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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Welcome Back: James, Varejao Return, Hughes Scores 36 as Cavs Beat the Pacers

Everyone who penciled the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic or Detroit Pistons into the NBA Finals better have some erasers or liquid paper handy. As LeBron James warned everyone last week, "Teams better get their wins against us now. They're trying to kill us and talk trash about us now because we have guys who are out but when we get our guys back it's going to be a different story." James is more than capable of delivering on those words--he's no Anthony Smith.

LeBron James returned on Tuesday night--and he brought along a couple friends as his Cleveland Cavaliers snapped a six game losing streak by beating the Indiana Pacers, 118-105. James wore a glove to protect his injured left index finger and did not start for the first time in his professional career but he had a very significant impact, as his game-high +27 plus/minus rating suggests. He finished with 17 points, five assists and three rebounds and the only time that the finger or glove seemed to be an issue is when he was unable to control an alley-oop pass with his left hand. Larry Hughes scored a game-high and season-high 36 points in just 26 minutes, shooting 13-17 from the field in just his second game back after missing more than three weeks with a leg injury; Hughes' plus/minus number was +24. Anderson Varejao contributed six points and nine rebounds in 24 minutes in his season debut and his plus/minus number of +17 hints at the fact that his value is not completely captured by box score numbers alone; he provides energy, defense and toughness. Mike Dunleavy led the Pacers with 23 points, adding six rebounds and five assists.

Regular Cleveland starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden were joined by point guard Eric Snow, shooting guard Shannon Brown and small forward Sasha Pavlovic, who usually plays shooting guard. That unit helped the Cavs take a 15-11 lead at the 5:59 mark. Then the cavalry arrived: James, Hughes and Varejao entered the game at the same time. My first thought was that it was clever to have James and Varejao come into action together so that the Cleveland fans would not boo Varejao for his extended holdout. After the game, James said, "I thought it would raise the intensity of the fans, having me, Larry and Andy come in at the same time--and it worked. I thought by coming in with Andy it might stop some of the boos Andy might get, just protecting my teammates." Those three players helped Cleveland to close the first quarter with a 22-5 run; for the first time this season, the Cavaliers looked like the team that made it to the NBA Finals last season.

The only blemish for the Cavs in the early going was that several of their perimeter players committed offensive fouls while driving to the hoop. Cavs TV analyst Austin Carr talked about the importance of having the ability to shoot a pull up jumper or a teardrop/floater in such situations; being able to utilize those kinds of shots prevents a player from needlessly picking up charging calls. Carr also predicted that James' scoring average will decline now that the Cavaliers are close to full strength (Daniel Gibson missed this game due to a dental procedure and Donyell Marshall is still out of action) but that his assists and the team's wins will both go up. Carr also offered a very good explanation for Hughes' performance: Hughes natural position is shooting guard, which is where he played against Indiana. Last year, the Cavs shifted him to point guard out of necessity and then kept him there because the team performed well overall even though Hughes was playing out of position. He was, as Carr put it, "a victim of his own success." Hughes often is the target of fans' wrath due to his large contract and frequent injuries but the reality is that the Cavaliers have consistently been much better with him in the lineup than they have been when he is out of action. This game provided a glimpse of what he is capable of doing when he is healthy and Cleveland fans have to hope that he somehow can avoid the injury bug that has plagued him for several seasons.

The Pacers opened the second quarter with a quick 10-0 run as the Cavaliers missed three shots and committed another offensive foul but Indiana was not able to get closer than eight points. James and Hughes combined to score 10 points for Cleveland in less than two minutes as the Cavaliers pushed the lead back to 16 points, 51-35. Cleveland led 65-49 at halftime.

Indiana made another good run to start the third quarter, shaving the margin to 70-61 but keep in mind that James, Hughes and Varejao began the second half on the bench. They entered the game together at the 7:09 mark and less than four minutes after that Cleveland was up 88-64. The Cavaliers led 97-74 at the end of the quarter and were never seriously threatened in the final period. The Pacers may be off of the national radar at the moment but the Pacers won three of four on their recent West Coast road trip and on Friday night they beat the Magic, 115-109; this is an impressive win for Cleveland.

The Cavaliers lost five straight games without James (six overall if you count the game in which he got hurt and played less than a half). Does that prove that James has a terrible supporting cast? Not necessarily--it depends how you define your terms. People often debate the quality of the supporting casts that surround various NBA stars but to answer that question accurately one really has to evaluate two different things: (1) what a given player is capable of doing on his own, particularly in terms of creating his own shot; (2) whether a given player is able to capitalize on the open opportunities that are inevitably available to someone who plays alongside a star who commands double teams. Cleveland does not have a lot of players who fit into the first category but the Cavs have several players who belong in the second category.

