Saturday, February 23, 2008

Cavaliers Clean House, Add Playoff Pieces

Friday’s game against the Wizards was like watching a really expensive pick-up game with all the unfamiliar players on the floor. Ten of the fifteen players on the roster were either inactive or signed as emergency injury replacements. The starting five consisted of LeBron, Z, and what’s left of the Cleveland bench after the trade. Despite the plethora of journeymen, spare parts, and D-Leaguers on the floor, Cleveland was able to steal a win against the struggling Wizards. You know you’re in a nasty losing streak when Damon Jones personally destroys your defense. Jones hit seven 3-pointers and combined with LeBron for 60 points. It’s as if Jones was inspired by the recently departed Larry Hughes (Jones will go 2-20 next game as a tribute to Larry’s legacy in Cleveland).

Meanwhile, the newest Cavs were stuck in a sky box, munching on hot wings and looking kind of bored. It’s too bad these guys can’t play before taking a physical because having to entertain Danny Ferry for three hours can’t be much fun. The best part of the whole game was the look on Wally Szczerbiak’s face after LeBron dropped a one-handed jam through traffic; the poor guy just had this terrified “wow” on his face as the camera panned over.

On the Trade

The more I think about Ferry’s deadline deal, the more I like it. The only player I was sad to see moved was Gooden, but his contract was good for only one more season anyway and it was unclear how interested Cleveland was in resigning him. The departure of Larry Hughes, his jump shot, and his contract is awesome. In fact, that may be my favorite part of the trade. Ferry rolled the dice with his deadline deal and is relying on a rebound (no pun intended) from Wallace and reliable production from Szczerbiak and West. The payoff could be significant, but with the way the payroll is structured and the fact that most of the departed were dead weight anyway, the risk does not seem particularly high on Cleveland’s end.

I think Ferry really redeemed himself with the trade. First of all, he made LeBron happy (sort of). Second, he was able to dump various unproductive experiments like Shannon Brown and Hughes while getting real value in return. He even got a partial refund for the draft pick wasted on Brown in the form of a 2nd rounder in 2009 from Chicago. Ferry was able to improve the team on multiple fronts, while maintaining payroll flexibility for the future (no easy task).

I tried to address the impact of the trade on Cleveland by going through each new player and how they may fit in. We’ll know Coach Brown’s rotations for sure when the Cavs face Memphis on Sunday.

Ben Wallace

Position: Center
Age: 33
Vitals: 6-9, 240

Wallace will be expected to fill the rebounding void that Drew Gooden left behind. Wallace is averaging 8.8 RPG, but has the potential to be an even greater force off the boards. Unlike Gooden, who was unlikely to exceed more than 8.5 RPG this season, Wallace has historically been a much better rebounder. Wallace averaged 10.6 rebounds just a year ago with Chicago and will likely outperform Gooden this season, even with a down season.

Wallace’s trademark is his tough interior defense. He’s earned a reputation as an enforcer and should get the job done on defense where Ilgauskas occasionally seems overmatched. It will be interesting to see how Wallace does in Coach Brown’s defensive scheme against dynamic big men like Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard. The Cavaliers are betting on a resurgent Wallace to shut down Boston and Detroit’s size inside during the playoffs.

Wallace’s kryptonite is his offense and has averaged just 6.2 PPG over the past three seasons. There’s really not much to say other than it’s terrible and isn’t going to contribute to many wins. There is a chance Wallace could take advantage of all the attention LeBron receives on the perimeter and get some extra scoring opportunities inside, but I doubt much will change in that regard. If the Cavs are smart in who they surround Wallace with, his offensive shortcomings won’t be as prevalent. It will be interesting to see if Varejao and Wallace switch it up at forward and center. I’m not sure Varejao is able to handle more offensive responsibility, but he’s shooting a career best this season with 7.8 PPG and a .511 FG%. Varejao may earn more minutes regardless with Gooden gone. A second configuration could be Wallace at forward and Z at center, giving the Cavs extra size on defense while maintaining a mid-range threat in Z.

After coming off so many winning seasons with the Pistons, it’s possible that Wallace’s frustration with the Bull’s terrible season was coming out in his performance. There’s still a risk Wallace will continue to play his worst since the ’99-‘00 season, but a change of scenery and a winning environment could go a long way. I predict a strong bounce-back from Big Ben as the season wraps up.

