Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Magic vs. The Mirage

Just got thru watching a segment on ESPN's Mike-&-Mike Show with Tim Legler, after watching the ESPN Roundtable with Magic Johnson, Stewart Scott, et. al. The slight majority, when asked who they thought would prevail in tonight's pivotal Eastern Conference Finals game 4, thought that the Cavaliers would finally show their championship mettle, and revert to the great team that we saw during the regular season. Now, I could be disrespectful and ask "have they been watching the first three games?", but I won't do that; rather, I'll ask the better question: "are the Cavs actually a great team?"

Yes, as Legler pointed out, the Cavs marched out to a top-notch 66-16 regular season record. But as was pointed out to me some time ago, the Cavs were a paltry 4-7 against the best of the league -- the Lakers (0-2), Celtics (2-2), Rockets (1-1), and Magic (1-2). They were blown out in Houston by 19 points, destroyed in their last game in Orlando by 29 points. They simply didn't play a championship-calibre game against the best teams all year. So now that we are down to the time of the year where only best of the league remain, why should we expect any different?

I think the problem with this team is the level of talent surrounding the Chosen One. First, let's point out that LeBron this year has elevated his all-around game, rightfully coming close to winning a defensive player of the year award, to go along with his otherworldly offensive talents. But what of the guys around him? Where are the other complete players? I think this question is key to the deficiencies of the Cavaliers.

Has anyone ever mistaken Mo Williams, Delonte West, Sasha Pavlovic, or "Boobie" Gibson as great individual defenders? Where's the other great wing defender on this 'team'? Any team with a big or strong backcourt can post these guys up all day long. On any given night that they're not making shots, how are they useful as basketball players? In the same light, Uncle Wally is hardly known as much of a defender either.

Offensively, how are "Floppy" Varejao or Ben Wallace of any use other than on putbacks and broken plays? Did anyone see the play on Sunday where Wallace had the ball 12 feet from the bucket in the paint and was completely disregarded by the defense; and he obliged them by turning away from the rim and passed the ball? How is Big Z going to body up with a center like, ohh, Dwight Howard, to be able to keep Superman from posting up, getting to the rim, and keeping him off the boards?

The only other player on this team that isn't nearly one-dimensional is Joe Smith, with both his defense and length contributing on one end, and his mid-range jumper making him a quantity on offense. One writer recently pointed out that the Boston Celtics clearly got the short end of the Joe Smith-Mikki Moore sweepstakes.

With the athleticism and abilities of the athletes in the league these days, can a collection of one-dimensional players really get it done on the biggest stage? Every time you plug a player into the game, you're making a sacrifice. Either you're hoping this guy will shoot well enough to offset the points he gives up on defense, or you're hoping this other guy will make enough stops and grab enough boards to make up for the other team completely ignoring him as an offensive threat. And yet, we're left to wonder why such a team would run up into matchup problems?

Now let's flip the scorecard over and look at the Magic's role-players. Mikael Pietrus was brought to Orlando moreso for his defensive prowess, and people are heaping praise on him for doing a decent job against LeBron James (what more can you do against the guy?). Yet how many big plays has he made on the offensive end? How many big shots and drives to the bucket have we seen? Courtney Lee has simply had an impressive rookie season, and had games where he's shined on the offensive end. Yet, in the Boston series, this youngster stuck to Eddie House like glue, and completely, completely took him out of at least 3 games, if not the series in general. Tony Battie is certainly a defensive player, yet he has a very capable mid-range jumper, much like Joe Smith. The same goes for Marcin Gortat. Rafer Alston and Anthony Johnson aren't known for their defense, but you can always insert a wing defender in Lee or Pietrus next to them to solidify the backcourt.

Hedo Turk had a game the other night where he shot 1-11, yet he had 10 assists, got to the free-throw line, and repeatedly put the Cavs' defense out-of-wack by running an effecient pick-and-roll. He also isn't known as the best defender, but he does have size and length to bother certain players on the court. The same goes for Rashard Lewis; he definitely uses his length on the defensive end, and we needn't even waste time discussing his talent on offense. If Turk or Lewis can be exploited on defense, who besides LeChosen One can do the exploiting?

In any case, the Magic certainly have more than their share of two-way, multi-talented players. When Coach Van Panicky inserts these players, he doesn't have to worry about them contributing in one and only facet; he merely has to require that they play good basketball on both ends of the court. Coach Brown? He's got to mix and match, and honestly, just hope for the best.

And going forward past 2009, where's the future for this team? Zydrunas is certainly on the downside of his career, and his lack of athleticism is starting to be exposed. As bigger and stronger centers start coming in, how much further back will he slip? How many years (or months?) before New Jersey's Brook Lopez passes him by? Ben Wallace -- how many more useful years does he have? How far down the depth chart has he already slipped? Wally Z? Sasha Pavlovic? Boobie Gibson? Does this Cleveland team really have much of a long-term future? We will certainly find out in a year or two.

But of more immediate importance: does this collection of one-dimensional role players really have what it takes to be truly considered a great team? Where is Batman's Robin? Where is Superman's Amazing Friends, the Scottie Pippens, the (young) Bruce Bowen's, the Robert Horry types, guys that can contribute all over the court? I simply don't see it.

There's an old sports adage that says: you're never as good as you look when you win, and never as bad as you look when you lose. Just some food for thought.

No comments: