This past season, Cleveland won a league best 66 games with a roster that consisted of one of the best players of all time, and a bunch of players who probably looked a lot better simply because they were playing with him.
The second best player was Mo Williams, who only made the All Star team because he played on the 66 win Cavaliers and because Chris Bosh was injured and couldn’t play. A PG who averages 17.8 ppg, 4.1 apg and does little else but shoot is not exactly most people’s idea of an All Star. In fact, when he had very similar numbers in Milwaukee, the previous two seasons (he averaged 2 more assists, but shoot a worse percentage from 3), he wasn’t mentioned once for the All-Star game. A testament to playing with LeBron.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas is nearly a decade older than LeBron, and hasn’t been a top center in four or five years. He’s slowed considerably in the last few years, and he was slow to begin with. Do you remember when a fat and out of shape Charles Barkley barely beat a 67 year old Dick Bavetta in a race at the All-Star game a couple of years ago? That was Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson in comparison to Ilgauskas running the floor. He’s 34 years old and does not really fit in with a Cavs team that wants to, and should, run more.
Then you’ve got Delonte West and Anderson Varejao. I put them together, because in many ways they’re similar. On any other team, they’d be fantastic players to have coming off the bench because they provide energy and defense. West also provides scoring and Varejao grabs boards. Nice players, but not guys you generally want starting unless the rest of the starting lineup is stacked. On Cleveland, they play the third and fourth most minutes on the team. If you like the PER rating, both were below average, in that respect.
I’m not a huge proponent of John Hollinger’s PER rating, but it is a good indicator, when taken in concert with other factors (like, say, watching them play!). Outside of LeBron, not one Cleveland Cavalier had a PER rating that would put them in the top 50 in the league. And it wasn’t even close. Besides Kobe, the Lakers had two (Gasol and Bynum). San Antonio has two in the top 11 (Parker and Ginobili) besides Duncan. Orlando has just one (Nelson), but have one more this year (Carter), not including Howard. Boston only has one in the top 50, but it’s somewhat deceiving because Garnett was injured and because they have six players above the league average. Cleveland has three, including LeBron.
Why I mention all of this is not to show how good a player LeBron James is but to show that Cleveland, despite their record, was not a very talented team and probably needed to make a couple of big moves this summer. Yes, a big and possibly the only reason Cleveland lost to Orlando in the playoffs was because they matched up so poorly with them (that won’t be the case this season only because of Orlando’s roster changes), but if you stick LeBron in for any other top 20 player on any team in the league, there’s a good bet that team would finish with a similar record. You replace Bosh with LeBron and the Raptors would be a favourite to win the Championship this year. That’s not a shot at Bosh, but an indication of just how good LeBron is.
So first thing, the Cavs go out and trade for Shaq. The same Shaq that is arguably a top ten player of all time, who has 4 NBA Championships, 3 Final MVP Awards and 1 MVP Award. Well, not exactly. No, there’s not another Shaq in the league, but this is not the same Shaq who won three Championships with the Lakers, or even the one who helped Dwayne Wade win his Championship.
Even when he was with the Lakers, Shaq could be a detriment on the defensive end because of his inability to guard the pick and roll. Years later, he’s even worse. Cleveland won 66 games, in large part, because they were possibly the best defensive team in the league. They lost against Orlando in the playoffs, in large part, because they couldn’t defend the pick and roll with Orlando’s big shooters. Shaq has increased his number of fouls per minute as he’s gotten older as teams have isolated him on that end of the floor and taken advantage of his weaknesses. Just imagine how he’d do on the defensive end against a team like the Raptors. Who exactly would he guard?
Shaq is now 37 years old, has missed at least 10 games in more than half the seasons he’s played, and his three last seasons he was in Miami, he missed a total of 86 games. That’s more than an NBA season. On every single team he’s played on, he had problems either with the coach or the other star player. He’s delayed surgery until training camp because he didn’t want to miss the summer healing. In his own words, “I got hurt on company time, so I’ll heal on company time.” Not the kind of statement you’d figure from a franchise player making $20 million per season. He’s an attention seeker that constantly opens his mouth when he shouldn’t and often seems to have the maturity of a petulant teenager. But you probably want to know what I really think of him, don’t you?
On the offensive end, it sounds great having a 20 ppg big man, but I see problems on that end, too. Although Ilgauskas is slow and the not the player he was, he played well with LeBron in the half court because of his ability to shoot from outside, leaving the lane open for Lebron’s devastating drives to the hoop. Now, how open is the lane going to be for LeBron with a 350 lbs behemoth standing there, asking for the ball. With his recent focus on defense, LeBron barely has any weakness in his game, but he does have one. His jumpshot. Mind you, it’s improved since his rookie season, but with the form he shoots, he’s never going to be a great outside shooter. So how exactly does having Shaq in them middle help LeBron’s offensive game? It doesn’t. Plus, Shaq commits more offensive fouls as he gets older because he lacks the quickness and athletic ability he used to have and ends up going through more defenders rather than around them.
Shaq is famous for saying all the right things, but not so famous at actually following through with them. Shaq points to Miami as an example of how he can become a supporting player to another superstar, but there were problems in Miami when they didn’t win. He demanded the ball, criticized the coach and ruined the team chemistry enough that they had him shipped away before he could become more of a problem. In Phoenix he lasted all of a year and a half before the business-like players on the Suns had had enough of his antics. Plus, he made the team worse, not better than they were with Shawn Marion. It’s most likely that Shaq will get along famously with LeBron and his teammates, who are less business like (and younger) than Steve Nash and the Suns. His relationship with Mike Brown is more of a question mark. Shaq famously criticized Stan Van Gundy while he was coaching Orlando to the Finals. If Cleveland falters, whether in the regular season or playoffs, it’s a good bet that Brown with be a target of Shaq.
Now adding Shaq was not the only move Cleveland’s GM, Danny Ferry made. He also added two former Raptors to the squad in Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon. Now, I’ve always been a fan of Parker since his first days with the Raptors. I think he’s a better player than his stats show because of his experience and leadership. I think he’s a nice pickup for Cleveland. His three point shooting and defense will be a big boost for the team. Using some of the MLE to sign him, however, was a little puzzling. Especially when they used the rest of their MLE to sign Jamario Moon.
Moon is a physically talented player who has the ability to play lockdown defense and can be breathtaking filling the lane for a dunk. He also doesn’t seem to ever understand when and when not to shoot, is frequently out of position on defense and has regressed considerably since in his rookie year.
I would have thought a team like Cleveland would have been able to get players of Parker and Moon’s calibre for the veteran’s minimum, or in the case of Parker, the bi-annual exception. When the Lakers get Ron Artest, Houston gets Trevor Ariza, Toronto gets Jarrett Jack and Milwaukee gets Hakim Warrick, all for the MLE or less, one might think that Cleveland could have done better with theirs
They did get Leon Powe, but he won’t be ready until the New Year. Cleveland has done poorly this offseason, partly due to their own decisions and partly due to the fact that free agents are leery of signing with them in case LeBron bolts next summer. I’d be shocked if they match last season’s win total and wouldn’t be surprised if they get knocked out in the Eastern Conference Finals again this season. And if they do, I would expect to see LeBron in another uniform next year and Danny Ferry out of a job.