First, the obvious. The ’06-07 season was a miraculous season. It was way better than I think any of us imagined it would be, and I think it raised all of our collective expectations as to what this team and LeBron in particular can accomplish. Unfortunately, the season came crashing to a halt way too briefly in the NBA Finals. But even the brutal sweep at the hands of the Spurs wasn’t enough to put a damper on our mood. We were excited and looking forward to the off season and seeing how Danny Ferry would improve the team to get us over the hump.
And then the off season came…….and nothing happened. Deafening silence. Oh, sure, we added names like Cedric Simmons and Devin Brown, but those were moves that barely made us lift our eyebrow other than to say, “who?”. Then we realized we had no draft picks (Jiri Welsch??? Thanks, Paxson) and so reloading through that route was not an option. Then came the news that we were losing two key members of the eastern conference champion roster in starter Sasha Pavlovic and 6th man Anderson Varejao. Rumors of a trade for Mike Bibby came and went. Rumors of buying into the draft came and went. We kept waiting…and listening….and yearning….and hoping….for something, ANYTHING, that would make our team better in the ’07-08 season. But nothing came. And so we begin the season tomorrow against Dallas with this team:
Your 2007-08 Cleveland Cavaliers
We enter the season tomorrow with the following starting lineup:
PG – Daniel Gibson
SG – Larry Hughes
SF – LeBron James
PF – Drew Gooden
C – Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Guards: Eric Snow, Damon Jones, Shannon Brown, Devin Brown
Forwards: Ira Newble, Donyell Marshall, Demetris Nichols, Anthony Tolliver, Cedric Simmons
Centers: Dwayne Jones
Our starting lineup isn’t much different, but Boobie Gibson starting instead of Sasha does change the dynamic of our starting lineup. Remember, last season this team didn’t truly take off until Mike Brown removed Eric Snow from the starting lineup and went with Hughes at the point and Pavlovic at the 2. Now, Gibson will be playing the point and Hughes is back at the 2. This subtle change worries me. I feel like having a shooting guard who can’t shoot is a gigantic liability for this kind of team. There’s been all kinds of talk in the off season about Mike Brown implementing a drive and kick system. Well, that sounds good and all, but you need your point to be the slasher and your 2 and 3 to be able to knock down open shots. We know Larry can’t do that. Has LeBron’s jumper really improved to the point of reliability? Well, only time will tell. We know he worked on it extensively this summer with assistant coach Chris Jent. If this offense is going to succeed at all, LeBron needs to not only show the ability to knock down the open shot, but also to quickly drive and kick, rather than his customary stand around and dribble for 18 seconds act. I’d like to think that Gibson will be a point guard in name only. I look for him to quickly distribute the ball to Larry Hughes who can then drive, or else get the ball into LeBron’s hands to let him do his thing. The front court duo of Gooden and Z is still a solid enough one. They will continue in all likelihood to clean up the boards, specifically on the offensive end. It’s entirely imperative that they hit the offensive boards when you consider the low field goal percentage this team is likely to shoot. There’s going to be a lot of loose balls to be had. Defensively, I look for this team to continue to be one of the 2 best defensive teams in the East and one of the 5 best defensive teams in the NBA. There’s no defensive dropoff from Sasha to Gibson other than height. But what Gibson lacks in height, he makes up for in quickness, resolution, desire, and awareness. This team will play great defense. I’d like to see LeBron continue to develop his defense as well, as that’s one major way this team is going to have to make up for it’s lack of depth.
Speaking of lack of depth, lets talk a little bit about the bench. This is not a deep team, especially without Pavlovic and Varejao. Their absences means one of our key reserves, Gibson, is now starting and another, Varejao, is no longer around. This means more minutes for Dwayne Jones, Donyell Marshall, and Cedric Simmons. I’m not going to talk about Juwan Howard at all because Brian Windhorst is reporting that Howard has turned down the Cavs and will play for the Mavericks. What this all means is the Cavs are looking at a paper thin frontcourt behind Z and Drew. From what I hear, Demetris Nichols is sort of like the second coming of Donyell Marshall, a forward who is much more comfortable standing around the 3 point line than on the blocks. Frankly, Andy Varejao is banking on this thin line of forwards and centers as his only source of leverage.
