With the Cleveland Cavaliers disappointing 96-82 loss to the Boston Celtics Wednesday night, the Cavs ended their preseason with a 4-4 record. Now, this is the part where everyone screams about how the preseason doesn’t mean anything, and I would agree….to an extent. I completely agree that preseason records are completely meaningless, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to learn about a team in the preseason. In fact, that’s a big part of why the teams play preseason games to begin with, so coaches can learn as much as possible about their teams before the games start to count.
So with that thought in mind, it seems prudent to talk about a few issues of concern that exist with this year’s Cavaliers team based on preseason performances. Last year the Cavaliers went 3-5 in the preseason, and went on to win 66 games. However, the key difference is that last year’s team started out 0-4 in the preseason before winning 3 of 4 in the final 4 games as they began to hit their stride heading into the season. This year’s preseason was the complete opposite. After starting out 3-0 in the most meaningless preseason games, the Cavs ended up going 1-4 down the stretch and hardly look like a team that is starting to hit their stride.
The Cavaliers string of bad luck this preseason has been well documented. The team has been hammered by illness and injury, and it has hurt the team as they have tried to gel and get more acclimated to playing together. Any time you bring in 2 new starters (Shaq and Anthony Parker) along with a new key reserve in Jamario Moon it’s going to take guys time to adjust to new roles. Zydrunas Ilgauskas has to adapt to coming off the bench for the first time. Mo Williams has to adjust to not having Delonte West beside him and instead having a very different kind of player in Parker out there with him. The entire team has to get used to having Shaq on the court. These are things that take time.
Coach Mike Brown has been insisting that it may take the team a few more weeks to find their rhythm, but you can’t help but wonder if that’s really necessary. In 2007 when the Celtics added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, you might think they would have said the same thing. Instead, they jumped out of the gates to a startling 29-3 record before having to face any kind of adversity. The key difference here, though, is that Shaq and Parker aren’t exactly Garnett and Allen. It’s much easier to just plug in superstars because at that point talent trumps rhythm.
For the Cavaliers to maximize the talent and depth they have, Coach Brown must find a way to get this team into comfortable rotations and rhythms, and it’s quite evident that this team is not there yet. This may be the primary concern of the Cavaliers heading into the season. In a game in which Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen didn’t even play and Paul Pierce only played the first half, while the Cavaliers played their starters for most of 3 quarters, it is completely inexcusable for the Cavs to find themselves trailing by 21 points at one point in the 3rd.
Beyond just figuring out lineups and rotations, though, the next biggest concern for the Cavaliers has to be their lackluster defense through the preseason. This is directly correlated to my own personal biggest fear for this season, and that’s the absence of Delonte West. I’ve been telling people all offseason that Delonte West was one of the most underappreciated players last season. While Mo Williams was getting All-Star consideration (and it was certainly deserved), it was Delonte who was actually the 2nd most valuable player on the team last year.
John Krolik had this tremendous profile on Delonte the other day, and it’s a must read to truly appreciate all the West brings to this team. In particular, this passage is especially telling:
Delonte’s defensive numbers were absolutely amazing. He posted a career-high 1.5 steals per game without ever seeming to take bad gambles, kicked his habit of trying for miracle blocks instead of playing fundamental defense, held his man to a below-average 14.1 PER despite covering stellar players on a regular basis, and had one of the best defensive +/- ratings in the entire league. And of course, whenever tracking defensive stats the real question is how good defensively the team ended up being, and the Cavs were as good as it got. Delonte’s lack of size didn’t end up being an issue-the league is getting faster and faster, more two-point backcourts are coming into play, and more and more players’ games revolve around getting around people rather than shooting over them. (This is why I worry about Anthony Parker defensively at the 2.) And of course, Delonte is as tough as they come, never stops going 100%, has extremely quick hands, knows his defensive angles, and is much faster without the ball than he is with it. When he made Charley Rosen’s all-defensive team, he earned maybe the highest of compliments from Rosen when Rosen referred to him as a “nasty-minded” defensive player. LeBron made the flashy plays and got the DPOY votes on the Cavs, but their elite defense wouldn’t have worked without Anderson Varejao and Delonte West anchoring the interior and perimeter defense on every play.
We saw the impact of not having Delonte against the Celtics, not to mention against the likes of San Antonio and Washington. The one weak link in the armor of the Cavs defense is Mo Williams’ ability (or lack thereof) to keep faster PGs out of the lane. Few PGs are quicker off the dribble than Rajon Rondo, and he was able to abuse the Cavaliers. When Delonte was around, however, Mike Brown never hesitated to put Delonte on Rondo, and you immediately saw Rondo’s production grind to a halt with West on him. Mo Williams is much more suited to chase Ray Allen around the perimeter than trying to keep Rondo out of the lane. The Cavs lose that matchup scenario with Parker, though.
While Anthony Parker has the size Mike Brown loves in his SGs, and that certainly can be an asset against a taller team like the Magic, he doesn’t have the quickness and toughness that West has to not only keep up with smaller, quicker PGs, but also to be physical with them and push them around. I’ve been worried about this fact ever since Delonte failed to show up for the first practice. This is a problem for the Cavaliers, and we’ve seen it all preseason.
It’s not all bad news for the Cavaliers, and we certainly don’t need to overly dwell on the negatives. I’m hardly a doom and gloom type of fan, I’m just a fan who believes that there is plenty to learn from in every game – regular season, postseason, or even preseason. There’s certainly enough talent on this roster to overcome the loss of Delonte West’s presence, it’s just going to take time. Beyond the problems, we learned that Shaq is going to be a great fit in Cleveland, we learned that LeBron has taken JJ Hickson under his wing and JJ is beginning to show signs of flourishing. We learned that Anthony Parker can make the Cavaliers a much more dangerous offensive team.
At the end of the day, we may just have to show some patience with this team. Delonte West could be back playing in the first game of the season. He’s already returned to the bench and is dressing, and Mike Brown has said he has ultimate confidence in Delonte. For all we know, Delonte could be back in the lineup and contributing from game 1. Furthermore, we need to give this team time to get healthy. For the 7 players who had the flu, it will take time to regain full energy and these 5 days off before the season starts could be just what they needed. Mo Williams has battled a strained groin this preseason. Anderson Varejao hurt his wrist. Daniel Gibson bruised his tail bone. Danny Green had glute contusion. These are all things that will take time to fully recover from and for everyone to get back to 100%.
The final thing that hit home for me this preseason is that this team is not gearing up for the start of the regular season, because their only goal is to be ready for the playoffs. They aren’t rushing anyone back and they’re not going to thrust guys in the lineup before they’re ready because the regular season doesn’t matter to this team. We as fans are gearing up for what we hope and pray will be a magical season on all levels, and I really want to enjoy this regular season for all its worth. The ups, the downs, the breakout players….all of it. But when all is said and done, it’s the playoffs that will measure the success of this team, and throughout the preseason, this looked like a team that fully understands this concept. None the less, the season begins on Tuesday, and not even a pathetic final preseason game like Wednesday night’s game can cool down my enthusiasm for the ride we’re about to be taken on.