Cleveland Cavaliers 2008-09 Season PreviewCleveland's 2007-08 Record: 45-37
Key Losses: Devin Brown, Damon Jones, Joe Smith
Key Additions: J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson, Tarence Kinsey, Mo Williams, Lorenzen Wright
1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
The Cavaliers traded Joe Smith and Damon Jones to Milwaukee as part of a three team, six player deal that brought point guard Mo Williams to Cleveland. The Cavaliers hope that Williams--who averaged 17.2 ppg and 6.3 apg last season for Milwaukee--will not only be the best playmaker that they have had at the point guard spot since Andre Miller but that he will also be a bona fide second scoring option who can create his own shot; no Cavalier other than LeBron James has averaged more than 17 ppg since James joined the team in 2003-04.
Rookie J.J. Hickson played very well in the Vegas Summer League (19.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, .534 FG%) and if he can be productive during the regular season then he will add some youth and athleticism to their center/power forward rotation, which currently consists of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
LeBron James, rebounding and team defense. Even the most casual basketball fan knows about LeBron James. Many people believe that James is already the best player in the NBA but he still needs to improve his outside shot and his free throw percentage to surpass 2007-08 MVP Kobe Bryant. That said, James is a remarkable talent, a powerful and explosive scorer who also sees the floor brilliantly and can destroy trapping defenses with remarkable crosscourt passes. His defense has improved by leaps and bounds since his rookie year and he is on the verge of being an All-Defensive Team member.
James' brilliance is so obvious that it tends to overshadow the other two key factors that comprise the foundation for Cleveland's recent postseason success; the reality is that if all a team has is one great player then they will not go far in the playoffs and may not even earn a playoff berth at all: in 2006-07, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen each failed to lead their respective teams to the playoffs but when they combined forces in Boston the Celtics won the 2008 championship. James played very well in his first two NBA seasons but the Cavaliers did not make the playoffs. In 2005, the Cavaliers hired Mike Brown to be their head coach and he brought with him the blueprint for success that he learned as an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio: defense and rebounding. The Cavaliers have won five playoff series since 2006, more than any team in the NBA except for San Antonio (seven) and Detroit (six).
Teams tend to follow the example set by their best player, James deserves a lot of credit for buying into Brown's defense-first philosophy. The Cavaliers are a scrappy team that contests shots, tries to keep the opposing team out of the paint and rebounds very well on both backboards.
Media "experts" annually underestimate how well the Cavaliers will do. Last season, some pundits even predicted that the Cavaliers would miss the playoffs the year after going to the NBA Finals! Many people expect make the mistake of simply looking at the names on Cleveland's roster; they see LeBron James and little else that excites them and then they assume that the team is not that good. They fail to understand that Cleveland's commitment to defense and rebounding not only makes the Cavaliers a formidable team but that this style is even more effective in the playoffs, when the game slows down and each possession becomes even more important.
The Cavaliers extended the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals and everybody justifiably raved about James' wonderful seventh game performance (45 points, six assists, five rebounds in a 97-92 loss). However, the Cavs knotted the series at 2-2 even though James shot just 20-78 from the field (.256) and committed 23 turnovers in those first four games. How could the Cavaliers go toe to toe with the best team in the league with James playing so poorly? The answer is that the Cavaliers played excellent defense in those games, holding Boston below 90 points each time and twice limiting the Celtics to fewer than 80 points.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Even if Williams performs as well as the Cavaliers hope, the team still lacks players who can create their own shots as well as create shots for teammates. James shoulders most of that burden, Williams will certainly help and Delonte West can fill that void at times but in recent years the Cavaliers have not scored a lot of easy baskets, either in transition or in the half court.
The other main concern for the Cavaliers is that Ilgauskas and Wallace must remain healthy. They both have accumulated a lot of mileage but the Cavaliers need for them to be productive in order to continue to excel defensively and on the glass. Ilgauskas has a history of foot problems but he has actually been fairly durable in recent seasons; Wallace has a balky back that bothered him sporadically last season and he seems to have lost some of the athleticism that enabled him to dominate the paint as an undersized big man.
4. What are the goals for this team?
James led the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007 and to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008. As long as he is in his prime and surrounded by a reasonably good supporting cast, Cleveland's goal every year will remain the same: return to the NBA Finals and then complete the job by winning the championship.
5. Will LeBron James win his first NBA MVP?
Now that Bryant won an MVP award, James is the best active player who has not received that honor. As long as he is healthy, James figures to put up MVP-level statistics for at least the next 10 years, so the timing of him winning his first MVP has more to do with his team's overall performance than anything else. In effect, the "tiebreaker" last year that enabled Bryant to win the MVP was that his Lakers finished with the best record in arguably the most competitive Western Conference race ever. If the Cavaliers exceed the 50 win plateau and contend for the best record in the East then James will garner a lot of support from the MVP voters.
Predicted Record: 55-27
posted by David Friedman @ 3:04 AM