Category Archives: Cleveland Cavaliers

Five X-Factors For 2009-2010

When I look at the upcoming NBA season, I see five legitimate title contenders: The Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, and Boston Celtics. Beyond them, I see a few teams fighting to join that group, including the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz. It’s pointless to start making finals predictions now, as numerous things will change for these teams before we even reach the trade deadline. What we can do, however, is look at what factors could have a big impact on how everything plays out for these teams. There are some obvious ones: the health of Andrew Bynum, Kevin Garnett, and Manu Ginobili; how Vince Carter, Ron Artest, and Shaquille O’Neal fit on their new teams; and the play of Rajon Rondo following the vote of non-confidence from the Celtics’ boss, Danny Ainge. What I’m going to do now, though, is look at five people who may surprisingly turn out to be very important between now and the end of next season.

1) John Kuester: The new coach of the Detroit Pistons will have an impact in more than one city this upcoming season. The man who will usher in a new era of Deeee-troit basketball from the sidelines has left behind a vacancy in Cleveland, where he played a huge role in revamping their once-stagnant offense. It is hard to overstate the overhaul that Cleveland’s offense went through last season – the club jumped from 19th in offensive efficiency to 4th. Yes, the addition of Mo Williams gave the team some much-needed scoring punch, but they would not have become an elite offensive team if they had not advanced past the boring, uninspired isolation plays favoured by coach Mike Brown in previous years. If Cleveland is going to stay at the top of the Eastern Conference standings next season, they are going to have to remain an elite team on the offensive end, even with the loss of their offensive-minded assistant coach. I’m not sure how worried the people of Cleveland are about this, but I’m a neutral observer of the team and I’m scared of the Cavs returning to Brown’s pre-Kuester playbook, simply as an admirer of aesthetically pleasing basketball.

2) Marquis Daniels: Daniels could have an impact on the Celtics’ title chances in two ways – his play and his contract. Let’s first examine his play. In short, the Celtics really need Daniels to come through. I believe James Posey was grossly overpaid by the New Orleans Hornets last summer, but the Celtics still missed him last season. The team did not have a reliable swingman off the bench, as any fan frustrated with Tony Allen can attest. It should be noted that Daniels will not be able to hit three-pointers or play spot minutes at the 4 like Posey did, but he could turn out to be a valuable piece for the Celtics regardless. It is certain that Daniels will make significantly less money than the $6.3 million he made with Indiana last season and he will play less than the 31.5 minutes he averaged there, too. Boston badly needs him to accept this gracefully, buy into the system, and perform consistently off the bench, on both ends of the floor. He is capable of hitting shots and playing tough one-on-one defense and that’s all that they’re asking him to do. Now, onto the financial part of things – the Celtics are capped out and have used their mid-level exception on Rasheed Wallace. Thus, the only resource they currently have available to sign a player like Daniels is the bi-annual exception. If they use this on Daniels, they will be unable to sign any additional players for more than the minimum salary before the season starts. Hence, Boston is trying to work out a Colangelo-esque sign-and-trade deal with Indiana involving some of their spare parts, which would allow them to keep their bi-annual exception. The problem is that Indiana wants no part of Tony Allen and it’s proving difficult for Boston to find a third team that will take him on. This is only a big issue because of Boston’s somewhat shallow team and injury history. This is a team that had Brian Scalabrine, Stephon Marbury, and Eddie House playing significant minutes in last year’s playoffs. They’ve already passed on retaining Leon Powe and they might do the same with Glen Davis, so it’s fair to say they have depth issues. Guys like Joe Smith, C.J. Watson, and Von Wafer might take their bi-annual exception and those guys would be able to step into the rotation and contribute, even if the team luckily avoids serious injuries this time around.

