Off-Season Outlook, Part II

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Any talk of free agents or trades begin and end with how a player will complement No. 23.
Layne Murdoch
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Off-Season Outlook, Part I

Of all the things that Cavaliers players said to the media on “getaway day” – the day after the season ends and players clean out their lockers – it was Drew Gooden’s quote that left the media most perplexed.

When referring to the 2004-05 Cavaliers, Gooden pulled out the old axiom: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

You have to admire Gooden’s optimistic outlook. But there are a few individuals, namely new Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert and his new ownership group, who would have to disagree with the power forward.

Gooden is one aspect of the Wine and Gold who ain’t broke. A bad hip, suffered in the fourth-to-last game against Washington, took some wind out of Drew’s late-season surge. Gooden still managed to lead the Cavaliers in rebounding and finish third in scoring. And for a player who came into a rough situation and battled adversity all season long, Gooden’s solid performance last season was certainly one of the Cavaliers’ bright spots.

“We have pieces here we can build on; the pieces are here,” said Gooden. “I guess I had a good season. But I know I could have done a lot better.”

Gooden, LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas formed a formidable front court, but it wasn’t enough. The Cavaliers – who took 30 wins into the All-Star break for the first time in seven years – failed to qualify for the postseason for the same amount of time. When the final buzzer sounded on the season and the smoke cleared, the main thing the 2004-05 club had were question marks.

Now, the Cavaliers, and specifically their new GM, will answer those question marks with shrewd moves and dollar signs. The Cavaliers have holes to fill if they want to return to the promised land of the NBA’s second season, and they will have plenty of bread to fill those holes. Depending on the resolution of the Ilgauskas situation (Big Z is an unrestricted free agent) the Cavaliers could have between $20-25 million in cap space to throw at potential players.

“We’re going to be players in the free agent market,” said Gilbert. “We have a lot of cap space and we have a lot of opportunity.”

But that’s not to say that Cleveland won’t make a big splash in other ways. And it also doesn’t mean that there aren’t solid pieces already in place.

The Cavaliers don’t have any picks in the 2005 Draft. The best way to mitigate that loss is to consider – in a skewed sort of way – Sasha Pavlovic as this year’s first round choice and Anderson Varejao as the second choice. To further extend this thought pattern, Luke Jackson, last year’s No. 1 who played very little before requiring back surgery, can be viewed as another pick this season.

(And they call the other guy “The Optimist.”)

The Tony Battie-Drew Gooden trade is what cost this year’s second-rounder. The Cavaliers’ acquisition of Sasha via a trade during last year’s Expansion Draft is where the No. 1 went. (The deal is actually part of the three-team deal that sent Wes Person to Memphis what seems like many moons ago.)

Aside from LeBron James spectacular sophomore season, these three youngsters are most definitely the Silver Lining to last season. They’re almost like the three characters Dorothy encounters on her way to see the Wizard of Oz. All three are one simple piece away from achieving NBA success: Luke needs a healthy back, Sasha needs confidence and Anderson needs a little touch from the free throw stripe.

Anderson Varejao was more than just a crowd favorite for the Cavaliers this season.
David Liam Kyle
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All three showed glimmers of greatness this season. Anderson was easily the crowd favorite at the Gund and only an ankle injury suffered against Washington in late December could temporarily derail the Brazilian Express. Sasha made steady improvement throughout the season. He made a nice late run that indicated the three-point shooter Cleveland has been sorely lacking might be right in its backyard. Luke was impressive in the preseason, but it was obvious early-on that the former No. 10 pick overall was not operating at 100%.

The Wild Thing will celebrate his 23rd birthday in September. At the start of the NBA season, Luke Jackson will turn 24 (Nov. 6) and Pavlovic will be a mere 22 years of age nine days later. And did I mention that MVP candidate LeBron James doesn’t turn twenty-one (I like to spell it out for emphasis) until December 30?

You could see James’ confidence growing in both Varejao and Sasha in the season’s final eight days.

So before the Cavaliers even begin their free agent search, they have a young nucleus that only lacks experience. Even a casual observer can tell that the talent is already there.

