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The Top Contenders: Cleveland Cavaliers – Title Quest

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LeBron James has been in the neighborhood of a title for 3 years. He is entering his 7th season and will only be 25 on December 30th.

Michael Jordan won his first NBA Championship in his 7th season. He was 27.  Will LeBron break through finally after getting into the right zip code for three straight years?

James’ Cavs reached the finals once, only to get blown out 4-0 by the Spurs. They were eliminated by Boston in the EFC in a thrilling 7th game two years ago. In last year’s ECF they were tripped up by the surprising Orlando Magic in what was finally supposed to be the Cavaliers’ year.

After an unbelievably dominant season as measured by most major statistics, especially defense (1st in points allowed), average point differential (1st), and most important – wins (1st), they succumbed to the same criticism that has plagued the team since the beginning…it’s a one man team.

Every year Ferry increases the depth around James, but never lands the true heavyweight star. It all comes back to bite them at playoff time.

Searching for Scottie Pippin

Like Jordan, James has improved his game each year. Like Jordan, James has improved his three point shooting. He has the exact same 3 pt. career average as Jordan right now. Unlike Jordan, he hasn’t found his Pippin.

But Cleveland did add a heavyweight star in any sense that you want to take it. It is more of a falling star, though. One of the game’s biggest stars, Shaquille O’Neal, will man the middle in this year’s regrouped assault. Over the hill? Shaq is the hill. He will defend the paint as well as or better than Ilgauskas and will command a double team at times in the box, something Z does not. Is he that full blown compliment that Jordan finally got from Scottie Pippin? Not quite.

Gone: Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Shasha Pavlovic, Wally Szczerbiak, Lorenzen Wright
Added: Shaquille O’Neal, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Leon Powe, Danny Green

The Shaq Factor

Shaq will help with toughness and interior defense. It will be hard for him to slow down the 5th slowest team in the NBA (pace factor), but he might.  His defense can be countered by getting up the floor quickly. He doesn’t do’help’ defense like he used to either. It has been suggested that, on the offensive end, he will be in James’ way around the hoop.

Now, more than ever, Shaq must be closer to the hoop to be an effective scorer. The question is whether you see Shaq and LeBron attacking the hoop together as a positive or a negative. That is one huge handful to hold off the rim, even if you have a crowd of defenders there – which you will if you have any sanity at all.

Do you think they will really rely on non-guaranteed ‘stretch forward’ Rob Kurz to help keep those defenses honest?

Shaq will be 38 when the playoffs start. Common sense says that he isn’t going to be able to make an ‘immense’ contribution anymore.

Depth

With Ben Wallace gone, Verajeo has to pick up those assignments, and he will. Ferry has ratcheted up depth once again with versatile Anthony Parker and energetic defender and long ball shooter Jamario Moon. Parker makes the eccentric and puzzling warrior, Delonte West less critical. That the fearless Delonte West had equal or better stats in the playoffs than Mo Williams says something about both players. Leon Powe is a non-issue until I see him play.

One of the league’s best defenses just got better at the 2 and 3. Anthony Parker will play an important part in any improvement this team has. Moon is raw, but athletic and expected to improve himself.

The team is still missing that dangerous offensive threat when LeBron is resting, but they are more capable this season with Wallace gone, and Parker and Moon added.

Darnell Jackson is on a non-guaranteed contract going into camp, after playing fairly well last season. J.J. Hickson has shown a bit when healthy as well. It would be nice if one steps up.

Can Mo Williams become a bigger factor?  He will be 27 on December 19. Is this ‘all he can be’? Signs point to ‘yes, this is all he can be’.

After that unexpected breakdown against the Magic, this should be the last year of the Jordan model of winning a title, if they don’t finally break through.

With Shaq and Ilgauskas coming off the books after this season, they should look for a Danny Ainge style makeover. Add a bonifide star or two through free agency or even trade, if they can put together a package of players that will land a big one. I know. It is easier said than done. The Cavs don’t have that young jewel like Al Jefferson that everyone would want.

But remember, Ainge also got Ray Allen for much less. That is something that Cleveland management should be investigating as we speak. There are ‘gettable’ stars out there. Start laying the groundwork now for a major shift in game plan, just in case.

And the Nets become a factor with Jay-Z and the Russian Rockefeller in the LeBron Sweepstakes. If the Cavs can pre-empt any suitors by getting a title now or making a huge acquisition shortly after, it will make it more difficult for James to leave.

Weaknesses:
1) Lack of a true difference maker to partner up with LeBron.
2) Lack of a solid shooting power forward.
3) There is not too much more that LeBron James can do on his own. They need a smarter or stronger offensive system, with and without James on the floor.  While it might help for James to take on more of a facilitator role, I don’t see the ‘other scary guy’ offensively that the Cavaliers really need to keep the pressure on the opposing team.
4) Their vaunted defense could not stop the Orlando Magic. It looked intimidating until then. Dwight Howard had his best series against Cleveland. Shaq was obtained with the playoffs in mind. He said that he would have made the difference for the Cavs last season. He will help in the middle, and Parker and Moon will improve perimeter defense. Have they plugged the holes? It seems like it. Defense remains Mike Brown’s forte. It is ironic that it was part of the team’s downfall.

I certainly don’t count the Cavs out. They are better as a team than last season. They could win it all. Yet, I don’t put them first as the most likely team to win it all.

Thomas Halzack