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March 03, 2008
March 03, 2008

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March 3, 2008

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His Newest Subjects

Led by Ben Wallace, Cleveland's acquisitions bring defense, shooting and depth to King James's domain

THE PREGAMEintroductions at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday were both upliftingand symbolic for the Cavaliers, the latest contenders to undergo a midseasonmakeover. An Obamaesque roar of hope rose when center Ben Wallace wasannounced, and as the 33-year-old danced onto the court, he looked younger thanhe had for much of this season with the Bulls, who unloaded him in athree-team, 11-player blockbuster last Thursday.

This is an article from the March 3, 2008 issue

Trailing behindWallace to elevated applause came LeBron James, like a tailback following hisnew fullback. The image of Big Ben clearing a path for King James was not loston the Cavaliers, who hope they have finally provided LeBron with a charismaticcomplement; in his first 4 1/2 seasons his second-best teammate has been centerZydrunas Ilgauskas, a quiet former All-Star who has taken a backseat (13.6points per game this season) to James's domineering presence.

In the deadlinedeal Cleveland essentially swapped two rotation players (forward Drew Goodenand guard Larry Hughes) for four: Wallace and forward Joe Smith from the Bulls,swingman Wally Szczerbiak and guard Delonte West from the Sonics. The Cavsbelieve the new pieces will space the floor to give James (30.1 points, 8.2rebounds and 7.5 assists at week's end) more room to attack the basket and—whenthe defense overloads on him—more shooters who can exploit his ability tocreate.

But the key tothe deal was Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, who must helpreestablish Cleveland's suffocating D and provide the toughness that waslacking last June, when the Spurs swept the Finals. Because of preseasonholdouts and a yearlong plague of injuries, the Cavs had been permittingopponents to shoot 46.0% from the floor (22nd in the league)—their most porousperformance in coach Mike Brown's three years.

Wallace averagedeight-year lows in rebounds (8.8), blocks (1.6) and shooting (37.3%) in 50games with lackluster Chicago, leading to criticism that he was deterioratingfast. But moving to a contender and embracing the role of all-around stopperwill rejuvenate him. Listed at 6'9" though closer to 6'6" withoutshoes, Wallace remains nimble enough to chase smaller players, as he did theGrizzlies' 6-foot point guard Kyle Lowry in the backcourt on Sunday, forcing afive-second inbounds violation in Cleveland's 109--89 win. "Get out,pressure the ball, deny the backcourt," said Wallace, who produced 12points and 10 rebounds in his Cavs debut. "Those are my strengths, thoseare things that I'm used to doing."

When Cleveland isback at full health—guard Daniel Gibson (sprained left ankle), swingman SashaPavlovic (sprained left foot) and forward Anderson Varej√£o (sprained leftankle) were all sidelined on Sunday—James will have more options than ever inanticipation 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 campwhen we got new guys coming in," says James. "I know we'll be good.Just give us a few weeks."

PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESRIGHTHAND MAN As he tries to seal the Cavs' porous D, Big Ben (left) will take tips from LeBron.