Monday, May 22, 2006

Cleveland's motto:

Wait 'til next year!

The Cavaliers blew a perfect opportunity to send the Pistons packing in a pivotal game six in Cleveland, but a sudden deficit in toughness cost them key rebounds that would have iced the game. That was enough to get the Pistons back on track for a game seven showdown in Detroit and the Pistons responded by humiliating the Cavs in the second half. It was bad.

Even so, there is a lot to be happy about if you're a Cavaliers fan. 50 wins, and a strong post season showing is more than you can expect from a team that was largely revamped in the off season and hampered by an extended injury to its starting shooting guard. Larry Hughes showed some potential in the final game against the Pistons, even though he came unglued late and failed to give the Cavs much to work with in the second half.

There's a lot of work to be done. Anderson Varejao needs to hit the gym everyday in this off season and develop skills that will compliment his tenacity. He has the potential to be a strong power forward which is a concern if Drew Gooden is able to secure a contract that the Cavs can't match. If Gooden stays, he needs to work on his conditioning and have some energy in the post season. He seemed to get tired down the stretch and failed to give the Cavs a consistent presence in the low post. The one thing the Cavs sorely lacked in the last two games was backbone. Lebron was the heart and soul, but they needed something else and that was late game dominance under the basket.

Speaking of questionable play in the paint, what can you say about Zydrunas Ilgauskas? He showed some signs of life late in the series, but he didn't sustain anything. With his size and range he should have been scoring 20 points, blocking five shots and snagging 10 boards every night. Here's hoping Zydrunas hires a personal trainer and comes back next year with an extra 20 pounds of muscle on his lanky frame. Hitting those midrange jumpers is nifty, but I wouldn't mind seeing him knock some people around once in while. Seriously, Z, you're a tree. There's no way you should be falling away from the basket.

Larry Hughes needs to deliver. No more trips to the injured list. We need a minimum of 75 games per season. The Cavs signed him to a big contract hoping that his quickness would force teams to spread the floor and give Lebron a little more room to create. Even in the games where he was healthy, Hughes wasn't all that dynamic and his outside shot is a joke. In fact, the only solid long range threat the Cavs have is Donyell Marshall. Damon Jones can drill one every now and then, but he's a liability who turns the ball over too often and lacks any meaningful skills on defense. Eric Snow is a great defender but he's not a playmaker. He has no outside shot, limited passing skills and only an average ability to slash to the basket. His scoring average speaks volumes on the plight of the Cavaliers.

So who should the Cavs keep? That's a good question. Lebron's a start, but that's not exactly a revelation. Aside from that, it's not so simple. NBA contracts are tricky things and it's not always so easy to unload useless players. Just ask the Knicks about Penny Hardaway. If you're asking who he is, all you need to know is that there was a time people compared him to Magic Johnson. He was that good. Now the Knicks are paying him not to play. There is actually speculation that Penny Hardaway doesn't exist. Maybe Starr Jones ate him.

The Cavs would do well to retain the services of Drew Gooden. In spite of some weak performances, Drew is still developing his game and has demonstrated some key strengths on the boards and with the ball. He rebounds well, scores in traffic and plays solid defense. Not great, but solid. A little work under Mike Brown and another off season to tweak his game will do wonders. Gooden will be one of the premier power forwards in the game before long. He's no Tim Duncan, but he's on his way to that shelf just below the top. However, Gooden is no secret. There are people out there who would like to grab him up and the Cavs don't have enough money to throw Drew a high end offer.

A pipe dream for Cavs fans would be acquiring the services of Big Ben Wallace. While it's unlikely Detroit will let the heart and soul of their defense slip away, there will be opportunities to woo the musclebound menace and Cleveland could certainly use the help on defense. Sure, Wallace is a liability with the ball in his hands, but Lebron can pick up Ben's share of the points. Of course, it won't happen. If it does, then Danny Ferry should see if the Spurs will trade Tim Duncan and Tony Parker for Luke Jackson and Ira Newble while the rest of us take cover from all of the flying pigs. The Cavs would have to dump big salaries to pull a Wallace deal off and it's unlikely the Cavs will be trading Z or Larry Hughes in hopes of freeing up the kind of money Wallace will command. Especially if they try to keep Gooden.

If Gooden leaves they will have to fortify their front court. Anderson might be able to step in and play the forward position, but they'll need another heavy to come in off the bench. Maybe help is already on the roster, maybe they'll have to lure in a marginal free agent and hope he plays with a big heart. Who knows? There will be plenty of big guys out there but timing and financing is everything. How long will it take the Cavs to realize they can or cannot afford Gooden? Who will be left on the market when/if he goes? How much money will they have to burn?

