A familiar refrain for Cleveland fans, but one that I was singing last night. I suppose it's always possible for a team to come back from a 3-0 deficit, but I doubt that this team is going to do it. Last night, we got to see the Spurs at their absolute weakest, and they still found a way to get it going. That's the mark of a great team--the ability to grind out a win on a night when nothing is going right. The Cavs aren't close to being there yet. The Spurs are, and deserve to be champions.
Some thoughts for the Cavs going forward to the next game (and, more realistically, next season):
1.) LeBron absolutely got fouled on that last play, but I like that he's not complaining about it. It's a surprisingly mature move from a 22-year-old. I won't write more about this since Henry Abbott, as usual, has written a great post on the topic already.
2.) It is shocking how much better our offense looks when LeBron plays in the post/elbow area. He is a very good face-up player, no doubt, and on most nights that aspect of his game is enough. But last night, when he had the ball in the low block, he was that much better. He kept getting past Bowen, though he couldn't always finish (mostly due to not yet being comfortable down there), and Gibson and Pavlovic had more room to operate at the top of the key. He's too quick for big men to guard, and he's too big for little men to guard.
3.) On that note, I firmly believe that Mike Brown (or, if we're lucky, an offensive consultant of sorts) needs to redesign the offense around LeBron getting the ball in that area instead of bringing the ball up the court. As much as I like the idea of a 6'8" 240 lb. point-forward, I think the last few years have proven that LeBron is an even better player when he's not bringing the ball up. Let's consider the benefits:
OUR CURRENT OFFENSE:
LeBron brings the ball up (usually slowly) and, against good playoff teams, immediately gets trapped. He passes the ball out of the trap (usually cross-court) and then keeps moving up. Then, he moves to the top of the key to get the ball back. At this point, about 8-12 seconds have elapsed. Now the Cavs have 12 seconds left. We either pass it in to Z, who dribbles slowly three or four times, then passes it out or puts up a hook/jumper. Or, LeBron tries to dribble it in (which usually takes a few seconds) and then has to spend more time establishing position before he passes out. Occasionally, he gets to the rim and finishes. But otherwise, he has to give the ball up, and then Sasha or Gibson holds the ball for a while before attempting a drive. OR, teams don't trap LeBron, and he brings the ball up and then stands at the top of the key pounding the ball into the floor while the other (less talented) players get into some sort of position. LeBron has to pass the ball and then cut to get it back (which takes more time off the clock) or go 1-on-5 and hope for a shooter to do something right.
WHAT OUR OFFENSE COULD LOOK LIKE:
A point guard not named LeBron (not sure if Daniel Gibson is the answer as a starter, he really is more of a combo guard than a pure point, though maybe he can work on this in the offseason) brings the ball up quickly to take advantage of the Cavs' athleticism. LeBron runs up the floor and works to establish position in the elbow or low post area. Now, the Cavs have multiple options. Only six to eight seconds have come off the clock, and they have the ball in the frontcourt. The point guard can immediately pass it in to LeBron (who should be able to get the entry pass at pretty much any time) and let him work for a shot or find a shooter when the defense collapses. He can pass to Pavlovic or Gibson, who can try to create off the dribble, with more space to operate given LeBron's presence. Hell, even Larry Hughes would be free to play the game he is most comfortable with--slashing to the hoop from the outside instead of taking spot-up jumpers--because LeBron isn't the number one slasher anymore.
I really think this offense would be more productive and functional. We'd probably have to play smaller (maybe roll out a new PG, two of Gibson/Pavlovic/Hughes, LeBron, and Varejao or Gooden?) but I think the disadvantage we have in the low post is offset by the sheer athleticism of this team. Or, we could run with Gibson at the point (he'd have to improve) along with LeBron and Pavlovic/Hughes, Gooden, and Varejao if we wanted more size on the floor.
4.) Two things have to happen for this new offense to work. One is that LeBron needs to commit in the offseason to improving his low post game as well as his midrange jumper. We know he can improve in the offseason (remember his markedly better shot in year 2 than year 1). If he adds those two facets to his game, he's pretty much unstoppable. Right now, he's not great from the midrange area, so when he can't get right to the hoop he has to fade away or pass the ball. If he could hit that midrange jumper, teams basically have to pick their poison against him. He'd have the scoring ability of Kobe (though with a slightly worse jump shot from outside) along with the passing ability of Magic.
