They will have a lot of success just like last year. I also think their problems in the playoffs may continue as a result of that success. When I watch all of the stuff they do on the bench, the fake picture-taking of each other and all of that -- it's all just marketing. In the end, you wonder if the players there think it's more about marketing and making a big splash than it is about playing solid basketball and making the right decisions. LeBron James can handle it, but I wonder if the other guys can handle playing the marketing game and the basketball game at the same time. It sure seemed to get to Mo Williams, as poorly as he played during the conference finals. Now you throw Shaquille O'Neal in there and the marketing part of it is going to be bigger than ever. So I wonder if that is what distracts them.
I was surprised by Shaq's numbers last season with Phoenix, but in the end he changed the way they played by slowing them down. Whether he has the same effect on Cleveland depends on how much he defers to LeBron. To get to the championship, Shaq has to defend and rebound and stay out of foul trouble, and mainly he has to not be the focal point with the ball going through him. He needs to let LeBron be LeBron and keep the ball in LeBron's hands so that the game is played to LeBron's pace. I'm not saying they shouldn't throw it into Shaq from time to time, but he can't slow them down by waiting for him to get down in the post and then playing through him like the Lakers used to do. On the other hand, if he gets in deep position near the basket, there ain't nothing you can do to stop him.
Shaq is going to help them against Orlando because he will be prepared to play against Dwight Howard. During the season, he'll pinpoint those games and be at his best. In the playoffs, will he be able to do it night after night in a seven-game series as a 37-year-old center? That part I don't know. The worry is that Shaq can slow them down just by clogging the middle and cutting off LeBron's lanes to the basket. And I still have this question about his priorities. Is it about the Cleveland Cavaliers, or is it about Shaq and his legacy? And is he going to be healthy all year long?
LeBron was incredible last year. He's so good that I wonder if he's challenged enough, if sometimes he'll take a flier on a jump shot because he's done everything else, so let's see if this works. His passing is very good, and you really see it when he throws bounce passes off the dribble. That's a play that separates good point guards from great ones because they don't have to stop and look to make a pass. It's a snap instinct and they can put the ball where they want it to be. LeBron can do that. He's got the ball in his hands as much as any point guard in the league, and down the stretch they're running him in pick-and-rolls. He's 24 and he's seen everything. He's clearly a student of the game; he sees what's happening, sees how he's being defended. Sometimes he can get a little bit high on himself and take it into a double team instead of making the play; he's thinking he's going to get the foul and a lot of times he does. But when he's playing heads up and not forcing, he delivers the ball to everybody and few players in the league are as good at it.
Defensively, LeBron is good because he overpowers people. He'll give you a shot and knock the ball loose. His instincts are to stray, to double-team and knock the ball loose, and his hands are great. And that's where his defense is stellar. It's not the one-on-one lockdown type of stuff. I don't see him doing that over the course of the game. In a big possession here and there, he'll key in and get a stop, whereas Michael Jordan over the course of the game was more consistent as a one-on-one lockdown defender, though he also did the things LeBron does like block the shot while helping out or coming in to strip the ball. Those plays create transition baskets for Cleveland and fuel the fire with LeBron out on the break dunking.
LeBron is obviously bigger physically than Jordan, but will he be the better player? I don't think I'm going to say that he will. I saw Jordan a lot. First of all, I don't know if LeBron can win six titles. The other thing is that he's not a post-up player, and he's not automatic at the free-throw line [73.8 percent for his career]. Who am I to say this is wrong, but it seems to me that LeBron gets to the rim by forcing his way on the drive. Jordan was different, because when he couldn't hit his jump shot or get a basket, he'd post up. LeBron doesn't post up. I don't think he wants to get to the line that way. He believes he can drive to score or get the and-one. I don't think he has faith in his back-to-the-basket game yet. Another thing is that he's playing against small forwards, while Jordan was posting up guards. But LeBron has a size advantage on almost everyone who tries to guard him. Look at Dominique Wilkins, he could post up. Antawn Jamison as a 3 would post up; he would go in and draw a defender and make a play. I don't see that LeBron does it enough or takes advantage of his size, and I just wonder why.
Williams' shooting went sour on him during the playoffs. But he's a good fit on this team because he's not really a prototype point guard. They don't have that need because LeBron handles the ball so much. Williams is usually a good shooter, and playing with LeBron creates shots for Mo while also spacing the floor for LeBron. Maybe it was something he needed to go through and it will help him get his act together for the playoffs next time. He'll have another opportunity to prove who he really is one way or the other.
If Delonte West can't recover from his personal troubles, they're going to miss him. I don't think Williams, Anthony Parker or Daniel Gibson can provide what he gives them -- his toughness and energy, and the fact that he made jump shots and also got to the rim and finished. Parker is a serviceable basketball mind, but he won't give them that spark. Parker, however, can make a shot consistently and handle the ball, and he's a very levelheaded player. He didn't get a lot of opportunities to come off screens in Toronto because they didn't play that way; he was more catch-and-shoot and they would spread the floor. He's good at attacking the basket in the sense that he will make the right play at the right time. He just knows how to play. The weakness is going to be his quickness defensively, though in this situation he won't have to play big minutes. He can even play some point guard in the same respect as Williams does, knowing he'll be playing off LeBron.
When Gibson is shooting well, he's a deep threat, and LeBron has the confidence to deliver him the ball. If you're a good shooter, you'll thrive with LeBron handling the ball because everybody is collapsing to him, and he's big and strong and smart enough to make the right play.
I don't see where Jamario Moon is going to be that big of a factor. He plays LeBron's position, so how is he going to get minutes? He'll be good in the open court with a few big dunks. But his lapses on defense and his inability to hit consistently from the perimeter will hurt him here.
Anderson Varejao makes things happen, and he'll be good with Shaq because all of the attention Shaq draws will leave Varejao standing alone under the rim. The defender will have to come off him -- they can't come off Williams or LeBron -- so if they double, Varejao will wind up with easy baskets and those plays give his team a boost. At the defensive end, he's long and active with good feet and decent hands. He moves, he has a nose for the ball, he rebounds OK and he runs the floor well. He can't shoot, obviously. But he's a good piece on a good team.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas is going to be the best backup center in the league. He shoots the ball so well that it was no surprise that he extended his range out to the three-point line last year [when he made 15 of his 20 career three-pointers]. Most centers aren't out there defending, so he's got time to set up, bend his knees and follow through with good technique.
Mike Brown is a good coach for that team in that he's going to allow them a lot of rope on offense and provide them with some structure on defense. He is going to cover for his star on those nights when LeBron is wavering, and he'll be able behind closed doors to get LeBron focused back in. He's like a psychologist in that regard, where he knows when to let LeBron be LeBron and not correct him. But it's also clear there are times when he does correct LeBron and he does it in a constructive way. Having said all of that, it could be a tough year for him if they get knocked out of the playoffs again. Because if it doesn't work this year, what will be the next move they make?
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.