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Where to go next? Cavs face critical decisions this off season after disappointing playoff showing

By:Ryan Ahbel/
Tue June 15th, 2009

How quickly moods can change for Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry and decision makers in Independence, Ohio. April 15th the Cavs surprisingly sit atop the NBA in terns of overall record. They faced the Philadelphia 76ers in their final game of the 2008-2009 regular season. They had achieved a franchise record and NBA best 66 wins in the 82 game regular season, Mike Brown is the second Cleveland coach to be named NBA coach of the year, LeBron James is days away from being named the NBA MVP. All three milestones marked impressive achievements for the 38 year old Cleveland basketball franchise. Weeks earlier, during a pre-game shoot around, without announcement they had quietly risen only their second division championship banner in Quicken Loans Arena as their minds were focused on their only goal, winning an NBA championship.

As quickly as the Cavaliers went from irrelevance in an NBA worst 17 win season just 7 years ago, to having the sports fastest rising star and perhaps the brightest future of any NBA franchise, it all unraveled in 6 games against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. A series in which even their two wins felt like losses. It was a series where had LeBron James not made a desperation fade away three pointer with 1 second left in game two, could have realistically resulted in a 4 game sweep at the hands of the sharp shooting Orlando Magic.

Where did it go wrong you ask? If you speak to top basketball analysts and so called experts around the league, they will tell you the Cavs fell victim to the dreaded "match up problems" the Orlando Magic provide with their tall three point marksmen. The Cavs had no big and long wing players to defend Orlando's pair of 6'10'' sharp shooters. If the Cavs defenders would rush out to attempt to contest Orlando's outside shots, the Magic would easily pass the ball inside to big man Dwight Howard who without problem would handle the slow and older Cavalier big men. The Cavs never came close to finding an answer for this problem.

By now Cavs fans know the story, this series was ugly. There is plenty of blame to go around. All-Star point guard Mo Williams and alleged "Robin" to LeBron James' "Batman" looked spooked from the first jump ball in round one. He played timid from the bright lights of the playoffs and was never himself. Veteran 7'3'' Lithuanian center Zydrunas Ilgauskas looked tired, slow, and weak throughout the postseason, you can add 34 year old forward and former NBA defensive player of the year Ben Wallace to that list as well, as he was coming off a broken leg injury. Pressure less regular season contributors Wally Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic, and Boobie Gibson did little of substance to help off the bench. Head coach Mike Brown often sported looks of frustration and confusion as he struggled to find a lineup to co inside with the rotation Magic coach Stan Van Gundy put on the floor. Dissension with the Cavs coaching staff and front office left the frustrated Cavs at a loss to muster one convincing win the entire series.

Which leads to the question, did the Cavs choke, or were they never really that good to begin with. At first glance the Cavs choked, they had an NBA best 66-16 regular season record, the NBA coach of the year, the NBA MVP, and home court advantage throughout the entire NBA playoffs. As you look a little deeper, red flags were certainly there that this team was not ready to take the next step to an NBA title. Against the NBA's 3 top teams this season (Boston, Orlando, LA Lakers) the Cavs were a combined 3-6. Their front line was either old and slow, or young and inexperienced. The only low post player with neither of those issues, Anderson Varejao, is offensively challenged. Their All-Star point guard though talented, had never been on a contending team and had never before felt the pressure the NBA playoffs bring. Their starting shooting guard was undersized against every opposing two guard he faced all season and was not the first choice of coach Mike Brown to be in the starting rotation at the seasons beginning. All these issues came to fruition as the Cavs, once again, became the LeBron James show in the playoffs. And once again, fell short.

As the Los Angeles Lakes look to be wrapping up their 15th NBA title, the Cavaliers are doing their best to squash Internet rumors of a Mike Brown firing. Instead of likely running into these same issues against the primed NBA Champion Lakers, they are trying to decide what to do with the 30th selection in the top heavy NBA Draft June 25th. Instead of watching another team celebrate the Larry O'Brian trophy at their expense, they are waiting for July 1st when they can begin to negotiate with NBA free agents. (including their own in Anderson Varejao) Perhaps most importantly, they are discussing how to keep their superstar LeBron James in a Cavalier uniform beyond next season, when James can opt out of his contract with Cleveland.