During Cleveland's recent struggles sans James, Varejao was out and Hughes missed all but one of the games, so the Cavaliers were not only missing their very best player but also two others from their top six; the cumulative effect of the absence of that much talent would cripple any team. Another thing that is important to understand is that players like Damon Jones and Daniel Gibson may not be able to create much for themselves but they are perfect complementary players for James because they can hit open shots when James is double-teamed. The Cavaliers don't have many players who can create opportunities for themselves--as Charles Barkley keeps saying, they could use a top flight point guard--but that does not mean that they have a bad team; they have a lot of players who can be productive playing alongside James, plus the Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao frontcourt is very formidable defensively and on the glass.

It is tempting to say that James carried a bad team to the NBA Finals. Certainly, the Cavaliers roster is not perfect and James had a tremendous playoff run but it is not correct to dismiss the talents and contributions of his teammates, players who may not be able to create much on their own but have the correct skill sets to take advantage of the openings that James' presence creates. If James were truly on a bad team then Cleveland would struggle even with him in the lineup and the Cavaliers certainly would not have made it to the Finals last year.

Pundits regularly dismiss Cleveland's chances this season, criticize General Manager Danny Ferry for not upgrading the roster and even question if the team will make the playoffs. The underestimation of the overall strength of this Cavaliers team will turn out to be one of the biggest stories of this season--assuming that the team remains reasonably healthy the rest of the way.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:58 AM

5 comments

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5 Comments:

At Wednesday, December 12, 2007 9:11:00 AM, Blogger Melvin said...

Well, Pacers is not really hard to beat... I'm glad LeBron can play now, hope he will not aggravate his injury.... Pacers didnt pay much attention to Hughes... About the last paragraph, well its not good to criticize Ferry but I think he really failed to improve the lineup of the team... I believe the Cavs ployed their way last year mainly because of LeBron and pure luck... I'm not saying that his teammates are useless, what i'm saying is every team's goal is to improve and address problems... They could have done it this offseason but they didnt.

Anyways, I've made a 15 sure ways to get the Knicks back in Nba's elite... hope you can share your side.. =) http://basketballnonsense.blogspot.com/2007/12/15-sure-ways-to-get-knicks-back.html

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2007 12:00:00 PM, Blogger alternaviews said...

agree about Lebron's excellence though Boston is clearly better than Cleveland...

regarding past Kobe posts:

you said he rightly called out LAL on mismanagement. so let us review which instances of mismanagment you & Kobe might mean:

a) retaining a hall of fame coach for a decade or so, at a contract amount that exceeds what many stars make in the league

b) dealing a hall of fame center with one year left on his contract, who publicly demanded a trade after the star shooting guard -- who had repeatedly expressed personal contempt for teh center, publicly -- opted out of his contract, in an apparent power play to force the team into a choice between retaining one or the other player

c) dealing that center to the opposing conference, to minimize potential for him to beat them in regular season games, playoff positioning, and (pre-finals) playoffs

d) in return for that center getting two one multi talented player, odom, and another player with all star potential, Caron Butler, who was not able to fulfill that potential on LAL because there were not enough shots in the backcourt for 2 players

e) investing time and the tutelage of hall of famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar in mentoring a young center, Bynum, who media pundits gave up on at the ripe old age of 19, even though this year (at 20), he is emerging as a star

f) holding onto the young Bynum instead of trading him for Kidd, who despite being a great player, is aging and plays the same position as emerging sensastion Jordan Farmar & young talent J Crittenton

g) seeing teh potential in Farmar as a late first rounder

h) getting Crittenton who even Phil -- notorious for being critical of rookies --admits has extreme talent

i) having the poor management skills to have half the team get injured in 06 - 07, after having gotten off to a fine start to the year including quality wins at SanAn and over other top teams

j) taking the high road when lambasted by schizophrenic (trade me/ dont) comments by their shootign guard who (I believe) has the ONLY current contract with a currently active no trade clause and an opt out clause ... thus allowing him to demand a trade which he would then veto, and engage in other tactics to harm the team (trying to force an immediate trade, so that LAL have no leverage and must deal him below mkt value so that his new team will still have its talent & LAL will be depleted for the next decade)

k) paying that shootign guard around $20 m / yr, i.e., the max allowable contract, with no trade and opt out clauses -- the opt out clause preventing the team from being able to plan around a long-term future with that player

...

