By Steve Kerr, Yahoo! Sports
November 23, 2005
For Danny Ferry, the most promising aspect of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 9-2 start is what they have not been doing.
"We're still trying to figure out what we're doing at the defensive end," the rookie general manager said. "We're getting great effort, but we're just getting to know each other. We're going to get a lot better."
What's intriguing for Ferry is that the team he assembled around LeBron James in the offseason is already very good, especially offensively. The Cavaliers are averaging better than 105 points per game thanks to the stellar play of James and a much-improved supporting cast.
When Ferry took over the team last summer, his goal was to ease the pressure on James by adding shooters and another dynamic playmaker. The shooting came in the form of Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall – both are capable of stretching the defense – while the playmaking has come from Larry Hughes, whose ability to handle the ball and create offense has taken some of the burden off James.
Before, James felt like he had to make every play. Now he can pick and choose his spots while trusting his teammates to carry the load at times. The result is that James has become a much more efficient player. He's shooting 52.6 percent from the floor – over seven percentage points higher than his career average (45.1) – and his turnovers (2.8 per game) are way down.
The Cavaliers are also getting excellent play from center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a low-post force that they can run their offense through. Ilgauskas is scoring 14 points a night and has combined with Drew Gooden and Marshall to make Cleveland the best rebounding team in the East.
Of course, it's early, and Ferry knows that his team's schedule has been relatively easy to this point. The Cavaliers will be tested this week, traveling to Indianapolis to take on the Pacers on Thanksgiving night before facing Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves at home on Saturday.
Ultimately, Cleveland's ability to stop teams at the defensive end will determine how far it can go. First-year coach Mike Brown is a defensive-minded, Gregg-Popovich disciple, and his goal is to bring the team's field-goal percentage defense down to the low 40s, which would be Spurs-like.
Currently, the Cavs are giving up 95 points per game and allowing opponents to shoot 46 percent, but with the ball-hawking abilities of James, Hughes and Eric Snow and a lot of length on the front line, there's no reason why the Cavaliers can't become an excellent defensive club. But they need more time to develop confidence in the system and more trust in each other.
If they do, watch out. The Cavaliers could be on the verge of becoming an elite NBA team with a chance to win a title.