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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Improving Cavs Defeat Eastern Conference Champion Magic

Cleveland fans have a tendency to act like the sky is falling. The sky may actually be falling on the hapless Browns, but it is way too early for anyone to express serious concerns about a Cavaliers team that upgraded their roster after winning a league-best 66 games last season. The Cavs' Wednesday night victory in Orlando against the reigning Eastern Conference Champions provided a glimpse of just how potent the Cavs can be offensively and defensively.

In my newest CavsNews article, I analyze what we have seen so far from the Cavs in the first 10% (or so) of the 2009-10 season (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Prior to Cleveland’s 102-93 win over Orlando, ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy said that the “rush to judgment is wrong” about the Cavaliers and that often you cannot tell exactly how good a team is going to be until the regular season hits the 20 game mark. I completely agree with Van Gundy but now that the Cavs have finished nearly 10% of the season (eight games out of 82) it is worthwhile to at least take a preliminary look at what has happened so far. The Cavs are 5-3 and have won five of their last six games after a disappointing 0-2 start; last season at this time the Cavs were 6-2 in the midst of an eight game winning streak that would push their record to 9-2. Prior to the Orlando game, the Cavs ranked fifth in the NBA in points allowed, sixth in defensive field goal percentage and were tied for 10th in scoring differential. In 2008-09, the Cavs led the league in points allowed and scoring differential and tied for the league lead in defensive field goal percentage. Although the Cavs have slipped in all three rankings, it is actually an encouraging sign that despite some roster upheaval they still are solidly among the league leaders in those important categories—and based on Coach Mike Brown’s excellent defensive track record there is every reason to believe that the Cavs will finish the season in the top five in all three departments. The Cavs did not have all of their key players available during the preseason, so Coach Brown is still figuring out how to best utilize his newly constructed roster and his efforts in that regard have been hamstrung by the uncertainty surrounding Delonte West, a key player who led the team in minutes played during last year’s playoffs.

Although the Cavs finished with a league-best 66-16 record in 2008-09, they went 1-2 versus the Orlando Magic in the regular season prior to losing 4-2 to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. So, even though it is early in the season and both teams are still putting their rotations together, it was important for the Cavs to beat the Magic on Wednesday; after all, the Cavs clearly made their various offseason moves specifically with the idea of matching up better versus the Magic—and the early returns are quite positive in that regard: Shaquille O’Neal (10 points, four rebounds in 20 minutes) played Dwight Howard (11 points, seven rebounds in 32 minutes) to a virtual standstill, which has to be considered a victory for the Cavs. Howard is obviously Orlando’s best player—and an MVP candidate—while O’Neal is Cleveland’s third offensive option behind LeBron James and Mo Williams. The scoring and rebounding statistics don’t tell the full story of O’Neal’s impact in this matchup; the most significant statistic is that O’Neal drew two fouls on Howard in the first 2:18 of the game. Howard’s foul trouble altered Orlando’s rotations and affected how aggressively Howard could play for the rest of the game.

Although it is only a few months since the Magic eliminated the Cavs from the playoffs, both teams looked a lot different on Wednesday. The Cavs added O’Neal, Anthony Parker (nine points, three steals) and Jamario Moon (0 points, seven rebounds in 15 minutes) in place of Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak but were without the services of West, who was placed on the inactive list for the Orlando game, apparently because he missed the team flight. The Magic added Vince Carter (team-high 29 points), Jameer Nelson (19 points, five assists, four rebounds)—a 2009 All-Star who missed the Eastern Conference Finals due to injury--and Brandon Bass in place of Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston but were missing Rashard Lewis (suspended by the league for using a performance-enhancing drug). Both teams will improve when West and Lewis return but the most important matchup factors are not likely to change: the Magic still have no one who can even slow down James (36 points, eight rebounds, four assists), O’Neal can single cover Howard well enough that the other Cavs can stay at home on the three point shooters and Howard will be prone to getting in foul trouble if he has to single cover O’Neal. Although Howard is an amazing athlete and an impressive physical specimen, he is—as Fred Carter would put it—“light in the cakes” compared to O’Neal; Howard’s broad shoulders and bulging biceps do not make up for his relative lack of lower body heft and that is why he struggles to keep O’Neal out of the paint.

