The news reverberated not only in Northeast Ohio Sunday, but throughout the NBA.
Shaquille O’Neal’s right thumb injury isn’t just “significant,” as TNT’s David Aldridge so accurately reported just minutes after it happened Thursday night in Boston. It’s serious—as in requiring surgery, and a lengthy recuperation period of six to nine weeks.
With seven weeks remaining in the regular season, it means the Cleveland Cavaliers will finish the year without their starting center. He’ll likely make it back in time for the playoffs, but an exact timetable won’t be known until after the surgery.
Combined with the Cavs' recent trade that leaves them, at least for now, without Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the impact is even more significant.
Anderson Varejao, most comfortable as a supersub power forward, slides into the pivot to assume O’Neal’s role in the middle.
How the loss of O’Neal will affect the Cavaliers, pro and con, won’t immediately be known. Here are some of the potential positives and negatives that could result from Shaq’s pending absence from the lineup.
Con: The Cavaliers suddenly have a void in the middle that will be difficult to offset.
In just two weeks, Cleveland has gone from one of the biggest teams in the league to one of the smallest. For a time, it leaves them vulnerable against more powerful centers—but really, how many of those are there?
They play Boston twice more, but have shown they can handle the Celtics without Shaq (or Ilgauskas). Andrew Bogut of the Bucks is a skilled big man. Brook Lopez of New Jersey continues to improve, but is a rookie.
Dwight Howard and the Magic don’t reappear on the Cavs schedule until the next-to-last game of the season. By then, Shaq and Ilgauskas may be back.
Pro: Varejao will gain valuable experience as a starting center.
There’s no question he is most comfortable coming off the bench as the supersub at power forward. Varejao often catches teams napping with his constant hustle at both ends of the floor.
It’s the only way he knows how to play, so that will continue. But he’ll also have to adjust to the nuances of the center position and learn to bang bodies with the best the league has to offer.
Not only will this help the Cavaliers this year and in the playoffs, it will prove valuable in future seasons when the era of Shaq and Z is over in Cleveland.
Con: Shaq’s injury may disrupt the team’s established chemistry.
As the season has progressed, so has O’Neal. Early returns on his presence in the Cavs’ lineup weren’t favorable, but Shaq gradually proved doubters wrong.
He contributed solid numbers and an even more solid defensive presence in the middle, typically playing about half of each game.
Of equal importance, however, was the way his teammates had adjusted to his style of play.
Similar adjustments were required after Ilgauskas’ departure. The team lost three in a row before winning their last three.
It will take a few games to see how the Cavaliers handle not having a pure center on the floor. If Ilgauskas chooses to return in March, the Cavs still have 11 games to play before he is available.
Critics of the Ilgauskas trade pointed to the Cavaliers’ remarkable team chemistry as a reason to have left well enough alone. With Shaq now sidelined as well, the team’s resiliency will be put to the test.
Pro: The Cavs will test-drive a smaller, faster lineup.
The Shaq doubters will have their day in court—or at least, on it—as Cleveland will be forced to play small.
O’Neal was obtained primarily to offset the bigger, more physical teams who might give the Cavs trouble in the playoffs. Size isn’t always the issue, however. Still, when you have experienced big men like Shaq and Ilgauskas in your lineup, you play to their strengths.
Now, with neither of them there for the time being, there’s nothing to prevent Mike Brown from running an up-tempo offense.
Charles Barkley has called Brown out many times on TNT, questioning why the Cavaliers don’t run more. He claims it’s the best approach when you have a player like LeBron James on your team.
Now, we’ll see. If the smaller, faster Cavs perform well, Brown will have discovered yet another weapon to throw at opponents in the postseason.
Con: Conditioning could be a problem for the Cavaliers come playoff time.
With O’Neal out for an extended period, will he remain in shape? Much was made of his playing condition at the start of the season, and Shaq himself said he had worked during the offseason to be ready for the rigors of 82 games and the playoffs.
Brown had been careful all season with O’Neal’s minutes, and the system seemed to be working. However, six weeks or more of recuperation time will require an ongoing conditioning program if O’Neal is to be game-ready come April.
The same is true for Ilgauskas. Should he choose to return to the Cavs, he’ll have been idle for a month. Conditioning while they wait will be of utmost importance to both players’ effectiveness once they return to action.
Pro: Dividing playing time just got easier for Mike Brown.
One of the real concerns for the Cavs’ coach has been finding enough minutes to go around, particularly at the power forward position.
J.J. Hickson had been the starter most of the season, with Varejao coming off the bench. The presence of Jamison has sent Hickson to the bench. With the recent activation of Leon Powe from the injured list, the Cavs had a glut of power forwards.
However, with Varejao at center, Brown will use a rotation of his big men to fill both positions. He views them as interchangeable in the Cavaliers’ offense. This will be a good test of that theory.
Seldom-used Darnell Jackson may find his status changing as Brown looks to fill the void left by O’Neal and Ilgauskas.
Injuries are a fact of life in professional sports. They’re also the variable that can completely alter a season.
The Cavaliers proved earlier this year that they could make the necessary adjustments when Mo Williams, Delonte West and Jamario Moon missed significant amounts of playing time.
Now they—and the rest of the NBA—will see if they’re able to do the same while O’Neal is on the mend.
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