Thursday, December 01, 2005

10-win month

For the first month of the season, the Cavaliers met LeBron James' goal of 10 wins per month.
Sustaining that will be the challenge, particularly as the Cavs embark on a three-game West Coast swing to Seattle, Sacramento and Los Angeles to start December.
Achieving 10 wins in November probably wasn't an abberation, but how the Cavs reached the mark was.
Cleveland needed an eight-game winning streak in the middle of the month to reach the 10-win plateau. They needed a furious come-from-behind victory at Philadelphia and overtime wins in Orlando and last night against the Clippers.
Last night's 112-105 overtime win allowed the Cavs to finish November 10-4, the third time in franchise history they have won 10 games in the season's first month. The Cavs finished November with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Detroit (11-2).

Below, I tell you what I learned about the 2005-06 Cavaliers in the season's first month.

1. The Cavs still aren't a top-echelon team.
I don't think many people were expecting elite status out of the gates, but the Cavs still got a good barometer of how far they need to go to challenge for an NBA Finals berth.
Road games at San Antonio and Indiana were blowout losses as the Cavs had no way to defend the speedy guards of the Spurs and the pinpoint jump shooting of the Pacers. Indiana in particular showed how stingy defense can stifle and frustrate a loaded offensive team. The Cavs are at their best when LeBron and Larry Hughes are running the floor, and they kept both caged on Thanksgiving night.
The Cavs are going to have to learn to fight fire with fire, locking down on their defensive end when a good defensive opponent is clamping off scoring chances. An 80-75 win is still a win.

2. Having said that, this team is improved defensively.
You only need look at the fourth quarter last night to see how this team is buying into coach Mike Brown's defensive playbook. The Cavs coughed up the lead midway through the fourth quarter, but hung tough and tied the game on a Donyell Marshall three-point play with less than a minute remaining. Zydrunas Ilgauskas challenged Elton Brand at the buzzer without fouling, and the Cavs forced overtime.

3. Larry Hughes is a better fit than Michael Redd would have been.
Some perpetual skeptics bellyached that Hughes would just be a LeBron clone, that the Cavs didn't address their need for an outside shooter to compliment LeBron when they signed Hughes in July. But what is wrong with having two LeBrons?
Hughes is a heady player who gets his teammates involved and plays agile defense. In Cleveland's offense, Redd might have turned into a glorified Wesley Person, relegated to camping out on the three-point arc waiting for a kickout pass.
Hughes is a more dynamic and athletic player than Redd. He doesn't shoot it like Redd, but he does many other things better.

4. Brown will have to make sure it isn't all on LeBron.
For the most part, the Cavs have been playing as a team, sharing the ball, setting each other up, and doing all the minimal-ego cap-doffing that great teams are supposed to do. But during the Cavs' losses to Indiana and Minnesota, the same sandbagging alarms went off as at the end of last season, when LeBron's teammates did a lot of standing and watching of their prodigy teammate.
This team is a lot more veteran, and should be far more self-starting than previous editions of the Cavaliers. But Mike Brown must continue to emphasize team basketball. When you have a superstar for a teammate, it can be easy to view him as a safety net when the going gets tough. But only team effot is going to make this team elite.

5. This is fun.
I am sitting here trying to recount all the Browns free agent acquisitions worth a damn in the past seven years. I can't think of many. I am also sitting here with the knowledge that Bob Howry isn't coming back to the Indians, and Kevin Millwood probably isn't either.
Isn't it nice to have a Cleveland team reap the benefits of a spending spree for once, and not have to hear about blown chances or financial constraints?

1 comment:

Joel said...

Solid analysis of a very intriguing first month. I too, am having fun, though I don't get to see them as often as I'd like.

I couldn't agree more with what your overarching point seems to be -- that the Cavs still have miles to go to be one of the elite -- but they understand that and are, for once, seemingly willing to accept the challenge.

I'm not how many more of the 20-point losses to the elite teams LeBron/Z and Co. are going to take.

And while this may be a 2004-05 topic, or a future Hammond Bacon column, the Boozer-Gooden swap has turned out surprisingly well, I think.

Especially since Boozer DOESN'T PLAY.