Rarely in basketball, or in the sports world for that matter, do you see one decision, one moment that completely rips out the heart of a franchise, even an entire city. That’s what happened last Thursday, when Lebron James ditched the Cleveland Cavaliers in favour of joining his Olympic buddies Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, swapping Ohio for the bright lights of South Beach and the Miami Heat.
So what remains for a team that won the most games during the regular season for the last two years? Overnight the Cavs went from championship challengers to playoff hopefuls because of Lebron’s departure. The question is: are the Cavaliers lottery-bound next season or do they have what it takes to compete in an Eastern Conference that has seen the likes of Miami, Chicago, Orlando, Boston, Milwaukee and New York only get better in the last week.
Cleveland have a new coach in Byron Scott, who has the talent to ensure that the team don’t sink into obscurity at the bottom of the East in the forseeable future. Scott has experience on struggling teams, previously taking the Nets and the Hornets from the lottery to the playoffs. But does the roster have what it takes to compete in the East?
The Cavs still have most of their roster intact, only losing Lebron and backup center Zydrunas Ilgauskis to the Heat, as well as losing Shaq to free agency. They have Anderson Varejao at center, Mo Williams at the point and JJ Hickson has been told he will be the starting power forward next season, with Antawn Jamison coming off the bench. Role players like Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon are still on the roster, but the Cavs lack a go-to-guy, someone to carry the scoring load and take charge, just like a certain number 23, that is not the most popular guy in Cleveland right now, especially at the Gilbert household.
That’s the problem. All of the big-time free agents now have homes and the only way the Cavs have a chance of getting someone as good as Lebron anytime soon is by winning the Lottery next season. Cleveland had to wait until Lebron made his decision, ruling out the chance to go after young free agents like Rudy Gay, who could have been their plan B if they definitely knew the King was leaving. The Cavs also missed out on trading for Al Jefferson this week, who they were heavily linked to but signed with Utah instead.
So far, the only player the Cavs have reached out to is Houston guard Kyle Lowry, whom they signed to an offer sheet today. Houston are expected to match Cleveland’s offer, leaving the Cavs back where they started. They have been linked with a move for Atlanta Hawks forward Marvin Williams today, where Shaq would be sent in a sign-and-trade to Atlanta for Williams.
The only problem is that Williams isn’t the answer if you want to compete with the best in the East. The former no.2 pick averaged 10 points for the Hawks last season and only signed a new deal last summer, meaning the Cavs would be stuck with his contract if it didn’t work out. My answer: go for someone with a lot to prove, someone like Tracy McGrady. Sign him to a one-year deal, see if he has anything left and T-Mac should at least provide the same scoring as someone like Williams.
I expect the Cavs to struggle next season and unless they sign a proven scorer at the wing positions, they could be lottery bound. I don’t expect them to be in line for winning the Draft Lottery anytime soon, but maybe that could be the best outcome after Lebron’s defection – someone to revitalise a city heartbroken by the departure of their favourite son…
Scott led the Hornets to 2nd place in the West in 2008, with a 56-26 record, picking up the Coach of the Year award in the process. But injuries took their toll on the team last year, with the Hornets losing in the first round of the playoffs to Denver, which included a 58-point loss in game 4 of the series.
We are only two weeks into the season, but the warning signs date all the way back to last season. Injuries to key players highlighted a lack of depth in the squad, with reserves Hilton Armstrong and Sean Marks playing key minutes in games. In the offseason, center Tyson Chandlers was traded to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor, a move that annoyed Chris Paul but Okafor is more of an offensive threat than Chandler. It didn’t make sense though from a financial standpoint, the Hornets are supposedly looking to cut payroll, trading the likes of Rasual Butler to the Clippers for basically nothing, but took on Okafor’s large contract ($63 million over 5 years), which is a big gamble. Sure, Okafor is virtually a double-double machine, but Chandler’s contract would have came off the books next year.
And then there’s this season. The Hornets have looked horrible defensively, losing by more than 10 points in five of their six losses. Mo Peterson at shooting guard looks terrible, as does Julian Wright at small forward. James Posey has done nothing since he joined from Boston (don’t get me started on the $25 million over 4 years for a reserve – doesn’t matter if he has two rings), and Peja is one of the most overpaid players in the league ($13.3 million a year) for a man who seems to have lost his scoring touch and can never stay healthy. Even David West’s numbers are down. The only player who is performing well is Chris Paul. CP3 is carrying the team by himself and his numbers (26.1 ppg, 9.3 apg, 1.56 spg) are career-highs. But not even CP3 can carry the team by himself. It seems like he doesn’t trust his teammates anymore – and the only time New Orleans can click on offense is when CP3 is orchestrating it.
Scott’s sacking can only be a good thing. This team was struggling and hopefully Bowen can inject some fresh life into the franchise and get the role players and the starters to contribute and not just rely on Chris Paul. And with the competition in the West being even stronger this season (what with teams like the Suns, Rockets and the Thunder over-performing), then the Hornets need to step it up to make the playoffs. Dwayne Wade showed last season that it is possible for one man to get a team to the playoffs, but that was in a weaker Eastern Conference – but CP3 is going to need the likes of West, Peja and Okafor to help him out to even get anywhere near the dizzy heights of two years ago.