With the Pieces in Place, the Pressure Is on for LeBron and the Cavs
It took the Cleveland Cavaliers an entire week, but they finally made some free agent noise.
While big names like Ron Artest, Trevor Ariza, and Charlie Villanueva surfaced in the local rumor mill only to be signed by the competition, the Cavs were quietly having talks with one of their core players in Anderson Varejao.
After officially re-signing AV, then adding former Toronto wingman Anthony Parker, the team has pretty much put the final touches together for their 2009-10 roster.
Now, its time to put these Cavs on notice: The clock is ticking, and the pressure is officially on.
This year's season may be one of the most important in the history of the Cavaliers franchise.
On one hand, you have a squad who was expected to coast its way into the 2009 NBA Finals, but instead got bounced in ugly fashion one round too early. Let's face it, the Cavs were one miracle shot away from being swept by Orlando.
The team's slogan was "one goal," and they came up short. Now, the Cavs expect to right the wrongs and finally bring a title home.
On the other hand, you have LeBron James' contract situation.
This will be Cleveland's last chance to convince James he should stay home. They'll be facing the skepticism of ESPN and every New York media outlet from the minute the season begins.
Anytime the team makes one tiny little slip, it'll be overblown to unreal proportions, followed by further endorsing of the magical world that is Madison Square Garden.
Yes, this year the Cavs are facing tremendous pressure from both ends of the spectrum. By the end of the 2010 season, the team has to prove they can contend for the championship and get James to put pen to paper.
Needless to say, it won't be easy.
First of all, the Cavs obviously came up short in the free agent department.
Tell me you weren't salivating at the idea of having LeBron, Shaquille O'Neal, and Ron Artest all on one starting lineup. Had this deal, or any of the other big rumors actually gone through, Cleveland would've been host to a potential colossus.
Instead, the big news is resigning Varejao and adding depth with Parker.
Granted this isn't overwhelming, but it does have its fair share of benefits.
First of all, the starting lineup of James-O'Neal-Varejao-Mo Williams-Delonte West is notably more imposing than last year's original lineup (James-Williams-West-Zydrunas Ilgauskas-Ben Wallace).
For the first time in the LeBron James era, opposing teams are now going to have to focus defensive pressure on more than one Cavalier.
With O'Neal garnering attention in the post and James remaining a threat anywhere on the court, Williams and West are going to see more open looks than ever before.
Varejao, who's an expert at moving without the ball, is sure to get excellent opportunities with Shaq receiving double teams.
Also, the team's bench has certainly taken a few steps forward from when we last saw them.
During the 2009 playoffs, the Cavs had to depend on Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic, and Daniel Gibson to contribute meaningful minutes without giving up the lead the starters had provided. Needless to say, it rarely panned out.
Now, the addition of O'Neal slides Ilgauskas to the bench alongside Parker, who's a proven scoring threat.
Therefore, the Cavs have essentially swapped out Pavlovic and Wallace, a duo who couldn't produce a combined double digit effort if they played for a month straight, for Ilgauskas and Parker, both of whom average more than 10 points per game.
Add to this a J.J. Hickson with a year of experience under his belt and a Boobie Gibson who maybe, just maybe, began showing signs of the player he used to be at the end of last season, and the Cavs bench issues may have taken a turn for the better.
The team is also expected to add another small piece with the money leftover from their mid-level exception.
Word is former Trail Blazer Channing Frye is the leading man for the job. Again, not overwhelming, but Frye could be a reliable role player.
Yet while these moves and upgrades may not have made Cleveland the team to beat in the NBA, it certainly kept them in the top tier of the Eastern Conference.
Truth be told, I'm not quite sure the Celtics are back to their dominant ways after adding Rasheed Wallace. Yes, there's more talent, but there are also more age issues.
Boston has to hope Wallace and the big three still have enough fuel left in them to return to the championship team of 2007.
As for Orlando, it looks like they've taken a slip backwards.
Vince Carter still has plenty of ability, but looking at the big picture, the Magic lost a whole lot this off-season. Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee both played pivotal roles in Orlando's playoff run, and Hedo Turkoglu could've easily been seen as one of the team's best players.
Ultimately, its asking too much to depend on Carter to replace all of these players.
In the end, while the Cavaliers didn't overwhelm the league with huge moves in free agency, they certainly did enough to make them legitimate title contenders.
So, barring a few final tweaks, the core of the Cavs roster is ready to go.
At least, we better hope they are. Because this year, the Cavaliers are going to be facing the biggest burden the franchise has ever seen: win a title and retain the best player in the NBA.
The bar couldn't be set any higher. For the next year, the Cavs players, front office, and even the fans are going to be feeling the pressure like never before.
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