A critical weakness for the Cavs is at point guard and what they lack there is range. They need to long range shooter who can make good decisions with the ball when he isn't open. Lebron runs the offense well so a Steve Nash type is really a waste. It might be nice, but why bother? Sacrifice all that fancy lane driving for some long distance shooting. Eric Snow lacks range, Damon Jones lacks brains and the rest of the guards on the roster didn't do anything for the team, so the market has to bear fruit. Lindsey Hunter showed the Cavs his range in the playoffs and although he is getting long in the tooth, he should be able to contribute nicely for another season or two. Chucky Atkins isn't setting the world on fire but he does have a respectable 3 point percentage and might do well playing with a guy like Lebron who will have patience with a developing player. A great fit for the Cavs might be Bobby Jackson who can play either guard position and shoot from the outside. But can the Cavs afford them? Maybe David Wesley is an option. Snow is a nice defensive asset to keep handy, but his range is too short to keep him in as a starter. They need a starter who will force a defender out of the box. Then Lebron can split the double team and make big plays. Zip the ball into Z for an easy bucket or kick the ball out to "blank" for the trey. Larry Hughes would make for a nice outlet who could exploit the back side for easy layups.

As it stands right now, Donyell Marshall is that clutch X-factor who can come in and present match up problems because of his size and range. He's a solid forward who can stroke shots from behind the arc, but he's not a 30 minute guy anymore. He's an excellent sixth man who can provide a nice boost, but they need a starting guard who can provide that range early and a starting forward who can wear opponents down. Nevertheless, the Cavs need to develop his role on the team and work harder to use it as an advantage throughout the season. Get a little more depth out of the starters and let Donyell provide some fireworks in nice five minute sessions three of four times a game.

Overall the Cavs need to get tough. Lebron is a specimen, but asking him to average 46 minutes per game in the playoffs is ridiculous. It's no wonder he couldn't find his range in the last couple of games against Detroit, his arms had to feel like jelly! He might have bristled at being asked if he was tired, but only an idiot would think that fatigue wasn't a factor. I wouldn't have asked the question. Duh. He averaged 42.5 minutes per game over 79 games in the regular season and then played some of the most intense basketball anybody has ever played in the post season. Back to back seven game blockbusters? Of course the kid was tired. I'm tired just thinking about it. You can't do that to a player night after night, even if he is 21. 40 minutes should be the maximum. If you can't win a game playing your star player for 40 minutes you don't deserve to win. Jordan didn't average much more than 40 minutes per game in any season of his career. He was usually under 40.

The Cavs should seriously look into hiring a strength and conditioning consultant. Aside from Lebron, nobody else showed consistent toughness or any meaningful degree of stamina. Every player on that team should be able to deliver 30 minutes of solid professional basketball every night. Strength, stamina and quickness are all skills that can be developed over the course of a few months. The Cavaliers organization needs to instill a sense of commitment in each player and challenge them all to come back to the team bigger, stronger and faster than they were this past season. There's nothing wrong with losing to a team that has more talent, but there's no excuse for getting beaten because you weren't tough enough. Detroit had talent, but the Cavs got pushed around in the second halves of the last two games. Had the Cavs been able to stay tough late in game six, they'd still be playing. There's no excuse for getting pushed around. Don't apologize for it, just don't let it happen again.

Danny Ferry needs to keep a close eye on Mike Brown. Even though the Cavs will be making moves this off season, most of this cast will be returning and Brown will have to show that he has built on this past season by making the team better. Defense will have to improve, Lebron will have to play less and the team will have to win more, or Brown will have to go. I wasn't impressed with the way Lebron was handled this season and shudder to think what might happen if Lebron goes down for four weeks. Of course Mike Brown can't build a winner without Lebron, but if they are going to win a title they should be good enough to at least make the playoff without him. As it stands right now the Cavs would be a 20 win team if Lebron wasn't there. That's not good enough. Mike Brown wasn't hired to coach Lebron, he was hired to build the supporting cast. The pressure's on. The Cavs were a defensive stop and a rebound shy of advancing past the mighty Pistons. We can take this one on the chin, but there's no room for stepping backward next season.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rasheed's big fat mouth.