That same casual observer could also tell you that not all of the Cavaliers veterans will be back next year. It’s a fact of life in the NBA; not everyone makes it from season to season. For certain players, what once seemed like an ideal situation has become an untenable one. Others will simply be seeking greener pastures of their own. Like Robert Frost wrote: “… nothing gold can stay.”

There were veterans who were brought to Cleveland to do a specific job and didn’t. And there were veterans who were brought here who did. As the aforementioned smoke cleared on the 2004-05 season, three veterans emerged as the possible future leaders of this young team.

Of course, the new GM and/or coach could go in another direction, but Eric Snow, Tractor Traylor and Ira Newble distinguished themselves down the stretch. These three players will never be stars. Not here or anywhere. But they fill valuable roles and filled them well as the Cavaliers season came to a close.

Snow was steady all season, and although his scoring was down, he provided stability, defense and leadership. He was the definition of clutch in the final two games when he took over for Jeff McInnis – who was suffering a bout with viral syndrome – to notch double-figures in dimes against Boston (13) and points in Toronto (10). Both wins were not enough to get the Cavaliers into the playoffs.

Ira Newble has been a consistent defensive performer for the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, but suddenly channeled World B. Free in two of the last three ballgames. Like Snow, when it came to crunch time, Newble came up big. He scored a then-season high 19 points in a tough loss to Detroit on the season’s final Sunday and topped that with 20 against Toronto in the bittersweet victory over the Raptors.

Tractor Traylor came up with games of 20 and 22 points in the final two weeks of the season.
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“We were really focused on the playoffs. Ultimately we’re the guys on the court and we’re responsible for getting wins,” said Newble, as the team prepared to leave for the summer. “We have to come out with a better defensive mindset as a team and play as though every game is out last.”

With an injured Ilgauskas nursing a dislocated ring finger, Tractor Traylor had to elevate his game and he did. Traylor fought through a rough patch about three-quarters of the way through the campaign to finish strong, including a monstrous 22-points in only 19 minutes in the finale over Boston at the Gund.

“I’m just happy that I gave us a fighting chance and played hard,” said Tractor. “I think I did a lot of the little things that helped us win basketball games down the stretch, especially the last two and a couple in-between.”

Other veterans, like Lucious Harris, J-Mac, Jiri Welsch and even Double-D, DeSagana Diop had their bright moments. But when push came to shove, the three role players mentioned did what they were paid to do.

The Cavaliers new ownership has vowed to make a big splash in the free agent market and Cleveland is certainly a team with needs.

(Editor’s Note: Because clevelandcavaliers.com is a team site, which is part of the NBA, I can’t mention specific player’s names since they are under contact with their current clubs and may still be playing ball in the postseason. We have, however, compiled a complete list of potential restricted and unrestricted free agents.)

What we can talk about are those needs that the Cavaliers need to address to get to the next level. The Cavaliers improved 18 games in LeBron James’ first season. They improved seven games upon that. That number needs to begin climbing again. Cleveland needs some playmakers added around the young King.

The most popular, and correct, theory is that Cleveland needs a threat from the perimeter. This has been a sore spot for the Wine and Gold for LBJ’s first two campaigns. It’s imperative that the Cavaliers can stretch the defense next season. In the off-season, the new GM will need to find a player who can do that. This will be a backcourt player. Which guard position he will play is the only question.

The Cavaliers also might want to beef up the front line. A veteran big or two might be brought in to shore up the Cavaliers’ defensive front. Too much penetration cost the Cavaliers last season. Cleveland’s new coach and GM will certainly address this going into 2005-06.

There you have it.

As Inspector Clouseau says, “The problem is solvED.” The Cavaliers are close. If LeBron James can possibly make a jump in year three like he did in year two, the sky is the limit for the Wine and Gold. The Cavaliers have the game’s next great superstar, a solid core of young guns, solid veteran role players and a ton of dough for the free agent market.

Add in what Dan Gilbert hopes is a savvy GM and a winning Head Coach and by this time next year, we won’t be recapping the season that was, we’ll be looking the Second Round that will be.