Cleveland Cavaliers, Revised: No Longer 'LeBron James and Everyone Else'
You could have made a case in 2007. Many insist it was still the case in 2009.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were nothing but LeBron James, and everybody else.
Some people aren’t even that kind. To them, it’s more like, “LeBron James and a bunch of stiffs.”
Nothing like giving credit where credit is due.
Granted, the Cavaliers of 2007 weren’t exactly a who’s who of basketball talent. Despite making it to the NBA Finals, they fielded a rather dubious unit around James.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, solid but slowing down at center, was joined by Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, and Eric Snow in the starting lineup. Sasha Pavlovic was the first man off of a bench that boasted such luminaries as Damon Jones and Ira Newble.
They got to the Finals, however—something 28 other teams didn’t do. Even so, it wouldn’t have happened without James.
After a sweep at the hands of San Antonio, Danny Ferry retooled the Cavs, then retooled them again. By 2008-09, they led the league in wins. They roared through the playoffs until they encountered an Orlando Magic team that stretched the floor and dared Cleveland’s vaunted defense to guard them, which they didn’t.
Once again, the “LeBron and everyone else” criticism reared its head. This time, however, it grew to rather preposterous proportions.
Mo Williams, who scored nearly 18 points a game, was a choker. Ilgauskas was weak. Anderson Varejao was nothing but an annoying flopper.
OK, enter Shaquille O’Neal.
Sorry—he’s slow, over the hill, and self-centered. Next?
Jamario Moon, you say? That Globetrotter?
Anthony Parker? Didn’t his sister win a slam dunk contest once?
To skeptics, it was still the same old story—LeBron and his circus act, coming soon to a town near you.
Of course, that the Cavaliers kept winning was irrelevant. David Stern wanted it that way. So did Nike. So did the referees. So did Oprah, in all probability. So did…
Oh, stop it.
In the name of Hedo Turkoglu, let what happens on the court decide what is or is not the truth.
By that measuring stick, the Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA champions, and they remain so unless and until someone takes that title away.
Their counterparts in the Eastern Conference aren’t from Cleveland. They’re the Orlando Magic, who won the honor, fair and square, a year ago.
That’s the reality.
So where does that leave Mr. James and his band of merry men?
It leaves them, if the current trend continues, with the best record in the NBA, for the second consecutive season. That’s a fact.
It leaves them with the prospect of home court advantage throughout the playoffs. That’s the truth.
And it leaves them with a lot yet to prove. That’s the bottom line.
Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that James’ teammates are still so much window dressing.
Antawn Jamison certainly isn't. The 12th-year pro has emerged as the legitimate second scoring threat Cleveland has been longing for since James arrived in 2003. He’s averaging nearly 16 points a game as a Cavalier (19.1 on the season) and has recorded six double-doubles in points and rebounds since arriving in March.
Jamison has been the team’s leading rebounder in that span, and turned in a breakthrough game of 30 points and 11 boards against Milwaukee in early February.
Then there’s Williams, the Rodney Dangerfield of Cleveland. The latest concern is that he isn’t scoring as much (just 11.4 points per game since returning from a shoulder injury six weeks ago), and that he isn’t getting as many shots as he needs to be effective.
It’s true that he's shooting less—Williams is averaging just 10.5 shots a game since his return, as opposed to 13 a game before the injury—but Jamison’s shots had to come from somewhere, and they aren’t going to come from James.
Meanwhile, despite constant changeover in Cleveland’s lineup—Jamison in, Ilgauskas out, J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao filling in for O’Neal, Leon Powe’s arrival, the on-again, off-again status of running mate Delonte West, and Ilgauskas’ eventual return—Williams has maintained his season average of five assists a game.
That’s not a gaudy total, but it’s not Williams’ job to be a Steve Nash or a Chris Paul. This is James’ team, and he—for the sixth consecutive season—leads the Cavaliers in assists.
The Cavs get 24 bench points a game from West, Varejao, and Ilgauskas alone. Three players—Williams, Parker and Daniel Gibson—average better than 40 percent from the three-point line.
After O’Neal’s injury and Ilgauskas' departure, Cleveland fielded a smaller, faster lineup, and didn't miss a beat. When O’Neal returns, he’ll bring with him 12 points and nearly seven rebounds a game, along with an imposing, physical presence in the paint.
As a team, the Cavaliers outscore their opponents by seven points a game, and out-rebound them by almost four a contest.
None of this guarantees anything, of course. Like everyone else, the Cavs still need to perform inside the lines—and they have their weaknesses.
Their free throw shooting has been erratic of late, never a good trend in the contact-oriented playoffs. Third quarter letdowns remain an occasional concern. Opposing guards often attack and expose Cleveland's shaky backcourt defense, particularly from Williams.
Worst of all, when the offense breaks down, there's still a tendency for James to try to take things over and do everything himself.
What he and the rest of the team are learning, however, is that it's not necessary. Jamison is a veteran scorer who knows how to get open, can hit an array of inside and outside shots, and gets second-chance points thanks to his rebounding prowess.
That, in turn, creates options on offense that opposing teams must respect—including open shots from the three-point line and a recent surge of success with the pick-and-roll play. James is unquestionably the first option, but better balance will make the Cavs a more effective playoff team.
James remains the undeniable key to Cleveland's championship dreams. However, if the Cavaliers are finally able to bring a title to town this June, it will be due to an overall team effort—not just a one-man show.
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