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Cavs' Key to a Title May Be in the Shadows

PHOENIX - DECEMBER 21:  J.J. Hickson #21 of the Cleveland Cavaliers puts up a shot over Channing Frye #8 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at US Airways Center on December 21, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cavaliers defeated the Suns 109-91.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Dan DelagrangeCorrespondent IJanuary 4, 2010

As the Cleveland Cavaliers begin the 2010 portion of their 40th season in the NBA, not much has gone unnoticed. Boasting the Eastern Conference's best record (27-9) and two future Hall of Fame players has placed the Cavs directly under the sports media microscope all season.

This season, the Cavs feature one of the biggest, broadest frontlines in the NBA: Two seven-footers in Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a 6'11" hustle machine in Anderson Varejao, and the unstoppable, supposedly 250-pound LeBron James will only be bolstered upon the return of injured power forward Leon Powe.

For starting power forward J.J. Hickson, it's easy to get lost in the expansive shadows of his larger-than-life frontline teammates (literally and figuratively).

Not much has been said about Hickson's play this season (other than writers and announcers saying that not much has been said and dropping it at that), but his role with Cleveland is a critical one that deserves much more discussion.

Since being inserted into Cleveland's starting lineup earlier this season, Hickson has taken a few cues from Varejao, the former starting power forward.

Despite posting measly numbers this season (7 points, 3.7 rebounds per contest), especially for a starter, Hickson routinely finds himself in the middle of plays and around the ball—a scheme that still makes Varejao, the league leader in plus/minus, incredibly effective coming off Cleveland's bench.

It's this last point that makes the play of Hickson throughout the season so crucial for the Cavs. Hickson has begun to pick up on one of the most advantageous, yet simple beauties of playing alonside James: If you find the smallest of open spaces for yourself, he will find you.

Varejao has mastered this trick better than any teammate James has ever had. A casual observer can plainly see how often and how effectively James and Varejao run basketball's simplest and most unstoppable play: the pick-and-roll.

Varejao has made his career out of awkward, open layups coming off beautiful, mystifying feeds from James.

Hickson is slowly learning to do the same.

With more natural athleticism and ability than Varejao, Hickson seems destined to reap massive benefits from playing with James.

Hickson's defense is suspect at times and his jumper is nearly as ugly as Varejao's, but these are things easily ameliorated with effort and time. With James on his side, Hickson can afford to ride his aforementioned athleticism into high levels of productivity within the Cavs' starting five.

If Hickson can continue to play up to par against opponents' starters, it only gives Varejao's constantly-churning motor and Cleveland's other bigs (O'Neal and Ilgauskas need as much rest as possible) more time to relax on the bench.

A fresh frontline will almost certainly prove invaluable to the Cavs as they trudge through the regular season toward what looks to be a top-heavy Eastern Conference playoff picture.

 

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