Commentary

Hollinger's Team Forecast: Cleveland Cavaliers

Originally Published: September 30, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

LeBronJim Rogash/Getty ImagesJames and the Cavs tend to play better in the playoffs than they do in the regular season.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

The Cleveland Cavaliers made the Finals in 2007, but during the 2007-08 regular season, there was never an instant when you sensed they would make it back. Knocked off course right from the get-go by two key holdouts and struggling to regain their balance all season, Cleveland never really righted itself until the second round of the playoffs -- and by then were stuck playing an elimination game on the road that they lost to the Celtics 97-92.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 45-37 (Pythagorean W-L:40-42)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.2 (19th)
Defensive Efficiency: 103.7 (11th)
Pace Factor: 92.5 (22nd)
Highest PER: LeBron James (29.23)

The problems started in training camp; restricted free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic -- two key players in the previous spring's march to the conference title -- couldn't agree to contract terms and essentially held out. Though each was back on the roster by Christmas, there was a cost in terms of missed training camp and conditioning work, and neither had a good season.

The Cavs also got another hugely disappointing season from guard Larry Hughes, whose time in Cleveland was an expensive, cap-killing disaster. At the trade deadline, they emphatically pulled the plug on his tenure -- trading him along with almost half the roster in an 11-player, three-team blockbuster. Cleveland sent Hughes, Drew Gooden, Cedric Simmons and Shannon Brown to Chicago for Ben Wallace and Joe Smith; and dealt Donyell Marshall and Ira Newble to Seattle for Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak.

It wasn't until after the trade that Cleveland began to look a bit like its former self. The team had been badly outscored in the first half of the season and hung around .500 largely via good fortune, but that changed after the break. Between the addition of Wallace and Smith and the fact that Varejao finally had his sea legs, the Cavs improved from 18th in defensive efficiency before the trade to sixth afterward. And while Szczerbiak struggled, West fit in nicely at the point and took some of the scoring load off LeBron James.

Ah yes, Mr. James. The Cavs were rather fortunate he was on their squad, as his presence made up for the vast fields of mediocrity that littered the rest of their roster. James led the league in PER while playing over 40 minutes a game, which helped make up for the pathetic fact that only three other Cavs had a PER above 12 ... and two of them, Smith and Szczerbiak, did the bulk of their work in another uniform. Take away King James, and this team might not have won 25 games.

The net result was an offense that was hard on the eyes. Despite James' brilliance, the Cavs were just 28th in shooting percentage at 43.9 percent; a more direct result of James' traits was that they were 28th in free-throw percentage, too. The Cavs didn't shoot 3s particularly well, nor did they get to the line at a high rate, and again the supporting cast was primarily to blame here.

The one thing they did do well, however, was rebound (see chart). Cleveland rebounded 30.4 percent of its missed shots, the second-best rate in the league, and those second chances were what made the offense quasi-respectable. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a master in this department, using his reach to tip balls to himself or back into the basket, but Varejao, Wallace and Smith all averaged over two offensive boards a game; James came close to that threshold himself at 1.8 a night.

Top Rebounding Teams, 2007-08
TEAM OFFENSIVE REBOUND RATE DEFENSIVE REBOUND RATE OVERALL REBOUND RATE
Cleveland 30.4 75.9 53.1
Houston 29.1 74.8 52.0
Philadelphia 31.8 72.0 51.9
Utah 29.5 74.1 51.8
Detroit 29.4 73.7 51.5
League average 26.7 73.3 50.0

The rebounding dovetails nicely into a discussion of the Cavs' defense, because Cleveland's domination on the glass extended to that end. As with the offense, the Cavs were second in the NBA in defensive rebound rate; adding offense and defense, they were the top rebounding team in basketball by a wide margin. In addition to the four frontcourt players, James was outstanding on the defensive boards, and reserve guard Devin Brown also was very good.

As with the offense, the rebounding was the main differentiating factor for Cleveland's defense. The Cavs were better at D than O, finishing 11th in defensive efficiency, but other than the rebounding they were almost perfectly average.

Cleveland won 45 games but did so giving up more points than they scored; the Cavs had the point differential of a 40-win team and were incredibly fortunate to snag a top-four seed in the East.

But Cleveland had hit its stride by then and took the Celtics to a difficult seven-game series in which the Cavs actually outscored Boston. The series served as a reminder that regardless of their humdrum regular season, the Cavs remain a force to be reckoned with in the East.


Biggest Strength: King James

Sorry, Kobe fans, but LeBron James is the best player in the league, and it isn't even close. And in addition to being a force of nature who is a nightly triple-double threat, James has the added advantage of being virtually indestructible.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Cavaliers make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

This is Cleveland's one huge advantage. They're basically a 24-58 team, except that they have the greatest player in the world, and in a seven-game series that advantage becomes hugely magnified because they can play him virtually every minute of every important game.

Take a look at that Boston series again, for instance. In the last four games James played 44, 45, 47 and 47 minutes, and the Cavs beat Boston by a composite six points in that time; in the nine minutes he sat out the Cavs were outscored 22-12. That's consistent with his massive on-court vs. off-court disparities over the past few seasons; last year the Cavs were 11.1 points per 48 minutes better with James on the floor.

Because these were the playoffs, he was on the bench for a total of only nine minutes in those four games against Boston ... in the regular season it would have been more like 32. Those extra minutes where LeBron is on the court instead of somebody like Pavlovic or Szczerbiak are the reason that Cleveland is such a scary team to face in the postseason -- any time they get into a must-win game, James can play all 48 minutes, so the playoff Cavs are markedly stronger than the regular-season Cavs.

Biggest Weakness: The Help

Cleveland has a superstar in James and two solid starters in Williams and Ilgauskas. Beyond that, they have a lot of question marks. Either West or Szczerbiak will be the starter at shooting guard, but both are far short of ideal -- West because of his size disadvantage, Szczerbiak because of his poor defense. And neither is the type of shot creator who can take the pressure off James offensively.

It's a similar story up front, where power forward looms as a major problem spot. Ben Wallace started there down the stretch last season, but he's faded badly the past two years, and his near-total inability to score gives defenses free rein to double-team James. Varejao is a more capable scorer but struggles from the perimeter and picks up fouls, while Hickson is an untested 20-year-old being thrown into the rotation of a championship hopeful.

The bench doesn't exactly teem with solutions, either. Varejao is productive as an energy guy and Gibson is a decent 3-point specialist, but either West or Szczerbiak will have to suffice as the top wing reserve with the untested Hickson as the fourth big man. Filling out the rotation is Pavlovic, who has had four absolutely horrible pro seasons and one halfway decent one. Anybody want to take odds on how this season turns out?


Outlook

The Cavs aren't really built to be a good regular-season team, and if James misses any time they're going to rapidly slip in the standings -- they lost all seven games that he missed last year.

But they should be better than they were last season. Having Varejao around for a full season will do wonders for the defense, and Williams is a major upgrade at the point. Plus, there's the possibility of doing something much more grand with Szczerbiak's expiring deal and really remaking this team into an offensive force.

Too many holes remain for this team to outlast mainstays like the Pistons and Celtics for a top seed. The frontcourt is counting on two aging warhorses in Ilgauskas and Wallace, the shooting guard situation is dicey at best and, other than Varejao, the bench offers decent role players but little real quality.

Fortunately, they have James, and in a playoff series that makes them a threat to beat anyone -- even Boston, as we learned last spring. The problem is they're going to have to do it on the road, because they aren't built to handle the 82-game grind that precedes the playoffs.

Prediction: 47-35, 2nd in Central Division, T-5th in Eastern Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.