Let me start by introducing myself to those who don't recognize me, and I will try to be short and to the point. My name is Kirk Lammers, and I'm a fifth-year senior at The Ohio State University. I eat, sleep, and breathe Cleveland (and Ohio State) sports. About two years ago, I started a website of my own with my friends (www.curseofcleveland.com), and I had the absolute time of my life covering Cleveland sports on a daily basis with those guys. Time constraints and other circumstances have led to me closing down Curse of Cleveland. But, because of how much enjoyment I received from covering the Cavaliers daily for the past two years, I decided to try and hold on to some of that. That's why I'm here, talking Cavalier basketball, thanks to Brendan and the rest of the guys here at Stepien Rules. I won't be contributing as often as I did at CofC and I may have to knock off some rust, but I promise, if you bear with me, I will do my best in entertaining you and providing a different viewpoint from a passionate Cleveland sports fan.
With that out of the way, here are some thoughts that I have headed into the season opener against the Celtics on Wednesday night.
Watching the wine and gold up close and in person as I had the pleasure of doing last Thursday at Value City Arena, it really opens your eyes to how stagnant the Cavaliers' offense was at times the last few years. You guys remember the drill, right? Bring the ball up slow, a pass to the wing with #23, holding the ball, sizing up the defender, a pass away and then back again, and finally a tough contested jumper hoisted up against the shot clock.
If the offense bogs down like that this year, not only will the Cavaliers have the most ping pong balls next June, but Byron Scott's head might explode. Instead, no one person rules the offense, movement is constant, and shot options are at every jab step and cut in the set. The Cavaliers have personnel that will thrive not just in a new, more diverse offensive playbook, but also by having the shackles taken off of their respective abilities. Daniel Gibson, Anderson Varejao, Mo Williams, and J.J. Hickson are all examples of players who have tremendous talent and could see their points per game increase by 5-8 points.
Obviously, I'm not saying I wouldn't rather have a ego-driven superstar hold the ball for 23 seconds each possession, but what I am saying is that the Cavaliers can improve drastically in areas that a team who won 60-plus games the last two years was lacking. Some of those facets are free throw shooting, offensive execution, overall conditioning, and a more even intensity throughout the game.
Having two of the three small guards (Williams, Gibson, Sessions) on the floor at once will be a key to success by providing the Cavs with crisper offensive execution and dynamic dribble penetration opportunities. I have been thrilled with what I've seen from Sessions in several outings this preseason, including his 26-point performance against the Bucks last Thursday. Playing heavy duty minutes with Mo and Booby out, Sessions commanded the offense and looked like the most comfortable Cavalier out there. We all know Mo has immense talent, but he's not a guy I envision leading the team in scoring night after night. The key for Mo Gotti will be to keep the three point efficiency while finding more initiative to take it to the rack (think first half of Game 5 against Boston, you know, the quiet before the storm). Gibson may be the biggest wild card of the three with the greatest upside. Booby has improved immensely on the little things (rebounding, post defense, taking charges, in-between jumpers and floaters) over the past year, and now the team will be looking for him to take the next step with more consistent minutes.
Another theme to watch all season long is how the Cavaliers deal with the NBA's most powerful pivots. Not just Dwight Howard, but Yao Ming, Shaquille O'Neal (when he is dunking instead of missing layups), Andrew Bogut, Brook Lopez, and Andrew Bynum will test the short list of centers on staff. I took special notice of how Bogut beat up on Anderson Varejao the entire game, and while I feel that Andy is poised for a huge statistical year, I fear his durability could come into play with the added stress from guarding these larger bigs. Ryan Hollins will provide some relief, and the cast of Leon Powe, J.J. Hickson, and Samardo Samuels can provide a minute here or there at the five spot. Still though, a lot of the interior stress rests on #17's wild head of hair. Because of that lack of size, look for the Cavaliers to wind up on the short end of the rebounding totals most nights.
The way I think the Cavaliers can contend is by combining a little bit of the personality from the Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets, and Phoenix Suns. The Bucks lack a true superstar yet still reached the six seed last year thanks to good defense, diverse offensive options, and their coach's tough mentality. The Rockets without Yao last year had 6'6" Chuck Hayes starting at center most nights, and still found ways to beat more physical teams, finishing 42-40 and just missing out on the playoffs in the West. The Suns bought into some defense last year while still maintaining up-tempo offense. If the Cavaliers can combine some of those elements into their makeup this season, they will succeed. Honestly, I can see eight different guys on the roster who could lead the team in scoring in multiple games this season. I believe the team's leading scorer will probably come down to Mo Williams, J.J. Hickson, or Antawn Jamison, but the leader may not be north of 16 points per game. The Cavs may find more success if six guys average 10 points or more a night anyway.
Finally, I think the biggest storyline that will mark this season is the question, "Out or In?" By that, I mean at what point do Chris Grant and the Cavaliers decide if they are going to a) make a playoff push by using their trade exception or b) go the other way and sell off their spare parts (Anthony Parker, Leon Powe, Jamario Moon), acquire assets, and prepare for the draft lottery?
To branch off what Brendan said earlier in the week, I know what the right thing to do is and I know what I would do. Before the Cavaliers get back to where they want to be, they will have to rebuild through the draft and favorable trades, simple as that. We have extremely slim chances of building anything substantial through free agency. So, making the playoff this year, or even worse in my mind, just missing the playoffs, severely lowers the chances of landing an impact All-Star caliber player.
But, I feel that this year, 2010-2011, could be the most important in franchise history. The organization can go down one of two paths from here. They can lose, hoping to land a stud in the draft, save money, acquire assets and cap room, and as a result attendance may plummet, the team's name will come up any time there is contraction talk, and there is no guarantee that things will turn around. Or, they can dig in and fight tooth and nail, avoid unwise contracts, and try to have their cake and eat it too. It's true that, sooner or later, as much as I regret saying it, the team will almost certainly have to tear it all down to do this thing right. But, just for this year, this team should come together as one cohesive, unrelenting unit that will fight and out-hustle you every night. Even getting into the playoffs as an eight seed and being swept by the Heat as Brendan suggested is a victory in my mind. It's a middle finger to the media, to the nation, and to LeBron, showing that this franchise will recover and survive without Prince James.
So, my advice and my plea to Cavalier fans this year is to embrace this team for what they are, not for what they aren't. "All for one. One for all." isn't lip service anymore, it is a means of survival. If this team doesn't gel on the offensive end, remove all egos, and buy into a strong team defensive concept, they can and will get blown out of the gym most nights from a talent standpoint. Try to enjoy the little victories and the fun personalities that this team still has. And, above all, don't give up on this team, even if the season goes south. If we give up, James and the media have won.
My prediction for the Cavaliers is that they crawl into the postseason with a record of 38-44, just edging out the Washington Wizards by beating them in the final regular season game. And, I believe they will play the Miami Heat, and while they probably will get swept, I have a gut feeling that Game 3 could be a magical evening where for one night, we make LeBron feel like dirt and the Q crowd lifts the team to victory.
I'll finish by saying that win or lose, this season is going to be entertaining for different reasons. And I'll also conclude the same way I did over at CofC, more meaningful now than ever before.
All for one. One for all.