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Monday, March 03, 2008

Trading Places: LeBron Scores 37 as the "New" Cavs Beat the "New" Bulls

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls recently took part in one of the largest trades in NBA history but Cleveland's 95-86 home victory over Chicago on Sunday once again showed that the biggest difference between the squads is one player who was not dealt: LeBron James had 37 points, six rebounds and six assists, including six points and one assist in the final 3:10. Former Cav Larry Hughes led the Bulls in scoring (23 points) and assists (four) while also grabbing five rebounds. Former Cav Drew Gooden also had a good game (11 points, 10 rebounds). Newly acquired Cav Wally Szczerbiak, who arrived in Cleveland from Seattle along with Delonte West as part of the Cleveland-Chicago trade, was the only Cav other than James to reach double figures in points (17). Due to a scheduling quirk, the two division rivals had yet to meet this season and will face each other four times in a 41 day stretch (including Sunday's game), with the next game happening on Thursday in Chicago.

It is difficult to gauge the impact of the trade at this point because the Cavaliers have yet to be at full strength since the deal took place. Starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas missed Sunday's game due to a back injury and Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic also sat out due to injuries. West had nine points, five rebounds and four assists, ex-Bull Ben Wallace had seven points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots and ex-Bull Joe Smith had eight points, six rebounds, two assists and three steals. Smith scored in double figures in each of his first two games with Cleveland but he has only scored 19 points in the next three games.

Cleveland got off to a quick start and led 24-17 after the first quarter, with James (13 points) doing most of the damage. As Cleveland Coach Mike Brown noted in an interview during a timeout, the Cavaliers tend to get complacent when they have leads, which results in sloppy play. Sure enough, the Bulls cut the lead to 42-39 by halftime and were up 68-65 after three quarters. At times, Hughes looked like the best player on the court, playing good defense, shooting the ball well and even serving up a lob pass to Tyrus Thomas for a dunk near the end of the third quarter. Chicago led 76-68 with 9:56 left in the fourth quarter after Hughes drained a jumper but there was no way that James was going to let Hughes return to his old stomping grounds and be the hero. Hughes did not score again, missing his last five field goal attempts of the game (he shot 8-20 overall).

James made the big plays down the stretch in the fourth quarter, starting with a finger roll at the 3:10 mark that put the Cavs up 85-83. Then he drove to the hoop and had a sensational dunk during which he jumped so high that he appeared to be looking down at the rim. When he flies to the hoop like that with his right arm fully extended over his head he looks like Dr. J dunking over Bill Walton in the 1977 NBA Finals. James followed up the dunk by faking Andres Nocioni out of his shoes and draining a pullup jumper to make the score 89-83. As James said after the game, the dunk and the jumper broke Chicago's heart. The Bulls simply crumbled, turning the ball over, committing offensive fouls and using poor shot selection. All year long they have played like a team that is very weak mentally, folding at the first sign of adversity. A big problem for the Bulls is that they do not have a bona fide star--or even simply a solid decision maker--to run the show in crucial situations.

During this game, Hubie Brown once again demonstrated that he is the best NBA television analyst (I'd put Jeff Van Gundy and Doug Collins in a tie for second). Brown explains clearly, concisely and without condescension the strategic concepts that are used by NBA coaches. I cringe whenever I read or hear someone suggest that college basketball is a "coaches' game" and that the NBA consists of nothing but one on one play. As Brown said to me when I interviewed him in 2006, "I don’t want everybody out there thinking that these guys just met at 6:00 and are playing at 7:30. Why do people say that football and baseball are so strategic and that they’re more strategic than basketball? That’s a naive person talking. They have no idea what goes into the continuities presented by the great teams in basketball."

During this game there was an interesting exchange between Brown and play by play announcer Mike Tirico about play calls in the NBA; Brown explained how play calls are handled differently by different teams and pointed out that when players switch teams they basically have to learn a new language on the fly. Brown said that some NBA teams call plays by shouting out numbers. The first number--say, 50--is the set (the way that the players are aligned on the court at the start of the play) and the next number is the action that they are supposed to run. So, out of a "50" set there could be five plays (which could be numbered 51-55). Brown said that certain teams use hand signals to call plays, while other teams call out a "dummy" number while at the same time calling the actual play with a hand signal to thwart teams that try to steal their calls. Brown added that when he coached each of his plays had three or four options because the good defensive teams will stop the first and second options. One point worth mentioning here that Brown did not bring up is that, as Cavs assistant coach Hank Egan told me, "the (shot) clock is the monster"; in other words, if a defensive team gets the offensive team out of rhythm (with a full court press, by deflecting a pass, etc.) then the offense really has to work against the clock just to get a decent shot attempt.

Brown's take on the Cleveland-Chicago-Seattle deal is that the Cavaliers have improved their frontcourt depth by pairing Wallace and Smith with Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao. Brown said that now the Cavaliers can withstand an injury to one of those players. He also pointed out one downside: Wallace and Varejao are only able to score by either getting feeds from James for layups or by getting offensive rebounds. Brown added that West's ballhandling and passing skills should help the Cavaliers in the open court, while Szczerbiak's shooting ability spaces the court. I agree with everything that Brown said but the Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao frontcourt (with cameos by Donyell Marshall) worked out pretty well in last year's playoffs and I think that Cleveland will have trouble defending against top shooting guards without Hughes. The funny thing about this trade is that Hughes and Wallace were each considered overpaid underachievers by their previous teams but they could each fit in better with their new teams due to different expectations and different systems.

I can see the possibilities that intrigued Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry enough to pull the trigger on this deal but I still say that it is a risky move to get rid of six players (including two starters) from a team that made it to the NBA Finals. Before the playoffs begin, the Cavaliers must get healthy and then figure out how to play in a way that maximizes the strengths of their key players and minimizes their weaknesses.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:31 AM

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