Well, Here Comes Shaq.

June 24th, 2009 by John Krolik

Um, the piece on ,draft “safety” picks is now cancelled. I apologize.

Important Thought #1: This is a gift horse.

The first thing to note here is that the Cavaliers gave up absolutely nothing in terms of basketball talent. Don’t get me wrong-Sasha still has the potential to be an effective wing in this league, and a change of scenery, along with a lifting of expectations, might do him good. And Ben, for all of his flaws, was an effective player for this team when he was healthy. (Ben will get a send-off post sometime this week.)

But realistically, the likelihood that either one would have played any sort of significant playoff minutes for this team next year is extremely slim. Shaq’s definitely going to make an impact, so in terms of basketball talent this deal was a no-brainer.

In fact, with Shaq’s deal expiring, this wasn’t even a salary dump-it was a straight-up slam dunk from a short-term and long-term basketball perspective.

The only reason Phoenix did this deal was so that Dan Gilbert would have to pay a bill that Robert Sarver was originally going to have to foot. Because Gilbert has money to burn and is willing to spend it on this team, the Cavs just got a hall-of-famer coming off of a bounce-back year with an expiring contract for free. Not to mention there’s still hope Gilbert will buy up in the draft tomorrow. As a group, I would say Cavs fans now love rich people almost as much as Vanity Fair loves rich people.

Point #2: This Was a Short-Term Move With An Eye On The Long-Term

As for the allegation that Ferry made a premature move instead of waiting to see if any bigger fish became available, I don’t think that there’s going to be a blockbuster talent available the summer before 2010. The Cavs weren’t going to get a younger superstar who could be part of the long-term core with this batch of expiring contracts. They could’ve gone all-in with a solid starter and risked that roster being set in stone past 2010, or they could’ve made this move.

My one gripe is that I was holding out hope that the Cavs would make a play for Lamar Odom or Jason Kidd in free agency this summer, two guys who I believe could shore up this team’s weaknesses the way Shaq will without jeopardizing some of this team’s strengths the way Shaq will.

But both Odom and Kidd would likely demand long-term contracts, and that means that’s your team going forward in 2010. And if that team doesn’t win a title, LeBron walking would, one would assume, come into play. And that’s the scenario that obviously must be avoided at all costs.

Also, the chances of Odom or Kidd coming here were slim to begin with, and I suppose you take a bird in the hand.

What’s going to shape the future of the Cavs for at least the next half-decade is going to be whether or not they can win a championship in the 2010 season and/or add a legitimate core piece with youth and all-star ability in the summer of 2010. This move, in terms of overall talent level and financial flexibility, just increased the Cavs’ likelihood to do both. For this reason, I’m going to give a spoiler and say my overall feelings about the trade are that it’s a qualified success.

Important Thing #3: This is the First Move That I Can Remember the Cavs Making That Wasn’t 100% LeBron-Centric. That’s Good.

Ever since the Cavs got LeBron, they’ve been obsessed with getting guys who will be good at “playing off of him” or benefiting from his strengths. We’ve gotten loads and loads of role players who don’t need the ball in their hands to be effective, spot-up shooters and big men who are comfortable playing pick-and-roll ball and finishing when LeBron finds them. The one time the Cavs took a risk on a true slasher, they got Larry Hughes, and that didn’t work out.

(Of course, Hughes was overrated coming in and had serious injuries that destroyed his ability to play his style of basketball shortly after joining the team. But for many, Hughes served as proof that LeBron needs spot-up shooters around him rather than guys who like the ball in their hands.)

But as good as LeBron is, he can’t create every play, and at some point the offense is going to need to be able to create good looks using players other than LeBron. Mike Brown has taken a lot of criticism for not being able to give opposing defenses any threatening looks without LeBron driving to the basket or playing pick-and-roll, but the fact is the Cavs never had a player other than LeBron who was able to take a defense out of its normal rotations on a regular basis.

But now, for the first time, the Cavs have a guy other than LeBron who they can dump the ball to and will get a basket more often than not if the other team doesn’t bring a second defender. Defenses are going to have a much tougher time dealing with this team than ever before-now the Cavs have two guys who are all but unstoppable when they only have to deal with one defender.

Before, when teams decided to create a wall on LeBron, the Cavs were forced to hit jumpers to break the defense, which often led to prolonged slumps. Now they can dump the ball down. With Shaq in the post, it’s going to be much harder to load up the strong-side against LeBron when he has the ball. Likewise, Shaq’s going to see a lot of single-coverage because teams are afraid to leave LeBron on the weak side. With Shaq’s passing, you might see sets where LeBron gets the ball rotated to him on the weak side out of double-coverage, and the defense is going to be forced to try and stop his drives without being able to set up help.

For all that didn’t work during Shaq’s tenure in Phoenix, the Suns were one of the most offensively efficient teams ever after the J-Rich trade last season. Shaq, when healthy, is still an absolute offensive force, a guy who can both create opportunities for himself and others and converts his opportunities as well as anybody in the league.

