a quick fix.
Which brings us all the way full circle back to the original question: Is it time for patience or for panic? It’s funny, because while we can say that it’s just 2 games and there’s a lot of season left, we could just as easily point out how remarkable it is that the Cavaliers can be having this many problems after just 2 games.
I’m more inclined to give this ship some time to get righted, but it’s not going to happen on its own. You can only be so patient, but after a while, if you’re too patient and don’t make changes, you ended just sitting still while watching the ship sink into the ocean depths. I don’t believe Mike Brown will give Big Z the starting nod, but I do believe Mo will start to play a little better. I believe Delonte West will be back at some point. I believe that Coach Brown will eventually stop using the “twin towers” approach. So I believe we will see some changes and we will see this team start to play better. I’m no longer convinced this is a championship caliber roster, but I still believe this is one of the 3 best teams in the East. I believe in LeBron James’ leadership and I believe this team is going to start playing good basketball at some point this season. So as to the question of panic, well, I’ll leave that up to you individually to decide. Do you believe, or don’t you? It’s up to you.
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)