Zydrunas Ilgauskas is back with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Shaquille O’Neal soon will be as well.
Is that a good problem for Mike Brown to have, or just a problem?
On Wednesday, I wrote an article praising Leon Powe and the example he has been setting for the Cleveland Cavaliers since joining the roster in February. Naturally, Mike Brown did not play him later that night against New Orleans.
So goes the wild ride that comes with occupying a spot on Cleveland’s bench, which is loaded with players who could likely start elsewhere but must be content with a seat for now.
Powe’s transition from leading scorer on Sunday to lead cheerleader on Wednesday coincided, not surprisingly, with the return of Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the Cavaliers’ lineup.
Brown, generally uncomfortable with changing players’ roles, brought Ilgauskas off the bench in his first game back, leaving J.J. Hickson as the starting center in place of the injured Shaquille O’Neal.
Even Hickson’s starting assignment was a sign of Brown’s desire for continuity. When O’Neal went down, the coach inserted Hickson at the post and left Anderson Varejao in his customary role of sixth man, where he is both comfortable and effective. It proved to be the right decision.
Brown exhibited the same approach when LeBron James sat out two games with a tender ankle, tapping Jawad Williams to start over the more experienced Jamario Moon. Williams is comparable to James in height and size, and the decision meant that Moon’s rhythm as a reserve was not altered.
When O’Neal returns in a few weeks, Brown will have to adjust yet again. Hickson will likely return to the end of the bench, where he disappeared when Antawn Jamison joined the team in February. O’Neal and Ilgauskas will share the minutes at center, while Jamison and Varejao will do the same at power forward.
It’s a nightmare of a numbers game for Brown, and we haven’t even fit Powe back into the equation.
The backcourt situation is equally crowded. Daniel Gibson, an integral part of the team that advanced to the NBA Finals in 2007, barely moves off the bench these days. Rookie Danny Green? Forget about it.
Sebastian Telfair, acquired in the Jamison deal but still inactive, may never see the light of day in a Cleveland uniform.
Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, and Delonte West get the lions’ share of the minutes. If necessary, LeBron James can play either backcourt position. There just isn’t room for anyone else, especially come playoff time.
It all adds up to an interesting dilemma for Brown. If he chooses to go with an eight-man rotation in the playoffs, it will include James, O’Neal, Jamison, Mo Williams, Parker, Varejao, West, and Ilgauskas.
That would leave Hickson, Moon, Powe, Gibson, and Jawad Williams, talented players all, on the outside looking in.
If Brown adds a ninth spot, it would be Hickson. Or would it be Powe? Or would it go to Moon? Most likely, it would depend on the circumstance and the opponent.
It’s never easy to keep a full roster of talented players satisfied. The Cavaliers have been a happy camp this year, but that’s been due in part to the numerous opportunities the reserves have had to fill in for their injured counterparts.
For now, however, Brown faces a more pressing question: How do you justify changing what has obviously been working so well for your team?
Since the Ilgauskas trade, the Cavaliers are 14-4. Three of those four losses were consecutive and came immediately after the deal, as the team and Jamison went through an awkward courtship.
Regardless, what team wouldn’t take a 14-4 month, under any circumstances?
Just as significant is Cleveland’s 12-1 record since losing O’Neal.
It’s all happened with Hickson patrolling the paint, Moon and Jawad Williams spelling James at small forward, and Powe muscling for leftover minutes behind Jamison and Varejao.
Going small hasn’t hurt the Cavaliers at all. They adjusted quickly to the loss of Ilgauskas and O’Neal and continued their blitzkrieg through the schedule. In fact, it could be argued that they’ve been more impressive, and certainly more athletic, without their towering centers.
However, a closer look at the schedule reveals why O’Neal and Ilgauskas will be needed. In the 17 games between the Ilgauskas trade and his return Wednesday night, the Cavs were 4-3 against teams that would be in the postseason if the playoffs started today.
Fortunately for Brown, seven of the Cavs’ final 10 games are against such playoff teams, beginning with Friday night’s matchup at San Antonio. They’ll also encounter Milwaukee, Atlanta (twice), Boston, Toronto, and once again, Orlando.
It’s a tough schedule, but it will give Brown a chance to see how prepared his troops are for the rigors of the playoffs.
It will also say a lot about how he handles the embarrassment of riches that is the Cavaliers’ roster.
Expectations are high, and the pressure will be intense.
It’s winnin’ time, as Magic Johnson used to say.
Now, things really get interesting.