Let me make this perfectly clear: I believe the Cavaliers have a better chance to win this NBA championship this season than any other team does. They have the league’s best player, plenty of shooters, great depth, and they play defense.
This does not mean that I expect them to win the championship, or believe they cannot lose. I find myself unable to wrap my mind around the concrete possibility of them actually winning or losing. There are plenty of ways the Cavs can lose. We are talking about 48-minute contests between two teams of highly competent professional athletes. Anything is possible. The first two rounds of the playoffs will be uniquely miserable experience, as the Cavs have precious little to gain by winning and everything to lose if they get knocked out.
To return to my earlier point, I think there are a number of ways the Cavs can lose. I spend many sleepless nights and half-eaten meals thinking about them. Here is my big list of concerns (caveats, if you desire to call them that) about the Cavs this post-season, in order:
1. Re-Integrating Shaq
I think Shaq is a great player. I think he’s been playing basketball for long enough to not need much of an adjustment period. He’s playing around savvy veterans who should know how to fit him back into the starting lineup right away. His early-season struggles were as much about Shaq being out of shape and out of sync than any issues with adjusting to the system. By all accounts, he’s kept himself in excellent shape, and seems to be focused 100% on a title.
That being said, Shaq has barely played with the Cavs’ projected starting power forward this season. He hasn’t played in a game since February. For whatever reason, they thought it was the right move to keep him inactive in what would have been a scrimmage game to end the year. Now he’s going to start a playoff game on Sunday? Add that to the fact that Shaq isn’t a plug-and-play guy; he has very pronounced strengths and weaknesses, and there’s risk inherent in trying to incorporate those during the most important playoff run in franchise history.
Everything should be fine. Shaq’s a pro, he’s in shape, and the Bulls don’t present any significant matchup problems for him. But the Cavs’ starting center for the playoffs hasn’t played since February. I worry about this.
2. Backcourt Production
This isn’t about trusting Mo Williams. I know Mo had a bad series last year, but I don’t think of him as a choker or anything like that. I fully believe that Mo Williams is very good at his job. The trouble is that Mo Williams has a very difficult job. Mo is competent at running the offense and can attack the basket from time to time, but the strength of his game is outside shooting. That means Mo will be counted on to put a ball through a 10-foot hoop 25 feet away from him with large men running at him and trying to make him miss on a consistent basis. This is a very difficult job. It is almost impossible to succeed at Mo’s given task more than half of the time. Since Mo doesn’t have a lot of ways to contribute if his shot isn’t on, I worry about this.
Delonte is the Cavs’ second-best guard, but he’s been terribly inconsistent all year. His three-point stroke never really came around, and he’s been asked to do more on-on-one scoring instead of trying to slash and make his teammates better. He has a good midrange game, but he’s often hit-or-miss as a scorer. Delonte’s talent is still there, but he hasn’t retained his consistency with his move to the bench.
Parker is a spot-up shooter like Mo, but he’s almost completely worthless if he’s not making his threes. As was previously mentioned, making threes is very difficult in an NBA game. His defense is solid, but it’s not good enough to forgive him being an albatross on offense.
3. Jamison and Ilgauskas’ shot selection
Jamison is a wonderfully talented player who is capable of doing just about everything on offense and enjoys the occasional scoring explosion, but he takes too many forced jump shots early in the shot clock, especially from a foot or two inside the line. Ilgauskas’ shot has been off all year, and he still settles for it instead of drawing out the defender and rotating the ball. Both of these guys are capable of making those shots, but that doesn’t always mean they should be taking them.
I think the defense will come around in the playoffs when the intensity steps up. However, the Cavs did not play defense this year the way they have in the past. Defense is one of the things that’s easiest to control in the playoffs, and the Cavs have the talent to play it well. The question here is whether they’ll get caught up trying to outscore teams and/or if Jamison needs time to learn where he should go on defense when he’s playing alongside of Shaq.
5. Free-Throw Shooting
Of the five starters, Mo is great, Parker isn’t a sure thing, LeBron is streaky, Shaq is historically terrible, and Jamison is historically decent and currently historically terrible. Giving up 4-8 free points in a playoff game is not a good idea. I wish the Cavs had more guys they could confidently put on the line late in games.
Who doesn’t get minutes between Shaq/Varejao/Jamison/Hickson/Powe/Z? What about Parker/Gibson/Moon/Williams? How much should Delonte play? Mike Brown is going to have a lot of tough decisions to make based on the matchups and who has the hot hand. I don’t believe he coached a terrible series against the Magic, but giving Ben Wallace Joe Smith’s minutes was a catastrophic error. I hope history doesn’t repeat itself this year.
Low on the list, but on the list. If the Cavs blow out the Bulls in the first round, they were rested. If they struggle, they were rusty. Resting the guys was the right call, but it does disturb me how long it’s been since the Cavs’ starters played.
8. I wish it was possible to combine Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker.
I don’t like how little Parker brings to the table at times. It’s tough to see someone that passive as a starter on a championship team. But do I trust Jamario Moon to hit a wide-open three or not commit a bad foul in a close game? No I do not.
8. LeBron’s perimeter game
LeBron is easily the best player in the league. I worry about literally every player on the roster before I worry about LeBron. But he will have games where he can’t get to the paint at will and will start launching out of frustration. It’s either easy baskets or impossible shots. I really wish there was a middle option, be it some shots from the 8-15 foot range or a post-up game, but what’s there is very good. Still, I worry.
Well, that’s my big list of fears. What are some of yours?