By trading for Shaquille O’Neal, the Cleveland Cavaliers have once again put a band-aid on a bleeding wound.
Since LeBron James was drafted by the team, they’ve tried to “give him Scottie Pippen.” The way they’ve gone about it though, has been the equivalent of putting a body kit on a Pontiac Fiero and calling it a Ferrari.
Then, when the team drafted a developmental shooting guard from Congo, Christian Eyenga, who is more experienced playing small forward in a league most of us have never heard of, in the first round, with Jeff Pendergraph, Chase Budinger, and Nick Calathes still on the board, it only got worse.
With all the trades that occurred on draft night, they couldn’t trade up for Wayne Ellington? Darren Collison? Austin Daye?
The Cavaliers are built as though their front office compiles scouting reports by playing basketball video games and makes trades based on a player’s fantasy value.
The Cavs brass has paraded aging veterans, one-dimensional scorers, and hybrid tweeners through the team’s starting lineup, all in an effort to find Robin to James’ Batman.
But even without Robin, Batman has his butler, Alfred Pennyworth.
At the risk of detouring too far away from sports, the beauty of Alfred, at least in modern Batman adaptations, is that he is simply a butler. It doesn’t matter if Batman spent the night fighting crime or partying, Wayne Manor was always spotless and food was always served.
The Cavs' only adequately sized 2 or 3, apart from James, who can knock down a three pointer is Wally Szczerbiak. But Szczerbiak is a rough read on an average crossover away from ankle surgery, and he’s already a sub-par defender.
The team now has two centers with no mobility. At least O’Neal can play defense and pass out of the post, but did the Cavs really need another person to draw defensive attention to the key?
In Mo Williams, Delonte West, and Daniel Gibson, the team has three point guards who are suspect passers. Neither Williams nor West are true point guards, and while Gibson is a good defender, he’s too small to guard anybody but the opposing team’s point guard.
The Cavs have nobody to defend the opposition’s wings but James himself. If James is going to remain healthy and productive on the offensive end of the floor, he’ll need someone to take pressure off of him on occasion on the defensive end.
Between Larry Hughes, Ben Wallace, Ricky Davis, Zydrunas Ilgauskus, Flip Murray, Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson, Delonte West, and Mo Williams, James hasn’t had a sidekick with a complete skill set and true position at any point in his career.
Hughes is a shooting guard who doesn’t shoot well. In an effort to rush success, an effort that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud, the Cavs attempted to play Hughes as a point guard, where he’s poorly suited.
Wallace is a center who can’t score and one who was nearing the end of his career when the Chicago Bulls signed him, even closer when the Cavs traded for him. His offensive “game” is better suited in Pheonix, where he’ll probably never shoot the ball from outside the key.
Davis has the size, athletic ability and skills to be a shooting guard. However, he’s got serious motivational issues and is selfish with the ball in his hands.
Ilgauskus is a very good finesse center. He’s a poor defender though, and not very athletic, allowing more athletic centers to embarrass him. He’s a bad passer, even for a big man, and is not as good a rebounder as he should be for his size.
Murray is a talented scorer. He has a solid first step and handles the ball well. However, he’s undersized to play shooting guard, doesn’t pass the ball, and plays defense like a cat chasing a laser pointer.
Delonte West is probably more talented than he’s given credit for. He’s not an awful backup combo guard, but as a backup is where undersized combo guards are best suited.
Mo Williams is a score-first point guard. He’s not a great passer, and is undersized. He can be neutralized with a properly sized average defender with quickness.
Williams is the present side kick, but on his best day he’s a poor man’s Gilbert Arenas.
Arenas, also a shoot-first point guard, simply doesn’t possess the complete skillset to fulfill all of the duties of his position.
The Cavs have attempted to sprint their way to a championship. They’ve tried to make their team, their star, and their city as marketable as possible. All of this has come at the detriment of long term team success.
With James, the Cavaliers will be a perennial playoff contender. Without help, they’ll be a perennial disappointment.
James is constantly compared to Michael Jordan. But Jordan had a slew of contributors with defined roles. Though Scotty Pippen was one of the NBA’s top 50 players—at least in the eyes of the voters, it was guys like Steve Kerr, Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, John Paxson, and Luc Longley that helped the team sustain success.
Apart from Rodman, none of those players offer any threat to take up space with a plaque bearing their name in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But role players need a role, not just minutes or shots.
Each one had a defined role, and fulfilled every aspect of that role to a necessary extent.
Not every king needs a prince, but every successful government needs dukes and lords, or at least their modern equivalent.
Granted, the business model of the pre-lockout Bulls dynasty was quite impossible in today’s NBA, but that seems like all the more reason to pick players with an actual position, with a tangible ability to contribute, not just a lot of potential to be very good.
Imagine if the Red Sox acquired Ryan Howard to play shortstop, simply because he’s a better offensive player than the team’s other shortstops.
Imagine if the Bears decided that they’d convert a cornerback into a wide receiver to give them an explosive offensive threat—whoops, sorry Devin Hester. Hello mediocrity.
At least the team found a player with a position in the second-round. Danny Green is a small forward and won’t be mistaken for anything else.
But therein lies the problem: What position is James? Is he a shooting guard or small forward?
The team mixes and matches James wherever it is convenient. It isn’t atypical for a team to ask a player, even their star player, to man a different position for a stretch of a game, or perhaps a few games during a season. But James has played different positions for full seasons at a time.
Take a look at the last two NBA champions.
The Celtics threw together a team of All-Stars, but those All-Stars: Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, all have a position of their own. Both Pierce and Garnett were asked to play multiple positions early in their careers with limited team success.
In Los Angeles the structure is the same, essentially. The team could use improvement at the point guard position for the long term, but roles are defined from top to bottom in the starting lineup.
Maybe O'Neal's $20 million coming off the cap will bring Robin, or Pippen, or whoever you want to call him to Cleveland after next season, one of the most anticipated offseasons in NBA history.
The team has only $35 million committed in that offseason to present players. But is this front office really equipped to make the right decision when the time comes?
Greatness is a terrific spectacle, but even the greatest need facilitators to achieve elite success.