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Chisholm: Cavs not necessarily better than a year ago

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Tim Chisholm
9/7/2008 1:34:14 PM
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This preview will officially begin by stating that it will not be participating in any of the fear-mongering about LeBron James leaving Cleveland for riches in New York, New Jersey or overseas.
 
Now, with that out of the way, let's focus on the Cavs. They made a fairly big splash towards the end of the summer by acquiring Milwaukee's big free agent signing of a year ago, Mo Williams. He'll be brought in to add some permanence (they hope) to a point guard position that has been the consternation of many a recent Cavalier team. While he isn't the playmaking guard so many had hoped for, he did average 6.2 assists the last two years and, let's face it, the more time the ball spends in LeBron James's hands the better. Try though they might, the Cavs are unlikely to find a player in the NBA who is a better playmaker than James at a price they can afford. Williams represents a far better option than Delonte West or Daniel Gibson, and he'll be a far better fit here than he was in Milwaukee.

Of course, dealing with West has now become a bit of an issue. A restricted free agent, West did an admirable job as the team's starting point guard, but wasn't quite good enough to make the team feel that an upgrade was unnecessary. He now feels that the Cavs offers aren't up to snuff because they are looking at him as a role player and he sees himself as a starting point guard. Cavs management feels that while that job is taken, they would be amenable to having him play alongside Williams in the backcourt, although if they took some time to watch tape of him trying that last season in Seattle they may become convinced otherwise. Either way, this is yet another issue with restricted free agency for Cleveland after a dreadful stalemate with Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic last season. Ultimately both wound up back with the team, though Varejao was quite sour by then and Pavlovic never regained his form of the year before. Whatever the outcome of negotiations with West, the team must hope that they end better (and swifter) than they did a year ago.

Up front, the team has other issues to worry about. Ben Wallace and Zydrunus Ilgauskus aren't exactly spring chickens anymore, and the aforementioned Varejao is hardly on board with this team long-term, so there are still kinks to be ironed out up front. On possible positivein that area could wind up being rookie J.J. Hickson, an active, athletic forward out of NC State that the Cavs nabbed in the draft this spring. He's a little raw, but he offers more of an offensive look than Ben Wallace does at the four, and he certainly has more spring in his step. Wallace often bristles at the notion, but his star is fading fast and the Cavs need new, inexpensive ways to counter that. Hickson may be too early in his development to offset Wallace's decline that much, but he probably found himself in the right situation on draft night to be effective right out of the gate.

The question is, with all of this wheeling and dealing: Are the Cavs any better than they were a year ago? The answer is probably no, but with a caveat. As built, the team still lacks for versatility up front and still looks a little thin in the second unit. They are still probably a top-four caliber team in the East due mostly to LeBron, Ilgauskus and Williams, but last year's struggles heading into the Playoffs show that this team still has trouble providing consistent help around LeBron James. They will almost certainly get out of the first round in the Playoffs, but a matchup against Detroit or Boston could prove too much to handle. The caveat alluded to above, though, centers around the fact that they have a big, fat expiring deal on their books in Wally Szczerbiak. They've already tried to unload that deal this summer on New Jersey in an attempt to nab Vince Carter, and while that deal seemed somewhat unlikely in July, it could look a whole lot more attractive come January. If the team can manage to upgrade the shooting guard spot with a guy like Carter or the power forward slot with whomever then things could look a lot rosier come April. Today, despite all of the changes, it looks like more of the (above-average) same.

PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP

PG - Mo Williams

It's amazing how much better a signing can look when it's with the right team. With the Bucks, Williams looked like another gunner on a team in desperate need of a heady playmaker. In Cleveland, LeBron is and should be the primary playmaker. Everything in their offense runs through him, anyway, and so adding another three-point shooter to backline makes good sense here. Williams is also a capable scorer inside of the arc, and could help a Cavalier bench that doesn't exactly set the world on fire when James sits down. If he can help with the Cavs offensive dry spells in James's absence then his value to this team will increase that much more as a result. His acquisition may not be earth-shattering, but it doesn't need to be for a team one season removed from a Finals appearance. It's all about tinkering right now, and delivering the big one when the time is right.

SG - Wally Szczerbiak

This team doesn't really have an obvious choice here. Szczerbiak makes the most sense because he's the most reliable option they have offensively - more so than Sasha Pavlovic or Tarence Kinsey - and he's got better size than Delone West (if he's resigned). He was a bit of a disappointment, though, last year after being traded from Seattle. His shooting numbers went down considerably, from 46% to 36%, and he managed only 38% in the Playoffs. While he's not expected to take over the offense for this team, he should be able to be counted on to make his shots when they are in front of him like he's done his whole career (he's a career 49% shooter). For the sake of the Cavs fortunes one hopes he can regain his form, if for no other reason than it'll boost his stock going into the trade deadline.

SF - LeBron James

Each year it gets more difficult to summarize anything about James in a single paragraph. How does one distill one of the most dominant physical and athletic specimens ever in professional sports? His physical gifts are so great that entire teams cannot devise ways to stop him one-on-five. The only element of his game that remains to be tweaked is his ability to read the game in the way that the greats do, and that particular skill is only acquired with time. His understanding of his own dominance in the game is clearly without fault, but when he has the wisdom and perspective of an eight- or nine-year veteran it could be unlike anything the sport of basketball has ever seen before.

PF - Ben Wallace

Most knew that when he left Detroit his star would dim, but it would have been hard to predict how much and how quickly. Wallace has started to look like just another run-of-the-mill defensive big since leaving the Palace of Auburn Hills. His 4.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game pale significantly to his numbers at the height of his powers in Detroit, and he simply isn't the immoveable defense force that was his calling card. While he is still a welcome addition to any team's backline defense, he is a shadow of the player that used to collect Defensive Player of the Year awards like they were dime-store baseball cards. There are teams out there that could benefit from his presence and leadership, but Cleveland doesn't appear to be one of those teams.

C - Zydrunus Ilgauskus

While Ilgauskus, at 33, is becoming a little long in the tooth himself, he certainly hasn't had the drop-off in his game that Wallace has. He's keeping his production and his stats high as he exits the prime of his career and remains a solid second option to LeBron in the starting five. Still, considering his hefty deal and still-productive game, now might be the perfect time to look at moving him. He's a big, traditional center that most teams in the NBA have a heard time guarding and could be of use to a team in the hunt for a title today that needs some scoring punch in the middle. While it would be a big risk if Cleveland couldn't get a scoring big in return to play power forward or centre (since Wallace can slide between both), it could be a bigger risk keeping his salary on the books as his skills start to erode and his trade value diminishes.

LeBron James (Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
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