After the Cleveland Cavaliers showed guts by taking game three of the Eastern Conference semi-finals following a thorough schooling in Detroit, Rasheed Wallace dismissed the effort as a last gasp by a much weaker team. The Cavs responded by beating the Piston's at their own game, winning ugly in a 74-72 slugfest that featured sloppy play by Lebron James and very little help from the rest of the starters. It wasn't pretty but it proved that the Cavs don't have to be perfect to beat Detroit.

I don't mind players being confident. Sometimes a little arrogance is refreshing in a world so often muddied by cliche-riddled platitudes and abundant false modesty. I respected Rasheed Wallace for stating what most of the sports world believed to be true: The Cavs got lucky at home and probably wouldn't smell another victory until next season. As much as I wanted to see Lebron and the guys serve up a big fat plate of steaming crow, deep down I doubted that the Cavs had much of a shot.

Mind you, it's not the absence of Larry Hughes that concerns me. Truth be told, Hughes is highly overrated. Flip Murray is a better guard, at this point, than Hughes and the Cavs are a better team with Hughes on the bench. Condolences to Larry and the Hughes family, but don't feel the need to hurry back on the team's account. You aren't needed. No, the problem facing the Cavs in this series is the fact that outside of Lebron James, the Cavs have no consistent scoring threat. The Pistons only carry one offensive liability and Ben Wallace brings so much to the team in the way of defense and rebounding there's no need to sweat his inconsistent point totals. The Pistons are a better team. Period.

But the better teams don't always win. There's something called heart. And luck. You can't measure either. The Pistons were lucky to be so accurate from three point range in the first two games. Sure, skill plays a huge part in it, but even under the best conditions a great three point shooter is only going to nail 60% of his shots. That average generally falls below 50% during the game and good long range shooters usually take satisfaction in something between 30% and 40%. Damon Jones has an NBA career because he is a little over 35% from three point land. The Pistons were hitting something like 80% of their three pointers in the first two games. That's luck.

The Cavs didn't play with much heart in those first two games. That's thanks in large part to Zydrunas Ilgauskas not stepping up and delivering the sort of performance you expect out of a 7'3" center. Between his "ole" defense and candy-ass offense, Z's proven that he's not the kind of guy the Cavs can rely on in big games. When Z fouls somebody they mange to finish the shot and end up with three points. How's that for soft? Clearly Z lacks heart and so does most of the team. Lebron showed some heart. He always does, but the rest of the team didn't seem to show up.

That changed in Cleveland. Mike Brown found some magic in Anderson Varejao and the lanky Brazilian has been delivering a gritty performance, blocking key shots, grabbing crucial rebounds and scoring some hard fought points. He's not going to set the world on fire, but his effort is consistent 100% everytime. The guy wants to win and has been Lebron's go to guy in this series. Mix in some strong spurts by Flip Murray and solid effort by Donyell Marshall and you have a team that can scrap.

The first win could have been a fluke. A long layover, rabid fans and the surprisingly soft manner in which the Cavs folded in the first two games might have caught the Pistons off guard. It's easy for a juggernaut to get distracted in a seven game series and a loss is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. That's why Rasheed's prediction that the Cavs were done after one win wasn't so outlandish. No problem.

But then the Cavs took game four and evened up the series. Not only that, but they made Rasheed look something like a punk in doing it. The big man with the big mouth didn't put up much of a fight and the Cavs took control of the game with stout defense, hard fouls and solid rebounding. They intercepted passes, blocked shots and made the Pistons work for every last point and when that final buzzer sounded they found themselves in a best of three dog fight with the best team in the NBA. Surely 'Sheed would have to show the Cavs a little respect, right?

Nope. 'Sheed didn't miss a beat. He went right back into diss mode making it clear that the Cavaliers have no chance to beat the Pistons. None at all. Except that the Cavs proved that they aren't a fluke. Winning one game with Lebron catching fire in the fourth quarter is NBA basketball...there's no sweeping a superstar, but following that up with a nasty defensive struggle that sends the Pistons back to Detroit facing a must win situation isn't luck. That's reality.

Rasheed spoke of sunshine and dogs' asses, but the fact is that right now the Cavaliers are as good as the Pistons. Not on paper, but on the court. Where it counts. The statistics in this series prove that. 2-2. Even Steven. This isn't some 41-41 team winning two throw away games after falling 3-0. This is a legitimate contender rising to the occasion and taking control of its destiny.

