Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Trade

So, I've been holding off on posting about the Cavs trade. I know it was a blockbuster, and I had a very strong and visceral reaction to it. But I wanted to wait before writing something, because I needed to see something very important: how the Cavs reacted in their first game with their new team.

This isn't because I wanted to engage in post-hoc reasoning or panic if the team looked terrible. What I was looking for was what the Cavs had last year -- swagger.

Last year (as with this year), everyone bagged on the Cavs. A one man team, some said. Too one-dimensional, others said. Too many mismatched pieces. Too many bad contracts. All of these things were true, but what made the Cavs so tough to play -- and what contributed to their rise more than a favorable schedule or underacheiving opponents was that they had swagger. They knew they could beat you, and they weren't afraid of anyone. And they genuinely loved playing with each other. That's why LeBron got right in Mikki Moore's face when he took down Sasha. That's why LeBron passed up that shot at the end of G1 against the Pistons even though everyone knew what was going to happen. They played like a lunch pail team on defense, and had just enough offense to keep it going.

This year, that swagger had been missing. LeBron was dominating, angry over the criticism he received from the Spurs series and furious that the Spurs got to celebrate on his home floor. But Larry looked as mismatched as ever; never quite sure what to do on a team with the most singularly talented player since Jordan. His shot selection was off, and he didn't quite look like he was sure what he was doing out there. Varejao and Pavlovic, who definitely aren't worth the money they wanted, were nonetheless important and their absence cost the team dearly (note how good the Cavs were in the few games they actually did play before getting injured). Drew Gooden looked as confused and frustrated as ever; confused because he has a pretty damn low basketball IQ; frustrated because Andy Varejao came back from a long holdout and immediately got more PT. The team lost is swagger, and they started losing games.

So that's why I wanted to wait until I saw the Cavs post-trade, to see if the trade and the new blood gave them back the swagger. And it did. Even in the first game, with an NBDL player chucking up 11 threes, and Damon Jones AND Eric Snow starting, the Cavs looked like they were having fun. Damon and LeBron were smiling and laughing throughout the game because they knew they could win. And they did win a game that they had no business winning (unless you have the best player in the game).

And then came Sunday. Sure, the Grizzlies suck. They've made some bad trades and have no direction. But the Cavs looked phenomenal. Tons of raw talent out there. Delonte West missed some shots, but but had six assists and looked to push the ball out every time it was in his hands (what a crazy idea with the best transition player in the game!) Keep in mind that our previous point was Larry Hughes, that his season high was six assists, that 2-12 shooting nights from Larry were commonplace, but that even he never looked to lead the break all the time. West is going to be a good fit with LeBron.

Joe Smith looked like he knew what he was doing -- his spacing was on point, he hit some good midrange jumpers, and he played decent defense. So basically, he was a smarter Drew Gooden. Wally looked inconsistent -- a bit unsure of where to go. My friend pointed out that KG can tell you what Wally as a second option looks like, and it's not pretty. But Wally looks excited to be in Cleveland, and he's a consistent shooter, which is all the Cavs will need him to do He's certainly a better shooter than the Donyell Marshall/Ira Newble tandem, though not as good of a defender.

And Wallace looked like a kid in the candy store. He was able to focus on defense and throw down some nice power dunks, which is all he will have to do. He made hustle plays, and he will make teams think twice about raking over LeBron every time he goes to the hole. If you don't think he's an improvement over Cedric Simmons, Drew Gooden (who missed a ton of easy dunks throughout his time), and the other big men we gave up, I don't know what to tell you.

At every position the Cavs traded a player from, they got a better player in return. That's why this was a good trade on paper. But it goes deeper -- throughout the game, the Cavs made swagger plays. Wallace's power dunk off an nice entry pass by Delonte. LeBron finishing strong on a perfect alley-oop pass by Delonte. Wally making things happen from the inside and the outside. Joe Smith looking like a midrange assassin. The Cavs won't always play consistently, and they will have growing pains together. But they now have swagger, to go along with one of the deepest front lines in the league. And LeBron looks content -- knowing that even if this doesn't work out, the cavs have a bunch of fat contracts and draft picks to trade this offseason for a Michael Redd, perhaps.

And the Cavs' biggest sixth man -- the fans -- were fired up. So intense and excited during the Washington win, and on the edge of their seats during the Memphis game. It was just like last year against the Pistons. People could not have been more excited. It was good to be a basketball fan in Cleveland.

We may not beat Detroit -- they look like a machine right now. We may struggle against the Celtics. And even if we win, the West is a beast. I'd love to play the Lakers for the Armageddon finals against Jordan and Justin, but we'd probably lose.

But at least it's good to be a Cavs fan. The waiting and hedging by Ferry is over. Which is why I'll now tell you what my reaction to the trade was. After spending the previous two hours madly refreshing ESPN.com, I raised my hands in the air and yelled. They may not be pretty, and they may not be good. But the swagger is back.

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