In preparation for tonight’s rematch against the Orlando Magic, I polled individuals across the wide spectrum of Cavaliers fans to see their thoughts on the team as it stands right now. With a mediocre record 4-3 and relaxing for four days after their victory over the Knicks Friday, this is the opportune break to analyze what has happened in this very young season. Without any further ado, let me introduce you to the body of writers that will investigate the reasons behind the struggles of the 2009-2010 team:
Brendan B, Stepien Rules editor and writer Nick H, Columbus resident and certified Cavaliers news junkie Matt M, Fordham University sports writer and basketball stats protege Scott, WFNY editor, founder and daily writer
The questions and answers below deal with four central topics surrounding the team: the overall record, Mike Brown’s rotation, the offensive flow and the defense. Share your thoughts and responses in the comment section below.
Overall Record: The Cavs started the 2008-2009 season with a 1-2 record but then coasted and all of a sudden, they were 20-3. So why are they only 4-3 right now after their win on Friday night? Is it the different scheduling or something else specifically that is bothering this team?
Brendan B: The Cavaliers don’t seem to be playing as hard as they did a year ago through the first seven games. Is it just an effort thing then? Not so much. To me, the reason for the sluggish start is the fact that the team has no idea about what they want to do offensively. Guys get on the floor and don’t know how or where to apply effort, and the result of that is what its been…standing around, throwing it into Shaq just for the sake of it, and hoisting up bad shots as the shot clock expires. With the addition of as many new significant players as the Cavaliers have added, a feeling out process is certainly understandable, but what is worrisome is how the Cavs have not seemed to identify what they want to try to do. Until they do, they will continue to struggle.
Nick H: It is impossible to compare this year’s start with that of last year. At the beginning of the 08-09 season, there was basically only one new piece to integrate into the lineup from the previous campaign: Mo Williams. Aside from him, the team was the same as it had been and the players were very comfortable playing with each other. Mo addressed many of the weaknesses that the Cavs had been struggling with since the beginning of the LeBron era. Most notably, the need for a competent ball-handler and a viable second scoring option. He also is capable of playing as a shooting guard which is very important when playing alongside LeBron because of LBJ’s (sometimes crippling) tendency to play point. Because Mo fit the team’s needs so precisely, he was easily inserted into the lineup and the team gelled almost instantly and got off to a hot start.
Fast-forward to this season, and it is an entirely different beast. The team is trying to integrate 4 new players into the rotation after enduring a less-than-useless preseason. The starting lineup from last year’s dominant team has been broken up despite all the pieces still being present and players and coaches alike are still trying to define roles. For all of Delonte West’s personal issues, he was an invaluable cog in the 66-win machine that was the 08-09 Cavs and his relegation to the bench has disrupted one of the best back-courts in basketball from a year ago. JJ Hickson’s play has been disappointingly inconsistent and Z can’t hit a jumper to save his life after sitting on the pine for a few minutes.
Then comes the biggest move from the entire offseason, the Shaquisition. This is the sole reason for the Cavs early struggles. Unlike Mo and even Anthony Parker and JJ, Shaq cannot be inserted into the Cavs system. Rather, the Cavs system and the Shaq system must merge together and that’s where the 4-3 start has come from. Shaq is so different from anyone LeBron has played with in his career and he simply doesn’t know how to do it yet. And I don’t even think that Shaq is the problem. Shaq has played with dominant wing players and he has won with them. The problem is that the Cavs don’t know how to play with Shaq. Unless and until the Cavs can learn how to harness Shaq’s offensive talents while masking him on the defensive end, the team’s struggles will remain evident in their record. The media can point fingers at the scheduling difficulty, West’s personal issues, the pending 2010 free agency, or the departure of John Kuester, but the root of the team’s struggles thus far lies solely in their inability to play with Shaq.
Matt M: There are a few major problems with this team, and the schedule isn’t one of them. Last season, after a loss in Boston in the season opener and a loss in New Orleans to a good Hornets team the third game of the season, the Cavaliers beat a strong Dallas team in Dallas, beat Chicago and Indiana at home and then Chicago in Chicago: so, a pretty similar schedule to start the year. The main problems with this team are poor offensive spacing and sets, an inconsistent rotation from Mike Brown, and terrible defense against the pick and roll.
Scott: Honestly, the only team we should have lost to is Boston. The losses to Toronto and Chicago could have been avoided if not for the necessity to toy with the rotations and “try” new things. I wouldn’t say that anything is really bothering the team aside from the occasional bench disappearing act, but it appears more and more that Mike Brown is finally settling in on his rotation so things should be alright from here out.
Rotation: In the off-season, we swapped Sasha Pavlovic, Wally Szczerbiak and Ben Wallace for Shaquille O’Neal, Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker. Was starting J.J Hickson the right idea against the New York Knicks on Friday night? What else can be done in a hurry to fix Mike Brown’s rotation?
