December 22, 2014

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10 questions for the season: Do the Cavs have the answers?


1. Can James duplicate his MVP-winning performance of a season ago?

As hard as it may be to believe, James is only 24 years old and still improving, so he’ll be an MVP candidate every season for the foreseeable future.

With O’Neal in the middle, the small forward’s scoring average may drop a bit from the 28.4 points he averaged a season ago, but his assists (7.2) should go up. Toss in the 7.6 rebounds James averaged in 2008-09 and he will once again be among the favorites to win the league’s highest individual honor.

The bigger question is whether James can continue his remarkable run of good health. He played in every game a year ago until sitting out the season finale to rest for the playoffs, a remarkable feat for an athlete who plays so high above the rim.

2. Will O’Neal be a dominant force down low at both ends of the court?

At 37, Shaq Daddy is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $20 million this season. The 7-foot-1, 325-pounder wants to play for two more years after this season, so the motivation is certainly there.

Playing with James, the focal point of every opposing team’s defense, will help O’Neal, as will having proven 3-point shooters like Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anthony Parker and Daniel Gibson.

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One thing to remember: O’Neal put up good numbers in Phoenix last season (17.8 points, 8.4 rebounds), but they didn’t translate into a ton of team success for the Suns.

Also, O’Neal has never been a great defensive player, especially when he has to come away from the basket. However, his size should allow him to play one-on-one down low against the league’s most dominant big men (read: Orlando’s Dwight Howard).

Having said all that, what O’Neal does during the regular season will be relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, as his true value won’t be determined until the playoffs. With that in mind, the Cavaliers might sit the big fellow from time to time in the regular season in order to keep him fresh for what they hope is a long postseason run.

3. Can Mike Brown design an offense to capitalize on O’Neal’s inside strength?

The Cleveland offense ran much more efficiently last season with Williams at the point and West at shooting guard, but John Kuester, the assistant who pretty much ran things at that end of the court, is now the head coach in Detroit.

Brown did not have a legitimate low-post scoring threat in his first four years in Cleveland, so he’ll have to make sure O’Neal gets his share of touches. At the same time, James is the best player in the game and Williams is a genuine threat, so they will also need the ball.

Keeping all three happy could be a challenge, but a lot of wins will make things easier.

4. Will the locker room — and the playing floor — be big enough for James, O’Neal and Williams?

This will be up to the three All-Stars. If they want to co-exist — and all seem to want to — there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to form a terrific threesome.

The Cavaliers, however, will have to work extra hard at maintaining their focus on the road, where larger-than-life figures James and O’Neal will be like traveling rock stars.

5. Who will start at shooting guard?

Until his recent arrest for carrying weapons while on his motorcycle, West was probably a slight favorite. Now, with West’s court date not scheduled until Nov. 20 — the regular season begins Oct. 27, or 12 games before anything will be resolved — it could end up being free-agent signee Parker.

If West is found guilty, he faces, at worst, jail time and, at best, an NBA-mandated suspension. How long that suspension will be is anyone’s guess, but it will likely be at least five games and perhaps significantly longer.

Parker was a viable option before West’s run-in with the law — at 6-6, he would give the Cavaliers some much-needed size in the backcourt, and starting him would allow West to play both guard spots off the bench — so putting him in the lineup from the get-go might make even more sense now.

6. How will Zydrunas Ilgauskas play off the bench?

The easy answer is this: exactly the same way he played as a starter. Big Z will make shots, get a few tip-ins and do his best defensively.

Do not, however, fall into the trap of thinking Ilgauskas will dominate against second-string centers. At this stage of his career, the 7-3, 260-pounder rarely scores in the low post against anyone. He’s still a capable scorer from the perimeter, but that is largely a result of teams paying so much attention to James.

7. Who will be the backup at power forward?

If Leon Powe can make it back from serious knee surgeries soon after the All-Star break and be anywhere near his former self, the Cavaliers will have the steal of free agency.

If this proves to be a lost season for Powe, the Cavaliers will need a second-year player — J.J. Hickson or Darnell Jackson — to greatly improve from last season. If that doesn’t happen, James will play a lot of power forward behind starter Anderson Varejao.

8. Will the Cavaliers have the same chemistry they had a season ago?

It’s not often a team wins 66 games in one season, then has three new faces — O’Neal, Parker and swingman Jamario Moon — among its top nine players the next.

Cleveland is definitely bigger and more athletic — the above three players certainly represent an improvement from Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak — but duplicating its regular-season magic of a year ago will be tough.

9. How many regular-season games will the Cavaliers win?

We all know Cleveland won 66 a year ago and went 39-2 at Quicken Loans Arena, but in the end it didn’t matter. The team didn’t even reach the NBA Finals, let alone win a title, so all that went for naught.

Home-court advantage in the playoffs is definitely important, but learning to play together, constantly improving, peaking at the right time and being healthy in the postseason are even more vital.

It’s highly unlikely the Cavaliers will match their win total of a year ago, but, again, whether they’ve had a successful season will be determined in the playoffs.

10. Is this the season a Cleveland pro sports team will finally win a title?

It could be. Stay tuned.

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rickn@ohio.net.