Conventional thinking proposes that a team needs three All-Star level players to be a legitimate title contender. Whether we look at last year's Boston Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen), the recent San Antonio Spurs teams (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker), or Larry Brown's Detroit Pistons (Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace), the evidence seems to indicate that a team needs a core group of stars around which to build a championship team.
Even the recent exception to that rule--the Miami Heat in 2006--had Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal (albeit a watered down version of Shaq) and former All-Star Antoine Walker.
It seems, at least on the surface, to be unlikely that a one-star team like the Cleveland Cavaliers can really challenge for the 2009 title. In fact, we have gone down this path before. The Cavs attempted to buck history in 2007, but were rebuffed and swept by the eventual champion Spurs.
We have to look back to 2001 to see an example of another team even reaching the Finals with one star. The Philadelphia 76ers (with Allen Iverson) rose up out of the weak Eastern Conference but were dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers in The Finals.
With all that said, do LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers truly have a chance to win it all with their team as presently constituted? Or, more to the point, is James good enough to put this team on his back and carry them to a championship?
The Cavaliers receive nearly one third of their points per game from LeBron. However, if we take the group as a whole, they are not all that dissimilar from the rest of the league's title contenders. In fact, the two top contenders have a lot in common with the Cavs. The Los Angeles Lakers have eight players averaging six points or more and four players in double figures for scoring. The Boston Celtics, likewise, have eight players averaging six or more points, with three of them scoring in double figures each night. The Cavaliers have seven players scoring at least six points per game, with four in double figures.
In terms of point differential so far this year, Cleveland ranks second in the league, behind only Los Angeles, and ahead of Boston (and 27 other teams).
Los Angeles Lakers: +13.5
Cleveland Cavaliers: +8.2
Boston Celtics: +6.7
Orlando Magic: +5.2
(Stats through November 22)
This early in the season, it would not be wise to put too much faith into these statistics, as they will undoubtedly normalize over the course of the season. However, the early success of the Cavaliers is hard to ignore, and at least gives us a reason to continue the inquiry.
(By the way, it is also interesting to note that while the Lakers are ahead in terms of point differential by a wide margin, the rest of the teams in the top four above are from the Eastern Conference. Perhaps the East has finally made up some ground on the West?)
These stats also seem to keep the Cavs in the discussion if they are compared to other recent championship teams.
2008 Boston Celtics: ten players over 6ppg, four in double figures, Point differential of 10.3 (Rank: first)
2007 San Antonio Spurs: seven players over 6ppg, four in double figures, point differential of 8.4 (Rank: first)
2006 Miami Heat: eight players over 6ppg, four in double figures, point differential of 3.9 (Rank: fifth)
This collection of statistics proves nothing except that it is reasonable to have Cleveland in the conversation. However, isn't this the same Cavaliers squad that has seen its offense grind to a halt in each of the last few postseasons, as their dependence on James to bail them out prevents them from reaching the next level?
In the last 12 months, the Cavaliers made changes both to their roster and to their approach that would seem to have given them advantages they previously did not have. While they did not add a second superstar as a sidekick to LeBron James, they have put together a group of role players that is better suited to contribute based on James' skill set. The Cavs now feature a legitimate second scoring option in Mo Williams, a shooter who is very capable of keeping defenses honest. Placing him around a core of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Delonte West, Daniel Gibson, Anderson Varejao and Wally Szczerbiak gives the Cavaliers a balanced group, with Wallace and Varejao as lunch-pail guys, Ilgauskas as a skilled scoring (and shooting) big, and West, Gibson and Szczerbiak as designated shooters. Gone are Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden, good talents who were simply not a fit for what LeBron brings to the table.
The offensive strategy has evolved as well. Running fewer isolations and more passing game, the Cavaliers are taking the ball out of James' hands in order to get him the ball back in a better position. James seems more willing to receive passes in the post and in a position to attack, rather than isolating in a face-up against a pressure defense. There is more movement in what Cleveland is attacking with as well, with back-screen action available and other players willing to step up and make plays rather than defer to King James. This emphasis on the offensive end has placed the Cavaliers at the top of the league in Offensive Efficiency rating (according to Basketball-Reference.com), which is remarkable because, at least in the past, efficiency is not a trait that is often associated with Cleveland.
Part of this freedom comes from what appears to be a more concerted effort to get out on the fast break. Easy transition baskets give everyone confidence, and they help provide Cleveland with the cushion they are seeing in most of their games. While the statistics do not bear out a focus on transition offense (the Cavs are ranked #26 in the league in pace, also according to Basketball-Reference.com), it is hard to watch Cleveland without seeing multiple possessions of a freight train named LeBron racing the ball down the floor.
These fast-break opportunities typically result from a better-than-average defense (as the Cavs have been playing for the last few years). The Cavaliers are seventh in the league in defensive field goal percentage, holding teams to just 43.1% shooting, which yields optimism in northern Ohio that Cleveland could be a home for championship hardware.
If the Cavaliers are to have a chance at winning the 2009 NBA Finals, however, the conversation starts and ends with the performance of LeBron James. As the most uniquely dominant player since Shaquille O'Neal was in his prime, James can transcend whatever weaknesses of talent or strategy the Cavaliers still possess and put the fortunes of his team squarely on his own back. A small forward in a power forward's body with point guard skills, James is singularly gifted enough to win playoff series all on his own.
Provided the Cavaliers do not revert to complete and total dependence on James, forgoing all the progress they have made in attack style and strategy, and assuming no injuries, the Cavaliers have every opportunity to win a championship this year. This is the first time in recent memory that a team has a better than mediocre chance at winning it all with only one superstar--and that says a lot about LeBron James.
James' desire (and ability) to will his team to victory has only grown over the last three years. It is not uncommon to see a comparison between James and Lakers star Kobe Bryant on this score, and while James' killer instinct might not be at Michael Jordan-like levels, it is undoubtedly on that path. The question is not if James will win a title, but when, and that could be as soon as next June.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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