It’s our time. As part of the 5th Annual NBA Blogger Previews, the Cavaliers are on the clock today, so it’s time to take our first in-depth preview of the team. Of course we’ll still have plenty more in the coming weeks as we ramp up for the new season, but for now, lets get started with our preview:
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS 2010-11 PREVIEW
2009-10 Record: 61-21 (1st NBA, Eastern Conference, Central Division)
Key Losses: LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West
Key Additions: Ramon Sessions, Joey Graham, Ryan Hollins, Samardo Samuels
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
Sigh. Everyone is well aware what happened with the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers lost the best player in the NBA and a local hero in LeBron James. Lost him for pretty much nothing with nothing to show for his time in Cleveland. It has left a deep scar that isn’t even close to being healed yet. It’s going to be a long time before things feel normal with the Cavs again.
For their part, the Cavs accumulated a few low draft picks and a $14.5 million Trade Exception for LeBron. It’s unclear if or when the Cavaliers will use the Trade Exception and what kind of player they are looking for in return, and the Cavs have the option of using the draft picks or eventually trying to bundle some picks together to try to pick a piece or two in the future. Regardless, the Cavaliers did leave themselves with at least a few assets in return for LeBron, but those assets are nothing compared to what was lost.
The Delonte West trade, though, was actually a really nice move by Chris Grant. There was a time when Delonte West was a beloved core piece of the Cavaliers and we all hoped he would be here a long time. In the wake of his personal issues along with his recent legal troubles and his valuable voidable contract, though, he just became too valuable as a trade asset to not use. Delonte no longer had a use in Cleveland, and everyone knew it. That didn’t stop Chris Grant from finding someone willing to give up some value in return for the ability to void Delonte’s contract.
So the Cavs shipped Delonte to Minnesota in return for Ramon Sessions and Ryan Hollins, two players who should have roles in Cleveland. Sessions was an especially nice pickup. An excellent ball handler who excels when pushing the tempo will be a natural fit into the system Byron Scott is trying to install in Cleveland. Furthermore, the Cavaliers were desperately thin at the center position after losing Shaq and Big Z this summer, so Hollins gives the Cavaliers some much needed height and size. Hollins is also a very athletic and agile big man who should be able to add value to the lineup when the Cavaliers are out running.
The Cavaliers also added Joey Graham, a veteran journeyman to give a little depth at the vacant small forward position and Samardo Samuels, a promising undrafted big man who impressed some in Summer League. Neither one figures to be an impact player, but could find their own niches on a new team in search of a new identity.
2. What are the Cavaliers’ biggest strengths?
I would say the Cavs’ strengths are really quite limited now, but their biggest strength is probably their 3 point shooting. Anthony Parker wore down as the season lingered and his age and declining skills are a question mark, but he still shot over 40% from deep on the season. Mo Williams is a lights out three point shooter and Daniel Gibson has been promised a chance to earn more playing time gives the Cavaliers another weapon from three point range. In fact, Booby Gibson shot 47.7% from long range last year in his limited time. With more attempts, you’d expect that number to drop, of course, but it shows that Gibson is still a feared shooter. Antawn Jamison is another guy unafraid to launch some 3’s and Jamario Moon and Jawad Williams are streaky 3 point shooters who catch fire from time to time. All in all, the Cavaliers have a plethora of guys who can shoot threes.
The Cavaliers also still have a lot of depth on this team. Ok, it’s not depth in quality, but it’s depth none the less. Whoever the starters end up being, when Byron Scott needs to go to the bench, there shouldn’t be too dramatic of drop offs at most positions. If the core players in Scott’s rotation are Mo Williams, Ramon Sessions, Daniel Gibson, Anthony Parker, Jawad Williams, Jamario Moon, Joey Graham, Antawn Jamison, JJ Hickson, Leon Powe, and Anderson Varejao, that’s a rotation that runs 11 deep. Again, none of these are impact players, but they are (almost) all solid NBA players who would be able to play on most NBA teams.
