The Cleveland Cavaliers just may have found their X-factor, and he's been sitting in their lap all along.
An NBA journeyman from St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio, Jawad Williams has crept into the Cavs rotation in the last seven games and is making his case to stay in the lineup.
Williams signed a couple of 10-day contracts with the Cavs last year and made the postseason roster.
He had a non-guaranteed contract at the beginning of the season, and Danny Ferry and the Cavs management decided to retain him past the Jan. 10 deadline, making him a permanent fixture on the roster for the rest of 2010.
So far, he hasn't disappointed.
When Jamario Moon went out with an abdominal strain a few weeks ago, most people assumed that Daniel Gibson would get more minutes in the rotation.
Instead, in Moon's first missed game against Washington, coach Mike Brown decided to give Williams (who had played 18 minutes in the first 36 games) a chance off the bench.
Williams played 25 minutes and had the task of chasing Antawn Jamison around. Jamison finished with 26 points, but few of those came when Williams was guarding him.
At 6'9", 220 pounds, Williams had the body to bang with Jamison in the post and force him out on the perimeter.
And just like that, Williams became a staple off the Cavs bench.
He's played more than 15 minutes in the last five games and in six of the last seven. He's scored in double-figures in three of those games, including an 11-point second quarter against the defensively-challenged Warriors.
And, as Cavs beat writer Brian Windhorst pointed out in his blog after the Portland game , he wants to play defense. He wants to shut down the other team and make an impact on the game on the defensive end, which is incredibly rare in today's NBA.
He's also a fantastic example of why statistics in basketball don't tell the whole story.
I'm sure some of you have read The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons. One of the points that Simmons makes is that, unlike in baseball and football, statistics in basketball don't define a player's importance and impact on a game (and in some instances, statistics overemphasize a player's importance).
If you look at Williams' stats over the last seven games, they are anything but mind-blowing: 18.3 minutes, 52.6 FG percent, 7.3 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, .7 steals.
But it's been his impact on the defensive end of the floor that hasn't shown up in the stat sheet.
Williams can fit into any style that the Cavs want to play. If the Cavs want to go big, he's quick enough to play small forward, or even shooting guard, and keep up with perimeter-oriented players.
If the Cavs want to go small, he can play power forward and is physical enough to bang bodies down in the paint.
And perhaps most importantly, he's perfectly fit to guard that dreaded "point forward" position that is given the Cavs so much trouble over the past two years (see: Turkoglu, Hedo, '09 Eastern Conference Finals).
It's not like he's coming off the bench to guard opponent's bench players, either. As mentioned before, in his his first significant game action this year, he spent a majority of his time in the first, second, and third quarters on Antawn Jamison. He also stuck Corey Maggette in the fourth quarter against Golden State.
And, ironically enough, he spent time last night matched up against Hedo Turkoglu. Turkoglu finished 1-of-6 from the field with three points.
Granted, Turkoglu this year is not the same player he was in Orlando, and definitely not the same player that absolutely torched the Cavs in the ECF last year. But, as I'm sure Cavs fans so vividly remember, Turkoglu orchestrated the play that killed the Cavs: the high pick-and-roll with either Dwight Howard or Rashard Lewis.
Williams is exactly what the Cavs were missing last season: A physical defender who could body-up on Turkoglu, but was still athletic enough to either fight through the high screen or switch onto the power forward setting the pick (in Orlando's case, Rashard Lewis).
Last night, Williams was aggressive defensively and Turkoglu was a nonfactor in the pick-and-roll. It might seem like no big deal, since the Raptors are probably no better than a five or six seed in the East and Turkoglu is having a down year, but this gives Mike Brown options in the future (and especially the playoffs) when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll.
Take the Atlanta Hawks, for example. The Hawks are a good, young team, but their late-game offense leaves something to be desired, as evidenced by their fourth quarter point totals (26 in two games) in losses to Cleveland earlier this year.
One thing Atlanta might try to do is a pick-and-roll with Joe Johnson and either Josh Smith or Al Horford. If there's a switch defensively, Johnson will most likely be isolated with a low post player like Anderson Varejao or one of the Leon Powe/J.J. Hickson combo. Neither of these guys are remotely athletic enough to keep up with Johnson.
But Jawad Williams is; he's talented enough defensively to keep Johnson in front of him and make him take a difficult shot. Plus, he's strong enough to keep either Smith or Horford from dominating him in the post.
Look at another potential playoff opponent, the Boston Celtics. In the first game of the year, the Cavs struggled in the pick-and-roll with Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace on the floor. Again, the Cavs big men (Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas) aren't quick enough laterally to keep up when either of Boston's bigs set a pick for Paul Pierce.
But with Jawad Williams on the court, he can match up with Rasheed Wallace and is quick enough to hedge out on the screen and recover. Or, he can guard Pierce, LeBron can defend the screener (Garnett/Wallace), and the two can just switch whenever the pick is set, allowing LeBron to pick up Pierce one-on-one.
You can see the options the Cavs have defensively. Instead of being isolated in bad matchups, they have a plethora of options to throw at any opponent.
It's not like Mike Brown isn't going to trust Williams with crunch-time minutes, either. In the last two weeks, the Cavs have played four games that either went down to the buzzer or were decided in the last two minutes. Other than the Denver game, Williams was on the floor for the deciding minutes.
Against Utah, he was assigned Kyle Korver, Utah's most legitimate chance at hitting a three-point shot. Watch Williams' defense on Korver —it's impeccable. It's absolutely flawless. He fights through two screens, gets right in Korver's face, denies him a shot, and forces a pass with four seconds left.
Now, if you're a Cavs fan, you just have to ignore everything that happens after that. The play was defended perfectly—the Cavs just got a terrible break on a lucky shot.
Against the Clippers, Williams came off the bench with 6.7 seconds left and the Cavs up by one. While he didn't make a featured defensive play, he did some nice little things: He and LeBron play good defense up top, forcing Baron Davis to catch the ball with his back to the basket, nearly 40 feet away from the hoop. Then Williams stays at home defensively, and helps cut off any sort of angle that Davis would have had if he attempted to drive to the hoop.
Mike Brown is going to face an intriguing dilemma when Jamario Moon returns next week. Moon was signed in the offseason to fill the roll that Williams is currently perfecting.
While Moon might be a little bit better of an athlete, and is definitely more explosive offensively, Jawad Williams has simply played too well to be demoted back to the eleventh or twelfth man. His physical attributes are something that Mike Brown and the coaching staff needs to find a way to take advantage of.
I'm especially interested to see how he will be used tomorrow night in Cleveland's showdown against the Lakers. Williams was not in the rotation when these two teams met on Christmas Day.
I think Williams can be a key player; his length and athleticism matches up well against the versatile Laker bigs, especially a guy like Lamar Odom. He can be a good neutralizer; when the Lakers bench plays well, they are virtually unbeatable, so Williams will be a key contributor in slowing down L.A.'s high-powered offense.
One thing's for sure: If it's a close game late, don't be surprised to see No. 31 out on the floor.