5.) The other thing is that we'd need to move Ilgauskas. I like the guy--he's been a Cav for a long time and he's one of the first players I remember being a fan of. He's stuck around for a lot of bad times and has played through a lot of pain. But he just doesn't fit this team anymore. Sure, he makes a few great tip-ins every game, and at times he's still a capable defender/offensive presence. Yet he's not the athletic big man this team needs--he can't play at an uptempo pace, he can't run the floor very well, and he forces us to slow down a lot in the halfcourt set. I don't think the Cavs should become a run-n-gun team because, as we've seen, they aren't very good at that style. But if we go to a LeBron-in-the-post offense, I'm not sure what Z can really do anymore. While he may be a bit more refined than Gooden, Gooden's a decent enough rebounder (as is Varejao) and both can get up the floor and have more upside.
6.) I'll have to do more research on this, but my gut tells me that there's got to be a team out there that plays a lot in the halfcourt set and needs an established big man to snag rebounds and try to tip in shot (boy, I wish Mike Fratello were coaching somewhere right now). If we could move Z, it would give us a bit more cap flexibility (depending on what type of contract we got in return) and would allow this team to develop a new, more cohesive offensive identity. Right now, we're don't have an offensive identity at all.
7.) I think last night showed how good Pavlovic could be, and also why he's not that good yet. He's explosive and athletic, he can get to the rim and get a shot off against most defenders, he has a good outside shot and can stretch the defense (his three to answer Parker's three and bring the deficit back to seven points at 60-53 in the fourth was fantastic). But, he's not yet comfortable being around LeBron--I think he's not sure how to play his game given that he has a similar style of game to LeBron but isn't as powerful or dominant. He also isn't sure when to defer to LeBron and when to go for his own shot. Hence, he plays tentatively and passively at times. I'd like to see LeBron and Sasha spend some time together in the offseason to get more comfortable with each other--the two of them plus Gibson really seem to me to be the future of this team and a good core to build around. Also, if LeBron did play more out of the post, Sasha would have more room to operate and could better establish himself as a double threat to shoot from outside or take it to the hoop.
8.) I'm not ready to give up on the Daniel-Gibson-as-starter experiment. If we could get an established PG in the offseason, that would be great, but I'm not certain there's anyone that good out there. Gibson's got plenty of tools already, and if he can spend some time in the offseason working on his handle and watching video of where he gets into trouble with traps, I think he should start next year. In many ways, he's the perfect compliment to LeBron since he's a better "outside-in" player (his outside shooting sets up the rest of the game) whereas LeBron is an "inside-out" player (his jump shot always seems to be more consistent after he's hit a few buckets inside.)
9. At the end of the day, though, I think the largest part of what the Cavs need to do this offseason is do a MUCH better job of playing to the strengths of their players. Larry Hughes is a slasher, not a spot-up shooter, so stop making him the spot-up shooter and start letting him create off the dribble. Sasha Pavlovic is dynamic enough to be a deadly second option, so let him loose and encourage him to constantly look to score instead of only going for shots when LeBron can't seem to. The team as a whole has trouble when LeBron brings the ball up, so don't have him do it--instead, let him get the ball in the post where he opens up Larry's and Sasha's games and can do the most damage to opponents. Basically, my macro thought for the Cavs' coaching staff is, "Design an offense around what you have, not what you wish you had." We don't have great shooters, so the "stretch" offense, while perhaps our best offense of the bunch we have right now, is still inconsistent. What we have is two players who can slash really well, one of whom is also a good outside shooter; a good three-point shooting combo guard with a decent enough ability to penetrate; a couple athletic but offensively-challenged big men; a big plodding center; and some stiffs. Create an offense that works to THAT set of personnel and move the people who don't fit. If doing this means asking LeBron to change his game, do it--he's a "team first" guy by all accounts, and if you couch it as "this will make you more unstoppable and everyone else around you much better," I can't imagine that he'd do anything other than jump at that chance.
10.) Henry Abbott notes the following, when I asked him about whether LeBron should get a shooting coach:
"I wish he'd pencil in a week with someone like David Thorpe or Tim Grover. It could really do things."
I agree. Hopefully this can happen, though it seems like LeBron may be really busy this summer, what with playing deeper into the playoffs than ever before, Team USA commitments, and the birth of a new child. But even if it doesn't work out, what about having him make these adjustments during the regular season? LeBron coasted through much of the regular season this year, so why not challenge him during the next regular season by installing this new post-friendly offense? Sure, he may miss a lot of shots early on, but if Sasha, Larry, and Gibson can improve in the offseason, they can pick up the slack to a degree--plus, LeBron should be able to improve quickly enough to keep the Cavs in the running given how weak the East is. 82 games plus practice should be enough to teach him how to play down low (though obviously, offseason prep would be ideal). Hell, we learned our defense on the fly this year, and it was outstanding come playoff time. Assuming everyone else gets familiar with the offense during the offseason, LeBron has the basketball IQ to adjust on the fly (he started to do this in the Finals this year) and let's be honest: the offense couldn't be much worse, and keeping things as is is the surest way to ensure that we never win the title that would keep LeBron in town.