For most of the NBA's title contenders, this has been a winter of discontent. When we woke up on Christmas morning, prior to the slate of nationally televised games on ABC and ESPN, the top of the NBA's combined conference standings looked like this:
Team W L % GB
L.A. Lakers 23 4 .852 -
Boston 22 5 .815 1.0
Orlando 22 7 .759 2.0
Cleveland 22 8 .733 2.5
Atlanta 20 8 .714 3.5
Four of those five teams have experienced turbulence in 2010, from the Lakers dealing with injuries to Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and now Andrew Bynum to the Celtics' own injury woes and apparent age, from Orlando's difficulty integrating Vince Carter (last night aside) to the Hawks simply coming back to Earth a bit after a phenomenal start vaulted them into the championship conversation. Check out the records since Dec. 25 for those same five teams:
Team W L % GB
Cleveland 19 3 .864 -
L.A. Lakers 17 9 .654 4.0
Atlanta 12 9 .565 6.5
Orlando 13 10 .571 6.5
Boston 10 12 .455 9.0
While other contenders stumble and teams like Denver and Utah have emerged as legitimate championship threats, the Cleveland Cavaliers have simply been rolling along. Going back beyond their Christmas Day win over the Lakers in L.A., the Cavaliers have won 21 of their last 24 games to begin putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the league. As the All-Star break approaches, Cleveland is a game and a half better than the Lakers for the league's best record and has opened up a commanding six-game advantage over Orlando for the top seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
It's not like the Cavaliers haven't dealt with any setbacks on the injury front themselves. Starting guard Mo Williams, the team's second-leading scorer, has sat out the last nine games with a sprained left shoulder. That injury was compounded when Delonte West, Williams' replacement at the point, suffered a broken left ring finger. The loss of their two best ballhandlers would cripple many teams, but the Cavaliers have won straight games with only Daniel Gibson--a shooter first and passer second--seeing action as a true point guard. The team did call up Cleveland State product Cedric Jackson from the D-League to serve as an emergency ballhandler, but he's seen just nine minutes of garbage-time action.
The situation reached its seeming limit last Thursday against Miami, when Gibson too was absent because his fiancée (singer Keyshia Cole) was giving birth. No worries. All Mike Brown did was move LeBron James over to become a 6'8", 250-pound (and that's being generous) point guard, as he had been doing in recent games to give Gibson a breather. It wasn't exactly Magic Johnson starting at center in the 1980 NBA Finals, but by the time Gibson returned for the second half of the game Cleveland had already taken a 56-52 lead on the strength of 19 points and four assists from James.
Oddly, James handed out just eight assists when he started at the point--actually one of his low-assist outings since Williams went down. In that nine-game span, he's averaging 10.1 assists per game. It's not as if the extra playmaking responsibilities have limited James' ability to score. He's averaging 30.8 points in the last nine games, slightly better than his league-leading average of 29.7 points a night. Essentially, James has been superhuman during this span, and even when everyone gets healthy--West is expected to return tonight, while Williams remains a few weeks away--James as a supersized point guard is another wrinkle for Brown to consider come playoff time. According to BasketballValue.com, lineups with James acting as point guard have outscored the opposition by 17.3 points per 100 possessions.
James has been so brilliant overall that the danger now is that we start taking him for granted. His per-minute win percentage of .832 is on track with last year's .839 mark, which was itself the best per-minute rating in the three-decade WARP era. James' total of 17.5 WARP is nearly five more than any other player in the league has racked up, and another MVP seems to be a fait accompli at this point.
Before the last nine games, however, James' performance had little to do with the difference between the struggling Cavaliers we saw at times in October and November and the team that has been clicking so far in 2010. The integration of Shaquille O'Neal into the Cleveland lineup has been a far bigger factor. Looking more like the spry All-Star we saw a year ago in Phoenix, O'Neal is shooting 63.1 percent from the field since the New Year after making just 50.8 percent of his shots through December. O'Neal has also appeared more comfortable in the Cleveland defense lately, allowing the Cavaliers to improve to third in the league in Defensive Rating. Add in fifth place in Offensive Rating and Cleveland is the lone team in the NBA in the top five at both ends of the floor.
Having successfully negotiated the breaking-in period with O'Neal, the question is whether the Cavaliers want to do it again by making a deal using the expiring contract of Zydrunas Ilgausksas prior to the trade deadline. My instinct is that the risks of such a trade would probably outweigh the benefit. Not only is Cleveland playing so well right now, the Cavaliers have also shown the ability to match up well with other top contenders with the addition of O'Neal. They are 5-0 against Atlanta, the Lakers and Orlando, and their loss on opening night to the Celtics was so long ago it may as well have been another season. As valuable as the stretch four is in the modern NBA, Cleveland has managed to pound top teams with its size in the frontcourt without sacrificing offensive efficiency.
In addition to costing them Ilgauskas for at least a month (even if his new team waived Ilgauskas, clearing the way for him to return to the Cavaliers as a free agent, he would have to sit out that period under NBA rules), such a trade would also surely mean dealing J.J. Hickson just as the second-year forward is showing signs of "getting it." In addition to averaging 10.1 points on 57.8 percent shooting during the nine-game winning streak, Hickson's defense has looked markedly improved. John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog has seen the same thing, and Hickson's net defensive plus-minus, though still poor, has improved considerably since I made note of it in my Christmas NBA preview.
Also keep in mind that the Cavaliers could add another player to their rotation without having to make a trade. Former Boston forward Leon Powe, working back from a torn ACL, is participating in 4-on-4 drills and should return at some point after the All-Star break. Powe isn't the floor spacer Cleveland covets at the four-spot, but when healthy he is an efficient scorer and capable defender who will provide Brown with another option up front. Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry deserves credit for building the team's depth by bringing in Powe on the cheap in addition to Anthony Parker (capably starting at shooting guard) and Jamario Moon in free agency last summer. Add in the development of Jawad Williams, who has offered competent minutes in the last month, and the sheer number of useful players Brown has at his disposal has helped Cleveland survive its recent injuries.
Championships aren't won in February, as the Cavaliers found out the hard way last season when the NBA's best regular-season record and home-court advantage did little for them against Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals. Still, based on the way they've successfully handled adversity and the question marks surrounding the other top contenders, the Cavaliers have to be considered the league's clear favorite as we head toward the All-Star break.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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