The Cavaliers look vulnerable after two games, mostly because of Shaquille O’Neal’s dead legs and Delonte West’s mental-health break.
O’Neal, as always, is pathologically allergic to the high pick-and-roll or any set that requires his defensive attention on the perimeter.
Teams in need of an open look merely have to set a pick at top of the key extended and O’Neal freezes in place, as if there is an imaginary wall blocking his path.
Andrea Bargnani, the Raptors’ sweet-shooting 7-footer, flourished around O’Neal’s passivity, moving to the perimeter, where he dumped 28 points on the Cavaliers.
Coach Mike Brown is finding that integrating O’Neal into the defensive schemes of the Cavaliers is a one-sided proposition. O’Neal does not play defense as much as he stands near the basket and provides token pressure only on those who happen to drive his way. This does not work on any level.
The Cavaliers may end up with more flexibility on offense with O’Neal. But on defense, where they were so dominant last season, they have no tonic for what ails O’Neal, notably his 37-year-old legs.
Brown also has taken to experimenting with the Twin Towers of O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, which is a dubious undertaking.
That leaves the Cavaliers with Slow and Slower on the floor and too many defensive holes to fill.
The offseason addition of O’Neal also is limiting the effectiveness of Ilgauskas, who is coming off the bench for the first time in his career.
The 7-3 Lithuanian is ill-suited for this role after being accustomed to receiving touches and shots early in a game to establish a rhythm.
Even with O’Neal taking up the scoring that previously was the responsibility of Ilgauskas, that slight change is potentially problematic.
Ilgauskas provided LeBron James double-team relief with his spot-up, mid-range jump shot. No such weapon exists in O’Neal’s arsenal. He is forever a back-to-the-basket bruiser whose utilization is destined to challenge James.
If you commit too many dump passes to O’Neal, the payoff over time is a stagnant offense that cannot score in bursts. That is because O’Neal no longer has the energy or force of will to carry an offense over an extended period.
Not that he is demanding the ball. That will come later.
“It’s a work in progress,” O’Neal says, meaning that in the diminishing-return stage of his career, his capacity to be a positive element is tricky.
The inauspicious start of the Cavaliers is not merely about O’Neal.
It also is about the absence of Delonte West, who remains out of the lineup after he was found to be carrying three loaded weapons during a traffic stop on the Beltway in Prince George’s County last month.
That bit of news came with a previous acknowledgement that West is afflicted with bipolar mood disorder.
Loaded guns and a mood disorder conjure a number of worrisome images, which perhaps explains the patience of the Cavaliers.
The last thing the Cavaliers need at this point is a shaky point guard who has a loaded shotgun in a guitar case strapped to his back.
As it is, with West out of the lineup, the Cavaliers have been forced to employ two shooting guards in the backcourt, which only exacerbates the burden on James.
Easing the demand on James was what the signing of O’Neal was all about. Demonstrate to James that his is a genuine team and not a glorified one-man gang and he will be more likely to re-sign with the Cavaliers next summer.
Easing the load on him has been one of the early-season mantras of Brown. He wants to limit James’ minutes to about 38 a game. And he wants the teammates of James to be more productive, if it is possible, and it isn’t.
The Cavaliers have compromised their defense and have no recourse, not as long as O’Neal is anchored to the floor.