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Cleveland Cavaliers Preview - Cavalier Attitude

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cle.gifCleveland Cavaliers - Cavalier Attitude 

Last year’s record: 50-32, second, Central Division
Key additions: F/C Cedric Simmons (New Orleans), G Devin Brown (New Orleans)
Key losses: G David Wesley (more like addition by subtraction instead of a key loss, but we’re just trying to keep it p.c. here)
Training camp holdouts: F/C Anderson Varejao, G/F Sasha Pavlovic

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

You know, I would normally use this space to take a cheap shot at GM Danny Ferry, but it hasn’t been until just recently that we’ve been able to see what Ferry’s up against. When you have no draft picks in what was a deep draft class (and that was because Ferry’s predecessor, the immortally retarded Jim Paxson, traded this year’s first-rounder to Boston for Jiri freaking Welsch in 2005), are way over the salary cap, are up against the luxury tax threshold, and your only tradeable assets that you’re willing to part with are restricted free agents, not even Jerry West could maneuver himself out of this situation smelling like a rose.

The basic goal for this summer was to re-sign Varejao and Pavlovic to long-term contracts. But due to the inflated contracts handed out to Luke Walton and Jason Kapono (two guys who kind of mirror Pavlovic), Sasha is looking for something above the midlevel exception. Varejao’s agent is Dan Fegan, who got Nene a six-year, $60 million deal last summer. According to the rumor mill as of late, he wants the same deal for Varejao, his other Brazilian client. Varejao’s not getting $10 million from Cleveland or anyone else.

Both guys have threatened to play in Europe if nothing can get done, which is a bluff. Ferry took the necessary steps to protect the Cavs from such a scenario by dumping Wesley for Simmons, a player who is similar to Varejao but actually contests and blocks shots instead of flop, and signing Brown. Brown is a veteran who played with Ferry in San Antonio, and he was critical in holding the Hornets together last season when Chris Paul went down. Now the Cavs have leverage to use against Varejao and Pavlovic.

Ferry also tried to get a deal done for Kings point guard Mike Bibby at the deadline, but failed in what was his second attempt to land the former Arizona Wildcat. Sacramento was rumored to be asking for Drew Gooden in return, and with Varejao’s contract status up in the air, Ferry couldn’t afford to part with his starting power forward for three years running without a viable replacement.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

You want to say "LeBron James" over and over again here, but if you’re a true basketball fan who knows anything about the game, then you know that the Cavs aren’t just all about LeBron.

Cleveland was the second-best rebounding team in the league last year and dominated the boards with their deep and talented front court. They averaged 43.5 rebounds per game (second to Chicago’s 43.7) to their opponents’ 39.9, a difference of +3.6 on the boards. The Cavs had four guys average at least 6.7 rebounds per game, with Drew Gooden leading the charge at 8.5 a night. Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 7.7 while LeBron James and Anderson Varejao each averaged 6.7 rebounds per game. Cleveland could have been an even bigger force on the boards if Cream Puff ever did anything worthwhile, but having four guys average at least that many rebounds per game was still an accomplishment.

Head coach Mike Brown has also endured a lot of criticism during his first two seasons on the job, and that has been due to the lack of a fluid offense. But when Brown was hired back in 2005, it was for his expertise in defense. Brown has made no excuses about that, and the Cavs, who were perennially one of the league’s most mediocre defensive teams before Brown, have blossomed into a defensive stalwart. They were fourth in the league in "steals" differential (+1.03) and seventh in turnover differential (-0.93). Brown’s club was also eighth in opponents’ field goal percentage (44.79 percent) and tied San Antonio as the best team in defending the three-point line (33 percent for the opposition).

The defense struggled at the beginning of Brown’s first year, and many thought it was due to a complicated system that was taking the players a long time to grasp. But now, as the Cavs enter their third season under Brown’s guidance, look for them to emerge as one of the league’s elite defensive teams. There are no great individual defenders on this Cavs team, but Brown’s principles of team defense and working as a unit has helped Cleveland put together a "whole" on the defensive end that is much greater than the sum of the parts.

Oh, and besides good defense and great rebounding, it doesn’t hurt to have a rejuvenated and motivated LeBron James on your side. Word is that LeBron has been working on his jumper all summer. Offensively, the Cavs will go as far as their superstar carries them.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

There is still no true point guard to direct this somewhat pathetic offense. You would think that a team featuring LeBron James would be one of the league’s most explosive offenses, but it has been anything but. The Cavs have turned into the basketball version of the Baltimore Ravens with a dedication to "defense first" and "offense never," but imagine if the Ravens had Peyton Manning as their quarterback. Now imagine their defense being as stellar as it ever has been, and Manning is provided with a horrible patchwork offensive line, no go-to receiver, and running backs who can’t move the ball. Translate that on to the basketball court, and you have the Cleveland Cavaliers!

