By Natalie Jay
RotoWire Staff Writer
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
A 2005-06 campaign that saw the Cavaliers come up one game short of the NBA Finals had star player LeBron James talking championship. One season later, that talk edged closer to becoming reality as James piloted his team to a 50-win season and past Washington, New Jersey, and Detroit in the playoffs to capture the franchise's first Eastern Conference title. A four-game sweep at the hands of the Spurs in the Finals, however, showed that James's supporting cast was not yet of the caliber to push the Cavs over the top.
Prior to last season, many considered Cleveland a one-man show; indeed, after last season, that assessment remains largely true. While 2005 acquisition Larry Hughes finally stayed relatively healthy, his contributions (14.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.7 apg) proved enough to relieve some of the offensive burden from James, but not enough to make Hughes the legitimate second star for which the Cavs had hoped-and paid for. Likewise, the maturation of Anderson Varejao into something more than an energetic option coming off the bench for aging center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the emergence of rookie Daniel Gibson as a starter at guard were nice developments, but not earth-shatteringly so.
Heading into 2007-08, aside from minor overtures to the Timberwolves in the Kevin Garnett sweepstakes that ultimately sent the superstar to Boston, Cavs GM Danny Ferry stood pat during the offseason. Without even one pick in June's draft to infuse any new blood into the organization, the Cavs hope that another year of experience and the brief taste of Finals play will be enough to motivate James to achieve new heights and that the benefit of added wisdom will make up for any gaps in talent among his supporting cast.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Zydrunas Ilgauskas will play 25-27 mpg, as he will keep losing time to Anderson Varejao, who will build on the nearly 24 mpg he saw last season, when the Cavs want to elevate their pace. The latter will also see some action off the bench behind Drew Gooden, whose rebounding continues to earn him a starting role at power forward and 25-28 mpg. Varejao's emergence has eaten into Donyell Marshall's time, which will be down to only about 15-17 mpg. Coach Mike Brown will continue to try to limit LeBron James to 40 mpg this season, but expect him to exceed that figure on a routine basis. Ira Newble, James' backup, figures to top out at under 10 mpg again this season. At point, potential starter Daniel Gibson should see more than 20 mpg. Eric Snow will not get his job back and will be limited to 15-20 mpg, and Damon Jones to about the same. Gibson may also play some shooting guard if Brown opts to give starter Larry Hughes, who'll get at least 35 mpg, the expanded ball-handling role that seemed to energize the Cavs during the final quarter of the regular season. Sasha Pavlovic is the wild card in the guard mix after starting the final quarter of the season at shooting guard with Gibson injured and Hughes running the point. Pavlovic averaged over 30 mpg as a starter, but he'll see 5-10 mpg less if he loses that status to Gibson. Shannon Brown, coming off an injury-hampered rookie season, can play at both guard spots and defends well; a solid showing in training camp could net him 10-12 mpg to start out. David Wesley will top out under 15 mpg coming off the bench to provide the occasional veteran presence.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas: Ilgauskas has managed to stay healthy of late, missing just 14 games over the last five seasons, after foot injuries wiped out the early portion of his career. He's got nice touch, shoots efficiently, rebounds well and can block shots. On the other hand, he's prone to defensive lapses and can be a sluggish presence against quicker opponents. The latter characteristic has resulted in a reduction of his minutes over the last couple of seasons, with coach Mike Brown opting more and more often for the quicker, higher-energy play of Anderson Varejao off the bench. Brown does, however, favor Varejao off the bench, meaning, as long as Ilgauskas stays healthy, the starting job is his, so he remains one of the better true centers in the Eastern Conference - at least on the offensive end.
LeBron James: After establishing himself as the most complete player in fantasy basketball in 2005-06 (31.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.6 apg, 1.8 spg, 48.0% shooting from the field), James's performance tailed off in 2006-07. With Larry Hughes healthy enough to play in 70 contests and the Cavs' young role players developing, there simply wasn't a need for James to shoulder the burden as completely as he did the previous season, as evidenced by the drop in his playing time to less than 41 minutes. This is not to say his numbers weren't good; in fact, they were great (27.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 6.4 apg, 1.8 spg, 46.3% shooting from the field), but they weren't astronomical because they didn't need to be. Expect similar stats this season as the above conditions persist, and the sheer number of games in which James has played in leading the Cavs progressively deeper into the playoffs and competing for Team USA starts to catch up with him. On the other hand, he's also spent the offseason working on his outside jump shot, which could catapult his game into the stratosphere under the right circumstances. He should be one of the first players off the board in every league.
Drew Gooden: As in previous seasons, Gooden remained an above-average rebounder (8.5 rpg) and decent scorer (11.1 ppg) at power forward. Those numbers represent slight increases from the previous season, when Gooden found himself in a timeshare with Donyell Marshall and Anderson Varejao. Marshall has now receded from the picture, while Varejao looks to figure still-more heavily, meaning the net effect on Gooden has not changed.