3) Richard Jefferson: The new starting small forward in San Antonio must be all smiles right now, despite his messy divorce. He’s gone from irrelevance in Milwaukee to being a key cog in a championship-worthy machine. I think he could fit quite well with the Spurs, but there is reason to question how it will all work. On offense, he will have to adjust to a new role. Jefferson has been a featured player on the offensive end ever since his second year in the league. On this team, though, he should be the fourth option on offense when he is out there with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan at the start and end of games. How will he cope with this? We know that he should be able to hit the corner three-ball, which is a start. It is questionable, though, how he’ll react to playing mostly off the ball for the first time in years. He will have to change his habits, only going one-on-one when it represents a more efficient chance to score than giving it up to one of the big three (i.e. rarely). NBA players generally aren’t great at changing their habits as they age, but if Jefferson has adjusted come playoff time then the Spurs should be in very good shape at the offensive end, as he still has a lot to give this team if used correctly. On the defensive end, there are more question marks. The Spurs have long been the model of team defense in the NBA, but their perimeter defense was spotty last season, with Roger Mason, Michael Finley, Ime Udoka, and a declining Bruce Bowen unable to contain the best of the best at the wing positions. I’m sure the Spurs are aware of the fact that Jefferson showed some slippage in his defensive game last season with Milwaukee. If they end up facing the likes of Brandon Roy, Kobe Bryant, or Carmelo Anthony in the playoffs, they are going to be banking on him playing defense more reminiscent of his days in New Jersey than what he showed last season. I must stress that I am as impressed with the Spurs’ off-season as the next guy, but it is not a given that Jefferson will vault them into a contention next year. It’s very possible that he could, but, as they say, that’s why the play the games.

4) Greg Oden: Portland’s prized big man has taken more than his fair share of criticism over the past couple of seasons. Sure, he might never be Kevin Durant, but the man has proven himself to be a productive player when not hobbled by injuries. Although he was touted as a defensive beast, he impressed me more last season on the offensive end with his toughness and scoring ability on the inside. He is a beast on the offensive and defensive boards and still has all the potential we all saw in him before entering the league. The key, for Oden, is staying on the court. If he has a relatively injury- and foul-free season, Portland could become a very, very dangerous team in 2009-2010. By far, Oden’s biggest flaw is his propensity to foul. He averaged 6.5 fouls per 36 minutes last season, which is awful. We want to see the guy get more minutes next season, but this will only happen if he learns not to foul. Sure, his rebounding totals might dip a bit if he’s being more careful about sticking to the rule book, but he must make the effort to play smarter, especially on the defensive end. If he can make a leap towards becoming the defensive intimidator we all expected him to be when he came out of college, this will be a huge help to the Blazers’ team defense. The Blazers had the best offense in the league last season, so their only hope of improving this season comes at the defensive end. If Oden puts it together mentally and stays clear of physical ailments, they could make a leap and scare one of the consensus title contenders in the West.

5) Vinny Del Negro: This second-year coach has one of the most talented young teams in the league in Chicago. He has been given a brilliant young point guard in Derrick Rose, proven wing scorers in John Salmons and Luol Deng, and athletic young guys who have shown defensive prowess in Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. Del Negro took a ton of criticism last season, much of which was probably deserved. In 2009-2010, he must free Rose to become the star we know he can be and he must utilize Deng’s wide array of offensive tools much better than he did before the injury a season ago. If he gets this group to perform as more than the sum of its parts, then they could occupy that coveted 4th seed in the East by season’s end. Once there, with some luck they might be able to scare one of the big three. I’m not saying this is the likeliest of scenarios, with Del Negro at the helm, but you never know. There’s a lot of potential here, and perhaps the best thing Del Negro could do for the group is struggle during their rough early-season schedule so a superior coach can come in and lead this team the right way.

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Filed under Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs

Looking Foward: Cleveland Cavaliers

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.

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Filed under Cleveland Cavaliers, Free Agent Signings, Looking Forward

Two Signings That Suck And Two That Don’t

It’s that time of year again, where the shuffling of players around the league allows us basketball fans to argue about which teams have found bargains, which have overpaid, and why the hell guys like Paul Millsap and David Lee are still available.

I’m going to take a look at four of the most recent reported signings in the NBA. Two of them exemplify GM’s overpaying to re-sign guys who only appear to be invaluable to their teams, and two of them show smart franchises recognizing under-heralded talent that can be valuable pieces on a winning team, and signing them at the right price.

Let’s take a look, first, at everybody’s favourite former drug user, Chris Anderson. The Birdman bounced back from a multi-year suspension to become a regular in Denver’s excellent big man rotation last year. He deserved all the attention he got last year. He deserved the praise. He deserves your respect.

But he doesn’t deserve a five-year contract, and I’ll tell you why.