With all of the talk about how the Cavs matched up with the Magic last season and how the Cavs match up with the Magic now, I still stand by what I wrote during and after last year’s playoffs: if Mo Williams had simply played in the Eastern Conference Finals at the level that he did during the regular season then the Cavs would have won the series. On Wednesday, Williams poured in 22 points on 9-9 shooting in the first half, finishing with 28 points on 12-20 shooting. Obviously, Williams should not be expected to shoot 100%--or even 60%--from the field but if he plays aggressively and with confidence then he can create good shots not only for himself but also for his teammates (Williams finished with a game-high six assists).

The bottom line after eight games is that the Cavs are still in the midst of a feeling out process in terms of what the player rotation will be and what each player’s role is offensively and defensively; despite those uncertainties, the Cavs are already playing at a relatively high level. They are deep enough and talented enough that O’Neal does not have to shoulder a heavy burden in terms of minutes and/or field goal attempts and that should enable Coach Brown to keep O’Neal fresh enough to be fully effective during the games that count the most: possible playoff showdowns with Boston and/or Orlando. The Celtics are clearly the best team in the East right now but don’t forget that a Cleveland team sans West and searching for an offensive identity nearly beat Boston in the first game of the season.

One interesting sidebar story from the Orlando game is that James declared that until the season is over he will not answer any more questions about his upcoming free agency status. Frankly, this is a long overdue move on his part, because the only reason that this is such a big story regarding James is that he has encouraged media speculation by (metaphorically) batting his eyelashes at various suitors. Did you know that 2008 MVP/2009 Finals MVP Kobe Bryant will also be a free agent next summer? Bryant will obviously command a maximum contract just like James but because Bryant has steadfastly refused to discuss this subject it has not become a big media story. Everyone understands that James is just entering his prime years and that it makes sense for him to keep his options open but the time for him to handle that business is after the season is over; letting the story fester for so long the way that James did provided a needless distraction to a team that should be focused on nothing other than trying to win a championship and it was disrespectful to the Cleveland fans who cheer for James. In general James has handled himself in an exemplary manner on and off the court, so it is good that he has finally taken steps to silence the talk about the summer of 2010.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:24 PM


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At Friday, November 13, 2009 8:37:00 AM, Anonymous Joel said...

Good writeup as always David, but I have to disagree a bit with this statement:

"Both teams will improve when West and Lewis return but the most important matchup factors are not likely to change... O’Neal can single cover Howard well enough that the other Cavs can stay at home on the three point shooters"

This should be the case when Howard goes one-on-one against O'Neal, but what about the high pick-and-roll? O'Neal has always been vulnerable here, and both Carter and Nelson are able to run it effectively.

Lewis and Ryan Anderson - both of whom are deadly outside shooters - will be playing most of the minutes at the 4 when Orlando is healthy. The floor will be more spread out than it was on Wednesday, so that pick-and-roll can still hurt Cleveland if O'Neal isn't able to contain Howard and/or prevent the ballhandler from getting a wide-open look.

I'm interested in seeing the Cavs' general approach to guarding Lewis (and Anderson) when the Magic are healthy; maybe LeBron at the 4 will do the trick.

On the other hand, I can't argue with this:

"if Mo Williams had simply played in the Eastern Conference Finals at the level that he did during the regular season then the Cavs would have won the series."

At Friday, November 13, 2009 2:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Virtually every NBA team struggles to defend the pick and roll to some extent; that is why most teams incorporate some version of it in their offensive sets.

