The Cleveland Cavaliers begin their 2008-2009 season tonight at Boston where the Celtics will receive their championship rings and hang their banner before the game. Sports pundits across the nation are already predicting that the Celtics and Lakers will meet again in June, but the Cavaliers are not interested in a repeat of last season.
Tonight's game doesn't mean much in the long-term of the season, although I always enjoy seeing a team from Boston lose – unless they are playing a team from New York. However, this will be the first look for many fans at an upgraded roster from the team that nearly sent the Celtics home from the playoffs in the second round last season.
The current Cavs roster tells the story to why there is so much anticipation entering this season:
LeBron James – Small Forward
No introduction required as LeBron James has improved his game each season since entering the league in 2003. Last season he averaged 30.0 points, 7.2 assists, and 7.9 rebounds, and followed it up by leading the USA Team to an Olympic gold medal.
With the addition of Mo Williams, James will no longer have the pressure of initiating the offense, and instead can play in the post. With the ability to play low and pass out to one of the Cavs sharpshooting guards when the defense collapses on him, I expect to see James' assists and rebounds improve, with his point average suffering slightly.
Mo Williams – Point Guard
Coming to the Cavs from Milwaukee, Williams' style is fast and deadly. The addition of Williams has forced coach Mike Brown to install offensive plays other than the spread. Expect to see the Cavs push the ball and look like a cohesive offensive unit as the season ages.
Williams bring 17.2 points and 6.3 assists to the Cavs. His greatest asset is his shooting percentages. Williams shot .480 from the floor last season, and .856 from the free throw line. This asset is priceless on a team that averaged .717 from the line last season, and often allowed opponents to hang around at the end of games due to missed free throws.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas - Center
Big Z is not getting any younger, and will once again man the middle of a talented Cavs core. Ungraceful and lumbering, Ilgauskas still averaged 14.1 points and 9.3 rebounds last season. With the flurry of guard activity in the lineup, he could actually see those numbers improve slightly this season.
On a side note, Ilgauskas has been with the Cavs for so long that when he was drafted, the roster consisted of names like Terrell Brandon, Danny Ferry, Tyrone Hill, Chris Mills, Bobby Phills, and Bob Sura. Through all of his injuries, surgeries, coaches, and teammates, and losing seasons, Ilgauskas deserves to win a championship with this team.
Ben Wallace - Forward
Wallace came to Cleveland in the mid-season trade last year after a disastrous tenure with the Chicago Bulls where he was often booed and heckled by fans in Chicago. Do not expect much offense, but he will bring a defensive toughness to the Cavs every night as long as he stays healthy.
At 34 years old, Wallace's biggest contribution may be what he does on the bench. In 2002, Tyrone Hill played a major role in the development of Carlos Boozer during his rookie season. The Cavs again have a young big man with potential in JJ Hickson, and Wallace is possibly the best career defensive player in the league.
Delonte West – Guard
When was the last time a player truly didn't want to play anywhere except for Cleveland? West is a talented two-guard who came to Cleveland last season in the same deal that brought Ben Wallace and Wally Szczerbiak. He can play the point, but with the arrival of Williams, West will bring his 10-12 point average and 3-4 assists to the two-guard position.
Daniel Gibson – Guard
Gibson is simply one of those players that teams must have in order to win a championship. In his second season, Gibson averaged 10.4 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. Gibson's biggest strength is his accuracy – he shot .432 from the field last season, including .440 from three. He also has a habit of coming up huge in key games, dropping 14 in game four against the Celtics last season, and 31 against the Pistons to clinch the Eastern Conference Finals the year before.
Anderson Varejao – Forward/Center
Since he has the right to opt out of his contract at the end of this season, most sportswriters have already determined that the Cavs are going to trade Varejao at the trade deadline. His stats are not brilliant (5.9 points, 6.2 rebounds career); his energy and ability to annoy opposing players make him a vital piece to this Cavs roster. They may lose him, but if they are winning then don't look for Ferry to remove a key player by trading Varejao.
Wally Szczerbiak – Small Forward
The standout from Miami of Ohio has become a journeyman after a very successful 6 ½ years in Minnesota. He will probably be traded at the deadline, but the minutes he gives the Cavs early this season will be critical to their long-term success by offering LeBron James the much needed rest he deserves after a long summer. His number have dipped in the past few years, but that may also be because he is switching teams so often. He is still averaging 15.0 points per game for his career.
Sasha Pavlovic – Guard
Sasha is such an unknown commodity from night to night. He is one year removed from the starting two-guard, and was a key player in the NBA Finals run of 2006-2007. If Pavlovic can find his form of two seasons ago, improve his defense, and eliminate the mental errors then he could become the dark horse of this team. Then again, that is a lot of ifs.
J.J. Hickson – Forward, Darnell Jackson – Forward, Tarence Kinsey – Guard, Jawad Williams – Forward, Lorenzen Wright – Forward
There is no doubt that the Cavs have a strong roster with unlimited potential. Based on the dynamic of the team, and the tendencies of coach Mike Brown, the following key points will still be essential to the success of this team:
This has been the modus operandi of Mike Brown during his coaching tenure. Defense wins championships, and contains offensive juggernauts. I am interested to see how this team continues to play solid defense while transitioning into a running offensive team.
At this point, I'll take any offensive set that doesn't include spreading the floor while LeBron dribbles 20 seconds off of the shot clock. The word out of the Cavs camp is that they are prepared to push the ball on offense and produce more scoring in transition. We'll see.
With so many able guards and a backup center who can run the floor, the Cavs may have the best small lineup in the NBA. If Mike Brown is truly committed to running different offensive sets, then utilizing this lineup would be a potent strategy both for fast scoring, and for tiring out the opposition.
The Cavs consistently came out flat in the third quarter last season. To be an elite team, they must learn to open quarters, as well as close them out.
High Percentage Shots
I was sitting at the Winking Lizard during the playoffs last season when LeBron hit a three. The next trip down the court, random people in the restaurant began shouting "Don't do it!" What happened? LeBron fired another three -- only this time he badly missed.
The Cavs have a solid set of guards who are all capable shooters. However, a team can die by the three point line just as quickly as it can live by it.
Sometime during the summer I was pondering what the Cavs were missing, and the name Craig Ehlo kept popping into my head. No, they aren't missing somebody to give up the series ending shot -- they were missing an unselfish, athletic player who is simply a good player. After pouring through stats, I realized that Delonte West is actually that player. Then when I read about both West and Gibson praising the Cavalier "family", it became obvious that this team has been built properly. Gone are the days of Ricky Davis, Damon Jones, and other show the the money players.
There will be growing pains early as the team learns to play with each other. Expect nights where they can do no wrong, and others where they simply look average. After a .500 November, the Cavs will turn it up, finishing the season at 52-30 and the 2nd seed in the East.