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Monday, October 20, 2008

Cavaliers at a Glance

Cavaliers at a glance

• Last season: 45-37; lost in second round of playoffs to Celtics
• Notable additions: Mo Williams (trade with Bucks/Thunder), J.J. Hickson (R), Lorenzen Wright (FA), Tarence Kinsey (FA), Darnell Jackson (R)
• Notable losses: Joe Smith and Damon Jones (trade with Bucks/Thunder)
• Coach: Mike Brown (145-101 in three seasons with Cavs)

Reasons for hope
1. You Know Who. LeBron James arguably is the best all-around player in the NBA. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged a league-high 30 points per game (on 48.4 percent shooting) to go with 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.8 steals last season. He nearly single-handedly led the Cavs to an upset of the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals before they fell in seven games. James, now in his sixth season, also says his experience having helped lead Team USA to the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics has made him a better player. "I have improved five times since Game 7 of the Boston series," he told reporters recently. "When you play all summer with 11 of the best players in the world, you have to get better."
2. They defend and rebound. While LeBron's spectacular playmaking get the highlights, the Cavs' defense is equally responsible for their success. The Cavs finished ninth in points allowed and 11th in field-goal-percentage defense in 2007-08, but they were really coming on at the end of the year after a disruptive start featuring player holdouts, injuries and a big midseason trade. Brown makes defense a top priority every year, and he has solid defenders and rebounders in 7-3 center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, four-time former Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace and 6-10 energizer Anderson Varejao. The Cavs also employ that size at the other end to clean up on the offensive glass, taking advantage of all those defenses geared to stop LeBron.
3. They got some Mo. Williams is not a pure point guard, but the 6-1 veteran is a proven scorer who averaged more than 17 points and six assists in each of the past two seasons in Milwaukee. The Cavs hope that with Williams around, James will not have to shoulder so much of the ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities. "He can allow me to play off him," James said. "I don't have to bring the ball up as much."

Reasons for worry
1. No second banana. Nearly all NBA champions feature at least two All-Star-caliber players. It's just too difficult for one superstar to get it done on a nightly basis. Ilgauskas, Williams, Wally Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson form a capable supporting cast, but none has proved to be the kind of reliable sidekick that LeBron needs to win a title. It is especially important since the Cavs figure to be playing four-on-five offensively with Wallace or Varejao is on the floor. Cleveland will need Williams or some other member of the James Gang to emerge and help keep LeBron from running out of gas at the end.
2. Little depth inside. Ilgauskas, 33, and Wallace, 34, are on the downside of their careers. Their ability to stay healthy is also a major concern. Meanwhile, the loss of Smith in the Williams trade leaves Varejao and journeyman center Wright as the only proven frontcourt reserves. Hickson showed great potential in summer league play, but it remains to be seen how much the 6-9 forward from N.C. State can contribute right away. General manager Danny Ferry might have to consider trading one of his spare guards during the season to shore up this potential area of weakness.
3. Too one-dimensional. The Cavs were supposed to be more varied in their attack last season, with more weakside movement and an increased emphasis on the transition game. Instead, they looked pretty much the same as before, with LeBron dominating the ball and the other guys standing around. Not surprisingly, they once again finished near the bottom in scoring (96.4) and shooting (43.9 percent). The Cavs don't have to change a lot -- LeBron does a good job setting up teammates -- but they could look to run a little more. This is especially true if LeBron's teammates continue to have trouble hitting mid-range shots.

Keep an eye on ...
LeBron's minutes. James averaged 40.4 minutes last season, third most in the NBA, and the fourth straight year he has finished above 40 per game. Brown wants to limit James to 38 this season so that his superstar is fresher in the playoffs. "Anything over 40, and I feel like I have not done my job well," Brown said after the Cavs' preseason opener.

Go figure
LeBron last season led the NBA with 56 points per 48 minutes of clutch time, defined as a five-point game in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.

Bottom line
LeBron gives the Cavs a chance to win every night, and he has shown an ability to elevate his team in the playoffs. Cleveland also has the team defense and rebounding to challenge Boston and Detroit for the conference crown. If Williams and/or Szczerbiak can have big years, the Cavs could make their second Finals appearance in three seasons.

Projected 2008-09 lineup
PG Mo Williams
SG Wally Szczerbiak
SF LeBron James
PF Ben Wallace
C Zydrunas Ilgauskas
SG Daniel Gibson
PF J.J. Hickson
SG Tarence Kinsey
G/F Sasha Pavlovic
F/C Anderson Varejao
PG Delonte West
C Lorenzen Wright

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