Even though there is a serious depletion in overall talent across the roster, last year's 61-win, championship-contending, Cleveland Cavaliers team and this year's seemingly middle-of-the-pack group share a common affliction:
Uncertainty in the starting five.
The 2009 team used 14 different starting lineups throughout the regular season. Injuries were the primary reason—once coach Mike Brown was set in his core of Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, LeBron James, J.J. Hickson, and Shaquille O'Neal, someone would get hurt and Brown was forced to tinker with his lineup.
Mo Williams suffered a shoulder injury in late January and missed 13 games.
Shaquille O'Neal broke his thumb in mid-February and sat out the final 23 games of the regular season before returning in the first round of the playoffs.
And in the midst of all that, the Cavs acquired Antawn Jamison just before the trade deadline and were forced to integrate another player into the rotation.
Williams, Parker, James, Jamison, and O'Neal started together for the first time during Game 1 of the opening round vs. Chicago.
J.J. Hickson, who started 73 games during the regular season (the Cavs were 60-13 in those games) was relegated to fourth or fifth guy off the bench.
The result wasn't pretty: they went just 6-5 before bowing out against Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Granted, the team had deeper-rooted issues that caused their early elimination, but a lineup that hadn't played together all year certainly didn't help forge any chemistry that the Cavs were seemingly lacking during the last month of the season.
After losing two players who combined for 140 regular season and playoff starts, determining who will be starting on opening night for this year's Cavs isn't much clearer.
New coach Byron Scott is determined to bring the "Showtime" his Lakers perfected in the '80s to this team—quite the opposite from Brown's "slow-it-down, isolation, let's win with half-court defense" approach.
Plus the Cavs won't be the championship contenders that they were a year ago. While they're not throwing this year away, they do have to look for the future and find out what players can contribute and thrive in this system in two or three years.
Brown was determined to take a traditional approach and have a pure PG, SG, SF, PF, and C as his starters.
Scott may be forced to throw his best five on the floor and see what unfolds.
Only two players stand out as sure-fire locks. The first is Mo Williams, who started 149 games in the last two years and could possibly emerge as the Cavaliers' go-to player in crunch-time or when a half-court offense breaks down.
The second is Anderson Varejao. Cavs fans have grown accustomed to see Andy be the sixth man, a role he's thrived in throughout his career. He's perfectly suited for that role on a contender—an aggressive, high-energy player that picks up everyone else's game.
But average teams simply can't afford the luxury of bringing a player like Varejao (or in a similar situation, San Antonio with Manu Ginobili) off the bench. With only one true center on roster (Ryan Hollins), he'll have to move inside and take on the role of center.
It'll be a mismatch against teams with strong interior presences like Orlando, Boston, and Chicago, but an undersized big man won't be much of an issue against 75 percent of the league.
So pencil in Mo and Varejao. That leaves three open spots vacated.
The obvious answer at shooting guard would be Anthony Parker. He started all 81 games he played last season and was the ideal fifth banana—played strong defense, moved crisply without the ball on offense, and knocked down shots when he was open.
You would think the starting spot would remain his...until the Cavs traded for Ramon Sessions.
Sessions is the first pure point guard the Cavs have had since the days of Eric Snow. Mo is a shoot-first guard—a shooting guard trapped in a 6'1" body.
Ditto for Daniel Gibson.
Delonte West was a strong combo guard but definitely not a consistently viable option at the point.
Sessions is a smart decision maker with a terrific eye for finding the open man. More importantly, he can create offense for others by relentlessly attacking the rim, something that is seriously lacking from this team. He's been quite impressive in the two preseason games as well.
If Mo and Parker are the starting guards, they're not going to initiate much offense. Sessions will likely take over the starting PG role and Mo will move over to SG. It's a small backcourt, but the Cavs will play a lot of small ball. Sessions can drive and Mo can hit three-pointers—good fits for a fast-paced team.
Perhaps the diciest decision comes at power forward, where there two candidates: J.J. Hickson and Antawn Jamison.
As mentioned early, the Cavs won 82 percent of the games Hickson started last season. But his minutes in those games were up-and-down—if he played well, he stayed in. If he made a few mental lapses, he usually sat for most of the game.
So the Cavs success wasn't dependent on his performance...though they were very tough to beat when he was more aggressive than normal.
On the other side, Jamison might be the most complete scorer on roster...even at 34 years old. A unique scorer that gets a lot of points on runners, flip-shots, and off-balanced jumpers, he brings more firepower to the starting five.
In the end, expect Hickson to get the nod. The Cavs need to be planning for the future and Hickson is their most coveted asset. In hindsight, it's a good thing that he wasn't included in any midseason trade the last two years, lest the Cavs be even further behind the proverbial 8-ball.
His improved mid-range game, athleticism, and ability to fill the lanes in transition is too tempting for Scott to keep on the bench.
For the last remaining spot at small forward (not coincidentally, the biggest shoes to fill), Scott has a plethora of options: Jamario Moon, Jawad Williams, newcomer Joey Graham...and even Antawn Jamison.
Each player brings something different to the table. Williams is a great defender and consummate role player, Moon brings more size and athleticism, and Graham is a strong, physical player.
But Jamison seems like the most logical option. The other three players don't have the ability to stretch the floor like Antawn. He struggled from the three-point line last year but is still effective from 16-18 feet.
And he has the ability to consistently score in isolation sets. Until Hickson and Mo prove they can do the same without LeBron, Scott will keep Jamison in the starting five and get the Jamison/Hickson duo as many minutes together as possible.
They might lack superstar power or one-on-one scorers, but the lineup of Mo, Sessions, Jamison, Hickson, and Varejao complements one another—Sessions can create opportunities for J.J. and Andy, Mo and Antawn are the shooters, and they all can push the ball at any opportunity.
It's a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—something the Cavs couldn't say about themselves the past two years.
Originally published at NBAPrimetime.com.