Finally, the Cavaliers have a lot of quality depth at power forward. Anderson Varejao is still more of a power forward, but he will be sliding over to center this year. None the less, the Cavaliers still have JJ Hickson, Antawn Jamison, and Leon Powe. If Ryan Hollins ends up working out ok at center, the Cavaliers could still play Varejao at the 4 at times if there’s a certain matchup they want there. All of the Cavaliers power forwards also have slightly different style games, which should be beneficial in using different guys at different positions to try to gain some matchup advantages. For all the loss in depth at center, the Cavaliers still have some decent size at spots and whereas last year they were deadly when they played small, this year they may actually find their best matchup advantages when they play big with Antawn Jamison at small forward.
3. What are the Cavaliers’ biggest weaknesses?
Oh boy, here we go. First off, after 7 years of standing around and deferring to LeBron James, the simple absence of James serves as this team’s biggest weakness. This was a team compiled to compliment James and now they will be asked to operate independent of their biggest crutch. It could take an extremely long time to get over the feeling of a hole in this franchise where a bright star once shone. Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison will be asked to be the go-to guys on this team, but neither player’s game is best suited for that. If JJ Hickson could be ready to assume some of the load, he could be a player the team could lean on for points around the paint when they need them, but unfortunately his game just isn’t quite there yet.
I expect the defense to suddenly become a major weakness for this team as well. It feels weird even typing that after 5 seasons of supreme defensive excellence under coach Mike Brown, but the personnel on this team just don’t add up to a good cohesive defensive unit.
Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, and JJ Hickson (for the most part) are all major defensive liabilities. Leon Powe struggles staying out of foul trouble and Anthony Parker gives effort on defense but is to slow to react against younger, quicker guards. Jamario Moon has defensive ability, but often times can be caught sleeping as he loses his place in the defense. Anderson Varejao is still one of the game’s best defensive players, but now he is mostly on his own. Daniel Gibson was actually excellent defensively last season when actually given a chance to play and Byron Scott will hope he continues to improve there this season.
It’s not that Byron Scott isn’t a good defensive coach. His numbers are actually quite impressive as a defensive coach. So it won’t be for a lack of attention that the Cavs will struggle. The problem is that last year LeBron James, even in a lethargic-by-his-standards defensive season, cleaned up and masked a lot of this team’s defensive deficiencies. With more liabilities than assets on that side of the ball, I expect the Cavaliers to struggle, particularly in an up tempo system that will give opponents more possessions.
I also question the Cavaliers ability to create on offense. Byron Scott is bringing a Princeton style offense to the team, which should bring about movement off the ball and ideally create some opportunities for shots to made within the flow of the offense. In a perfect world, this would be exactly what the doctor ordered after years of watching the LeIso offense. However, these things tend to take time to get down and excel at. I expect the Cavaliers to really struggle this season in implementing the new offense, and it will show. Not being able to create a shot when the team absolutely needs one is going to be a major weakness for this team.
Lastly, the small forward position is a major weakness on this team. Right now, the Cavaliers just have Jawad Williams, Jamario Moon, and Joey Graham to fight for right to start at the 3. Not super impressive. All 3 players have their niches that they execute well, but none of them are even close to being a complete player, and if any position in the NBA demands you be a complete player, it’s the small forward. It’s not surprising the Cavs have no small forwards. They’ve had LeBron for 7 years and everyone in Cleveland fully believed LeBron was going to stay. So there was no contingency here, just a bunch of guys capable of not completely screwing up when LeBron needed a breather. So the Cavaliers are going to go into every game this season with a glaring disadvantage at the 3 now.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Honestly? I wish I knew. The Cavaliers seem to be sending mixed messages on what their agenda is for this season. We have Dan Gilbert and Chris Grant talking about rebuilding the right way, which would probably mean trying to trade high priced veterans like Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams in order to acquire more assets for rebuilding. On the other hand, there’s a lot of talk about this team not dropping off completely and trying to contend for a playoff spot again this season. If that’s the case, and if Mo Williams is correct in saying Dan Gilbert will add any piece he can to make this team better, then we’ll probably see the Cavaliers try to use their Trade Exception to add another veteran piece who can help the team squeak into the playoffs this season and prove to everyone that this team was more than just LeBron James.