I'll start your answer for you:

k) sounds like a case of mismanagemetn

and there are others too -- dont get me wrong (Brian Cook) ... but on others the jury is still out (VladRad) ... and management is no more perfect than players who turn the ball over carelessly and miss a ton of wild shots..

bottom line: other teams are often reluctant to deal with LAL; also comparing this regime to Jerry West is too high a standard -- just because you're not an all-time visionary GM doesnt mean youre guilty of mismgmnt; yes, this regime has made mistakes, but do you think it is so easy to assemble a team in modern era with staying power -- ESPECIALLY when your existing stars force you into a choice to deal one or the other

...do you think you or I could have done a better job than the existing LAL managemetn regime? are you really so sure about that?

let me refer you to items (a) through (j) above, for consideration

(and please dont blame Shaq's infamous toe on mismanagment -- this post is in no way a judgment on Shaq (good or bad)... this post is about "MISMANAGEMENT" ... and Shaq's only relevance is that LAL was forced to choose between teh 2 players & chose Kobe & dealt Shaq to the Eastern Conference for Caron & Odom)

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2007 5:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Melvin:

I disagree that the Pacers did not pay attention to Hughes; he made some strong moves and hit some tough shots over a defender's hand, like that bank shot from the right wing in the second half.

It is easy to say that a GM should improve his team but you have to look at the team's salary cap situation and what players were available. The Cavs already have a good team and it is not a good idea to make a move just for the sake of making a move. It's not like Cleveland missed out on the opportunity to pick up a big free agent or make some blockbuster trade. As I keep saying, this team will be right there contending for the Eastern Conference championship again (assuming that the key players stay healthy).

As for the Knicks, they are not getting back to the elite level any time soon. My recommendation, mentioned here on several occasions, is to cut loose/buy out Marbury, which might enable the Knicks to grab the last playoff spot this year.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2007 11:46:00 PM, Anonymous khandor said...

Amen to every word you wrote in today's entry about the Cavaliers.

Cleveland is definitely one of the elite teams in the NBA this season, despite their mediocre record to this point ... with LBJ in their line-up ... and, in conjunction with well-suited role players like Hughes, Varejao, Z, Donyell, Gooden, Sasha, S-Brown, D-Brown, Boobie, Damon, Snow and Newble.

That's a very versatile "group of 13" that will be a handful for any of the other elite teams in the league, come the play-offs ... except for the reigning Champs.

 
At Thursday, December 13, 2007 3:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Alternaviews:

Boston has performed better than Cleveland overall thus far, as the teams' respective records show. However, Cleveland has already beaten Boston head to head and last night was the first time that the Cavs had most of last year's Finals team back together (minus Gibson and Marshall). My preseason predictions are not about regular season records, as I have clearly noted; I list the teams in the order of their likelihood of winning the conference title.

As for your other points:

A) You and I both know that this is not what Kobe meant but I guess you think it makes your case stronger if you can list a lot of points, no matter how shaky they are. Kobe said that the Lakers are mismanaged, not that they are poorly coached.

B) As you correctly noted, the center (Shaq) demanded to be traded. As for expressions of personal contempt, there was plenty of that coming from both sides; is it really necessary to once again examine how all of that started? Suffice it to say that the relationship got off to a bad start right from the beginning and Shaq's injury/lack of conditioning took things to another level. Kobe is not blameless but please remember that when they first became teammates Shaq was an experienced vet and Kobe was a talented kid straight out of high school. Shaq should have seen Kobe's promise and been a mentor instead of being jealous of Kobe and viewing him as a rival. In contrast, look at Kobe's relationship with Bynum. Notwithstanding some remarks that Kobe supposedly made in a parking lot, Kobe has been guiding Bynum and mentoring him, as Bynum told me and other reporters after the Indiana game. Kobe is trying to help Bynum reach his potential and when Kobe gets mad at Bynum it is not because of jealousy but because Kobe wants everyone to play correctly.

Opting out of a contract is not a "power play" but a fairly standard action that many other players have taken. Buss has said that Kobe did not run Shaq off, Kobe has said it, Jackson has said it and even Shaq has said it, so please let that myth die already.

C) You don't have to be brilliant to find a team that wants Shaq, particularly without having to give up even one All-Star in return. Trading him to the opposite conference is also an obvious move. The reality is that the Lakers did not get enough for Shaq and then compounded the error by trading away Butler for Brown.

