By: Bill Ingram
The NBA's Eastern Conference used to be the whipping boys of the league. Beyond
the top two or three teams, the Eastern Conference used to be the place
Western Conference teams went to get a quick break from playing their
grueling Western rivals.
Not any more.
The East was noticeably tougher last season, but offseason moves that brought Elton Brand to the 76ers, Jermaine O'Neal to the Raptors, and now Allen Iverson to the Detroit Pistons have made the East almost as tough as the West.
Fortunately, the Cavs made a move of their own, bringing in point guard Mo Williams to help carry some of the scoring load.
"I think the pieces are in place here," says head coach Mike Brown. "I really like this team. Once we're where I think we need to be we'll have a good chance. I'm looking forward to it. It's not going to happen right away, but I always take things one game, one practice, one day at a time. If we take that to heart then come playoff time we'll be ready to go."
"We have some very nice pieces," agrees LeBron James. "I think with Mo Williams and the veterans guys in Ben Wallace and Z (Ilgauskas). . . .Daniel (Gibson) has gotten better every year, and Delonte (West) is a very good piece . . and Andy (Varejao). We have some depth, and then you're always going to have a chance as long as I'm in uniform. We're always going to be a team that you have to worry about."
One thing you'll notice as you take in a Cavaliers game this season is that this is no longer the LeBron James show. Sure, LeBron's going to be called upon to make big plays at big times, but much like the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant, the Cavaliers have tried to surround LeBron with enough quality pieces that he won't have to carry the team for 48 minutes every night.
"With a guy of his capability, his role is whatever he wants to make it for the day," says Delonte West, smiling. "If he wants to go and get 50, that's just what he decides to do. The biggest think is just for the guys around him to take advantage of opportunities, play solid basketball, and put him in the best position to close the game out for us."
"That's basically the way this team was built," agrees Daniel Gibson. "You have guys that on any given night can come out and perform well and take some of the pressure off of him so he doesn't have to carry us every night. He'll have his nights where he goes off for those 30's and 40's, but I don't think he feels like he has to do that with the guys we have on this team."
"When you have more options on your team you don't have to score as much," says LeBron. "On this team I don't think I have to worry about going out and scoring 30 and putting up a lot of shots. I've never been a guy to go out and put up a lot of shots, but I don't have to score 30 every night on this team. My ideal stat line is 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists."
"I just think everybody has to be able to play like they're capable of playing," adds Mike Brown. "The two games we lost on the road to a very good Boston team and a very good New Orleans team, I was OK with our defense and I was OK with our offense for the most part. We had some turnovers where guys were cutting and the pass was a little late or a little early or something like that. If we cut our turnovers down, I think we have not just a decent chance to win - I thought we had a decent chance anyway, considering our turnovers - but I think we have a real good chance to win it all. That's a fixable problem. AS we go along, when we get it fixed, we should - knock on wood (knocks on his own head) - we should be a tough team."
Not only do the Cavaliers expect to be a "tough" team, they expect to be a championship team. Yes, even with the Boston Celtics looking to repeat and the improvements made across the Eastern Conference . . . not to mention the improved LA Lakers, Houston Rockets, and New Orleans Hornets . . .the Cavaliers believe they have the pieces in place to win a championship this season.
"We're still contenders, without a doubt," agrees Gibson. "We still have LeBron James, and when you have him on your team you're capable of playing with and beating anybody. I think as a team we have the right group, the right pieces to be competitive and win a title."
"There's no question we're a championship team," says West. "It's still early and there are a lot of teams in the East that have improved, and I think there will be a lot of surprise teams this year, but the first step to winning a championship and that's what we're doing here. We're not looking any further than tonight's game. We have to take it - really - one day at a time."
"We're still trying to make some adjustments, having a new point guard and having a new offensive system," admits LeBron. "Our defense has been great. That's one thing we're not worries about. Offensively we just have to try to limit the unforced turnovers and execute what we need to do on the offensive end. It's early, but we're going to get it together."
There's no question they'll get it together, The only question is, once they get it together are the best team in the NBA? Fortunately, the Cavaliers have about six months and around 80 games to go before they have to start seriously answering that question. For now, it's enough for them to know that they're looking more and more like a team with each passing game.