5:00 p.m. E.T., ABC - Cleveland Cavaliers (22-8) at L.A. Lakers (23-4)
Adjusted Point Differential: Cleveland 5.1 (5th), L.A. Lakers 6.7 (3rd)
Offensive Ratings: Cleveland 111.4 (8th), L.A. Lakers 109.5 (15th)
Defensive Ratings: Cleveland 104.3 (5th), L.A. Lakers 100.4 (1st)
Pace: Cleveland 89.5 (28th), L.A. Lakers 93.5 (6th)
Let's talk about the Cleveland frontcourt. There are six combinations of power forwards and centers Mike Brown has used for at least 100 possessions this season. Here are their respective Offensive and Defensive Ratings, as well as the net of the two (thanks as always to BasketballValue.com for lineup data):
Frontcourt ORtg DRtg Net
Hickson-Ilgauskas 102.8 109.4 - 6.6
Varejao-Ilgauskas 113.5 98.6 14.9
Hickson-O'Neal 105.6 109.7 - 4.1
Varejao-O'Neal 104.8 97.6 7.2
Hickson-Varejao 132.4 105.3 27.1
James-Varejao 115.7 94.2 21.5
I've railed about this before, but J.J. Hickson simply is not a very good basketball player at this stage in his career, which makes it odd that he is starting and playing 19 minutes a game for the Cavaliers. They are 10.0 points worse per 100 possessions on defense with Hickson in the game, and the upgrade he offers on Anderson Varejao as a partner for Shaquille O'Neal in the frontcourt comes nowhere near offsetting this problem. Hickson should also never be let anywhere near Zydrunas Ilgauskas, though oddly lineups with him and Varejao have been unstoppable on offense (in just over 200 possessions).
It's also clear here that O'Neal is not the right fit for the Cavaliers. Concerns about his defense have proven overstated by this author and others; lineups with him and Varejao have been excellent defensively and in fact better than the Varejao-Ilgauskas pairing. But the latter duo does a much better job of spacing the floor and is the best of the frontcourts Brown uses on a regular basis. Cleveland's small lineup of LeBron James and Varejao has also been dominant in limited playing time.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that Hickson could be replaced in the rotation by the end of the regular season if Leon Powe successfully returns from his ACL surgery. (He was recently cleared to begin full-court running and drills.) Powe might not be ideal as a floor-stretcher alongside O'Neal, but he's a far superior defensive option with experience playing for the league's best defenses in Boston.
As for the Lakers, I mostly said my peace on the team earlier this week,/a>, but I did want to point out a comment on my column made by Forum Blue and Gold contributor Bill Bridges. He noted that some of the change in the Lakers defense could be attributed to Phil Jackson reclaiming charge of the defense after turning it over to Kurt Rambis in past seasons. It was Rambis who was responsible for instituting the Lakers' aggressive trapping. I also second Bridges' point that Jackson is an underrated defensive coach. When he first came to L.A., the Lakers actually went backward on offense but improved dramatically at the defensive end. Here are the team's ratings as a percentage above or below league average from 1997-98 (Del Harris' last full season, when the Lakers went to the Western Conference Finals), 1998-99 (the lockout-shortened season, when Rambis replaced Harris midyear) and 1999-00 (the first of three straight titles under Jackson):
Year AdjO AdjD Net
1997-98 +7.1 +1.3 +8.4
1998-99 +5.4 -2.0 +3.4
1999-00 +3.3 +5.6 +8.9