The Disappointment Zone

Musings from a Cleveland sports fan

Cavaliers roster analysis: Part III: Small Forwards

Posted by disappointmentzone on 16 September 2006

The first two installments of my analysis of the Cavaliers’ roster—point guards and shooting guards—have been quite detailed. There are two primary reasons why. First, neither of the positions is particularly stable. Eric Snow and Larry Hughes will begin the season as the starting point guard and shooting guard, respectively, but Snow could very well lose his job and Hughes could very well hurt himself. There is also a slew of players who could potentially step in should one of these players get hurt or not perform, which is the second reason: there are a lot of players to consider.

Not so with the small forwards. Not only is the list of players short—LeBron James, Luke Jackson—but there is no question about either who will start or who should start. What happens if James hurts himself? Assuming Jackson isn’t hurt, he could get a shot at playing. But there isn’t much one can say about Jackson that can be supported statistically. Last season he only played 320 minutes. That’s not much of a sample. How well did Jackson do when he did play? Not well. His Win Score per minute was a lowly .041, well below average for a small forward. If Jackson has to step in for James then the team will be at a huge disadvantage.

Why?

Because James is a really good player. There isn’t much more to say than that. His excellence renders any attempt at in-depth analysis an exercise in restating the obvious over and over again. I could throw a bunch of statistics at you—his Win Score per minute was .259—but what’s the point? If you think James is a very good basketball player you are justified in thinking so. If you don’t think James is a very good basketball player…then watch more basketball. James is objectively good; a rare quality. Some players appear to be far more productive than they actually are because they score a lot of points. Allen Iverson often falls in this camp. LeBron James is not one of those players. Not only does he score, but he rebounds well and he dishes out assists better than your average player (better than anyone else on the team, in fact). The only area in which he is average (besides free throw shooting) is defense, although he made significant improvements on defense as the 2005-06 season progressed. In his first few seasons he was somewhere between “terrible” and “below average” on defense, so if he’s able to sustain the rate of improvement from last season over the next few years, then he should be an above-average defender in about two years and one of the best in about four. I have no doubt that he is capable of being one of the best defenders in the league. Whether or not he turns into a great defender depends largely on him.

So that’s LeBron James, and that’s the small forwards. Kind of a letdown, isn’t it? Unrivaled excellence is boring like that. Before getting to the Wins Produced, a few words on how Mike Brown ought to use James.

LeBron James should run the offense in the fourth quarter of close games, and by “offense” I mean “whatever it is LeBron James does”. Don’t run plays. Let James improvise within the larger structure of an organized offensive system. That’s a strategy that will work more often than it’ll fail. That’s what the Cavs did last season.

In the first three quarters how James is used should be dictated by what player(s) is guarding him. If it’s a small forward, then James should be working in the post. If it’s a power forward, then James should be running around on the perimeter. Under no circumstance should James be the primary ball handler. James is not good at initiating an offense, which is partly his fault and partly the fault of the other players. When James brings the ball up the court or when he’s given the ball early in the shot clock out near mid-court, he often dribbles around until the shot clock runs down, and then does something in the final five seconds. This happened countless times last season. LeBron James with the ball in his hands is not the same as Steve Nash with the ball in his hands. If James doesn’t take the shot then he usually kicks the ball out to a guy behind the three-point line or dishes it off to a big man for a close shot. In both cases a lot of pressure is on the guy who receives the ball to score since there usually isn’t much time left on the shot clock. James doesn’t initiate the offense—it starts and ends with James. Stagnant is the word that comes to mind. Not only is this not the way to maximize the defensive mismatch of whoever guards James (there is no one who cannot be exploited by James; everyone’s a mismatch), but it’s not the way to maximize the productivity of the other players on the court. Donyell Marshall is probably the only person for whom this sort of strategy is good. I’m not saying that James is incapable of initiating an offense. I think he could. But then he’d be sacrificing a lot of what makes him such a great player.

Also, he needs to stop shooting free throws as though he were Karl Malone, which is to say: James needs to stop falling away on his free throws. Why he does this is beyond me. Does he think the ref is going to try to block his shot? Shooting is difficult. Shooting while falling away from the basket is even tougher. Stand still, LeBron. Also, on his free throws he follows the trajectory of the ball with his eyes and occasionally his head. He needs to look at the rim at least until the ball is out of his hands, if not a few moments after that. In fact, when I see James make a free throw I’m much more surprised than when I see him miss. His form isn’t terrible, but he does all of the small things poorly. How he can be a professional basketball and still have these easily correctable deficiencies is startling.

This last point about free throw shooting my seem like picking nits—and to some extent it is—but in light of the fact that he has the ball in his hands most of the time in close games, not being able to shoot free throws is important.

Without further ado, the Wins Produced of the small forwards:

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WHAT WE’LL SEE NEXT SEASON: LeBron James will continue to be LeBron James, which is to say that he’ll continue to be one of the three best players in the league. His minutes will drop but his productivity will increase. I expect that his WP48 will increase slightly and perhaps even his WP, although WP will depend on how judicious Mike Brown is with LeBron’s minutes. Luke Jackson will not play much and could very well be traded unless he proves that he can shoot consistently. Without a decent backup for James trading Jackson would be difficult, but certainly not impossible.

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