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No one thinks the Cavaliers can win. Not ESPN, not Sports Illustrated, not people around the NBA. Actually, let me correct that. People think the Cavs can be good -- just not good enough to win a championship this season, the addition of Shaquille O'Neal and a few others be darned. Think about it, have you seen any national prognosticators pick the Cavs to win the title this season? Either has Sam Amico, who writes about it in his latest piece for us.
No one thinks the Cavaliers can win.
Not ESPN, not Sports Illustrated, not people around the NBA.
Actually, let me correct that. People think the Cavs can be good -- just not good enough to win a championship
season, the addition of Shaquille O'Neal and a few others be darned.
For instance, of the five experts who made predictions on popular website HoopsHype.com, only ONE picks the Cavs to even reach the Finals. And that one experts predicts they'll lose to the Lakers.
Yahoo! Sports' pro basketball magazine also predicts a Cavs-Lakers Finals, with the Lakers winning.
Other than that, the team with the reigning MVP and best regular-season record is considered, for the most part, a non-contender.
Sports Illustrated picks a Lakers-Celtics Finals. So does Athlon Sports' pro basketball annual. And on NBA.com, only 17 percent of the NBA general managers polled think the Cavs can win a championship.
Then there's ESPN, which ranked the Cavs fourth in its first power rankings of the season. Not first, not second, not third ... FOURTH.
So, why the lack of respect?
OK, let's be honest. The first reason is the same as always. I call it The Cleveland Factor.
We're not Boston or L.A. or the Land of Mickey Mouse (Orlando). Even with LeBron James and Shaq and arguably the loudest arena in the land, we're still considered second rate.
Secondly, no one really seems to be paying attention to the Cavs' off-season moves. I'll be the first to tell you that a lot of people who cover the NBA don't really KNOW the NBA.
Sure, they know the Lakers landed Ron Artest. They know the Celtics added Rasheed Wallace. They know the Magic replaced the departed Hedo Tukroglu (and two other starters) with Vince Carter -- but they don't understand that might not be such a good thing.
They also understand Shaq ain't the same player he used to be. And that is indeed true. But Shaq is just a piece (albeit a very large one) to the Cavs' master plan.
Most people who cover the NBA don't understand the idea of role players, how they are the ones who must complement the stars and how the lesser-known guys are nearly as critical as the big names. Take last season, when Trevor Ariza saved the Lakers in two Western Conference finals, stealing a couple of key passes and big games against Denver.
But now that Ariza has been replaced by a bigger name (Artest), suddenly the Lakers are unbeatable. At least, that's the theory. Wonder if everyone would be so high on the Lakers if they were from Memphis or Oklahoma City?
Anyway, back to the Cavs.
GM Danny Ferry replaced Wally Szczerbiak and Sasha Pavlovic, two terribly inconsistent swing players off the bench, with Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, two athletic and reliable former starters.
He swapped out Ben Wallace, who gave the Cavs practically nothing last year, for O'Neal, who averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds in Phoenix.
Is Shaq still one of the game's top five centers? Maybe not. Is he still a force? You had better believe it. Especially when you combine O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- who, by the way, now gets to play against other teams' backups.
And yes, the Cavs still have James, they still have Mo Williams and they still have Anderson Varejao. And they still are expecting improvement from Daniel Gibson, Darnell Jackson and J.J. Hickson.
They also have the same coach in Mike Brown, a man whom, if nothing else, has the respect of the team's star. That alone goes a long way -- as does the fact Brown is one of the top defensive coaches in the league.
Will he need to be creative with the offense? Absolutely. Especially with Shaq positioning himself near the basket on every possession. But believe it or not, folks, a talented back-to-the-basket center is still a good thing in this league.
It's true the Lakers have almost everyone back, plus Artest, from the team that won the title. It's true the Celtics expect to have a healthy Kevin Garnett, and again, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. And it's true the Magic are saying all the right things and acting as if ex-superstar (and now just good player) Carter is a viable replacement for Turkoglu in their share-the-wealth offense. We shall see on that one, though.
But no one has improved themselves as much as the Cavs. They are deeper, more athletic and more well-rounded than at any time in the LeBron era.
They may not finish with the league's best record again, but regardless of what the national pundits are saying, they look like the best team in the NBA.
Come June, I believe they'll prove it.
Sam Amico covers the Cavaliers and NBA for NBA.com, and is a regular contributor to SportsTime Ohio and The Cleveland Fan.
Oct 25, 2009 8:00 PM
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