There’s now less than a day before the Cavaliers begin their second season against the Washington Wizards on Saturday at ‘The Q’. And I have to tell you, I’ve felt better about a lot of things in the course of 30-plus years watching Cleveland sports teams. The fact there’s been nary a championship in that time says pretty much all you need to know.
There’s a sizeable faction of Cavs fans out there who are sure this team will elevate their game and take care of the Wizards for the third year in a row. They may be right. I hope to Larry Bird they are. I’d love to line up with them and have that be the case. I’d love it in no small part because Gilbert Arenas talks more than he wins (but not as much as he shoots) and because DeShawn Stevenson is as ignorant as a day old donkey.
Arenas wants the Cavs because he thinks they’re beatable and that going through the Cavaliers is their best chance to get to the next round. Stevenson believes LeBron James is overrated.
Only one of them is right.
Arenas (and Wizard center Brendan Haywood) believe the Cavs never came together after the deadline trade that tore the team in half and forced Cavs Head Coach Mike Brown to go to work altering his team’s offensive and defensive approach.
Even the most ardent Cavs supporter would have to agree there’s some truth in that statement.
Before the trade was made the Cavs were 30-24 for a winning percentage of .556. After jettisoning Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Drew Gooden (amongst others) and receiving Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith in return, the Cavs went 15-13 over the final couple months for a winning percentage of .536.
That’s not a huge difference. But it is a difference and it’s a losing difference at that. What’s more worrisome than the numbers is that at very few times during those final 28 games did the Cavs ever develop a cohesiveness or generate a confidence among fans that the ship was being righted and all would be well. Much of the blame for that can be attributed to a staggering number of injuries the Cavaliers experienced during the season. Rare was the night when the Cavs had the same rotation on the floor or even the same roster on the bench from the game before.
But there are no mulligans or points awarded for valor in the face of adversity. There’s not even an extra timeout granted to the Cavs for gutting it out. We can hope the team gets together and looks like a well-oiled machine come tip off but nothing we saw indicates that will be the case. Expecting one group that can’t stay healthy to mesh with another group that can’t stay healthy and hasn’t been here for even thirty games this season is expecting a great deal. Especially against a flawed but talented Wizards club that will run Arenas and Caron Butler out on the floor.
Still, there is the ‘X’ factor. And the Wizards would be wise to tread lightly in dealing with and talking about the ‘X’ factor.
LeBron James is not your typical basketball player and he is not in any way overrated. In fact, I’d argue the opposite is true. The King is a transcendent talent in the NBA. He’s capable of taking over a possession, a quarter, a game or a series. He’s also capable of making his teammates better while he’s taking over a game. James doesn’t have to score to dominate. He can, has and will again but it’s the very threat of James exerting his talent and will that suddenly finds role players like Daniel Gibson, Damon Jones or Anderson Varejao standing all alone with nothing but wide open looks, lay ups and put backs.
James’s offensive dominance is well documented. But this year it’s only half the story. Every season The King dedicates himself to improving at least one aspect of his game. After his rookie season he worked daily on his shot. He went from 41% shooting as a rookie to 47% in his sophomore season. His ball handling and leadership skills improved each season. He began to fully assert himself in late game situations culminating in the Detroit Game 5 virtuoso performance last season. This season James looked to shore up his defensive game and, per usual, his growth and improvement was measurable.
LBJ worked on his defensive skills before the start of this season and has turned himself into arguably an All-NBA defender. Not only does he average a career high in blocks (more than one per game) but he’s also hauling down a career high 8 rebounds a game. James is consistently on a team’s biggest threat at the end of ballgames exerting him further. His size, strength, quickness and length are hell on the best players the NBA has to offer each night.
When you look at James you see a player who averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds and 7+ assists while also improving his defensive numbers across the boards. He led a team in turmoil and in constant scramble mode in regard to its roster and rotations to 45 wins and a 4th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. He makes marginal players better by allowing them better opportunities to use what skills that they do possess and by drawing multiple defensive players to him on most trips down the court.
Granted, he lost this 40 year-old white guy with the Jay-Z/Soulja Boy analogy when he responded to Stevenson’s over-rated comment. That’s something he can potentially work on in the off-season if he cares to reach my demographic, but if James is overrated then give me 12 overrated guys on my club every night out and I’ll bring enough hardware home to fill your garage.
No, the issue with the Cavs isn’t that James is over-rated. The issue with the Cavs is that despite James being what he is and doing all he does, when the ball leaves his hands on anything other than a shot someone else needs to do something with it. If the guys the Cavs pay to support LBJ do their jobs the Cavs can and will advance past the Wizards. The issues are the same as they were before the February 21st trade; Injuries and a lack of familiarity.
The 28 games after the trade were not a warm-up for bigger and better things and a playoff push to rival last year. They were 28 games of a team trying to get healthy and get comfortable playing together. Each of which wore down James appreciably.
My fear is that this Cavalier team carries those same issues into the 29th game after the trade. And with a rougher playoff row to hoe this season, those issues could be fatal very quickly.