Following their relatively easy 98-88 win over Detroit on Thanksgiving Eve, the Cleveland Cavaliers are in their customary spot atop the NBA’s Central Division with an 11-4 record.
LeBron James, the reigning MVP, is also the current Eastern Conference Player of the Week after a four-game stretch in which he averaged 34 points, nine assists and five rebounds.
Mo Williams continues to complement James’ scoring, tossing in 17 points a game. Anthony Parker is converting more than half of his three-point attempts.
As one might have expected, the team has risen to the challenge of playing without Shaquille O’Neal, who has been sidelined with a shoulder injury. The Cavs have won five of six without O’Neal, after going 6-3 to start the season with him.
The pleasant surprise in the midst of it all is the emergence of second year pro J.J. Hickson at power forward. In fact, Hickson may end up being the unexpected piece to the championship puzzle for Cleveland—as much, or even moreso, than O’Neal.
The Cavs are 8-1 since Hickson joined the starting lineup. He’s averaging a shade under 13 points and five rebounds since then, playing about 30 minutes a game.
Although Hickson is not the accomplished rebounder that Anderson Varejao is, he provides an important low-post threat on offense. As a starter he’s shooting 63 percent from the field. That translates into more outside opportunities for the Cavs’ sharpshooting guard trio of Williams, Parker and Daniel Gibson. More important, it prevents defenses from focusing so much attention on James.
In the six games before Hickson entered the starting five, LeBron averaged 25.1 points a contest and the Cavaliers were 3-3. Since then, with Hickson drawing attention down low, James is soaring once again, averaging nearly 33 a game as Cleveland has won eight of nine.
It’s good news for coach Mike Brown as he tinkers with the lineup in anticipation of O’Neal’s return. The depth on this team is perhaps its greatest strength. Jamario Moon is averaging 17 minutes a game as LeBron’s understudy and has three double-figure scoring games in the past two weeks. Gibson and the suddenly forgotten Delonte West are flying totally under the radar.
In early November, West was thought to be an important key to Cleveland’s championship hopes. Instead, Brown has deftly managed the lineup to adjust to life without the troubled guard, using him for only four minutes on Saturday against Philadelphia and not at all Wednesday in Detroit.
With O’Neal out, Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas have patrolled the paint. Even with Shaq, there are plenty of minutes to divide among them. O’Neal and Ilgauskas are both averaging about 25 minutes a game, exactly what Brown wants as he keeps an eye on the postseason.
O’Neal is expected back on Friday. He’ll provide a stronger low-post presence for the Cavs, but time may reveal that Shaq was not the real key to the Cavs’ long-term success. It might just be that Brown and GM Danny Ferry have found that key right on their doorstep, in the energetic and athletic play of J.J. Hickson.