The Cleveland Cavaliers, at 40-11, currently own the NBA’s best record and are in the midst of a 10-game winning streak. Even with injuries to Mo Williams and Delonte West, the team has thrived, defeating the red-hot Raptors, the Lakers, the surprising Grizzlies, the Thunder and the Fighting Wade’s (twice).
Cleveland is six games clear of Orlando for taking home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and has the inside track to earning home court for the NBA Finals as well.
Still, the team is actively pursuing trades, looking to acquire a “stretch” power forward that can help spread the floor for LeBron James. The top-two candidates are Antawn Jamison of the Wizards and Troy Murphy of the Pacers.
How effective, though, would the Cavs be with either of those options? In addition, how much of an upgrade do they represent over J.J. Hickson, the current starting power forward who is our best trading piece?
Hickson, like most young players in the NBA, has had his shares of ups-and-downs in his first season as a starter. There is no doubt he has the talent and athleticism to be a productive player in the league, and I was a strong supporter of his when we drafted him – “he’s still got some work to do in terms of offensive production, but he’s a beast on the glass,” I wrote then.
However, with rumors swirling, it looks like it might be time to part with Hickson. And that has more to do with his defense than his offense.
According to 82games.com, the Web site for geeky NBA stat people like me, the Cavs yield 108.8 points per 100 possessions when Hickson is on the floor. That number drops to 101.2 when he is on the bench. The simple fact of the matter is, when Anderson Varejao replaces Hickson off the bench, the Cavs become a much better team defensively. When Andy is on the floor, the team allows just 100.9 points per 100 possessions and 109.1 when he’s off the floor.
That’s not terribly surprising. Hickson has looked lost in our defensive system while Varejao has thrived (he’s not even flopping around to draw charges anymore!) But the bigger surprise is how much more effective the offense is with Varejao than with Hickson. The Cavs average 115.6 points per 100 possessions with Andy, 107.2 without him (+8.4). With Hickson, those numbers are 109.8 and 113.6, respectively (-3.8).
Overall, the Cavs are +16.6 with Andy on the floor…and -11.4 with Hickson. Yikes.
So it’s clear the team needs to upgrade the power forward position to provide help for Varejao, who also moonlights at center. But who is the best fit?
It is tough to judge the defensive impact that Jamison and Murphy have on their teams, just because, let’s face it, the Wizards (21st in points) and Pacers (25th) offer as much resistance as a piece of glass to a sledgehammer on that end of the floor.
Interestingly, for as awful as the Pacers are, they actually play better on offense when Murphy is off the floor, with a net difference of seven more points per 100 possessions with him riding the pine. Coupled with a much improved defense, and Murphy’s impact on the Pacers is -14.2 points per 100 possessions.
Jamison’s Wizards also see defensive improvements without him, but he also provides nearly nine more points per 100 possessions. Not only a solid jump shooter, Jamison is also an adept scorer inside the paint and draws more fouls than Murphy, which would help offset any interior scoring lost by trading Hickson.
To help put those “points per possession” numbers in perspective, three of the Cavs games against Orlando in the Eastern Conference were decided by two points or fewer, with Cleveland dropping two of them (and possibly all three if not for LeBron’s game-winning three in Game Two). Joe Smith, Cleveland’s second power forward (with Andy) scored a total of 10 points in those three games.
Moreover, if all those fancy stats don’t help persuade you that the Cavs need an upgrade at the power forward position, consider the following playoff numbers:
Murphy: 0 games, 0 minutes, 0 points, 0 rebounds
Hickson: 0 games, 0 minutes, 0 points, 0 rebounds
Jamison: 31 games, 1,152 minutes, 19.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg
Those figures might be the most telling, especially considering Mo Williams’ struggles in his first real playoff stint last year (just 40.8 percent shooting). Experience matters in the postseason.
The Cavs will need a more consistent scoring threat than Hickson to win the championship this year. Despite his flashes of potential, his limitations might be too much to overcome. Mike Brown doesn’t even consider him a viable option to play in crunch time due to his defensive liabilities and inconsistencies on offense.
If there is an offer out there for Jamison, the Cavs would be very, very wise to take it.