Anderson Varejao: Varejao emerged last season as Mike Brown's go-to bench player, especially as a sub at center for older, slower Zydrunas Ilgauskas. In addition to providing a shot of energy that allowed the Cavs to quicken their tempo, Varejao impressed the defensive-minded Brown with his rebounding (6.7 per game) and willingness to take charges (99 on the season). Assuming the restricted free agent re-signs, Varejao will continue to figure heavily in the rotation, but the offensive numbers just aren't there for him to warrant serious fantasy consideration.
Donyell Marshall: Marshall seems to have fallen out of favor in coach Mike Brown's rotation. He remains a decent overall shooter but has disappointed from the three-point range, i.e., the purpose for which the Cavs acquired him. As a result, he's lost much of his playing time at power forward to Anderson Varejao.
Sasha Pavlovic: Improved defense earned Pavlovic the opportunity to showcase his offensive talent in the second half of the 2006-07 season, when he took over the starting shooting guard role after Daniel Gibson went down with a toe sprain and Larry Hughes shifted to the point. Pavlovic's performance in this role (25 games, 12.4 ppg) should earn him increased consideration, but, whether he starts or not, he'll compete for minutes with Gibson, on whom the Cavs are very high.
Larry Hughes: Previous health concerns tempered expectations for Hughes heading into last season. He finally stayed relatively healthy, playing in 70 regular-season contests before sitting out the final two games of the Finals with plantar fasciitis. His numbers (14.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.7 apg) were still not high enough to justify the money the Cavs committed to him coming from the Wizards, but they were more than good enough to take some of the pressure off LeBron James. Coach Mike Brown also experimented successfully with Hughes running the point to take better advantage of his athleticism and ball-handling skills during the final quarter of the season, a change that boosted the team's overall scoring by 4.5 points per game. If this experiment transforms into a more permanent situation this season, the increased traffic coming Hughes's way could boost his stats closer to the levels the organization had hoped he could achieve. If not, he'll remain the consistent, if not flashy, player he was a year ago.
Eric Snow: With LeBron James's growing maturity, Snow's veteran presence was no longer enough to keep him in the starting lineup. He'll continue to see some time as a defensive specialist while honing his leadership skills for a future coaching career.
Shannon Brown: Brown was selected in the first round of the 2006 draft to help bolster the Cavs' backcourt, but a December injury limited him to just 23 games. He'll spend training camp pushing to regain playing time, but with Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson entrenched at the guard spots, Brown will be no more than a role player.
Daniel Gibson: After heading into last season as a second-round draftee and assumed project, Gibson entered the starting rotation at point guard when patience with Eric Snow's limited production finally wore out. Gibson then suffered a toe injury and saw the Cavs' alignment shift to Larry Hughes at point guard with Sasha Pavlovic starting at shooting guard in his absence. After breaking out against Detroit in the playoffs, however, Gibson is back in the mix at guard, and the Cavs showed their commitment to his development by not acquiring a mediocre veteran who would have squeezed his playing time as they might have in years past. Overall, Gibson is a good catch-and-shoot scorer who provides solid perimeter defense and will find his way onto the court one way or another.
Damon Jones: Jones is a three-point specialist who remains entrenched as nothing more than a role player at the team's deepest position.
David Wesley: Wesley was brought in to be a veteran presence; at age 37, he could see an already-diminished role disappear entirely.
Daniel Gibson: After posting breakout performances against the Pistons, averaging 21.0 ppg across the final three games of the series, and holding his own against the Spurs in the playoffs, Gibson should have the inside edge at whichever starting guard spot Larry Hughes doesn't take. Going into the season with the benefit of starter minutes would certainly provide Gibson with the forum for showcasing his scoring ability, and it wouldn't be surprising for him to find the double digits with some consistency after what he achieved in the postseason against two of the best defensive teams in the league.
LeBron James: After averaging over 31 points per game in 2005-06, many expressed disappointment at LeBron's pre-All-Star Game performance in 2006-07 (26.4 ppg) and accused the young star of slacking and coasting on his pure talent, especially as he appeared to kick into a higher gear after the break (29.2 ppg). Going into this season, James has augmented his skill set by developing a jump shot, but given the Cavs' appearance in the Finals and his ongoing participation with the U.S. national team, he's coming off the longest season of his career with minimal rest. Additionally, as long as Larry Hughes stays healthy, he'll relieve James of at least a small portion of the offensive burden. In other words, while James will undoubtedly continue as a fantasy stalwart next season, speaking in relative terms, he may fall short of the otherworldly expectations placed on him as a consensus top-3 pick.
Article first appeared on 9/24/07