One problem that the Cavs had in last year's ECF is that when they doubled Howard they were in full rotation defensively and gave up a ton of three point shots (as Assistant Coach Hank Egan mentioned in my interview with him prior to Cleveland's season opener). I thought that Cleveland should have single covered Howard, stayed at home on the three point shooters and fouled Howard whenever he got close enough to the hoop to dunk (I'd live with him shooting any shot outside of five feet); the Cavs had enough bigs that foul trouble would not have been an issue as long as their bigs used their fouls judiciously (no "touch" fouls, no fouls 40 feet from the hoop--only foul Howard when he was in dunking range). Anyway, that is irrelevant now because during the playoffs the Cavs can play Shaq for 30-35 minutes--maybe even 40 minutes once in a while in a key game--and have him single cover Howard.

The Lakers and Heat overcame Shaq's pick and roll defense liabilities well enough to win a total of four titles.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Williams shot better, Cleveland beat Orlando and the Cavs faced the Lakers in the Finals.

At Friday, November 13, 2009 8:07:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

The fact that the 37-year-old Shaq can single cover Howard, and the 23-year-old Howard will likely get into foul trouble trying to cover Shaq says a lot. Even though Howard is being praised as a dominant big man, I think he enjoys that status largely because traditional big men are virtually extinct. What do you think Howard's ceiling is, David? Also, people always talk about how young Howard is and how he can improve, but he's already been in the league five years. It is difficult to imagine a drastic improvement in his offensive skills.

Speaking of the Cavs, I'm sure by now you've heard of LeBron's comments about the number 23. I basically agree with Stan Van Gundy on this issue (you can read his take here: http://nba.fanhouse.com/2009/11/13/lebrons-desire-for-nba-to-retire-jordans-no-23-is-misplaced/ ).

If LeBron feels so strongly that no one should wear No. 23 out of respect for Jordan, why didn't he think of that when he chose to wear the same number at the start of his career? Ok, maybe he was young and has more perspective now. But it is very bizarre that LeBron argues on the one hand that No. 23 should be retired out of respect for MJ's contributions, and then says he'll wear No. 6 partly out of respect for another former great (Julius Erving). I wonder if he knows Bill Russell wore No. 6 as well (and that Dr. J chose No. 6 for that reason).

Whatever. I think he should have chosen a more "original" number to start with. I always thought wearing Jordan's number would make LeBron look like another Jordan copycat and prevent him from being recognized for his own unique talents. I wonder if LeBron now feels the same way to some degree.

At Saturday, November 14, 2009 1:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Even though Howard and Shaq are often compared, their games and physiques are different. Even young Shaq was bigger in the lower body than Howard. Shaq's game is based more on power than Howard's; Howard's game is based on quickness, jumping ability and upper body strength. Howard is a better rebounder and shotblocker than Shaq but is not as dominant offensively.

I don't think that Howard has necessarily peaked. Shaq did not peak until the early 2000s when Phil Jackson became his coach. Olajuwon continued to improve his offensive game past the age of 30 but he is an exceptional case. Howard does not need to add a midrange jump shot, contrary to what some people say; what Howard needs is to develop a legit low post move and a legit counter for when a defender stops that move. Right now, all Howard can do in the post is either dunk or (after facing up) drive past some defenders to shoot a short, running hook. Howard does not have an up and under, a drop step, etc. Shaq's low post game, even at his advanced age, is more refined than Howard's and Shaq is a better passer. All Shaq lacks now is the explosiveness that he once had.

I think that the Magic should single cover Shaq with Bass or someone else and do a "rope a dope"--let the Cavs keep feeding Shaq early with the idea that he will wear down over the course of the game, plus other Cavs (including LeBron) will not be involved if Shaq is facing single coverage. Phil Jackson used to do this when he coached the Bulls--Shaq would go off in the first half but in the second half he would wear down and/or the Bulls would start trapping with Pip or MJ and Shaq's teammates were not in rhythm. Howard is more valuable defensively as a weakside shotblocker/rebounder anyway. A guy like Bass who has a strong base might be able to keep Shaq out of the paint.

I agree with SVG that it is not clear that MJ is definitely the best player of all-time and that MJ is not a Jackie Robinson-type figure. LeBron is free to choose whatever number he wants for whatever reason but I disagree that the NBA should retire 23.

