The Cleveland Cavaliers followed up an exhilarating opening night win over Boston with two disconcerting performances against the Toronto Raptors and Sacramento Kings, leaving the team precisely where we thought they were: a work in progress, with much to overcome now that You-Know-Who has jumped ship.
Some random thoughts as they continue the 2010-11 "Pick Up the Pieces" tour:
Anderson Varejao Was, and Remains, a Key to the Cavaliers' Success
With the hue-and-cry over his flopping ways over with—he no longer employs the technique—fans around the country have begun to realize what NBA players and coaches have known all along: the guy is an impact player.
Last year, he had the third-best plus/minus rating in the league (a ranking of how a player’s team performs when he is on or off the floor), behind only LeBron James and Dwight Howard. He remained in the Top 20 in the adjusted numbers produced by BasketballValue.com—ahead of such luminaries as Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol.
The Cavaliers were energized with Varejao in the lineup against Boston, flat when he missed the Toronto game due to his father’s heart surgery and again more effective when he returned on Saturday night against Sacramento.
Look at it this way: Even playing out of position (he’s most effective as a power forward coming off the bench), he’s a better overall center at this stage than Shaquille O’Neal or Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland’s options a year ago.
Statistics aside, Varejao is quietly the team’s most important player.
Anthony Parker Can Actually Play This Game a Little
He was brought to Cleveland a year ago to provide some length on defense and more of an outside scoring threat on offense—a direct response to the Cavs' playoff ouster at the hands of Orlando the previous spring.
In the James-led system, Parker was relegated to standing around the perimeter and shooting threes, which he does very well. He connected on 41.4 percent of them, good for 12th in the league.
With James gone, Parker is doing more on the floor. He’s handling the ball more and aggressively driving to the basket, resulting in higher scoring and assist numbers in the early going compared to what he averaged a year ago.
Parker's not an All-Star. He is, however, still a legitimate talent, and seems to be enjoying the new found freedom the team is enjoying in Byron Scott’s system.
Daniel Gibson Can Play This Game a Little, Too
With Mo Williams inactive for the first three games, Scott handed the ball to Ramon Sessions at the point. Sessions has done well, averaging 13 points a game, but the guy who continues to flourish under Scott is Gibson.
That he’s leading the team in scoring at 15 points per game while coming off the bench is only a minor surprise; he’s always been a shooter, after all. What’s raised a few eyebrows is Gibson’s team-leading six assists a game, against just 1.3 turnovers per outing.
The rap on Gibson is that he’s small. In the NBA, that’s a legitimate beef. However, Scott has apparently figured out all the right buttons to push to squeeze the maximum amount of talent out of the fifth-year pro.
The physical nature of the 82-game grind has a tendency to wear down the league’s little guys, but the early returns on Gibson are positive.
Shooting Matters in the NBA
For that reason alone, the Cavaliers need Mo Williams back on the floor.
Williams is a career 45 percent shooter, including 40 percent from the three-point line, and three times has averaged better than 17 points a game.
In the Cavs' first three games this season, they haven’t had a go-to guy they can absolutely count on to score points down the stretch. Williams is no savior, and others may need to get his back defensively, but the man can shoot and his offensive prowess will be a welcome addition when he returns.
The Cavs have yet to be at full strength in any of their games this young campaign. When Williams takes the floor, they’ll be a much more dangerous team—not a championship threat, but certainly an opponent to be reckoned with on any given night.
Scott has done a solid job of getting his players to buy into a new system. In particular, he’s impressed upon them the need for each player on the floor to know his role and to contribute to the overall good of the team.
That’s not always the case when there’s a larger-than-life superstar like James on the roster. With that light dimmed, new stars are getting their chance to shine in Cleveland.
This week they’ll face manageable opponents in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington. With Williams back in the lineup, and a healthy Varejao having dealt with family issues that were a distraction in the early going, it should be a week that says a lot about how far the Cavs have come, and what they may be capable of in 2010-11.