Brendan B: Starting J.J. Hickson was a button that Mike Brown needed to push and I’m glad he did. He has the most upside of any of the Cavaliers bigs, and his skill set most compliments that of Shaquille O’Neal. He is going to have to take a step forward in his development, but I think he can if given consistent minutes to play through some early mistakes, and learn what it takes to be a contributor in the NBA on a regular basis. Not that Anderson deserved to technically “lose his starting spot” because he didn’t, but the rotation does set up better this way – starting JJ alongside Shaq, and bringing in Andy off the bench.
Nick H: I believe starting JJ was a good move and Mike Brown should take a real look at how it plays out before pulling the plug. JJ provides an athletic 4 who although is not truly a “stretch” 4, can still knock down a 15-footer. It gives JJ time with both Shaq and LeBron which should give him plenty of open looks and build his confidence in the process. Shaq has also shown an interest in the young man’s career so far and appears to be helping him as much as he can, so anytime JJ spends on the floor with the future hall-of-famer can only be beneficial.
But the best part about starting JJ is actually how it affects the rest of the rotation. It means Varejao, the Cavs most productive big man of the season by far, can go back to being the energy guy coming off the bench. He has really thrived as a starter, but I have always felt his game fits the bill of 6th man to a T. It also means Andy will be paired with Z which is the frontcourt from last year’s 66-win team.
The question that remains unanswered in my mind is whether or not Delonte should start or play backup PG. Again, Delonte and Mo were one of the best backcourts in the league last year, but it is crucial that at least one of those guys is on the floor at all times. There are simply no other capable ball-handlers on the team. If this can be accomplished while starting both as I believe was done towards the end of last season, then that would be OK. The rumors about signing Antonio Daniels may alter this guard situation but as it stands now, one of West or Mo must always be on the court.
Matt M: My first thought when I saw Hickson starting was that we were featuring him for other teams for a possible trade. Hickson has been mentioned in trade rumors as being paired with Z for Stephen Jackson, as Z provides cap relief and Hickson is a promising young big: something every team can use. However, as the game wore on, I started to see Mike Brown’s rationale, though I don’t really agree with it. Brown is trying to use Hickson in a similar capacity to Ben Wallace during the beginning of last season. On offense, Wallace had no plays run for him and was basically told to stay out of LeBron’s way and crash the boards: if Hickson continues to start, that will be his role. Defensively, Wallace was asked to cover the other team’s best big, but with Shaq at center Hickson won’t have to worry about that.
Varejao is a better player on both ends than Hickson, and though Mike Brown likes bringing him off the bench with his energy and offensive rebounding, Varejao is simply too good at this point to not start. He is actually first on the team in plus/minus at +69, tied with Shaq to lead the team in rebound rating at 16.9%, (essentially rebounds divided by total available rebounds, a truer measure of rebounding ability adjusted for playing time) and he and Shaq are tied at 12th in the league at defensive rating (an all encompassing defensive stat). Some people will point to examples like Jason Terry, Manu Ginobli in years past, and even Flip Murray for a while in 2007 for the Cavaliers as examples of good players coming off the bench. However, all those players are scoring guards: Varejao is a big man whose specialty is defense.
Right now, Varejao is our best defender against the pick and roll, he is our best rebounder, one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, and has become quite adept on offense on making backdoor cuts and getting open around the basket. Yes, he is still extremely limited as a shooter, but he doesn’t need to be a good shooter to be effective and fill a role. Hickson is extremely athletic, has some post moves, and could be a good player at some point. But he is often out-of-control on offense, turns the ball over at an extremely high rate (he turns the ball over on 24.6%, which is mind-blowing), and isn’t a great defender. Keep Varejao as the starter, keep Hickson’s minutes limited until he improves on defense and with the turnovers. At this point, I’d either bring in Darnell Jackson, who is unspectacular but is a solid defender and rebounder, ahead of Hickson. Or, do more small lineups and bring in Jamario Moon to take Hickson’s minutes with LeBron at the 4 and then Varejao, Z, or Shaq at the 5.
Scott: I loved starting JJ over Andy. Varejao obviously is going to receive more minutes, but having Hickson on the floor with LeBron seems to do wonders for his confidence. Typically, JJ found himself the sporadic minutes when LeBron was resting so working this sort of rotation out will not only help Hickson grow, but it will provide even more energy off of the bench with Andy and Z appearing to work very well together. I would still love to see a lineup that would put LeBron at the four and let the team run for a few minutes, but that (like the “twin towers”) may only be good in experimental type stages in games.
Offense: All of our offensive stars from last season stayed on the team this year and we also added one of the greatest centers of all-time in Shaq. Why is the offense not as fluid now through seven of the 82 games? What is the difference for the Cavs offensively compared to last season?