Can the Cavs pull it off? That's the burning question, isn't it? And that's the point. A week ago Everybody had the Pistons in the finals and the debate was whether or not they would be playing the Spurs or the Mavs. Now the Pistons might be the biggest question mark in the NBA playoffs. I'm not doubting the Cavs. I think they can win it. I really do. They need two wins and we have yet to see Lebron at his level best for 48 minutes in this series. Even though Z is soft, there's still a possibility he might wake up one day and remember where he left his manhood. Larry Hughes might return from his brother's funeral and have something to play for.

Psychologically the Piston's have to be in trouble. The schoolyard bully has finally had his nose bloodied and doesn't know what to do. They're ripe for a collapse and if the Cavaliers can walk into that cat box they call The Palace and show some spunk, this series could be over. If the Cavs go up 3-2, the Pistons won't show up for game six. Yeah, they'll talk a great game, but you don't score points with your lips. You can't block a shot with a pronoun. Rasheed proved that the other night. Blah, blah, blah. Talk all you want, Wallace, but the score board tells a different tale.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Is Mike Brown a bad coach?

Let's face it. Lebron James is a man among boys. You can make arguments that Kobe, Nash or Duncan are better, but you'd be wrong. Lebron is one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. Period. By the time he's done, he'll leave a permanent mark on the game. Not like Magic, or Michael. Like Wilt. He's that good. He will be the player by which all others will be judged.

So one would expect the Cavaliers to advance to the playoffs just because Lebron is there. With his ability to score 30 points, grab 7 boards and drop 7 dimes on a bad night, getting a post season bid is a given. I could coach the Cavaliers to the playoffs. And I still can't tell you what a pick and roll is. So is Mike Brown doing a good job or is he along for the ride?

I'm starting to think that he's in the passenger seat. The proof is in the performance of the rest of the Cavs. Lebron has been stellar. He stepped up his game in the playoffs and willed the Cavs to clutch victories. He hit game winners, blocked key shots and came up with timely steals. It's hard to find any faults in his performance. But the problem is with the rest of the team. Where's Ilgauskas? With Shaq playing at 70% most experts will contend that Zydrunas is the best true center in the east. Some will give him league wide props, but his box score looked pretty weak in the opening series and in game one against Detroit, the 7'3" center was shooting off-balance fade aways from well outside 10 feet. See that paint? That's where the center is supposed to dominate. Get in there, Z.

And then you have Larry Hughes. Some will argue that he's still getting his legs under him, but that's nonsense. He was out with a broken finger. Nobody told him to sit on a couch for six weeks. He could have been running and lifting and keeping his legs in shape. And his strong suit is supposed to be defense. Lock somebody up, Larry. Finding an open look with Lebron facing triple teams would be nice, but getting a hand in somebody's face once in a while might help. How many threes did Detroit drain in game one? Didn't Gilbert Arenas match Lebron point for point?

The bench has lacked consistency, but that wouldn't matter if the 2 and the 5 were showing up every night. Lebron's been amazing while the highly touted acquisition and the long time anchor have slept through entire games.

That's coaching. Mike Brown supposedly came from that hard-nosed Larry Brown school of hoopsology. Smart offense, tough defense and clutch plays were supposed to be the norm in this new Cavaliers game plan. Nobody expected miracles, but when a team that has a reputation for grinding out ugly wins scores more than 60 points at half time in the first game of a seven game series, you have to fault the defense. That's on the coach.

Lebron James is a coach's dream: a flat-out super star who respects authority without question... A franchise player who takes direction...A ready-made icon who embraces unselfish play...He's not a coaches dream, he's the league's dream. Give Lebron some help, play a little defense and Cleveland might actually get tired of winning titles. So what gives? Where's the D? Where's the Z? What happened to Larry Hughes?

Maybe it's too early to send Mike Brown packing. Maybe he's struggling with the sometimes lethargic Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Perhaps he'd feel better with a real playmaker at the point. Maybe Larry Hughes got lazy after he inked a cushy contract. There could be a number of things working against the guy and with this being the first time the Cavs have seen post season play in what must be 66 years, it's only fair to let him take this team back to the shop after the Pistons finish humiliating them over the next week.

It's not like anybody had the right to expect a visit to the finals this year. Danny Ferry just started filling roster spots, Lebron is only in his third year and it could take the rest of the team a full off season to grasp just how to go about helping him. But next year the bar will be set high. The Cavaliers will have to be the real thing. No more dramatic first round battles, dominate the weaker opponents and save the nailbiters for the conference finals. Next year the Cavs have to play like a championship team, not just a playoff contender. If they don't, Mike Brown will have to go. Or Lebron will.