Everything positive that Anderson does on the floor is a result of his athletic ability. That’s fine, we love him for it. It’s his energy and hustle and jumping ability that makes him effective. It’s his ability to make his presence known the moment he steps out on the floor that made me tell anyone who would listen that my hometown Raptors should sign him last summer. But I’m telling anyone who will listen, now, that he’s going to be just about useless in a couple of years. The Birdman that we saw this past season is the best Birdman that we will ever see. He turned 31 two days ago. This is about the time where NBA players tend to lose their athletic ability. When this happens to Anderson, he won’t be able to contribute. He is a player who annoys the other team by being a nuisance, flying around the court with reckless abandon. He gets weak-side blocks. He gets put-back dunks. He gets the crowd going. I bet he’ll still be able to do this next year, but I wouldn’t bet on it after that. More importantly, I don’t see him ever becoming a player who plays good post defense, hits open jump shots, or passes deftly. And that’s how older big men survive in the NBA.

I’m not here to rip on the Nuggets too harshly. I understand the rationale for this move. They have a team that can contend for a title right now and they want to bring their key pieces back. Couple that with the fact they have little room to maneuvre, and you get this kind of signing. I’m just saying that it’ll look bad in a couple of years. Plus, there were better players available.

Anderson Varejao, like the Birdman, recently received a contract extension with his current team. It’s for 6 years and worth $50 mililon. Also, like the Birdman, he is not a basketball player who we can call “skilled”. He doesn’t bring much to the table, offensively. I’d call him an annoyance. You don’t want to play against him. He will be physical with you, flop, and then complain to the referee if the call doesn’t go his way. Sometimes, in the case of Bruce Bowen from a few years back, you really want someone like that on your side. In Varejao’s case, I’m not sure that you do. If I had one thing to say to Varejao supporters, it would be this John Wooden quote: “never mistake activity for achievement.”

He’s active, yes. He flails around out there. He is very noticeable, but he’s not always doing the right things. I would scream at the TV last year, asking him to simply play solid defense instead of trying to draw a foul at every opportunity. He’s athletic enough to do so. Some TV commentators will praise him for his hustle and energy, but I’m sure coach Mike Brown was frustrated by his decision-making ability, at both ends. To me, this is an example of a very average role player making well above-average money. He’ll be on a very good team next season, one that has a shot at winning the chip, especially with Shaquille O’Neal playing the minutes that used to go to Ben Wallace and Anthony Parker playing those that went to Wally Szczerbiak (more on that in a minute). If this happens, then you could say it’s worth it. If the Cavs fall short once again, I don’t see this deal helping to convince LeBron James that Cleveland is the place where he’ll have the best chance to win, long-term.

Cleveland, though, has impressed with their other recent deal, involving now-former Raptor Anthony Parker. It’s been reported (or at least tweeted) that he will receive a two-year deal from Cleveland, netting him $6 million. That, in my eyes, is very fair.

Parker is an aging but skilled two-guard who no longer deserves a starting role on a good NBA team. He’s not the defensive stopper he once was, nor is he as consistent a scorer. However, at $3 million per, this is a steal. The Cavs needed a taller shooting guard than Delonte West not named Wally Szczerbiak or Tarence Kinsey. They need guys in their system who can hit open shots. They need guys who can help them win, now. Parker needs to be on a team where he is not asked to do too much. He needs to be on a team with good players who attract a lot of attention and allow him to hit open shots or hit open teammates with crisp passes. A guy like him, heading to a team with the best creator in the league and two legitimate 7-foot-plus centers who can play in the post? That’s a dream. Just a perfect fit. Well done, Danny Ferry, and all the best to you, AP. From a Raptors fan.

San Antonio’s pick-up of Antonio McDyess for the mid-level exception is a move that mirrors what Cleveland has done with Parker. McDyess is another player who is past his prime, especially athletically, but still has something to give a team that is trying to compete for a championship. All those things I mentioned Chris Anderson can’t do, Antonio McDyess can. He hits his open jumpers. He plays post defense. He makes smart decisions almost all of the time. This is a guy who will not hurt you out there, despite being 34 years of age. In a finely tuned system like the Spurs, where everybody embraces their roles, all McDyess has to do is fit in and continue to do the things he does well. He’s well worth the NBA’s average salary for the next two seasons. Apparently, the third season is only partially guaranteed, and that’s the way it should be. He will continue to be effective, but no one lasts forever. It’s amazing, really, what the Spurs have done this off-season, in picking up Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, and possibly bringing back some of the players they shipped out in the Jefferson deal. You have to love it. If all organizations were like the Spurs, I’d have nothing to complain about.

-Vittorio De Zen

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Filed under Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Free Agent Signings, San Antonio Spurs