Brendan B: Despite the fact that the Cavaliers top scorers from a year ago all returned, their individual struggles thus far this season can be attributed to the fact that, besides LeBron James, all of their roles have changed to some degree. Specifically, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is now a back-up center, Delonte West has gone from a starter to coming off the bench, and Mo Williams has gone from being the hands down second best option on the team to – maybe / probably the second best option on the team with the addition of Shaq.
Nick H: The biggest difference is in the playing styles of Z and Shaq. This team is so used to playing with a stretch center with no post game in Z who doesn’t need many touches, and Shaq is the polar opposite. He clogs the lane and allows his defender to help on dribble drives and he needs the ball in order to be effective. This is an enormous difference and one that is taking the offensively challenged Cleveland coaching staff a while to cope with. Shaq’s presence in the lane makes it more difficult for any of the Cavs’ guards to penetrate and thus the whole offensive flow is disrupted.
Furthermore, the Mo/Delonte guard duo last year was so effective because both could handle the ball, create plays, and spot up. This year, Parker is a good spot up shooter but cannot create like West can. Therefore, Mo cannot spot up as much with Parker in the game. In addition, the touches required by Shaq are taking away from Mo’s touches which further disrupt his game. As with many jump shooters, Mo needs to get into a rhythm early in the game to be effective. Last year as the second option, he was able to establish himself on a nightly basis. This year, he is not receiving as many touches early on, he does not get into a rhythm, and his scoring and effectiveness suffer throughout the game.
When Shaq is scoring at a 60% clip, the offense doesn’t look so bad. But so far this season, that has not been happening and the offensive deficiencies are apparent. I believe the opportunity is there for this team to be a beast offensively since they have two starting-caliber centers with opposite styles of play. However, they must learn how to play with each center and they must be able to flip the switch instantaneously. If they cannot learn how to do this, I predict that Z and Shaq will not be ending the season as teammates.
Matt M: The numbers don’t lie: last season, according to basketball-reference.com, the Cavaliers ranked 4th in the league in offensive efficiency at 112.4 points per 100 possessions. In addition, our effective field goal% is down from 52% to 50% and our offensive rebounding % is down from 28% to 22%. This season, we are currently ranked 21st at 103.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s a staggering drop, and the main reason for the offensive woes is currently sitting on the bench of the Detroit Pistons, wearing a suit and holding a clip board. John Kuester had a huge effect on our offense last year, and Mike Brown and “offensive assistant” Mike Malone have struggled to fill the gaping void. Simply from watching the offense this year, I have at times been nauseous: it looks a lot like the infamous “stand-around-and-watch-LeBron” offense that everyone loved so much from 2007 and before. Shaq has been solid when he gets the ball, but that hasn’t been happening consistently. His usage rating is the second lowest of his career at 22%, and while his effective field goal % is only 54% (down from 61% last year), part of that is because he’s not always getting the ball in good spots.
Varejao and LeBron are playing well, and Mo is playing pretty similarly to last year, but Anthony Parker is not very effective on offense thus far. He is only shooting 37% from the floor, with an effective field goal% of 48%, and he is getting too many shots at nine a game, versus only 12 for Mo (down 2 from last year) and only nine for Shaq, which seems way too low. The spacing on offense is terrible, as is evidenced by the amount of dribbling from side to side that often happens with Mo and LeBron as they struggle to find open lanes. Last season the bread and butter of the team was solid perimeter passing, and pick and rolls between Mo/LeBron and Z/Varejao, where Z “pops” to the baseline and Varejao cuts to the basket. This season, Parker has taken too many shots, and it seems everyone, for whatever reason, isn’t as willing to make the “extra pass.” Also, we haven’t figured out how to use Shaq yet effectively. Z fit our offense well last year because he was essentially a perimeter shooter: Shaq is a pure post player that we have yet to meld with our offense yet.
To equal last year’s success, the team needs to start out games going down low to Shaq. LeBron always likes getting his teammates involved early, especially at home, so rather than giving Anthony Parker early shots, why not give them to Shaq? He can draw double teams and kick out to our shooters or try and take his man one-on-one. Additionally, it seems LeBron is increasingly receiving the ball late in the possession on the perimeter, limiting his options and making him take a low % jumper. An increased effort has to be made to getting LeBron the ball at better spots on the floor, like in post up situations. The other day, Brian Windhorst talked about a new set the team was trying that featured LeBron in the corner, Mo on the wing, and Shaq on the block. Since LeBron loves the corner 3, Mo loves the wing 3, and Shaq is Shaq, this should be a good set in theory, and even though it didn’t work too well against the good defense of the Bulls, it is a step in the right direction. Furthermore, we have to run more when we can: we didn’t necessarily run much last season, but LeBron is the best in the game in the open floor and Mo is one of the best in the game at his “stop-and-pop” jumper in transition. So, to recap, more Shaq early, more perimeter passing, less Anthony Parker, getting the ball to LeBron in better spots, and more running will make this offense better.
