Strong Supporting Cast

by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

On more than one occasion this year, following a win, Coach Mike Brown has thanked a person who didn’t see a single minute of action in said victory.

He thanked Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert, who has allowed Brown’s friend and team GM, Danny Ferry, to bless him with the one thing every NBA coach wants: depth.

Now that Joe Smith has rejoined the Wine and Gold fold, Brown has almost all his tools at his disposal. When Ben Wallace returns, that’ll like move Anderson Varejao to the bench – and the Wild Thing’s been strong as a starter, averaging 10.2 points and 5.5 boards per contest.

The aforementioned Joe Smith was thrown directly in the fire – on the road against the World Champs with his team down double-digits. He responded by playing perhaps the best basketball off the bench. Smith went for seven points and five boards in 22 minutes against Boston, nine and five the next night against Miami, and was 3-for-3 in Cleveland’s comeback win over the Clippers.

“(Joe Smith)’s a veteran, and he has a pretty good feel on one hand. But on the other hand, you wish he would have had a couple practices,” quipped Coach Brown, “But it is what it is, and it turned out fine. And he’s learning on the fly, so we’re OK with it.”

Smith was on the floor at the end of Tuesday’s incredible 87-83 comeback win in L.A., as was Daniel Gibson – who’s taken his lumps at times this season. But it was Boobie’s three-pointer with just under two minutes to play that tied the game and his bullet to an open Mo Williams for the game-winner.

Tuesday’s win is exactly why Coach Brown sings Dan Gilbert’s praises following certain wins.

The Cavs coach has a coveted, experienced veteran (Smith), the star of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals (Gibson), a starter from the 2007 Finals (Sasha Pavlovic), a strong defender who averages 16.6 ppg as a starter (Tarence Kinsey), a shooter who’s averaged double-digits for a decade (Wally Szczerbiak) and – one day soon – a big man, in Anderson Varejao, who could start for at least half the teams in the NBA.

That’s not including the Cavaliers freshman duo: rugged rookie, Darnell Jackson, and a 20-year-old bursting with potential in J.J. Hickson.

The Cavaliers reserves have averaged 25.5 ppg this season, as the Wine and Gold have now reached the 50-win plateau for the third time in Mike Brown’s first four years on the job.

It hasn’t been any easy run to this mark for the two-time Coach of the Month winner and candidate for Coach of the Year. And the Cavaliers bench has gotten Cleveland through some rough patches where in the past the team may have buckled.

This year, the Cavaliers lost Zydrunas Ilgauskas for 17 games, Delonte West for 17 and Sasha Pavlovic for 11. Ben Wallace suffered a fractured fibula on February 26 and will likely miss the rest of March.

“We’ve had our fair share of injuries this year,” said Brown. “Some guys have started for us; other guys have played big minutes, and they’ve stepped up and filled the hole. So I think we’re a talented enough team and a deep enough team – as long as we have a rhythm going into the postseason.”

Of course, the Cavaliers’ depth isn’t the only reason they’re tied with the Lakers for the best mark in the league heading towards the postseason. It doesn’t hurt that Cleveland’s two All-Stars have also been their iron men. LeBron James and Mo Williams have gone 63-for-63 and – although both of their minutes are down due to some fourth quarter laughers – have done much of the club’s heavy lifting.

As the Cavaliers wrap up their final West Coast sojourn of the season, and with 19 games to go before their run at the Ring, the bench will continue to play a huge role. The No. 1 seed is still up for grabs and – 1-through-12 – any man can play a big part in securing it down the stretch.

When the playoffs roll around, Mike Brown will likely whittle his rotation down to eight, maybe nine men in certain situations. Minutes and opportunities are at a premium once the NBA’s second season arrives.

“I have to make sure I’m doing my part with the bench in terms of making sure I give them the opportunity – time-wise and play-wise – and if I do that, I’m confident that my bench will step up and produce and have some big games for us,” said Brown. “But I feel like we’re a deep team.”