Observation Deck (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday February 6, 2007 5:47PM; Updated: Tuesday February 6, 2007 6:27PM
Eric Snow and Donyell Marshall may be working for what passes for an average NBA salary, but they're on the wrong side of 30 and have rounded into below-average players. Snow, in particular, isn't going anywhere: The Cavs will be paying him until he's 35, and he hasn't averaged more than five points since Cleveland traded for him in 2003, despite playing about 25 minutes a night.
Larry Hughes is the biggest issue here. His defense is sound, if unspectacular (as always, he's more about hawking the ball lanes than shutting down his own man), but the lack of spacing he provides with that on-again/off-again shooting touch is killing Cleveland's offense. Numbers like 14.4 points and 3.1 assists seem passable until you realize that Hughes is playing close to 36 minutes a night, and his ability to clean the glass seems to have diminished. Hughes averaged 6.3 rebounds in 38 minutes two years ago, but that mark is down to 3.5 this season. Guards who rebound can't help but start fast breaks, but Hughes' recent decline heads that idea off at the pass.
And I hate that cliché.
What's worse is the idea that Hughes might stand alone as the worst free-agent acquisition of the last few years. With his injured right hand laying waste to what was an already-dodgy shooting form, he's become a man without a role, trying desperately to contribute with all other offensive options exhausted and the shot clock winding down. Hughes is owed $36.4 million over three seasons after 2006-07, and it's hard to see him justifying about half of that cash. The idea of pairing LeBron with an older, workingman's version of himself seemed crazy enough to work when Cleveland brought Hughes on board in 2005, but the chemistry hasn't been there, and Hughes' trade value is about as low as trade value gets.
All this would go down a little easier if LeBron were giving this team the sort of play he came through with in 2005-06, but his points (down by nearly five a game), assists and rebounds have dropped, though he's playing only about a minute less per game. The 22-year-old James looks fatigued, which makes sense, considering his hefty off-court priority list and his turn with Team USA at the World Championships last summer.
And yet, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Joe Johnson and Dwight Howard also played on the U.S. team, and they're having career years. And Wade's "offseason" was just as -- if not more -- demanding than LeBron's, with his playoff run lasting a month longer. We're not saying that these superstars aren't tired, but they're somehow rising above. It's a damn near impossible bar for LeBron to match, we reckon, so he should at least try to work on some of the fundamental issues that allow wing scorers like Wade, Kobe, Paul Pierce and Johnson to score bunches even when the legs aren't up to it.
LeBron's footwork continues to frustrate this observer. His 6-8, 250-pound frame should allow him plenty of easy looks in the post, but capable defenders can easily worm their way around him to deny an entry pass. Too often, James is forced into relinquishing a spot in the post and has to come outside the three-point line to receive the ball. And it hardly helps that iffy shooters like Snow and Hughes are the ones trying to feed LeBron. The "play" usually devolves into James having to make do with fewer than 10 seconds on the shot clock, starting his one-on-one move some 27 feet from the basket.
There's no excusing the fact that the team with this generation's most devastating offensive talent is stuck at 22nd in offensive efficiency, and often has to struggle to put together a 20-point quarter. Coach Mike Brown has done a fine job getting this group of dogged defenders to play up to its defensive potential, but he better figure out a way to get this team over the top offensively. You have to think he'll have plenty of time, because none of these players are going anywhere anytime soon.
Common misconception? Boston forward Al Jefferson has "potential."
Utter tripe, we submit. Healthy and afforded huge heaps of minutes for the first time in his career, Jefferson has done away with the "potential" talk in his third season and put it all together: 14 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in just 32.2 minutes.
The 22-year-old can score on either block, he doesn't seem to have any interest in straying away from the paint (a refreshing change, in this era of Mehmet Okurs and Rasheed Wallaces), he can go over either shoulder (something Elton Brand took years to learn) on his way to the rim, and he's just about the only thing the Celtics have going for them right now. And all of this production is coming in the face of heavy defensive pressure, as the opposition rarely has any interest in paying much attention to any one of Danny Ainge's series of pet point guards who can't shoot.
The Celtics appear well on their way to having a solid chance at either Kevin Durant or Greg Oden in the June draft. Jefferson, for one, doesn't appear to think much of the idea of adding some highly touted young help to the frontcourt, telling the Boston Globe recently that the C's "don't need a big man." The kid's got moxie, gang, not potential.