Once again, talk of the Cleveland Cavaliers is focusing on their defense.
A strong end-game closed out the defending champion Lakers on Christmas, and a few days later the Cavs held Atlanta scoreless for the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter in sealing another road win.
Defense is the name of the game for the Cavaliers and has been in their five seasons under Mike Brown.
Offense is another story.
Google “Mike Brown offense” and see for yourself. There are mostly blog entries offering scathing indictments of the coach and his decidedly non-creative approach to putting the ball in the basket. There's certainly nothing testifying to his offensive innovations or strategies.
Do the same with Phil Jackson, and you’ll get enough X’s and O’s to start a basketball clinic (along with a hilarious spoof from The Onion about the Zen Master’s “Tetrahedron Offense").
What gives? You’ve got a perennial candidate for the NBA scoring championship in LeBron James. You’ve got three of the top three-point shooters in the game: Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, and Daniel Gibson.
You’ve also got Shaquille O’Neal.
Don’t laugh. As Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote this week, Shaq is still a force to be reckoned with inside, and the Cavs have yet to figure out how to capitalize.
In a loss to Charlotte on Sunday—their second stumble against the Bobcats this year—Shaq took just five shots, making four on his way to a 10-point night. This while being guarded down the stretch by Boris Diaw—all six-feet, eight-inches of him.
It’s part of a disturbing recent trend that has seen O’Neal taking fewer than 10 shots a game; in many cases, far fewer.
As Windhorst pointed out, the Cavs have been winning, so it’s no big deal in the immediate context. However, their inability to truly integrate Shaq into the offensive flow is indicative of the fact that Brown’s approach to scoring still seems to consist of getting the ball into LeBron’s hands, and little else—and that will hurt them in the long run.
Much has been made of how the Orlando Magic beat Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals last spring. The Cavaliers didn’t have an answer for Dwight Howard. Orlando’s perimeter shooters lit up the Cavs’ small guards. Orlando was simply better all along, said the experts.
But it was also a case of having to finally pay the piper. When your offense revolves so much around one player and his ability to create shots, you’re asking for trouble.
Commentators ranging from Charles Barkley to Mark Jackson to Magic Johnson warned that asking James to carry the team offensively, playoff series after playoff series, was a prescription for disaster. They were right.
As much as the Magic’s offense came to life, the Cavs’ offense went stagnant. The result was another long summer for Cleveland, and another lesson learned.
Or was it? Concern over the way Cleveland frequently closes quarters—with LeBron dribbling, dribbling, and dribbling before firing a last-second shot—is nothing new. Yet it still happens with disturbing frequency.
Windhorst said it this way: “LeBron has to be a leader enough to allow the ball to go elsewhere if he doesn’t have the right situation…He’s got to set up teammates more, no matter what the score is. This is something he’s been poor at all season.”
(Windhorst is a refreshing and articulate voice among NBA beat writers. Even though he co-authored a book about James this past year and knows the MVP well, it hasn’t kept him from being honest and objective in his observations about James and the Cavs. He is consistently insightful and a joy to read for any hoops junkie.)
The Cavaliers appeared to grow offensively during their 66-win season a year ago. Much of their improvement was credited to then-assistant coach John Kuester.
With Kuester now steering the Detroit Pistons’ ship, Cleveland’s offense has too often fallen back into old, bad habits—most of them centered around giving the ball to James and waiting to see what happens.
Again, the team has been winning, so it's not as if the sky is falling. However, this team operates best when attacking the basket—pushing the ball up the floor on fast breaks, setting up their perimeter shooters for three-point opportunities, and hurting teams with a relentless effort inside.
The Cavs' tall twosome underneath, O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, has actually become a trio. Anderson Varejao has been a key component in the paint all season and has shown more skill and aptitude around the basket than at any point in his career.
Ilgauskas, who has finally adjusted to coming off the bench, remains one of the best outside shooters among NBA centers.
Neither Varejao or Ilgauskas offer what Shaq does inside, however.
O’Neal’s brute strength still poses problems for every center in the league. Howard couldn’t stop him one-on-one earlier this year. Neither could Amare Stoudamire, Andrew Bynum, or Pau Gasol.
Mind you, O'Neal isn't complaining. He's been a model citizen for the Cavs. He's playing about 25 minutes a game and has accepted a greatly reduced role, knowing it will leave him rested for the playoffs.
Cleveland’s offense will continue to revolve around James, but O'Neal offers a legitimate option underneath. Brown has four months to figure out how to take advantage of it.
As well as they’ve played, there is still significant room for improvement for the Cavaliers. The thought of James employing his breathtaking athleticism on the offensive end, while simultaneously involving the strengths of O'Neal and the rest of his teammates, is a frightening prospect for the rest of the league.
(This article was also posted on the sports blog " A Few Rows Up .")