For the first time, Cleveland has a legitimate two-pronged attack in terms of guys who can create offense, with Mo Williams utilizing his fantastic knack for scoring when the defense isn’t focused on him to make life much easier on both of Shaq and LeBron. I expect this team to be dangerous offensively for 48 minutes a game when Shaq is in the lineup, which they’ve never really been in the LeBron era.

Important Point #4: On The Other Hand, Did We Just Fix Something That Wasn’t Broken?

Shaq shores up this team’s main weakness-only having one guy who can regularly demand double-coverage offensively. But does he take away from its strengths? Remember, this was a 66-win team that took a fairly amazing effort from the Magic to get knocked out, and even in that series half of the Cavs’ losses were due to spectacular final-possession threes by Rashard Lewis. The 08-09 team was good enough to win the champioship, and now it’s been changed in a major way.

The first question is what happens to the starting frontcourt. Zydrunas Ilguauskas, the longest-tenured Cav and one of the team’s mainstays, is now out of the starting lineup. And Zydrunas is a guy who’s basically only effective playing alongside LeBron. His post game was once unorthodox but effective. Now it’s just abysmal, and obviously he’s not very effective putting the ball on the floor. His offense comes from pick-and-pop jumpers, catches for layups, and tip-ins, all of which come almost exclusively because of defenses collapsing on LeBron. I don’t see how Shaq doesn’t start, I don’t see how Z plays alongside of Shaq, and I don’t see how Z can be effective coming off the bench.

In a vacuum, I don’t have a huge problem with that, but one thing Z did is fit perfectly with Anderson Varejao. The Cavs had one of the three best defenses in basketball, and Varejao was a huge key to that-he’s much more than just a flopper. His quick feet and defensive IQ allowed him to show hard on dribblers and rotate back to the lane to cut off penetration, which was an absolutely crucial aspect of Mike Brown’s fantastic defensive schemes.

Andy and Z are far from perfect players, but they fit together. Defensively, Andy shut down activity out to the perimeter while Zydrunas protected the rim. Offensively, it reversed, with Andy cutting to the basket for layups and Zydrunas stretching the floor for 18-footers.

As good as Anderson has become playing off of LeBron offensively cutting on the weak-side for layups and playing pick-and-roll, he cannot stretch the floor, and I don’t see how an offense is going to have any spacing with Shaq, Anderson, and LeBron all trying to work around the rim.

There’s a serious question at the four-spot going into next season, especially with Anderson being a free agent with a bad negotiation history. Who’s out there who can do the things Anderson does defensively while also providing what’s necessary offensively to make the offense work with Shaq? We’ll all have to keep an eye on how this one plays out; I assume the front office has a plan, maybe even one that will reveal itself tomorrow.

In crunch-time, the offense does generally devolve into LeBron making all the plays, but I still think Shaq can be effective there even though he doesn’t really play pick-and-roll or spot up. (The “LeISO” tactic got criticized a lot, but it does somehow work-the Cavs have been one of the league’s best crunch-time teams over the past two seasons, and offense wasn’t the problem in the Magic series.) Shaq won’t “clog the lane”-he’s a smart player that knows where the open spots under the basket are when the defense collapses on the driving player, and he isn’t exploding off the floor for alley-oops anymore, but he’s still got soft hands and is a terrific finisher around the basket. And hopefully he’ll be able to hold his own in the event of Hack-a-Shaq.

Important Point #5: Is This Deal an Overreaction To Dwight Howard?

It’s true that Howard absolutely murdered the Cavaliers in the Magic series. The funny thing is that Ilgauskas and Varejao was a fantastic defensive frontline: Z was slow but strong, Andy was weak but fast. The only way to beat them was to have a guy who is ridiculously strong and fast, which of course Dwight Howard was.

Shaq’s a quality post defender and should be able to slow down Howard more than the Cavs did, but he doesn’t defend the pick-and-roll at all, which Orlando loves to run, and he’s not all that much faster than Ilgauskas. I’m looking at this trade in terms of what it will bring the team over the entirety of the season, not how it could help the team beat the Magic or Lakers-the Magic might not meet us in the playoffs next year, after all. If you try to make major moves based on trying to play match-ups rather than doing what’s best for the team, a lot of times you end up putting out a fire with gasoline, (possibly Shaq Diesel) and hopefully that’s not what the Cavs did here.

Minor Thoughts:

This was already the loosest, goofiest team in the league-now we’re adding maybe the loosest, goofiest superstar in the history of the league? Wow. If “wacky candid team moments” counted on the scoreboard, this would be the equivalent of the Lakers getting CP3.

If nothing else, this trade means that Cavs: The Blog is finally going to have to give up its vague moral stance against Twitter and give in. Expect little 140-character bursts of inspiration from yours truly throughout next season. I’m embracing the dark side.

Well, that’s all I have to say for now. Shaq’s coming, folks. With luck, we’re a season away from people saying that Kobe’s better than LeBron because Kobe won a championship without Shaq. See you on draft day, campers.

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