The Haze Is Beginning To Clear Up

July 9th, 2009 by John Krolik

Quick Note: I got selected to serve on a jury today, so I might have a little less time for this stuff. By the way, still can’t drink legally. What a country.

Alright, this stuff is a big deal. A really, really big deal. In fact, the Cavs pretty much just finished up their major moves for the off-season, assuming they get Channing Frye with the remainder of their mid-level, and I now believe I have a vague idea of what this team’s plan post-Shaq deal is.

Big Point #1: Yes, Varejao was indeed indispensible.

At some level, Varejao is a paradox. He’s a role player, but he plays core minutes and he’s getting core money.

I’m trying to sum this up as cleanly as I can, and this is about the best I can do: I believe that Antawn Jamison is a significantly better player than Anderson Varejao. If I had one game to win tomorrow and didn’t know who the rest of my players were, I would pick Jamison. However, if you replaced Anderson Varejao with Jamison last year, the team would have won 5-10 less games. It goes beyond “ability” vs. “fit”-the things Anderson does not do well, which are myriad, are replaceable. The things he does do extremely well are not. Those things are, in order:

1. Team Defense

Mike Brown’s defensive scheme, which might be the best in the NBA, relies on a few keys: shut down the three-pointer, close off the paint. There’s not a lot of ball-pressure, there’s not much gambling in the passing lanes, and it’s not built around big shot-blockers patrolling the paint. All it is is hands in the face of shooters on the perimeter and bodies in between the dribbler and the basket.

You can see this when the Cavs defend screen-rolls, the bread-and-butter of almost every offense. While most teams’ big man switches or hedges on the screen, Cavalier big men show hard and chase the dribbler all the way out to half-court before rotating back to the paint to shut off driving lanes. Nobody on the team does this anywhere near as well as Andy; in the entire league, maybe only a healthy KG does it better. Andy’s long arms, incredible pace, quick feet, amazing defensive IQ, and his abilty to get the charge (yes, I realize he sells them with vigor, but his feet are almost always in position) make him uniquely qualified to do the most important job for this defense, which is the cornerstone of the team.

2. Finishing at the Basket

The bread-and-butter of our offense is LeBron driving to the basket, obviously. To make that work, you need a guy who the defense must respect to keep them from using two guys to wall off LeBron going to the hoop. A pick-and-pop guy just isn’t going to do it; good-shooting bigs shoot the midrange J at 40-45%, and LeBron at the rim is a 70% proposition. The math just doesn’t work. That’s why you need a guy like Andy, who can use off-ball movement and dives to find the weak spots in a cheating defense and finish at the basket at 67%.

If you leave Andy free, he’s going to get a layup, which no defense can allow. He’s not going to get 20 points a game, but he’s going to force his man to stick, and the points come from LeBron having freedom to drive. In crunch-time, when the offense goes to heavy pick-and-roll action, nobody makes the roll better than Andy.

On both ends, it’s other guys, particularly LeBron, making the spectacular plays, but it’s often Andy who allows those plays to happen. He’s a piece of this core, he’s consistently been the best big man in the LeBron era, and I’m glad that got recognized.

Big Point #2: Anthony Parker was a big get.

Okay guys, here are the facts:

Player A: 8.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.7 SPG, 46% FG, 71% FT, 32% 3-PT

Player B: 10.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.2 SPG, 43% FG, 83% FT, 39% 3-PT

Player A is Trevor Ariza. Player B is Anthony Parker. Both have stalwart defensive reputations, and play similar offensive games based around catch-and-shoot threes and open-court and broken-floor drives to the basket. And Ariza’s 3-PT % was easily his career high; Parker’s 3-PT % was his career-low by 4%. He’s older and has less upside, but he comes much cheaper and this is a win-now team.

This is the guy we wanted. He can allow LeBron to play the four, can guard fast 4s and big 3s, loves the open corner three as much as anyone (in Toronto they call the corners “Parkerville”), and doesn’t need the ball to be effective. Ferry’s coveted this guy since he came back over, and now he finally has him. This guy is the super-Wally we needed to make more small-ball lineups work.

My issue is that he plays the same role as our two cheap, promising young athletes, Tarence Kinsey and Danny Green, but again, this is a win-now team and I get minimizing risk.

