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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

King James and His Court

No, this post is not about Gund Arena, but about the players that the Cleveland Cavaliers are assembling around LeBron James. Ray Allen and Michael Redd turned down the opportunity to make about $20 million less to play alongside LeBron, but the Cavaliers rebounded nicely from those rejections by prying Larry Hughes away from the Washington Wizards. Hughes may well have been the best value of the bunch, all things considered: Allen will be in his mid-30s by the end of his contract and likely will no longer be worth the top dollars that he will be receiving, while Redd is not as good an all-around player as Hughes, who had more rebounds, assists, steals and blocks than Redd while playing 14 fewer games. Redd only shot slightly better from the field than Hughes (.441 to .430), although that is a little deceptive because Redd attempted and made more three point field goals. We keep hearing pundits say that LeBron needs to be surrounded by shooters, which is true, but even more so he needs some guys who can play. The team was 42-40 and faded down the stretch for a reason--there simply was not enough talent on the roster. Hughes ranked 18th in the NBA's official efficiency rating system last year, ahead of both Allen and Redd (LeBron ranked 2nd behind Kevin Garnett). Hughes can play point guard, shooting guard and small forward and was headed for his first All-Star selection before a mid-season injury sidelined him. Hughes led the NBA in steals and LeBron ranked third--they will be a murderous duo in the passing lanes and the presence of Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the paint will enable them to gamble on the perimeter.

Speaking of which, days after the Hughes signing the Cavaliers re-signed their All-Star center (hereafter referred to as "Z" to save mileage on the spell checker). It is easy to point out Z's flaws--he is not extremely mobile and he has a history of injuries to his feet--but he is also the third best center in the East behind Shaquille O'Neal and Ben Wallace. OK, he's waaay behind those two, but so is every other center in the East (Eddy Curry's health status is questionable and, while he is a good low post scorer, his defense is poor and his rebounding is embarrassingly bad for a player of his size--at 6-11, 285 he only managed 5.4 rpg, almost a full rebound per game less than the 6-5 Hughes!). Some observers feel that the Cavs should have let Z go and spent that money on another player. In theory that sounds good but how that would work in practice is another matter. Even if the Cavs could have signed another perimeter player with the money that they spent to keep Z, they would still be taking a step backward by losing an All-Star center. It's not like you can just go to "Centers R Us" and find a guy who averages 16.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 2.1 bpg while ranking second in the league to Ben Wallace in offensive rebounds per game.

Right now the Cavaliers' starting lineup is Z, Drew Gooden, LeBron, Hughes and Eric Snow--an All-NBA player, two All-Star caliber players, an experienced, solid point guard and a talented, if inconsistent, young power forward. If the Cavs bolster their bench (or coax healthy seasons out of Luke Jackson and Dajuan Wagner) they should not only make the playoffs but seriously challenge for home court advantage in the first round. That would represent a major improvement after not making the playoffs in LeBron's first two seasons and would be a very important step in the right direction for the franchise as the shadow of LeBron's eventual free agent status looms larger and larger over Cleveland.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:45 PM