Wednesday , Mar , 29 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

LeBron, Cavs primed for playoffs

By Warren Blatt, Sports Network NBA Editor

(Sports Network) – The Cleveland Cavaliers are getting prepared to play in
the playoffs for the first time since the 1997-1998 campaign. They were
eliminated in four games, 3-1, in the first round by the Indiana Pacers in
their last postseason appearance.

Superstar LeBron James needed three years and some new teammates to finally
get Cleveland over the hump. The 21-year-old James has had an outstanding
season and is an MVP candidate.

A two-time All-Star, James leads the Cavaliers in scoring and assists and is
third on the club in rebounding. He is shooting over 47 percent from the field
and has drained just over 33 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

The difference between Cleveland now and when James, who was selected out of
St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in the first round (first pick overall) of
the 2003 NBA Draft by the Cavaliers, was a rookie is the supporting cast. Even
though the 6-8 James is the No. 1 option for the Cavs, he cannot win by
himself.

Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas has been with James from the start, and was a member
of 1997-98 Cavaliers, who finished 47-35 and fell in the opening round of the
playoffs. The 7-3 Ilgauskas, who signed a multi-year deal to stay with the
club last summer, is a solid big man and is one of the better centers in the
league.

Last offseason, Cleveland added guards Larry Hughes and Damon Jones and
forward Donyell Marshall through free agency. Hughes is sidelined with a
finger injury and has only played 28 games in a Cleveland uniform, while
Marshall and Jones have been solid at times but have not consistent with their
production.

With the additions of Hughes, Jones and Marshall, Cleveland showed that it was
trying to piece together a team that was capable of winning with James leading
the way. Ilgauskas and power forward Drew Gooden were already in the fold and
seemed to fit right in with Cleveland’s plans.

Don’t forget, Danny Ferry, who spent 10 season with the Cavaliers as a player,
was hired last offseason to take over the club as general manager, while Mike
Brown, who served as Indiana head coach Rick Carlisle’s top assistant for the
past two years, decided to take on the challenge of his first head coaching
job. Brown landed with the Pacers after a three-year stint as an assistant
with San Antonio, where he earned a championship ring in 2003.

Ferry had an idea as to what he needed to do to get the Cavaliers over the
hump and into the postseason, while Brown is a young coach with new ideas and
an understanding of what it takes for a team to win in the NBA.

Bottom line, Ferry and Brown know that James is the cornerstone of the
franchise. The team will go only as far as he can take them. By surrounding
James with players who mesh with his skills, the result would be that everyone
was going to be winners.

Ferry has succeeded in the 2005-06 campaign. The goal was to get Cleveland
into the playoffs. How far the Cavaliers go is another story. They are still
not in the same class as the Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat, but can learn
and grow from their first playoff experience since 1998.

James has proved that he loves to have the ball in his hands when the game is
on the line. He has hit game-winning shots and is at his best when its crunch
time. The playoffs will test him even further and will give him the
opportunity to raise his game to the next level while playing for the right to
advance to the next round of the postseason.

If Cleveland is able to win its first playoff series since 1992-93, when it
eliminated New Jersey, 3-2, in the first round, it could be bad news for its
opponent in the Eastern Conference semifinals. James and his teammates could
get very comfortable and start to develop a swagger which may lead to an
interesting run in the postseason.

Playoff pressure will help James and the Cavaliers take another step towards
reaching the elite of the NBA. Yes, Cleveland still has a ways to go, but it
has to start somewhere.

The Cavaliers and James continue to grow together and are ready to take the
next step. How far can they go?