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Cleveland Cavaliers Preview - Truth in a Bullet Fedora

cle.gifCleveland Cavaliers - Truth in a Bullet Fedora  

Last Year's Record: 50-32
Key Additions: Cedric Simmons, Devin Brown
Key Losses: David Wesley, Sasha Pavlovic(maybe), Anderson Varejao(maybe)

What Significant Moves Were Made Over the off-season?:

For the first few months of the summer, "quiet" would have been an understatement; not only were we unable to make a major move, but we couldn't even re-sign our own starting shooting guard and 6th man. My thoughts on how all this transpired can be found here.But for whatever reason, shortly after that post, we started to make some decent moves, trading David Wesley for Cedric Simmons' upside, which was startling to say the least, because the best Wesley-related news we were hoping to get this season was that he retired.

Then we went out and signed Devin Brown, a reliable guard who can defend and even score a little, for absolutely nothing, giving us a reliable rotation player essentially for free. The strategy with both signing Pavlovic/Varejao and making a move right now is to engage in a war of attrition-from what I can surmise, Ferry is betting that we'll do just fine without Pavs and Andy, forcing them to sign for less money, and instead of trying to force a deal when every team in the league thinks it's going to the playoffs, he's going to wait until a team gets itself in a "fire sale" position at the deadline and swoop in and pluck a star from them; if Pavlovic and Varejao have reasonable 1-year tender offers, they could be major trade chips to accomplish this. All in all, we ended our off-season with more questions than answers, but it's better than going into the season with the wrong answers, like we did in the Hughes/Marshall/Jones summer.

What are this team's greatest strengths?

Our 3-pronged strategy for getting to the finals last year was defense, rebounding, and LeBron. We were a top-5 defensive team in the regular season, and in the playoffs our defense was second to only the Spurs'. As many have mentioned, the curious thing about the Cavs' defensive excellence is that the starting lineup didn't feature any elite defenders by reputation: Even though Hughes made an all-defense team a few years back, that selection was a fluke because of his high steal totals, which he won't replicate in our defensive system, which differs from the Wizards' in that it actually stops opposing teams from getting to the basket. Also, age and injuries have cut Larry's lateral movement so much that he can't defend anywhere near as well as he once could have. Pavlovic was regarded as another European matador on defense, and actually said to Mike Brown "My offense is my defense." LeBron's defense has long been maligned. Drew Gooden is an outright disaster at the defensive end, and "can't guard a chair" was in the scouting reports on Z for many years.

So how did we get so good defensively? First of all, having LeBron means we don't need a true point guard,(although one would help), so we were able to play the "big backcourt" with impunity, giving us great defensive presence. Pavlovic stepped up his defense tremendously, putting his athletic gifts to work, and even shut down Vince Carter in the Nets series. Illgauskas somehow made himself into a master of the paint. LeBron stepped his defensive intensity way, way, up, especially in the playoffs. And Varejao proved himself an invaluable defender because of his quickness, footwork, ability to never give an opposing player a clean look or comfortable dribble, and unrivaled ability to draw charges. Eric Snow played great defense as well, but his offense is so very bad it that it canceled out the benefits of his defense. A lot of the credit for this goes to Mike Brown, a defensive savant whose rotations, defense-first attitude, and ability to close out the 3-point line made him the most valuable assistant coach in the whole league. Oh, wait, he's our head coach.

Rebounding is pretty simple to explain-again, the "big backcourt" allowed us to get a lot of rebounds cheaply, and Gooden, Varejao, and Z are some of the best rebounders in the league. Devin Brown and even Daniel Gibson are great rebounders as well, and hopefully their extra boards will make up for the loss of Varejao, although I really wish we had him back.

Then, of course, there's LeBron, a top-3 player on any night and a top-1 player when properly motivated, capable of winning any game by himself, sometimes literally. There's not a whole lot more to say about him, but he's carried this team for 3 years now, and he's still 22 and getting better.

What are this team's Major Weaknesses?

