The pregame introductions at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday were both uplifting and symbolic for the Cavaliers, the latest contenders to undergo a midseason makeover. An Obamaesque roar of hope rose when center Ben Wallace was announced, and as the 33-year-old danced onto the court, he looked younger than he had for much of this season with the Bulls, who unloaded him in a three-team, 11-player blockbuster last Thursday.
Trailing behind Wallace to elevated applause came LeBron James, like a tailback following his new fullback. The image of Big Ben clearing a path for King James was not lost on the Cavaliers, who hope they have finally provided LeBron with a charismatic complement; in his first 4 1/2 seasons his second-best teammate has been center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a quiet former All-Star who has taken a backseat (13.6 points per game this season) to James's domineering presence.
In the deadline deal Cleveland essentially swapped two rotation players (forward Drew Gooden and guard Larry Hughes) for four: Wallace and forward Joe Smith from the Bulls, swingman Wally Szczerbiak and guard Delonte West from the Sonics. The Cavs believe the new pieces will space the floor to give James (30.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists at week's end) more room to attack the basket and -- when the defense overloads on him -- more shooters who can exploit his ability to create.
But the key to the deal was Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, who must help reestablish Cleveland's suffocating D and provide the toughness that was lacking last June, when the Spurs swept the Finals. Because of preseason holdouts and a yearlong plague of injuries, the Cavs had been permitting opponents to shoot 46.0% from the floor (22nd in the league) -- their most porous performance in coach Mike Brown's three years.
Wallace averaged eight-year lows in rebounds (8.8), blocks (1.6) and shooting (37.3%) in 50 games with lackluster Chicago, leading to criticism that he was deteriorating fast. But moving to a contender and embracing the role of all-around stopper will rejuvenate him. Listed at 6' 9" though closer to 6' 6" without shoes, Wallace remains nimble enough to chase smaller players, as he did the Grizzlies' 6-foot point guard Kyle Lowry in the backcourt on Sunday, forcing a five-second inbounds violation in Cleveland's 109-89 win. "Get out, pressure the ball, deny the backcourt," said Wallace, who produced 12 points and 10 rebounds in his Cavs debut. "Those are my strengths, those are things that I'm used to doing."
When Cleveland is back at full health -- guard Daniel Gibson (sprained left ankle), swingman Sasha Pavlovic (sprained left foot) and forward Anderson Varejão (sprained left ankle) were all sidelined on Sunday -- James will have more options than ever in anticipation of a second-round series against the Celtics or the Pistons. "It's almost like a brand-new team for us, like the start of training camp when we got new guys coming in," says James. "I know we'll be good. Just give us a few weeks."