Cavs Shock World, Win Game Without LeBron James: Stunned Bill Simmons Declares that Kobe Bryant is the MVPUsually I play it straight with my headlines but I just could not resist having some fun this time; Bill Simmons and so many other writers have literally built their careers on making broad statements that are unsupported by facts or logic and you just know that if the L.A. Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs without Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum while Lamar Odom missed most of the game due to injury Simmons would write a 10,000 word manifesto suggesting that those 48 minutes "prove" that the Lakers could make it to the Finals without Bryant and that therefore LeBron James--who obviously (to Simmons) has no help whatsoever--should immediately be awarded the MVP trophy.
OK, fun time is over and now I will go back to my usual mode of providing serious-minded, objective analysis. I do not believe in making snap judgments about teams or players based on one game or on a small sample size of games: when the Cleveland Cavaliers started off slowly this season I insisted that they would right the ship because of how talented and deep they are; when the L.A. Lakers went 4-1 sans Kobe Bryant I cautioned that it would be incorrect to read too much into those victories, particularly since the Portland Trail Blazers were woefully shorthanded, the San Antonio Spurs had lost five of their previous nine games and the Golden State Warriors are just not that good.
Therefore, I don't think that too much should be made of Cleveland's 97-95 victory over San Antonio; that one game by itself cannot possibly form the basis of a general evaluation of either team. However, the way in which that game is covered/discussed by various media outlets is something that will be interesting to monitor, because the Cavs were without the services of LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal, while the Spurs were missing Tony Parker; it should also be noted that the Cavs will be without Zydrunas Ilgauskas--their backup center most of this season and the starting center for last season's 66 win squad--until at least March 22, when he will likely re-sign with the only team for which he has played during his NBA career. In other words, the Cavs beat a solid Western Conference playoff team despite being without three of the top seven players in their rotation, including the player who should be the consensus regular season MVP choice--and you could actually say that the Cavs were missing three and a half of their top seven players, because two-time All-Star power forward Antawn Jamison only played 21 minutes before being sidelined by a knee injury.
Maybe this was just a one game fluke but this result surely must be confusing to those people who make bold declarations that the Cavs would be a lottery team without James or that James clinched the MVP award when the Lakers went 4-1 without Bryant because it is "obvious" that the Cavs could hardly beat anyone without James while the Lakers (according to some "analysts") did not miss a beat during Bryant's absence. Did Bryant, Kevin Durant or someone else clinch the MVP award because the Cavs put six players in double figures versus the Spurs without James? No--that would be an idiotic assertion to make. James has a Secretariat-style lead in this year's MVP race not because of one game here or five games there but because he has been the most productive player in the league throughout the season; Bryant made it a race for the first five weeks or so but since that time injuries have lowered his efficiency and productivity, though casual fans may be surprised to learn that despite the ups and downs Bryant's scoring average (27.7), field goal percentage (.458) and spg average (1.7) are very similar to the numbers he posted in 2007-08 when he won his first and only MVP (28.3, .459, 1.8): three important differences between 2008 and 2010 are that James has eliminated his skill set weaknesses (free throw shooting, defense, perimeter jump shot), Bryant's floor game has declined somewhat (6.3 rpg to 5.3 rpg, 5.4 apg to 4.8 apg) and Bryant's free throw shooting and three point shooting have been less sharp (.840 and .361 respectively in 2008, .826 and .316 this season). With roughly three fourths of the season already in the books, one great game (or one subpar game) by any particular player or team is not going to significantly add or detract to the body of work already produced by the top two MVP candidates.
While we are on the subject of the MVP race, I don't understand why any names other than James' are even being mentioned at this point. James has been the best player in the NBA this season by roughly the same margin that Bryant was the best player in the NBA in 2006 and 2007 (though, ironically, Bryant did not win the MVP in either of those seasons); Bryant is clearly the second best player (based on the fact that he has led the Lakers to the second best record in the NBA while his overall production has been comparable to what he has done in the previous two years even though he has been less consistent from game to game) and the only issues that need to be sorted out regarding Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are their placements on the All-NBA First and Second Teams--none of those three outstanding players possess the all-around games that James and Bryant have. For quite some time I have been frustrated by the media's apparent quest to pump up the case of "new" MVP candidates at the expense of whoever is clearly the best player at that particular time: such distorted thinking is why Charles Barkley (in 1993) and Karl Malone (in 1997) won MVPs over Michael Jordan and it also is why Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant--the most dominant big man and best perimeter player of the past decade--only won one MVP each when they should have actually won at least three MVPs each (O'Neal should have won the 2001 and 2005 MVPs in addition to capturing the honor in 2000, while Bryant should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs prior to finally winning the award in 2008). James won the 2009 MVP over Bryant by a wider margin than he should have but this season James really should be a unanimous choice (which has not happened since O'Neal captured all 120 first place votes in 2000).
Back to the main subject at hand: What, if anything, can be learned from Cleveland's win over San Antonio? The answer is that this game provided some more evidence that the Cavs have one of the deepest and most well balanced rosters in the NBA. It is important to take a moment to specifically define those terms: "deep" refers to how many players on a team can effectively be a rotation player on a playoff team, while "well balanced" means that a team has sufficient depth at all positions/roles. Without Ilgauskas--a two-time All-Star who will not officially rejoin the Cavs for another two weeks or so--here is the Cavs' current depth chart (some players are listed more than once because they are used in multiple roles):
Center: Shaquille O'Neal (currently injured, but expected to return during the playoffs), Anderson Varejao
Power forward: Antawn Jamison, Varejao, J.J. Hickson, Leon Powe, LeBron James
Small forward: LeBron James, Jamario Moon, Jawad Williams, Jamison, Anthony Parker
Shooting guard: Parker, Delonte West
Point guard: Mo Williams, West, Daniel Gibson
Until Ilgauskas returns, the Cavs lack depth at center, which is why I recently suggested that their winning percentage may temporarily decline while they are forced to play "small ball"; however, the Cavs have gone 5-1 with the small lineup and only have six games remaining (including two meetings with Detroit, a home game against Indiana and a visit to Chicago) before Ilgauskas' projected return so perhaps I was overly pessimistic about Cleveland's chances.
The Cavs are absolutely stacked at the other positions. In addition to their three primary point guards, the Cavs can also use Parker at that spot (he played some point guard for Toronto). James can be a de facto point guard or shooting guard in certain matchups offensively or defensively. Furthermore, once they are at full strength again the Cavs will be able to deploy various "large" lineups with two or three big men paired with different combinations of two or three "small" players ("small" being a relative term, because Moon, Parker and James are each at least 6-6). O'Neal, Ilgauskas and Jamison are legit post up options in the half court set, while James and Hickson are improving their post games.
James, West and Williams can each create shots for themselves and for others; this is an important factor that is too often overlooked: West or Williams can anchor the second unit when James is on the bench and either player can be the primary facilitator for the entire game if James sits out. Few teams have three quality facilitators.
Jamison, Varejao and Hickson all do an excellent job of diving to the hoop for layups/offensive rebounding opportunities. Parker, Williams and Gibson are each shooting at least .415 from three point range, while James, Jamison and West all shoot at least .340 on three pointers.
Objectively evaluating the skill sets and production of LeBron James' teammates does not in any way diminish his abilities or take away from the tremendous season that he is having; it is just the honest, correct and proper way to analyze the sport.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:11 AM