In rolling past the Celtics in the second half last night, the Cavs unveiled something that has become a favorite of many a hardcore basketball fan this season: the small-ball lineup. The fact that LeBron James defies the very concept of position gives Cleveland incredible flexibility in assembling their on-court rotations, and the added versatility of Antawn Jamison gives them more options than ever before.
So maybe, just maybe, it’s not such a bad thing that Shaquille O’Neal might miss a few games with injury.
The terrific Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer argues against the idea (to an extent), claiming that “it is a not a way to play all the time…It is more effective when used
to throw off opponents, especially when they are not prepared for it.” I couldn’t agree more with the latter; teams will almost certainly struggle against the small-ball look if they’re prepared for a more conventional Cavalier lineup. But I don’t think that means it can’t be effective on a full-time basis, especially when, as Windhorst concedes, Anderson Varejao is one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in basketball.
That’s a huge advantage to have, and while having a giant of a center that can get some easy buckets down low is quite the advantage as well, a stretch of small-ball could actually allow the Cavs to improve on their fourth-ranked offense (in points per 100 possessions) without any drop-off in their seventh-ranked defense. There’s no need to worry about whether or not O’Neal will show on the pick and get back to his man in time, because Varejao’s already been there and back.
Rebounding is certainly a concern, but if the frontcourt consists of LeBron James, Antawn Jamison, and Anderson Varejao — two forwards that rebound pretty well relative to their position and a center that’s top-20 in rebounding rate — I don’t think the sacrifice on the boards would be particularly significant. And as an added bonus, the low-maintenance Varejao would be logging major minutes alongside Jamison, allowing Antawn not only the playing time necessary to get acclimated to the new sets and his teammates, but also the touches.
The problem comes in relying too heavily on J.J. Hickson, Jawad Williams, and Darnell Jackson. None of the above is particularly accomplished as a defender or rebounder, and though each brings something to the table (be it energy, shooting, etc.), playing those three for extended minutes could poke some holes in Cleveland’s plan. The real victim of Shaq’s injury is Cleveland’s depth; these three role players could find themselves in more prominent roles over the next few weeks, and though Hickson has been effective this year, that’s not necessarily a great thing for the team.
Not having Shaq in the mix does hurt in terms of establishing consistency heading into the playoffs, but supposing O’Neal’s thumb didn’t just fall off in the middle of the night, small-ball can be a short term fix. And it can be a brutally effective one, if Mike Brown isn’t afraid to let his imagination run wild.