LeBron did mention both Erving and Russell regarding number six. LeBron seems to have a genuine interest in NBA history and a respectful attitude toward the greats who preceded him. Until now, I did not know that Dr. J was his second favorite player of all-time behind Jordan and that this is why LeBron chose six as his Olympic number.

At Saturday, November 14, 2009 3:04:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

i dont understand where jackie enters the equation. no one is a jackie robinson figure. for anyone to even try to imply that is ignorant and needs to rethink what is going on. i keep hearing bill russells name. its not a social issue.

but its ok for gretzkys number to be retired throughout the nhl? jordan is highly regarded as the best ever like wayne is.

At Saturday, November 14, 2009 10:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Jackie Robinson's name is brought up because MLB permanently retired his number.

I think that it is clearer that Gretzky is the greatest hockey player ever than it is that MJ is the greatest basketball player ever; Gretzky set records of Ruthian proportions--the basketball equivalent of Gretzky is not MJ but rather Wilt Chamberlain, though Gretzky's teams won more championships than Wilt's did.

At Monday, November 16, 2009 12:45:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I think you are right that Howard can peak later on (like Shaq and Hakeem, as you pointed out). But so far, I really can't imagine him making a leap to a pantheon-level. Even though Shaq and Hakeem peaked in their late 20s/early 30s, they were much more difficult for defenses to contain at 23-24 than Howard is.

Howard might be slightly better than Shaq was at rebounding, but the difference is rather small, IMO. So far, Howard hasn't been a better shot-blocker than a young Shaq.

Howard's RPG from ages 21-23: 12.3, 14.2, 13.8

Shaq's RPG from ages 21-23: 13.9, 13.2, 11.4

Howard's BPG from ages 21-23: 1.9, 2.2, 2.9

Shaq's BPG from ages 21-23: 3.5, 2.8, 2.4

Did Phil Jackson actually say that was his strategy to deal with Shaq? I find it curious that Jackson wanted Shaq taking a lot of shots early in the game to put his teammates out of rhythm. Why? Because Jackson coached a guy who took more shots during an average than Shaq would during a very busy game.

Also, Shaq has never been a go-to guy late in games (largely due to his poor free throw shooting). I wonder how much of the Bulls' success was actually due to Jackson's strategy as opposed to Shaq disappearing from the late-game offense as usual.

Anyway, even if the "rope a dope" has been effective against Shaq in the past, would it even be employable now? What I mean by that is: would a 37-year old Shaq (who is much less a focal point of his team's offense than he was in his prime) take such an overwhelming number of shots against single coverage that the rest of his team is thrown off?

At Monday, November 16, 2009 9:44:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

david....i know robinsons number is retired. come on david im not vince coleman. i shouldnt be commenting on your blog if i dont know about jackie robinson. that was a social thing amongst other things. that was my point. i hear jordan is the greatest ever in the same relevance that i hear gretzky.

At Monday, November 16, 2009 11:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that it does not seem likely that Howard will attain Pantheon-level status.

I don't have the exact quote handy, but I recall that some reporter asked Jackson if he was concerned about how many points Shaq had scored (versus the Bulls) in the first half and Jackson responded that he was OK with this as long as Shaq's teammates were not involved. There is also a Jackson quote (perhaps in one of his books) about Shaq scoring a lot early in games but not being able to sustain that activity level/production in the second half. When Jackson became the Lakers' coach, one of the first things that he did is insist that Shaq get in shape (other coaches had asked Shaq to do that but he did not respect them enough to follow through). Jackson wanted Shaq to have enough energy to play a full game at a high level at both ends of the court.

In recent games, the Cavs have gone to Shaq in the post extensively early in games and Shaq has played well. I think that there is some danger that his teammates could get out of rhythm but I suspect that Coach Mike Brown's plan is akin to what Jackson used to do with Bill Cartwright--establish him in the post early in games to give defenses something to worry about (and to see how the defense would react). The Bulls almost always went to Cartwright in the post in their first few half court possessions but of course MJ dominated the ball after that. I plan to explore the theme of "old" Shaq as Bill Cartwright in an article later this month.


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