Cavs/Magic Preview

It’s always funny to hear pundits say that one team can’t beat another in a seven-game series. In most cases, those teams can spring the upset, but that doesn’t mean that they will. Such is the case in the Eastern Conference Finals where the Orlando Magic will try to upend the Cleveland Cavaliers.

No team has been more impressive in the postseason than the Cavs. They swept both the Pistons and the Hawks, and seem destined for the Finals. They have the best player in the league in LeBron James, a sharpshooting sidekick in Mo Williams and a host of players willing to fill their respective roles. Simply stated, they look unstoppable right now.

Conversely, the Magic struggled at times in their seven-game series against the Celtics, though that might have more to do with Boston’s defense and championship pedigree than anything the Magic were doing wrong. This Cavs/Magic series would be a lot more interesting if Jameer Nelson were healthy, but Rafer Alston has been a decent stopgap at point guard, and Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis are proving to be nice complements for big man Dwight Howard. The Magic are built like the Rockets were in the Hakeem Olajuwon era in that they have a center that demands a double team and have surrounded him with a number of players who can make teams pay from the perimeter. The problem is that Howard isn’t nearly the passer or the free throw shooter that Olajuwon was, so he’s not a great option in crunch time. The Magic have a tendency to fall in love with the long ball and don’t have a guy who can get to the rim on a consistent basis. But if Orlando is knocking down their threes (as they were in Game 7 of the Boston series), they’re nearly unstoppable.

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The Conference Finals: The four trades that got us here

We’re down to four teams…Cavs/Magic…Lakers/Nuggets…

What do they have in common? Star power, efficient offense, pretty solid defense, good coaching…check, check, check and check.

But how about an aggressive front office?

Each of these four teams made a major trade in the last two years.

July 11, 2007: The Magic sign Rashard Lewis
This was a sign-and-trade, not a straight free agent signing, but the Magic only had to give up a conditional second round pick. The upside for the then-Seattle Supersonics was a trade exception worth $9 million. The contract (six years, $110 million) seemed outlandish at the time, and Lewis is still overpaid, but the Magic did what they had to do to get him. He’s a great fit for what Orlando is trying to do. They are built like the Rockets were in the Hakeem Olajuwon era — find a big man who commands a double-team, and surround him with great shooters. Lewis is the Magic’s version of Robert Horry in that he’s a lanky, versatile, sharpshooting big man. Strength-wise, he’s not built like a typical power forward, but since the NBA has gotten smaller and quicker over the past few years, he can get by against most teams. Offensively, he creates all sorts of problems for opposing power forwards as he can drill the long ball (career 39% from 3PT) or take it to the rack. He’s also pretty good in the post when teams try to defend him with a smaller player.

Sure, the Magic overpaid on that contract, but I think it’s safe to say that if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be in the Eastern Conference Finals right now. Lewis is a big, big part of Orlando’s recent success. GM Otis Smith deserves a lot of credit for having the cojones to pull the trigger on this deal.

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What kind of point guard is he?

We hear it all the time. NBA analysts call one point guard “pass-first” and another “shoot-first.” Or they say one guy is “turnover-prone” while another “takes care of the ball.” But really, what makes a player a “pass-first” point guard? How carefree must he be with the ball to be considered “turnover-prone”?

Taking an analytical approach to these questions, I decided to bust out an Excel spreadsheet and try to come up with some answers. Below you’ll see a graph that attempts to classify the top point guards in the league. But first, a little background…

I chose to categorize each player based on two stats. First, to determine if he’s “shoot-first” or “pass-first,” I calculated the shot-to-assist ratio for each player. The bigger the number, the more of a “shoot-first” mentality the player has. Second, to determine whether or not a player is “turnover-prone,” I calculated each player’s assist-to-turnover ratio. I thought about using turnovers per 48 minutes, but I like the idea of including assists so that playmakers are rewarded for the positive as well as the negative. Next, I calculated each player’s Efficiency Per Minute (EPM) to see if there is any correlation between these other statistics and the overall efficiency of the player in question.