The point guard situation can be solved by making LeBron a point forward and starting Daniel Gibson at the one. Gibson isn’t a true point guard, but he can handle the ball and is an absolute sniper from the perimeter. He is the kind of player that can make a killing out of punishing teams who key in on LeBron on defense. Regardless, unless either Gibson, Laura Hughes, Drew Gooden, or anyone else for that matter develops into a consistent and legitimate second scoring option, the Cavs’ offense will definitely be a liability that can prevent them from returning to the NBA Finals.

When Laura Hughes was brought in, she was supposed to be that second scorer that can complement LeBron on offense. She was expected to either replicate or come close to replicating her 22-points-per-game average from Washington in 2004-05, back when she was a "he" and went by the name "Larry." Laura (or, at the time, Larry) even led the league in steals that season with 2.89 and made the All-Defensive team because of that effort.

But since she came over to Cleveland, Laura has not been able to even lead her own team in steals. She has spent most of her time hobbled with some random injury that has taken the sails out of the team. Even when she does play, she puts up errant jump shot after errant jump shot that always clanks off the back of the rim. Back in the day, "Larry" would be an aggressive slasher who would cut to the rim and either finish strong or get to the line. Laura is too scared to slash anymore, and the misfired jump shots only made a stagnant offense look even more out-of-place.

4. What are the goals for this team?

This entire organization has kept getting better and better and better ever since LeBron came aboard in 2003. They went from doubling their win total in LeBron’s rookie year to going above .500 in his second. The Cavs followed that up with their first trip to the playoffs in eight seasons and their first 50-win campaign in 13 years in LB’s third go-around. Last year, in LeBron’s fourth year, they repeated those 50 wins, but Cleveland also made their first trip to the NBA Finals in franchise history.

The only way they can continue this growth is the organization’s first-ever NBA championship, and pending what happens to the Indians this month, the city’s first championship of any sort in 44 years. That is the goal, and anything less would be selling the team (and LeBron) short.

5. How big of a factor will Daniel Gibson be over 82 games?

Boobie blew up in the Eastern Conference Finals last season like we would never have expected, and many prematurely (including yours truly) jumped the gun by proclaiming him as "LeBron’s Pippen." That’s not to say that Boobie can’t be LeBron’s primary sidekick, but he’ll have plenty of opportunities during his second year to prove that he can do it over an entire regular season. Gibson already has a tenacity on defense that will earn him more minutes under Mike Brown, and he has the prettiest jumper in the league, bar none. That combined with his un-Laura-like desire to drive to the hoop and get to the line will make him a big factor for the Cavs this season. Expect something special during the 2007-08 season from Boobie Gibson. Bank on that.

6. Who do the Cavs need in camp more - Anderson Varejao or Sasha Pavlovic?

This is a very tough question - Varejao and Pavlovic each bring a unique element to this team. Varejao’s ability to get under an opponent’s skin and do the dirty work are irreplaceable. Drew Gooden may be a better player, but he can’t replace the dimension that Varejao brings to the table, and thinking that Cedric Simmons can will be a huge risk if it comes down to that.

Pavlovic is a sharp-shooter who finally started to realize his potential last season. Under Brown, Pavs has seen his defense improve tenfold, which has in turn earned him more minutes on the floor. At times, he was the one providing the Cavs with a second offensive threat, and he was just barely third behind Drew Gooden on the team in dunks. He is an athletic finisher and a sniper from beyond the arc, something the Cavs envisioned him becoming when they got him from Utah in 2004.

So the answer to this question has to be "both." The Cavaliers are going to have a hard time becoming better and building upon their past success if two key components from last year’s Finals run are gone. Simmons and Brown may be adequate replacements, but Varejao and Pavlovic have each been with Cleveland for three seasons. You can’t replace that kind of chemistry. Combine that with the fact that LeBron has already gone on the record as saying that he wants both Varejao and Pavlovic back for next season, and this is a no-brainer.

That’s not to say that Ferry must give in to absurd contract demands, but the Cavs need both these guys in uniform as soon as possible.

7. Which one of the two offseason acquisitions - Cedric Simmons or Devin Brown - will have a bigger impact?

You have to go with Brown, even though Simmons is going to get some opportunities to prove that he can be the answer to this question. But as of now, Brown has been a major contributor to winning ballclubs before and has showed that he can be a legitimate scoring threat on the floor. He isn’t anything flashy, but he can get the job done, and his stretch last year where he helped fill in for Chris Paul and kept the Hornets afloat showed just how valuable he can be. If Varejao lengthens his holdout or is traded, you can bet that Simmons is going to get a lot of PT this season. But until then, look for Brown to be a bigger factor between the two.

Predicted record: 52-30

The Cavs were 50-32 last year despite blowing some simple freebies against Charlotte (twice), Boston (down the stretch), Atlanta, and New York. That was due strictly to a lack of focus, and they didn’t even try to play the Pistons as close in the regular season as they did in the Eastern Conference Finals. They definitely half-assed their way into the playoffs and were in danger of becoming a fifth seed instead of a second seed. This group will take last year’s sweep at the hands of San Antonio as motivation to take this season as a challenge to put together one of the best seasons in franchise history.