I’m really not sure what reality will be. If they asked me, and believe me, they haven’t and they won’t, I would just say that the goal for this team should be to take stock and inventory of what the team has and which players fit well in the offensive and defensive systems Byron Scott wants to implement. If this team actually is in the hunt for the 8 seed somehow, so be it, but I wouldn’t do anything to make a playoff push. Any roster moves the Cavaliers make this season had better be with an eye on the future, not with an eye on this season. The Cavaliers are not going to win the Championship this season, so there’s no reason to set back that goal in any way by trying to prove some kind of vanity point to your doubters.
Those of us who have watched this team night in and night out the past few seasons know the truth. We know that this team was more than just LeBron James and a bunch of scrubs. We know that while the formula for winning was working, it was also allowing LeBron to stunt the development of pretty much everyone else’s game as they were asked to stand around and wait for LeBron to get them the ball. That should be good enough. Who cares what everyone else thinks? LeBron is gone, it’s time to move on and not worry about trying to retroactively prove anything. This franchise can either wallow in the past or move on to the future. Moving on should be goal #1 for this franchise.
5. Where will this team find leadership from?
For the past 4 or 5 seasons, leadership on this team has come from a singular voice. Sure, Big Z was the long time veteran, but he was never a vocal leader. Shaq was here last season, but it seems as though LeBron never really moved over at all to make room for Shaq on the leadership throne. This was LeBron’s team and LeBron’s team alone.
So just as there is a talent void in his wake, so too is there now a leadership void. I know Byron Scott is big on leadership and he is going to need guys to step up. But who will be the leaders? The obvious choices are Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison. There’s a risk there, though, because both guys could be traded at any point this season. The Cavaliers will need someone beyond those two. Anthony Parker is another logical choice, but again, he too is a player who could be moved at the trade deadline if a playoff team is looking for someone to come off the bench and knock down some 3’s.
There’s a core of 4 players from which I’d like to see some leadership develop this season. Those three are Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson, Ramon Sessions, and JJ Hickson. Those 4 are the players I feel are most likely to be part of this franchise in the long term. I realize Sessions is the new guy and Hickson is still very young, but that’s an aspect of both their games I think they can really work on developing this season.
When it comes to Varejao and Gibson, though, I think they are prime candidates to take on more of a leadership role this season. I particularly think we could really see Gibson step up and have a true breakout season. I was thoroughly impressed with his defensive improvement last season, and with a fresh set of eyes in Byron Scott, he has a chance to earn playing time again. I never understood why Mike Brown didn’t play Gibson hardly at all. My best explanation was just Coach Brown’s strange infatuation with large shooting guards. It’s why Sasha Pavlovic played so many minutes and it’s why AP was overworked last season rather than giving Gibson some minutes.
Byron Scott doesn’t share that fear of playing smaller guards, and Gibson could really thrive in this new offense. The idea of the motion offense is to setup good looks cutting to the basket. If the Cavaliers can find some success at this, they will draw defenses in a bit which could give Gibson some open looks from the outside. The more success Gibson has on the court, the easier his transition to team leader will be. He has already been one of the most vocal Cavaliers this offseason, he’s been showing leadership qualities via Twitter all offseason, and he now even has his own feature on the Cavaliers website called Camp Up-Close with Boobie (I guess they didn’t get the memo he wants to change his nickname to Booby). I truly feel that we will be seeing more Booby this season, and with that I really think he can be a source of leadership as someone who has been here 5 years now, has had huge games in the postseason, and who knows this franchise and this city as well as anyone on the team.