Wally Szczerbiak

Position: Forward
Age: 30
Vitals: 6-7, 244

The addition of Szczerbiak will provide LeBron with a badly needed sniper to pair with Daniel Gibson. In the short-term, Szczerbiak will allow the Cavs to maintain their three-point game while Gibson’s ankle heals over the next six weeks. Having Szczerbiak and Gibson on the floor may benefit LeBron the most by drawing some of the defensive pressure off him and directing it to the perimeter. Damon Jones may also see more minutes in Gibson’s absence. Jones has quietly posted a .428 3PT% this season, matching Wally’s percentage. Szczerbiak is not as feared a shooter as Gibson this year, but should be an effective weapon coming off the bench.

Unfortunately, all Szczerbiak is really good for is shooting; the rest of his stats are weak across the board. To be fair, I’m not sure how much of Szczerbiak’s sagging stats are from his role on the bench in Seattle and he may be a more complete player than the numbers indicate. It’s ironic that the two headliners in this trade appear to be complete opposites, with one specializing in defense and the other offense. I think Szczerbiak’s offensive production will be able to compensate for the loss of Hughes or Gooden, but not both. Given how maddeningly inconsistent Hughes was this season, finding alternative options on offense may not be too difficult once the Cavs get healthy again.

Delonte West

Position: Guard
Age: 24
Vitals: 6-4, 180

West will likely get the nod as starting point guard for now, but I would like to see Gibson take over that role later in the season. Neither guard will have to worry about setting up the offense all the time, given James’ playmaking ability and leadership role. I haven’t heard much about West, but he seems to be lacking in opportunities during his career. He averaged 32.1 minutes per game while posting 12.2 points, 3.2 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and a solid .427 FG% with Boston last season. West’s performance took a dip in Seattle this year, shooting .388.

According to Branson Wright of the Plain Dealer, West is “a point guard who can run the pick and roll, run the offense and more importantly, knock down the open shot.” West appears to have the potential to be a decent point guard if surrounded by quality players to facilitate his skills. The lack of talent and reduction in minutes in Seattle may be the culprit behind West’s poor season so far. I think West may be a pleasant surprise for Cleveland if given the opportunity.

Joe Smith

Position: Forward
Age: 32
Vitals: 6-10, 225

The one thing I keep hearing about Joe Smith is how overlooked he has been in this trade. I would have to agree, since Smith will be a significant upgrade over Donyell Marshall and helps to bolster the new-look Cavs bench. Smith is averaging 11.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and a .466 FG% on 22.9 minutes per game. For comparison, Marshall averaged 3.7 PPG on a .295 FG% and has only played in 11 games this season due to injury. While Smith does not shoot beyond the arc like Marshall, he will provide the Cavs with strong interior scoring off the bench.

On Payroll

Cleveland’s overall payroll will increase by $4.5 million this season, but the quality of the players they’ll be paying is higher than before the trade. Hughes, Gooden, Marshall, Simmons, Newble, and Brown will make a total of $30 million this year. The biggest reason for the post-trade payroll jump is Szczerbiak’s $12 million salary being almost twice as much as Gooden’s. If the Cavs decide they don’t need Szczerbiak after this season, his expiring contract could be easy to move.

Cleveland Contracts Moved (data from Hoops Hype):

Arriving Player 07-'08 08-'09 09-'10 10-'11
B. Wallace $15,500,000 $14,500,000 $14,000,000 $0
W. Szczerbiak $12,000,000 $13,000,000 $0
D. West $1,889,759 $2,762,828 $0
J. Smith $5,200,000 $0

Total: $34,589,759 $30,262,828 $14,000,000

Departing Player

L. Hughes $12,000,084 $12,827,676 $13,655,268 $0
D. Gooden $6,400,000 $7,100,000 $0
D. Marshall $5,566,965 $5,950,894 $0
I. Newble $3,441,900 $0

C. Simmons $1,629,120 $1,742,760 $0
S. Brown $1,044,120 $0

Total: $30,082,189 $27,621,330 $13,655,268

Difference: +$4,507,570 +$2,641,498 +$3,44,732

Wallace and Hughes are the highest paid players involved, but both have the same contract lengths. The bonus with Wallace is that he’ll become cheaper as his contract expires, while Hughes will get almost $1 million more each season. I also believe Wallace will provide more value than Hughes over the remainder of his contract.

Overall, the Cavs did not take on any extra contract years, providing them flexibility to make a free agent signing as these contracts expire or get moved before 2010. Depending on how well the Cavs draft picks work out, the aging roster could clear out just as the younger players are ready to step up.

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