Scott: It all comes down to chemistry. Shaq and Z (as well as Ben Wallace) play very different games. Z can play away from the hoop. Wallace was a non-factor on offense. Shaq is a hybrid of the two with side of domination thrown in for good measure. This takes time to get used to in terms of spacing, ball movement and floor positioning. This falls on Mike Brown putting his players in the best position for success. It looks like he’s slowly getting a handle on things, but this is a big part. And don’t forget, all of our stars are still on the team, but they aren’t playing the same roles with Z, Delonte and now Andy coming off of the bench.
Defense: Last year, the Cavs were the top ranked defense in the NBA and suffocated opponents night in and night out. Are Delonte West’s personal and legal troubles affecting the entire squad this year? Is the team having trouble adjusting with the Big Diesel in the middle? What positions are we having trouble against so far?
Nick H: This issue to me is the biggest surprise of the season. With the Cavs’ offseason acquisitions, defense is the last thing I thought would take a hit. Because of that, I believe this issue will be solved simply with time. Shaq is slow and vulnerable on the pick and roll, but so is Z and he was a part of that suffocating defense last year. I believe Shaq can fit in to this defense just as Z does if he is willing, and hopefully he really is as willing as he says he is.
Parker and Jamario Moon are defensive upgrades from Wally and Sasha no matter who you ask. I just believe it will take time for them to learn the defense and learn that this team gives 100% effort every night. That has not been seen in the early going but the Cavs must renew that intensity if they want to right this ship. Also, Moon must get more playing time if they want him to learn the system. Practice is one thing, but he must get minutes in game situations to learn what defense means to this team. I’m not sure if or why he is in Mike Brown’s doghouse, but I wish he’d be let out so we can see what he can do. After all, if he was brought in to help defend the star wing players like Kobe, Pierce, Wade, etc., he needs to learn how to defend within the Cavs system before taking on such assignments.
As for the Delonte issues, I don’t believe they are affecting the team as long as he is playing. When and if he is in and out of the lineup again, then I can see the team having issues with continuity, chemistry and rhythm. But he has only been back in the lineup for a few games so time will tell if he can return to last year’s form. This will also depend on how he is used in the rotation. But he dealt with issues behind the scenes all of last year and it didn’t affect the team, so I believe as long as he is playing, it should not be used as an excuse.
Matt M: Defensively, the Cavaliers’ have been very similar to last year, if not a little better. The Cavs are giving up 99 ppg per 100 possessions, versus 102 last year per 100 possessions last year, and allowing a 46% effective fg% this year versus 47% last year. Against most teams, the Cavaliers have the ability to dominate defensively. As mentioned before, Shaq and Varejao are two of the premier post defenders in the league. Shaq is strong enough to bully around most traditional big men, and Varejao has some of the quickest and best defensive footwork of any big man in the league and defends the pick and roll very well. However, Shaq is too slow to defend the pick and roll, as are Z, so teams have been exploiting that a bit more this year after watching Orlando do it so well last year in the playoffs. So teams with athletic, quick big men, like Toronto with Bosh and Bargnani and Chicago with Noah and Thomas have been able to run the pick and roll well against the Cavs.
The so-called “Twin-Towers” lineup of Z paired with Shaq has to go. As sexy as it seems in theory, they are simply too slow on defense. Furthermore, Z has to remain exclusively outside of the paint with Shaq on the floor on offense, thus negating Z’s offensive rebounding, for which he is ranked near the top of the league. LeBron, Delonte, and Parker are all very solid perimeter defenders, and Boobie and Mo have displayed a renewed effort on improving on that end. The main problem is still defending the pick and roll. One strategy is obviously having Varejao in whenever Shaq or Z is in the game. Another tactic is to use a small lineup with Jamario Moon or LeBron at the 4 against teams with quicker big men. Mo still has trouble defending quicker guards, but LeBron will at times switch onto his man, like he did with Derrick Rose in crunch time against Chicago. Stopping the pick and roll is the team’s main problem on defense still.
Scott: Regardless of what the team says, West’s issues have to be a distraction. However, I don’t know if it necessarily trickles down to the defense. West is coming off of the bench and is no longer asked to play almost over 30 minutes an evening – at least for now. We continue to have trouble against athletic power forwards, especially those that can shoot. Having Shaq and Ilgauskas on the floor together made this that much worse. Until we can find a stretch forward, it is going to all come down to team help and rotations off of the ball.
– – – –
Thanks to everyone for their contributions. Go Cavs and as always, here is a reminder to enter to win tickets to the upcoming Browns/Ravens Monday Night Football Game.
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.