6. Will the Cavaliers be successful at transitioning into an up-tempo and motion offense this season?
This is really the million dollar question right here. How do you take players like Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson, Anderson Varejao, JJ Hickson, and Jawad Williams who have all spent multiple seasons standing around watching LeBron stand there with the ball and dribbling out the shot clock and suddenly ask them to go completely in the opposite direction and start running in transition and operating a motion offense? This will be Byron Scott’s biggest challenge.
The Cavaliers actually have an abundance of athleticism on this team. Nobody on this team outside of maybe Leon Powe (depending on how healthy his knees really are) should have too much trouble getting up and down the court once Coach Scott is done whipping them into shape. I’m not near as worried about that as I am about the team falling into old habits and standing around too much in their half court sets.
This is where the Cavaliers can lean on some of the new blood. Ramon Sessions excels at pushing the tempo and getting offenses into their sets. Antawn Jamison knows this motion offense better than anyone else on this team. These are guys who can really help this team make the transition to their new offense. It’s still going to take time, though, and you can expect to see a lot of bumps in the road this year as the Cavaliers try to learn to adapt.
7. Will JJ Hickson make “The Leap” this year?
We finally saw JJ Hickson grow into the player who showed us glimpses of what he’s capable of becoming last year. Unfortunately, he was still a little too raw and inconsistent and when the playoffs came, Mike Brown suddenly decided he couldn’t trust a guy who started 73 games for the team.
The one nice thing LeBron did for this team last summer was take Hickson under his wing. People say LeBron doesn’t work on his game in the offseason, but that’s simply not true. We know that he used to take Chris Jent everywhere with him in the summers and the two would work on developing aspects of LeBron’s game. Just because LeBron didn’t develop the post moves everyone wanted him to doesn’t mean he wasn’t working and wasn’t advancing his game overall.
So last summer JJ Hickson got to go with LeBron and Chris Jent and see first hand what it means to have a work ethic and to try to develop your game in the summer. We know that this summer JJ was really working on his mid range jumper. If JJ can begin to knock down that shot, he is going to become a nightmare to defend in this offense and I have no doubt he can become a 20+ point scorer in this league.
Ah, but the question isn’t “can he”, the question is “will he”. There’s plenty of areas in which I lack optimism with this team this year, but I’m going to show a little faith when it comes to JJ. I liked what I saw out of his demeanor in the Summer League, and I really liked that even back then he was already showing some results in his shot improvement. He still had a long way to go, but he’s had another 2 months to keep working at it, and I really think this season we are going to see JJ grow into a more complete and reliable player.
Well, here’s what I know. I know the team won’t win 60+ games for a 3rd straight season and I also know that they will win more than 12 games. So somewhere between 12 and 59 wins, right?
It would be easier for me to talk about how this team will finish this year if I had a better feel for whether the team intends to hang on to Mo and Jamison this year or if they will be proactive in trying to trade them and moving on. If Mo and Jamison actually play all year for the Cavaliers, I honestly do think they will be right in the hunt for the last playoffs spot for most of the season. Ultimately, though, I think the team lacks the firepower and true offensive star to get them over the hump. I expect them to be competitive in a lot of games this year, but whereas we have grown accustomed to winning close games in the 4th quarter, the Cavaliers now no longer have a closer, and therefore I expect this team to lose a lot of games in the 4th quarter.
Beyond that, I truly do believe Jamison will be traded at some point this season and probably Mo Williams as well. I love having both players on this team and I will always root for both of them on a personal level, but this season can’t be personal. The Cavs will have to make some tough choices, and as a result I think this team will ultimately fall well short of the playoffs and make their first return to the draft lottery in 6 years.
Some have suggested this won’t be a fun team to watch, but I don’t know about that. For me, there’s something fun about the newness of this situation. I’m looking forward to watching them try to develop an actual offensive strategy and I’m eager to see which players will indeed make the most out of this opportunity to step up given to them. Where this team finishes in the standings this year isn’t all that important to me. I just want to see some kind of image of a plan for rebuilding and moving forward. I want to see players develop in this system and those that can’t, I’d like to see traded if possible to situations that better fit them.
My Final Prediction: 28-54