The good news is this isn't foreign territory for the Cavaliers front office. Last season ended with the same frustrations only a round earlier to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. After drafting a 19 year old from N.C. State nobody ever heard of, Cavs General Manager Danny Ferry was accused of "sitting on his hands" all summer before pulling out a blockbuster three team trade landing him All-Star point guard Mo Williams (who figures to be more relaxed next postseason) for essentially a non contributing bench player. Though they wont admit it, when the emotion of the frustrating loss in the Eastern Conference Finals dies down, the Cavs will be happy about their season, and their progression from the season before. They took a giant step forward from the 45-37 record they posted just one season earlier, as they were not among the teams predicted to win a championship this pre season. Since buying the franchise in 2005, owner Dan Gilbert has been working cap space and doing all things necessary to make Cleveland a top level organization and a place not only LeBron James wants to play long term, but every other big name free agents looking to win a championship ring.

The Cavaliers know what they are doing, and are in the best position of any team to be a future NBA dynasty. They have arguably the best player in the NBA, a brand new state of the art practice facility, and an owner who's willing to spend even in a bad economy. They are one of the few NBA teams who are truly committed to winning, and have the resources to do so.

After delivering a successful off season last summer, Danny Ferry earned his paycheck by coming through in what was the Cavs most crucial off season in team history landing LeBron James some back court help with Williams. This summer however, it once again is the most crucial off season in team history and Ferry needs to find LeBron help with a big man with a scoring punch and some defensive muscle underneath. Among the names being tossed around the Independence offices are veteran bigs Charlie Villanueva, Shaquille O'Neal, and current Cleveland sports villains Carlose Boozer, and Rasheed Wallace. Wallace being the more realistic of the three names, is a free agent and is rumored to want to play in Cleveland. He would essentially solve three needs for Cleveland with his size and muscle underneath (he's known for defending Dwight Howard well) his ability to stretch the floor with his outside shooting, and he is a legitimate scoring threat inside who also has playoff experience who will not fold under pressure.

One of the most popular rumors, and on that is gaining steam in likeliness, is Shaquille O'Neal coming to Cleveland via trade for Sasha Pavlovic and the contract of Ben Wallace. This was a deal that was close to being finalised just before the NBA trading deadline in February, but hit a snag when Phoenix decided they would stay the course and try to make the playoffs with Shaq. That plan went south as the injury riddled Suns faded from the playoff picture in the late season. In what seemed to be a good "no trade" for the Cavs at the time turned into burning questions about how the Cavs would have fared against Orlando with the big body of O'Neal on Magic "Superman" Dwight Howard. Rumors are already swirling, but look for Cleveland to be burning the Phoenix phone lines trying to acquire Shaq from the desert as the Suns are looking to dump salaries and rebuild.

Another form of help could come from the trading partner of last year, the Milwaukee Bucks, who sent the Cavs Mo Williams late in the '08 summer. Much like Rasheed Wallace, Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva is attractive to Cleveland because offensively they like power forwards with a shooting touch to stretch the floor for James. Rumors are with the right offer he could be had but his lack of defensive presence makes him not the ideal choice for defensive minded Mike Brown, not to mention it is likely the Bucks would ask for last years promising draft pick JJ Hickson in return among others.

Perhaps the most intriguing name out there is ex-Cavalier Carlos Boozer. Boozer has been vilified in Cleveland perhaps more than any other player because of how he bolted town for Utah after a hand-shake deal gone wrong with then Cavs owner Gorden Gund. Now, as an often injured player with a large contract on a team looking to dump salary, he may be made available by the Jazz. Even though he remains friends with LeBron James and the Cavaliers have entirely new ownership, it still remains unlikely the power forward will return to Cleveland.

It seems an interesting off season for the Cavaliers is on the horizon, as yet again they need to make a move if they want to reach their goal of an NBA championship. It was just one year ago the most pressing need in Cleveland was landing a point guard who can create his own shot and take the ball out of LeBrons hands in crunch time. Ferry filled that role near perfectly with little talked about Mo Williams in the second creative three-team trade orchestrated by Ferry in less than 6 months. Look for the Cavs to once again make a creative trade for a player not to be considered on the Cavs radar. Guards Sasha Pavlovic, Boobie Gibson, Tarence Kinsey, along with forward Ben Wallace and JJ Hickson all will be trading chips for Ferry as he looks to fix this seasons problems.

The pressure of yet another critical off season is nothing new for Danny Ferry, as every year since his hire in 2005 has been called the "most crucial off season in Cavs history." He not only has his boss, owner Dan Gilbert, to please, he also holds the future of LeBron James in his hands, as James has repeatedly said he will sign with the team that gives him the "best chance to win multiple championships" when he makes his decision where to play after 2010. If Cleveland fans are going to see their 45 year major sports championship drought come to an end anytime soon, it will be because of Danny Ferry and his ability to put that championship team on the floor next season. Stay tuned.


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