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Cavs, Nuggets cruise

The one-two punch of LeBron James and Mo Williams provided 55 of Cleveland’s 99 points as the Cavs routed the Hawks, 99-72. LeBron had an MVP-like performance with 34 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and four steals. The Hawks have the talent to compete in this series, but they didn’t play very well against the Heat in the first round and that trend continued in the second half, where they were outscored 50-28. The Cavs’ defense forced 17 turnovers and held Atlanta to under 44% shooting.

In the late game, the Nuggets continued their march to the conference finals with a 117-105 win over the Mavs. Denver led by three heading into the fourth quarter, but a 9-0 run (including seven points from Carmelo Anthony) put Dallas in a bad spot. The Nuggets were up 19 with 2:50 to play, so the game wasn’t quite as close as the final score would indicate. Dirk Nowitzki did everything he could — 34 points, nine boards, four assists — but the Mavs were without Josh Howard (ankle) and were simply overmatched. The Nuggets had a balanced attack of Anthony (25 points), Nene (25), J.R. Smith (21), Chauncey Billups (18) and Kenyon Martin (12).

Smith in particular is an interesting player. He has a ton of scoring ability, but every so often he makes a bonehead play. I didn’t watch much of this game, but in the 10 minutes or so I did watch, Smith came over to help on Nowitzki at the top of the key and then suddenly left him — Dirk had the ball, mind you — to go cover J.J. Barea (or was it Antoine Wright?). Regardless, you don’t leave one of the league’s best scorers alone at the top of the key with the ball. Then, on the final play of the second quarter, he dribbled the ball around trying to wind the clock down, but then launched a 30-footer with five or six seconds to play. The long rebound bounced out to Jason Kidd, who had enough time to dribble to the other end of the court and get a good look at a three, which he made, cutting the Nuggets’ halftime lead to three.

But I guess when a guy is capable of scoring 21 points on just 10 shots in 25 minutes, you live with the occasional bonehead play.

Lakers beat Cavs in impressive fashion

The Cavs were up 61-51 at halftime, but a 22-8 run to start the third quarter put the Lakers in control of the game, and they went on to win, 101-91. That run included an 11-0 spurt at the start of the quarter, and Mike Brown failed to call a timeout to stop the bleeding. After all, the Cavs are still a young team, so they are not as adept at playing through adversity as, say, the Celtics, Spurs or even the Lakers. I kept waiting for Brown to call a timeout but it never happened, and in many ways, that shift of momentum at the beginning of the second half was the difference in the game.

But it didn’t help that LeBron James shot 5 of 20 from the field. He had a near triple-double (16 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds) but he’d be the first to admit that he didn’t play very well. It’s not often that the Cavs get 57 combined points from Mo Williams, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Wally Szczerbiak and still find a way to lose, but they did just that today.

After the loss of Andrew Bynum for 8-12 weeks, the Lakers have to feel great about completing this five-game road trip with consecutive wins against the Celtics and Cavs. Kobe was apparently battling the flu, but still managed to outscore LeBron (with 19 points) and hit a crucial rainbow jumper with just 2:48 remaining to put the Lakers up six. Lamar Odom (28 points, 17 rebounds) continues to play big basketball in Bynum’s absence, and is doing wonders for the contract that he’ll be signing this summer as a free agent.

So with a 1-3 combined record against the Celtics and Lakers, do the Cavs make a move with Szczerbiak’s expiring contract or do they stand pat and hope for the best? I think they have to do everything they can to win a title (or at least get to the Finals this year) if they hope to keep LeBron next summer, but clearly they have to hold out for a deal that has a great chance to make them better. I think they could package Szczerbiak with Hickson (and maybe a first round pick or two) and get themselves an impact big like Jermaine O’Neal.

Is that worth the risk? Well, O’Neal had 22 points, nine boards and nine blocks in a recent loss against the Lakers and his contract expires in 2010, so it wouldn’t affect the team’s cap flexibility in the long term.

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