Big Point #4: The Power Forward we think works best alongside Shaq is LeBron himself.

I’ve made this point before, but I’ll make it again: Good threes are much, much easier to find than good fours. And LeBron is a phenominal four in limited minutes. He can’t handle the play-in-play out defensive responsibility the 4 requires for 40 minutes, and offensively we need LeBron getting more touches than he can get at the 4, but for spurts it’s going to be devistatingly effective. The plan appears to be to take LeBron at the 4 from change-of-pace gimmick to serious part of our strategy, and I’m completely on board. Speaking of…

Big Point #5: Shaq is a change-of-pace player, not a guy to be plugged in for 40 a night, and he appears to be being treated accordingly.

It’s hard to do, but think of Shaq as a 310-pound J.R. Smith or Ben Gordon. He’s going to provide a lot of offensive pop for 25 minutes, but he doesn’t have the two-way ability, versatility, or conditioning to say “he’s our starting center” and call it a day. The move is fitting Shaq into the existing lineup, not fitting a new rotation around Shaq.

Big Point #6: Our best 5 players are not best served playing on the same lineup.

One more time: the spacing doesn’t make sense with a frontcourt of Shaq, Andy, and LeBron. It might work, but it’ll take away from what all of them do best. We’re not going to have a pretty, sweet-looking, dominant 5-man rotation on paper. And that’s not the end of the world. Shifting lineups and “show” starters are the way of the league. 12 guys play a game, not 5. Crunch-time is still a question, but I’ll get to that later.

For now, here’s what I see as our basic frontcourt rotation plan. (Caveat: I am willing to admit that Mike Brown knows more about how to make this basketball team work than I do. Crazy, right? But this is my best guess as to what everyone’s thinking at this point.)

Unit #1: The Starting Lineup

C: Ilgauskas (total minutes at this point: 8)

PF: Varejao (8)

SF: James (8)

Notes: This lineup works. We all know this. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.

Unit #2: Shaq In, Z out at about 4:00 in the 1st quarter

C: Shaq (4)

PF: LeBron (12)

SF: Parker (4)

Notes: Offensive blitz here to end the quarter-at this point, I think we rest LeBron defensively here, keeping him on the perimeter, while have AP plays the 4 role defensively showing and rotating, and dare a big power-forward to punish us. (Pop quiz: name all the ACTUAL power-forwards in this league-Duncan and Gasol don’t count, because they’re really centers-who are legit post-up threats. Fewer than you’d think.)

Unit #3: LeBron’s 1st Rest

C: Shaq (7)

PF: Frye (3)

SF: Parker (7)

Notes: Defense not great here, but Frye keeps the spacing and Mo and Shaq are an AMAZING luxury as a 2nd-unit offense.

Unit #4: Andy back in

C: Andy (11)

PF: Frye (6)

SF: Kinsey/Green (3)

Notes: Pretty speculative with the younger guys, but Parker gets a blow, and this is a short-time unit.

Unit # 5:  Starters Back

C:  Z (11)

PF: Andy (14)

SF: LeBron (15)

Unit #6: Finish With Shaq

C: Shaq (10)

PF: LeBron (16)

SF: Parker (10)

Again, I stress that this is REALLY rough. Really, really rough. This is more lineups than MB will probably end up using in the actual games, but I went with a lot of lineups to represent the possibilites. And still unanswered is if we can sign Frye (and if he can bounce back to rotation-quality form), if Shaq will consent to coming off the bench, how much Z still has in the tank, etc. The real problem here is that Shaq/Andy doesn’t work offensively and Shaq/Z obviously doesn’t work defensively, and it’s hard to give both of them their minutes.

In the second half, I’d expect to see huge stretches of Shaq/LeBron/Parker or Andy/Z/LeBron, and in crunch-time if offense is needed it’s probably Shaq/LeBron/Parker or Andy/LeBron/Parker as a defensive lineup (provided the other team doesn’t have a 7-foot low-post threat they’re comfortable throwing it down to in crunch-time.)

I’m having a tough time making the math work when Z, Shaq, and Andy all need minutes, but it’ll be fun to see this team figure it out-too much talent is a good problem to have. And I’ve just realized that I completely left JJ Hickson, who I’m really high on, out of the discussion: if he can play with Shaq, lives get a lot easier.