Offense. Plain and simple. We were at the middle-to-low end of the pack offensively last season, and when you have a player like LeBron James on your team, that's just plain ridiculous. Our outside shooters were largely ineffective and unable to keep the floor spaced for James. We still don't have a consistent 2nd scoring threat for LeBron-Larry Hughes can't get himself to the hoop consistently anymore, forcing him to settle for his shaky jumper way too much. Z and Gooden are both mainly 15-foot catch-and-shoot guys, getting their points in the flow of the offense instead of posting up and creating their own baskets.

Varejao can't create his own offense. Pavlovic has shown flashes of being a capable slasher and outside shooter, but he's still inconsistent, and has games where he can't get anything going regularly. Also, he might be in Europe all year. Boobie is an intriguing question mark, and Shannon is a depressing question mark. Compounding all of our problems is Mike Brown's offensive genius, which can't get LeBron the ball in spots he likes or get our team in the full-court, often leading to a bad fadeaway from LeBron or Larry with 3 seconds left in the shot clock. Having a true point to take the pressure off LeBron could help, but there's no use wishing for what you don't have.

What are this team's goals?

Championship. Now. They got sort of close next year, and that's the only hurdle left. The next year or two could either be the beginning of a powerhouse for years to come or the tail end of an ultimately failed attempt to surround a singular talent with a team that he could carry to the promised land. Other than a championship, I would say that this team's biggest goal is to form a solid Kobe/Shaq, Nash/Amare, Duncan/Ginobili/Parker-type core that will make sure Cleveland stays important for the next few years instead of continuing to go to war with LeBron and the E Street Band, which will help us avoid a Heat-style championship hangover.

What is LeBron going to do this year, after the most disappointing and best season of his career?

Whether LeBron comes out with passion and fury this year is something that remains to be seen-I wouldn't be surprised to see him spend the first month or two of the year trying to get an offensive flow working with his teammates, working on his jumper, and experimenting in the post instead of driving with a vengeance and trying to take over every game. Last year, it too often looked like there was a switch LeBron was turning on and off-he'd sit around, pound the ball, over-pass, and fire 20-foot fadeaways for a quarter, then start weaving through defenders and dunking with authority the next. More than any mechanical sort of adjustment this year, I'd like to see LeBron do away with the switch and have the freaky sort of season we all know he's capable of having. Better free throws, a consistent jumper, and a low-post game are all great, but it will be the intensity with which he goes about the game that will determine how his season goes. I want to see him play every game like it's his last.

Is the fact that so many things went wrong last year something to be optimistic about or a real sign of trouble?
I've been thinking about this question a lot in recent weeks-after USC pulled out a sloppy win over Washington, one of the prevailing thoughts was, "Hey, that's as bad as they can play and we still won. That's a good sign!" As we found out the next week, we should have been a lot more worried. Many Cavaliers are poised to bounce back: Larry Hughes couldn't have played worse next year, and this year he's apparently feeling better and has worked on his jumper. LeBron all but mailed in most of last year, so we're expecting he'll step it up this year. Damon Jones couldn't have been worse last year, so we're expecting a contract-year push from him. Donyell Marshall is in better shape. And the offensive strategy literally can't be any worse this year. Shannon Brown was a non-factor, as was Daniel Gibson for most of the year; surely they will contribute from day 1 this season. And so on. Other than Z, Pavlovic , and Varejao, nobody overacheived last year, which makes me optimistic about this year. Of course, their struggles could mean they're just plain bad, which would mean this Cavs team has real trouble on the horizon. I'm an optimist, personally, which is why I'm making the following prediction:

Projected Record: 55-27.
Even with the East being a lot stronger, we could have a motivated LeBron James with a new bag of weapons, a healthy and effective Larry Hughes, an effective offensive strategy, an 82-game season from an athletic young point who can shoot the lights out, a young uber-athletic shooting guard, a solid guard with a chance to prove himself on the big stage, and an athletic young big with mountains of upside. Just a couple of those things coming together would make this team hugely improved, which is why I'm predicting a record jump this year. Have a good season and Go Cavs!

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