One of the more feeble darts thrown from Cleveland Cavaliers fans to LeBron James this summer is something along the lines of, “We made you.”
Right. Except now that LeBron is gone, the team that won 60-plus games in each of the past two seasons, that went to the ’07 NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, that during the LeBron era put together its first five-year string of consecutive postseason appearances since its ’92-96 run, went from a legit title contender to arguably the worst team in the League the moment LeBron said he was moving to Miami. So who made who again?
Or maybe the Cavs won’t be the worst. The Toronto Raptors were also decimated by one player’s decision to join the powerhouse in Miami, as Chris Bosh‘s departure turned the Raptors — already a Lottery team in 2010 — into a certain cellar-dweller for next season.
So out of Cleveland and Toronto, which team is better as they approach respective rebuilding phases? Or more appropriately, which team is worse?
The Cavs’ best player now is Mo Williams, a one-time All-Star (alternate) who averaged 15.8 points and 5.3 assists per game last season. As a shoot-first point guard, Mo is in some ways a throwback to the Steve Francis/Allen Iverson era, only he relies more on his outside jumper than attacking the rim. In Mo’s last two sans-LeBron seasons — ’07 and ’08 with Milwaukee — his teams went 54-110 overall. That’s when Mo was the second option behind Michael Redd. What happens when he’s the No. 1 option in an improved Eastern Conference?
After Mo, the Cavs feature Antawn Jamison, who was supposed to be the final piece to the championship puzzle before his game got Murdered-at-1600 in the playoffs (11.8 ppg, 42% FG in the Boston series); Anderson Varejao, who is great on a contending team but just another scrap-iron guy on a mediocre team; J.J. Hickson, who has talent and potential but isn’t ready for a starring role yet; and other expendables like Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker, Ramon Sessions, Boobie Gibson and Ryan Hollins, who could disappear from the NBA tomorrow and few would notice. Cleveland’s coach, Byron Scott, has yet to prove he can win without an All-World point guard (Jason Kidd, Chris Paul), and after owner Dan Gilbert showed his ass in the LeBron aftermath, it’s only going to be tougher to convince top free agents to choose Cleveland.
The best thing the Cavs have going for them is (maybe) a chip on their shoulder. With everybody writing them off, the survivors from the LeBron regime may be inspired to prove they’re more than just faceless sidekicks. The Chicago Bulls were in a similar spot when Michael Jordan first retired in ’93, and turned that motivation into an Eastern Conference semifinals run. However, that Chicago team still had Scottie Pippen. The Cavs have Samardo Samuels.
Then there’s the Raptors. With Bosh and his 24 points and 10 rebounds per game out of the picture, the leading returning scorer/rebounder is Andrea Bargnani (17.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg). The top overall pick in the ’06 draft is making good progress in the League and has shown glimpses of his next-Dirk ceiling, but is he ready to be The Man for the Raptors?
Bargnani is the most talented player on the team, but the emotional leader will be Jarrett Jack (11.4 ppg, 5.0 apg), who emerged last season as Jose Calderon‘s backup but should have the starting job by this season’s Opening Night.
The Raps have built a young, athletic, promising roster headlined by DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Sonny Weems, Ed Davis, Leandro Barbosa and Julian Wright. They should be exciting to watch, but their inexperience will cost them a lot of close games and will test their resolve later in the season when the losses pile up.
The franchise’s biggest problems in recent years have been interior defense, rebounding and toughness, which wasn’t really addressed in the offseason. Trade pickup David Andersen is another perimeter-based 7-footer like Bargnani, and while Joey Dorsey and Reggie Evans are grimy in the paint, they’re not skilled enough to play a lot of minutes on a good NBA team. Lottery pick Ed Davis has Bosh-like potential at power forward, but he’s also a slender finesse-type more than a banger. And second-round draft pick Solomon Alabi can develop into a quality shot-blocker, but he’s probably a couple of years away.
Like the Cavs, it will be tough for Toronto to draw elite free agents. Last year’s offseason prize-turned-bust, Hedo Turkoglu, said in an interview this summer, “People have to realize something is wrong with that organization and nobody wants to go there any more. It’s not just the players who see this.” Raptors’ apologists were quick to disregard Hedo’s comments, but history speaks for itself: Top free agents rarely even consider the Raptors, let alone sign on the dotted line.
So who will be worse this season? While the Cavs have more experience and battle-tested vets, the Raptors have a more youthful We-don’t-know-any-better mentality and fresh legs. And although the Cavs have farther to fall from their perch as the top seed in the East, the Raptors have at least some experience playing without Bosh due to his more common injuries. The Raps have shown to be OK sometimes without Bosh; when the Cavs didn’t have LeBron, they were always bad. Toronto added some decent talent this summer to compensate for losing their superstar; Cleveland’s top addition was Ramon Sessions. I also get the feeling that this is a throwaway season in Cleveland, and they’re mainly hoping to land another superstar in the 2011 Lottery.
So I’d go with Cleveland as the worse of the two for now. Fire up League Pass…