D) You love to say that Kobe held back Butler. During Butler's one season in L.A. the Lakers had two coaches, neither of whom was Phil Jackson. Kobe missed 16 games and Odom missed 18 games. Butler had the best numbers of his three year career to that point, including 15.4 ppg and .445 field goal percentage. Kobe missed 14 games in a row due to an ankle injury and in that stretch Butler averaged 16.6 ppg while shooting .436. It is not surprising that his scoring went up--he was the second leading scorer to Kobe, so if anything one would expect him to score even more than that with Kobe out. The decline in field goal percentage indicates that Kobe's presence helped Caron by providing him more wide open shots. Butler only played two years of college ball, so his game was still maturing and growing, a process that has continued in Washington. Kobe and Caron were (and are) good friends and Kobe has said that Caron is one of his favorite teammates ever. The Lakers thought that they had to get a big man, so they traded Caron for Kwame. That was clearly a mistake. We never got to see Kobe, Odom and Butler have a full, healthy season together with Jackson as the coach.

E)I'm not sure who "gave up" on Bynum nor am I sure that he is a star--10 and 10 makes you a star? Bynum is a promising young player--when he is averaging 20 and 10 while playing good defense then call him a star.

F) Wow--not only is Bynum a "star" but Farmar is an "emerging sensation." I wonder why he can't beat out Fisher to be the starting point guard. Everyone in the NBA has talent; Crittenton has not actually produced anything yet. Meanwhile, Kobe is in his prime and should be surrounded by players who can help him win now.

G) Farmar was a good pick but not a franchise-changing selection and not enough to make up for other errors that management has made. He is not even a starter yet.

H) Like I said before, I guess you thought this would look more impressive with a lot of bullet points--you mentioned Crittenton already.

I) Obviously, injuries are not management's fault but the team lacks depth. Also, the pg situation was terrible, with D-Leaguer Smush Parker being the starter. Name a playoff team that had a worse staring pg; he can't even get any run this year for a bad Miami team. I had to laugh when Smush said that Riley yells at him more than PJax did. PJax rescued Smush from being a career D-Leaguer and Smush rewarded him by being disrespectful and not playing hard.

J) I have no explanation for Kobe's one day of "trade me"/"don't trade me" interviews other than the fact that he is a lifelong Lakers fan who wants to be a Laker for life but is frustrated that management has not provided him with a good enough supporting cast. He feels conflicted and all of that frustration came out. The clauses in his contract are the result of his long tenure with one team and the timing of his extension. His "tactics" have harmed the team so much that he and the Lakers are playing better than anyone (other than I) predicted. What about the wild talk that Kobe would "go on strike" or not play hard? He has been great so far and he is carrying a subpar roster (relative to the other playoff teams) thus far.

K) If the Lakers had not paid Kobe the max then every other team in the NBA would have stepped up and offered to do so. That is the nature of the marketplace. Why don't you complain about guys who are getting the max (or close to it) and can't play dead?

Not surprisingly, all of these misleading (and in some cases redundant) points lead to faulty conclusions. Buss was simply not going to sign Shaq and Kobe to max deals. If he had kept Shaq then he would have not re-signed Kobe. If the Lakers had kept Shaq and lost Kobe they may have been marginally better in 2004-05 (because Shaq was healthy and Kobe missed so many games) but then the team would have declined along with Shaq. Shaq could not get out of the first round last year with Wade and the nucleus of a championship team; in the West, without Kobe, he would not have even gotten the Lakers to the playoffs due to his declining health and skills (and both would have declined faster because he would not have a Wade or Kobe to carry some of the load).

Jerry West left in part because of some of the mismanagement that Kobe complained about a few months ago; it would have been better to mute or get rid of some of the other voices in the organization and leave West in charge (but some of those voices belong to Buss family members, which is part of the problem).

I can't say if I would or would not have done better without knowing all of the options that were on the table at various times but Kobe is certainly right to be frustrated that three-plus seasons into the post-Shaq era the team has yet to bring in even one other All-Star player. Kidd, Jermaine O'Neal and Shawn Marion are just three All-Stars who have expressed interest in playing alongside Kobe. We will see if the Lakers are right that Bynum will develop into an All-Star before Kobe moves past his prime.

As for a star forcing Buss' hand, Buss has always refused to go into luxury tax territory. Now, if Shaq had stayed in shape and helped the team to keep winning titles, maybe Buss would have made an exception (Buss has said this, whether or not you choose to believe him). I can't blame Buss--who does not have the financial resources that other owners do--for choosing Kobe over Shaq three years ago but I can blame Buss for not putting enough talent around Kobe.

 

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