Going back to Gibson taking Pavlovic’s starting spot, the one thing I’ll say about it is that Gibson definitely sounds like he’s ready for the challenge. He’s been working on improving all summer, and is hoping it will pay off for him,
“I can’t afford to get complacent because as quick as I got into this league, as quick as I can be gone. I haven’t accomplished anything yet. I could’ve vacationed after the Finals, but I would not have been getting better. Those three or four or five days people took off, I felt I could catch up or gain some ground.”
And for what it’s worth, he finds inspiration in those who have cleared the same path before him,
“Michael Redd, Carlos Boozer, Jason Kapono, Gilbert Arenas, Luke Walton, Kyle Korver and my man, Mo Williams…They were all second-round picks, just like me. I use what they’ve done as motivation.”
The good news is that Gibson seems to get it, much in the same way LeBron does. I really think if these two can develop together in a system for a few years that they can really nurture a strong bond on the court. Their styles can definitely compliment each other. I look for a big year out of Boobie Gibson.
Finally, I look for LeBron to have an absolute monster year. Yes, there’s a lot of negativity surrounding this team. In his ESPN.com chat this week, Marc Stein said the following:
Paul (Cleveland, OH): So has everyone besides Broussard and Holinger pretty much given up on the Cavs?
Marc Stein: This season? Pretty hard for a neutral to get excited when there is no new blood, two key players are holding out and Boston did what they did. All along I’ve expected Cleveland to find a way to finally get Mike Bibby there, but even that option has evaporated for now with Bibby needing thumb surgery. You really think the Cavs can avoid a step back after taking all that into account?
And that’s typical of what I’ve been reading from the experts and analysts. For some reason, I’m not totally buying it, and that’s why I think LeBron will have a huge year. First, his shot is supposedly improved. We saw what he did this summer in international competition with Team USA. He was unreal. If his shot is falling even close to that, he is going to be next to unstoppable this year. Second, Mike Brown has come up with a new offensive scheme which is intended to take advantage of LeBron’s strengths while keeping us out of obvious trapping situations like we consistently found ourselves in against the Spurs last year. It may take a while for it to all come together, and the majority of it will be dependent on LeBron’s willingness to embrace it and to run it, but for some reason I’m optimistic it will work. Third, LeBron is a competitor. You know he’s heard all the same negativity we have. You know it eats at him and puts a chip on his shoulder. When that happens, when LeBron is properly motivated…well, watch out. Fourth, he’s LeBron freaking James. If there’s one thing I learned last season, it’s that we should never doubt what we can accomplish with him. Lets face it, this team isn’t drastically different than last year. Yes, the dynamic of our starting lineup is a bit off with Gibson in there instead of Pavlovic. Yes, we’re a little thinner without the holdouts. Yes, we failed to bring in any additional help. But you know what? This team won 50 games last year in a season in which LeBron was accused of coasting for the majority of the season. What’s going to happen when a hungry and motivated LeBron James leads this team this year? We’re about to find out, and I’m ready to get it started. Assuming Varejao and Pavlovic are back on the team within the first 25 games, I am projecting this Cavs team to win 52 games. If neither one plays this year, I think the number falls back in the 47-48 win range.
There will be pitfalls. There will be trials and tribulation. There will be a learning curve. There will be an adjustment period without the holdouts around. But is the East really as improved as everyone says? Boston now has the big 3, but they are fatally flawed with their older age and absolute lack of depth. Chicago will be better by default, but no more than 3 games better. If Chicago acquires Kobe by giving up Deng and Gordon, don’t be so certain they’re guaranteed more than 45 wins. Detroit again looks like the class of the East to me, with the same starting lineup minus pariah Chris Webber. Increased minutes for Jason Maxiel will be huge for Detroit. They will once again be the best defensive team in the East and the road to the Finals may once again go through Detroit. Miami is in bad shape with an aging Shaq, an injured D-Wade, and perennial cancer Ricky Davis. Washington will be tough with the Big 3 returning to health and Arenas nearing contract extension time, although the loss of Etan Thomas will be tough to overcome as Haywood has not shown the ability to carry the load alone at the center spot. Toronto, New York, New Jersey, and possibly Milwaukee (depending on health) look to me like teams who will fight for the last playoff spot or 2, but will not be Conference contenders. My predicted order of finish:
1. Detroit Pistons (Central Champs)
2. Washington Wizards (Southeast Champs)
3. Boston Celtics (Atlantic Champs)
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
5. Chicago Bulls
6. Miami Heat
7. New York Knicks
8. Toronto Raptors