Starting now, on Vittorio De Zen’s Fast Break, I’m going to take a look at each team in the NBA with regards to how they fared last season, what moves they’ve made in this off-season, and what these moves mean for next season. I kind of accidentally started this last week, with the Orlando Magic.
I’m going to continue this by taking a look at the team most experts predicted would defeat the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals: the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There’s only one way to say this: the loss to Orlando should not have surprised anyone. Orlando had a great, great team last season. They proved it all year, winning 59 games despite the loss of their All-Star point guard before All-Star Weekend. Cleveland won 66 games on the strength of an absolutely insane season from the greatest player in the game. Yes, LeBron had the best supporting cast he’s had so far in his career, but this was by no means a great supporting cast. They ended up winning the most regular season games last year, but both the Magic and Lakers achieved their impressive records despite serious injuries to key players. Quite simply, the Cavaliers overachieved. I’m not meaning to diminish the achievement – it was an extremely impressive one, and Cavs fans should be grateful for witnessing such a remarkable season. Rather, I want it to be clear that Cleveland was not home to the best team in the NBA last season and their loss in the Eastern Conference finals shouldn’t have made anyone feel like the year was a failure.
It became apparent against Orlando that Cleveland had some weaknesses that needed to be addressed in the summer. One of them was a lack of a big shooting guard who can defend tall guys when Delonte West is overmatched. Enter Anthony Parker. Another was a lack of an elite athlete besides LeBron James. Enter Jamario Moon. These two ex-Raptors are nowhere close to stars in the NBA, but they bring specific tools to the table that Cleveland was missing. I’ve already discussed how I think Anthony Parker will fit in Cleveland, so now I want to touch on Jamario a bit. I am aware that Toronto fans became frustrated with his offensive decision-making last season, but other NBA observers know that he does many positive things on the basketball court. If Miami declines to match Cleveland’s offer, they will not only add another athlete to the team, a guy who can rebound and help the team get easy baskets on the fast break, but they will greatly increase their flexibility. The Cavs had a very tough time matching up against the combination of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis last season. When the Lakers fielded a frontcourt of Ariza, Odom, and Gasol, the Cavs had trouble too. Now, Cleveland should be able to deal with these kind of lineups more effectively, as they can play Jamario Moon at the 3 and LeBron James at the 4 when the situation calls for it.
This ability to move LeBron James to the 4 at times is not a small point, when you consider the offensive end. First, think about how LeBron was able to dominate 3s last season. He could explode past them whenever he wanted, using his superior athletic ability. His strength advantage was certainly intimidating, but he rarely ventured down to the post. Now imagine him making those same moves to the basket against 4s. I can’t think of a single power forward with the ability to deal with LeBron James’s guard skills and guard speed. I think that playing James at the 4 for stretches will greatly improve their offense, and I doubt he would be bullied much on the other end, considering his size and strength.
While we’re talking about size and strength, I must obviously talk about the Cavs’ acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal. The Big Witness should be able to help the team next year. He is especially important if thinking about a rematch with Orlando, as his lower body strength and agility has allowed him to contain Dwight Howard much, much better than Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao have been able to. This isn’t just about the matchup with one team, though. If he clears the lane when he’s supposed to, doesn’t take plays off on the defensive end, and doesn’t whine about minutes, then he will significantly improve the Cavs’ chances. His acceptance of fewer touches and minutes than he’s previously played is huge, here, as the Cavs have other players who can score, including a Lithuanian center who is arguably superior to Shaq. He simply needs to properly play the role assigned to Ben Wallace last season, and use his scoring and passing ability down low. As a 37-year-old playing with LeBron James, he can and should sacrifice some individual stats for wins.
If this Moon signing goes through, I would count Orlando’s offseason as one of the league’s best. They have directly addressed the weaknesses that were exposed last season. Barring injury, it’s safe to say they’re in the same class as the Lakers, Magic, Celtics, and Spurs. They’re legitimate contenders, and you can thank Danny Ferry’s recent moves for this. We really should be excited about the Cavaliers next year. Still, don’t pencil them in for the finals just yet. We can’t make the same mistake as last year.