When Delonte West went down during the Bulls game the other night, fracturing his right wrist and forcing himself to the sidelines for at least a month's worth of action, I'm sure I probably had the same response as a number of you - screaming a string of curse words and hurling my remote control at my television. Delonte was in the midst of his best game of the season (scoring 11 pts, grabbing 3 rebounds and handing out 2 assists in only 10 minutes of play), while playing his overall best stretch of basketball on the year (averaging 10.8 points and 54 percent shooting, 56 percent on 3-pointers in January). Not to mention, as pointed out recently in WFNY, Lebron and Delonte are currently putting up the best +/- of any two players in the NBA. And the Cavs, with Z already sidelined and Ben Wallace battling the sickness, can ill-afford to lose another starter. In many ways, Delonte is the heart of this team - if Lebron sets the tone with his play making ability, Delonte sets the example with his grittiness and hustle, both making the little plays and keeping everyone on the team loose.
Despite the obvious problems that Delonte's absence will create, there are many unintended benefits of his injury, that Cavs' fans should focus upon in the coming month.
1)Delonte's Injury Deepens the Bench in the Long-term
With Delonte out, Sasha Pavlovic gets the opportunity to start. We all know Mike Brown's infatuation with Sasha, because Mike loves him some "big guards." With Sasha starting, the Cavs can finally evaluate if he is anything more than a roster filler. Given the opportunity to play greater minutes in the past, Sasha has shown flashes of potential, especially when previously thrust into a starting role. And, in his start against New Orleans Friday, Sasha flourished, scoring 19 points and hitting all four of his three point attempts.
In my opinion, Sasha is most effective when he's driving to the basket and creating his own shot, and at his least impressive when's hovering around outside and firing up threes. With Lebron, it's very easy for a player like Sasha to become passive. If Sasha plays aggressively, gets to the foul line (Terry Pluto points out today that since Dec. 1, Pavlovic has played 340 minutes and is 3-of-6 at the foulline) and plays adequate defense, he then becomes another player that Mike Brown can trust and work into the rotation after Delonte returns.
Alternatively, if the Cavs are going to make a move before the trade deadline (February 19th), playing Sasha for extended minutes is a way to increase his value in any potential deals. Sasha remains one of the most tradable assets the Cavs have at the moment, besides their expiring deals. If Sasha produces in his starting role, at 25, he is young enough that teams maybe willing to part with older, more proven, and expensive talent in a deal for him - based solely on his potential. And as Sasha is currently one of the last players coming off the Cavs' bench, losing him would not necessarily be a blow if the Cavs's rotation, and would actually strengthen the rotation as the player the Cavs received in return would most likely be making much greater contributions to the team than those lost by trading Sasha.
In addition to Delonte's absence opening up an increased role for Sasha, it also creates more minutes for both Wally Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson. At different times during the season so far, both Wally and Boobie have seen their shots falter, be it because of injuries or limited playing time. Though both have been improved as of late, taking some of Delonte's minutes will allow both player's to get more comfortable with their shot and allow them to get rolling again. I'm a big believer that the more a player has contributed during the regular season, the greater the chance he will be able to contribute in a big moment during the playoffs. And while it's unlikely that Wally could increase his trade value substantially by performing well in any increased playing time, as the most attractive asset Szczerbiak provides in any deal is his expiring contact, it certainly couldn't hurt his marketability.
2) Delonte's Injury Forces the Cavs to Not Get Complacent
The NBA season is long. Too long, probably. And let's face it, all games are not in fact equal to one another. Despite what coaches and players say, a match up against the Boston Celtics is going to be treated much differently by a team than a match up against the Indiana Pacers on the second night of a back-to-back series. It's just how things work.
The whole goal of the NBA season is to make the playoffs, which the Cavs have basically already assured themselves of doing. If the Cavs were so inclined, they could coast the rest of the season, playing .500 basketball, and still end up with the 4th or 5th seed in the Eastern Conference. Obviously, the Cavs aren't going to stop trying, but they will, at points during the remainder of the season, lose their focus as all teams are inclined to do.
Losing Delonte can help refocus the Cavs on the importance of every single game. When a key player goes down, it puts pressure on the rest of the team to step up. Players become aware that they cannot afford to take a mental night off if they want to win because they are a man short. Adversity can actually serve to strengthen the Cavs, as players have to find new ways to work together to pull off victories. The team unity developed in overcoming an obstacle such as Delonte's injury can actually help the Cavs in achieving their ultimate goal of becoming the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. Being able to survive the minor hurdles of Z's and Delonte's absences could potentially allow this team to develop the mindset that nothing can slow them down, and be which pushes this team over the top in the end.
Delonte's absence also prevents Mike Brown from becoming complacent. Already we have seen Mike Brown establishing new, creative game plans, such as playing Lebron at the center position, or essentially running out five guards, as he did against New Orleans. These are potential rotations and combinations which Brown may have been reluctant to attempt with the full Cavs' arsenal at his disposal. Come playoff time, having already once inserted Lebron into the center role with success, Coach Brown maybe more willing to do so when the situation presents itself in a crucial moment.
Finally, Delonte's injury may be the catalyst that causes Danny Ferry to pull the trigger on a deal which he otherwise would not have made. Obviously, this could either be a positive or negative thing, and most likely if Danny Ferry is on the fence for a deal, it's probably a deal he should not be making anyways. Independent of that consideration, Delonte's injury allows Danny Ferry to truly access the depth of this current team. If, in an expanded role, Wally's shot consistently deserts him, Ferry discovers soon rather than later that a move needs to be made. If Sasha continues to show that he cannot play solid defense consistently, Danny might be less inclined to hold on to him, waiting for things to click. West's injury allows for game evaluations of players who will be counted to contribute in the long run. If a glaring weakness appears, Ferry will be able to correct the problem before it's too late.
3) Delonte's Injury allows the Cavs to keep Delonte Fresher in the Long Run
Again, the NBA season is long. Players break down, injuries occur. Every team suffers its share of nicks and bruises along the way. I'd much rather a playoff team like the Cavs reach these roadblocks earlier in the year, rather than a month before the playoffs. Now, I'm not naive. I know that the Cavs are just as likely to suffer another in May as any other team. However, with Delonte missing a month of the season, he might actually be better off because of it when he returns.
Rather than slowly getting beat up, playing day after day, Delonte now has a full month to recuperate from the first half of the season. Delonte is starting consistently for the first time in his career, averaging 33.3 minutes a game, well over his 28.5 minutes per game career average. Last season, there were only 19 total games where Delonte played more than 30 minutes, most of them after he was traded to the Cavs. He's already play 30+ minutes in 30 games this season for the Cavs.I want Delonte playing at full strength in the playoffs. Like Z, a rest in the middle of the season makes this possibility more likely to occur.
As well as getting the opportunity to heal a little bit, having Delonte on the sidelines during the game may provide of the added benefit of making him a better player in the long run. Observing and coaching from the sidelines may allow Delonte to see things he otherwise might not have been aware of while on the court. Learning and interacting with the other coaches during the game, or even coaching his teammates during the game, may allow for him to be a stronger floor general when he returns. A prime example a player embracing this sort of role during an injury would be Eric Snow. I haven't seen Snow on the sidelines during many of the Cavs' games this season, but the possibility of him working with Delonte during Delonte's recovery would seem to be a logical avenue to explore.
The effect of Delonte's injury on the Cavs is not nearly as grim as one might have initially thought. While the Cavs may struggle to maintain the level of play they showed prior to Delonte getting hurt, that's to be expected when losing a team's starters. The key to this situation is how the Cavs respond. Strength is borne through tribulations.