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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Lebron, Cavaliers still missing special something

As this nation prepares to delve into the NBA playoffs for the next couple of months, a consensus has fallen over impartial basketball fans. The general feeling is that the LeBron James Experience featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers is too good this year to not win a championship. Sure, the Cavaliers won a league-best 61 games this year, and are ranked in the top five in points scored and points allowed per game. However, the Cavs won more games last season (66), and actually put up better offensive and defensive numbers than this season, yet they still fell short of the NBA Finals. This Cavs team is distinct, basketball fans will tell you, because they finally have all the pieces around LeBron to cap off a lengthy postseason run with the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The Cavs had their asses handed to them on a silver platter during last season’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic and there exist three main reasons why the Cavs lost that series. Most evidently, the Cavs did not have a big man that could match up with Dwight Howard. Not only did he dominate the boards the entire series, but Howard, who has fewer low-post moves than a mailbox, also torched the Cavs for 40 points in the deciding Game Six. Secondly, the Cavs didn’t have anybody that could match-up with Orlando’s hot-shooting forwards on the perimeter. The Magic were able to utilize three players of 6’10” or taller that all sunk more shots than a heroin junkie. By bringing the defense outside of the paint, the Magic were able to further exploit the mismatches caused by Howard’s freakish combination of size and athleticism. For instance, putting Zydrunas Ilgauskas on Dwight Howard is like asking a bear to stop a Hummer on the freeway. The bear is as big and, in most circumstances, more than capable to get what it wants but the hummer is just too fast and packs too much power. Finally, the Cavs seemed to struggle to score points at times when LeBron was not on the floor or neutralized by a double team. Many may chalk this up to a fantastic Magic defense, which is fair but the series would have been a lot closer if the Cavs would have had some better secondary and tertiary scoring options.
The Cavs focused on all three of these areas for concern in the offseason and at the trade deadline. The crown jewel of the Cavs’ acquisitions, of course, is Shaq daddy. Shaquille O’Neal may be old, slow and overpaid, but he possesses the size and post fundamentals to match up with and neutralize Dwight Howard. Shaq played in three of the Cavs’ four meetings with the Magic this year, and completely outplayed Howard when the two were on the floor at the same time. The Cavs also addressed their need for better forwards by picking up Jamario Moon and Antawn Jamison—two lanky, tall guys that can play defense on the perimeter and are fairly adept at creating their own shot—in Jamison’s case, extremely adept. Furthermore, Cleveland has also done an excellent job in the development of J.J. Hickson, a young power forward averaging nearly nine points and five rebounds in only his second year. These three forwards are an immense improvement over last season’s Sasha Pavlovic, Wally Sczczerbiak and Joe Smith in just about every category imaginable.
Fans may wonder how the Cavs are supposed to play better defense this postseason when four-time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace was shipped out in the offseason. Simple, Wallace is a fantastic interior defender, who specializes at clogging up the middle. The Cavs did not lose to the Magic because they could not defend the paint, but rather because they could not defend the perimeter. The Cavs have actually become a better perimeter-defending team without the aging and highly immobile Wallace, and the same goes for Lorenzen Wright.
So the Cavs solved all their problems right? LeBron is destined to win a championship in his contract year and re-sign with Cleveland, right? WRONG. Maybe I’m drinking too much Haterade but I cannot pick the Cavaliers to win the NBA Championship this year, because the start of these playoffs feels all too similar to last year. Remember how high people were on the Cavs going into last year’s playoffs? “The Cavs have so much depth,” Pundits exclaimed, “LeBron finally has a worthy number two in Mo Williams.” Nobody foresaw the giant egg Cleveland would lay against the Magic, simply because they managed to go through the entire regular season without revealing any huge weaknesses. The same is true this year—the Cavs do not appear to have any glaring deficiencies, but it is entirely possible that a team could expose previously unnoticed chinks in the armor. However, the Cavs have built their roster for the specific intention of not losing to Orlando the only real threat in the East, and so I don’t think anybody will be able to upend the Cavs early this time around.
If the Cavs have truly solved their Eastern Conference deficiencies and make the NBA Finals, then I think the Lakers will beat the Cavs. The way I see it, Kobe and LeBron will just about cancel out each other’s acrobatic, high-flying basketball circus. Cliché as it may be, the Finals will come down to the teams around Kobe and LeBron respectively. L.A.’s big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, have played extremely well thus far in the postseason, and should pose some size problems for Cleveland. Unlike Howard, Gasol is a fantastic passer, and has the added dimension of a reliable mid-range jumper. Shaq will use his size to bully Gasol, but it is unlikely that the Cavs will be able to utilize O’Neal more than 20-25 minutes a game, whereas Gasol could easily stay on the court up to 40 minutes. Bynum is bigger, stronger and a better rebounder than Varejao, as evidenced by the Lakers’ two wins over the Cavs this year. As long as they can stay out of foul-trouble, I look for the Lakers’ starting big men to draw the Cavs’ defense in, and then kick out the ball to open shooters.     Defensively, I expect Kobe and Ron Artest to match up well with Jamison and LeBron respectively. Lamar Odom is also a huge defensive asset for the Lakers off the bench, and should help check the long and gangly forwards the Cavs will throw at them. It’s funny, for all the changes the Cavs made to their roster in an effort to build a team that would not lose to the Magic again, the Cavs may have actually built a team less likely to win a championship. Clogging up the middle is an effective strategy for defeating the Lakers, who have proven they cannot win basketball games on outside shooting alone. The Cavaliers will likely find themselves in the NBA Finals in June, but that won’t stop yet another banner from being hoisted to the rafters of the Staples Center in October.

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