So Andrew Sharp believes the loss of Shaquille O’Neal is a “big win” for the Cavaliers. In fact, to throw some more hyperbole into the mix, he says this about the injury.
But more importantly, this is the best thing that could have possibly happened to the Cavs this year. It’s addition by subtraction, multiplied by Mike Brown’s sudden inability to screw things up.
I will agree with Andrew on one point: it will certainly make Cleveland more fun to watch. Nobody likes watching the whole “dump it into Shaq as he backs down for five seconds” offense. We’d rather watch LeBron get easy fast breaks and drive and kick to open shooters. It’s more fun watching Cleveland that way.
But is Cleveland really better that way? I’m not convinced. Or, more accurately, I don’t think it helps Cleveland to have Shaq out.
Why? The one thing that makes Cleveland so tough is their roster flexibility. At full strength, the Cavaliers are so deep that they can play any style. Want to play slowdown basketball? They can put in Shaq and he’ll put your bigs in foul trouble. Want to try to beat them by going small? They can put Anderson Varejao in at center and/or slide LeBron James to power forward. The ability to do both successfully makes Cleveland impossible to prepare for. How can you scout a team that’s capable of putting out so many different combinations?
And yes, all the combinations work. According to Basketball Value, only one of Cleveland’s top five lineups doesn’t include Shaq or fellow plodder Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Cleveland has been very successful all season even though they’ve routinely had slow guys like Shaq or Ilgauskas out there.
The ability to change your gameplan on the fly is a huge plus. Cleveland’s had stretches where they’ve dominated with their small lineup, such as in a December game against Phoenix and a recent game against Boston. But ask yourself this question: would Cleveland’s small lineup work as well if it wasn’t contrasted with their big lineup? In other words, how much of Cleveland’s success with the small lineup is due to it being completely different than it’s big lineup? I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with it. Not only in terms of scouting, but also because the ability to change the game with a simple lineup switch is something no team can really contend with.
Now that Shaq is out, Cleveland is forced to go small the entire game, which will allow teams to properly prepare for it. The novelty act of the small lineup will wear off. That’s a value Shaq brings that Sharp overlooks.
Moreover, expecting the Cavs to suddenly be a running team now that Shaq’s out is expecting too much. Since 2005, the Cavaliers have never finished higher than 18th in the league in pace (i.e. possessions per game). They ranked 25th in each of the two years before this. As long as Mike Brown is their coach, they will be a slow-paced team. Not having Shaq around won’t change that. So when Sharp says this …
Cleveland’s getting a brand new sports car, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot more fun than Shaq or Varejao anchoring the low post for 35 minutes-a-night. Spread the court, get out and run, and leave opponents in the dust. It’s gonna be fun.
… it’s expecting way too much. It’s akin to saying Shaq is the only reason the Cavaliers play slow. Five years of evidence disproves this.
Finally, while Mike Brown makes himself an easy target, the reality is he’s not screwing anything up right now. I don’t think he gets enough credit for the way he’s been able to integrate so many new parts to the team. It looked like there would be problems very early in the season, but those have gone away quickly. Brown’s been pretty outside-the-box all season. Brown is the one that made the gutsy call to start J.J. Hickson, which has paid off extremely well. Brown is the one that’s started playing James at power forward in the first place. Brown is the one that’s managed the three-guard rotation of Mo Williams, Delonte West and Anthony Parker skillfully. Brown is the one that has guided LeBron and a bunch of unheralded players to the top of the league. He’s not perfect, but he’s not totally incompetent in all areas. Just some.
This isn’t to say Cleveland’s in trouble with this injury. They have enough depth where they’ll survive. But that’s exactly it: they’ll survive. They won’t thrive as Sharp suggested.