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Cavs Cavs Archive Say It Ain't So, Joe
Written by Erik Cassano

Erik Cassano
Joe Smith is averaging 6.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in just over 19 minutes a game for the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that is in any conversation for the worst in the NBA. But if he is bought out by the Thunder and ends up on the Cavaliers' doorstep in the next few days, he'll get the superstar treatment from both the organization and the fans. In Erik's latest, he talks a little bit about the guy the Cavs are angling to acquire post-trading deadline. Joe Smith is averaging 6.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in just over 19 minutes a game for the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that is in any conversation for the worst in the NBA.

But if he is bought out by the Thunder and ends up on the Cavaliers' doorstep in the next few days, he'll get the superstar treatment from both the organization and the fans.

The Cavs should be free from want. They had the best record, percentage-wise, in the Eastern Conference as of Saturday, leading the Central Division by 17 games, tops among the NBA's division leaders. They're counting down the games until they clinch the franchise's first division title in 33 years. At 45-12 entering March, they still possess an excellent chance of achieving the franchise's first-ever 60-win season.

But there is more than a little paranoia that comes with the Cavs' position. Anything less than an NBA title, and a season this good will still pale in comparison to whoever does win the title. Unfortunately, in the rarefied air of the NBA's elite, it's a pass/fail proposition. Either you win championships or you don't. And if you don't, history brands you a paper tiger, justly or unjustly.

Which is why the NBA's elite teams spend this time of year, in the weeks and days leading up to the March 1 postseason roster eligibility deadline, turning over every stone in an obsessive attempt to patch over every crack and blemish on their roster.

Well, not every team. The Lakers are so far out in front of the rest of the Western Conference, they don't have to harbor the sense of urgency that the East's top dogs have. They can wait on Andrew Bynum's return to health.

The Celtics, Cavs and Magic, however, are in a staredown for the first seed in the East. The season-ending injury to Jameer Nelson forced the Magic to deal for Rafer Alston at the deadline, but it still hasn't prevented Orlando from backsliding several games, allowing Boston and Cleveland to gain a little bit of separation.

As tough as the Magic have been this year, the Cavs and Celtics still seem the most threatened by each other. They're the conference's last two champions. The Celtics have a ring, and the Cavs have LeBron James. So when one makes a move, the other would logically feel the pressure to match that move.

All was quiet through the Feb. 19 trade deadline. Neither team made a move of consequence. The Celtics really didn't have the tradeable parts, and the Cavs didn't want to significantly alter the roster that had served them so well.

With no ability to make a trade of consequence, the Celtics had other plans in the week-plus after the deadline. Not that the plans were any big secret. Every member of the NBA-following public from coast to coast knew GM Danny Ainge was going to bargain-shop at the free-agent thrift store. There, he found Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury to add to his bench. Moore had been released by the Kings. Marbury, in an epic saga of a spat with the Knicks, was eventually bought out and hurriedly signed in Boston for the chance at a ring.

In one week's time, the Celtics added two potentially significant pieces to their bench. That still wouldn't have been enough to faze the Cavs, if not for a nightmare of a game in Houston on Thursday night, when Ben Wallace broke his leg after a collision with Yao Ming.

Suddenly, the chess match between the Celtics and Cavs took a decided turn in favor of Boston. The Celtics added two veteran pieces, while the Cavs lost a starter (and locker room leader) for the foreseeable future.

Wallace is out for four-to-six weeks, according to media reports. If that is the case, he'll return before the end of the regular season. But the condition of his leg upon returning is not the stuff of guarantees. This is the 34-year-old Wallace of three points and seven rebounds per game, a far cry from the eight-point, 13-rebound per game Wallace of his Pistons prime. The only aspect of Wallace's game that really makes him valuable anymore is his ability to defend larger players on the floor, which requires the ability to move laterally and contest shots.

If Wallace returns with a stiff, weakened leg, he might be robbed of a great deal of that mobility, which could severely hinder his ability to play defense, or impact a game at all.

That means Anderson Varejao, who has historically been a far better player coming off the bench in smaller sample sizes, must step up his game -- particularly his defense -- and be prepared to fill Wallace's shoes for the remainder of the season -- even if Wallace returns to the floor on schedule. Which, in turn, means that J.J. Hickson will have to fill Varejao's bench role, possibly into the playoffs.

All of which brings us back to Joe Smith.

The playoffs are not a time to force feed relatively-raw rookies like Hickson into major minutes. Hickson can play basketball at a high level, but in the playoffs, when defense reigns, Hickson's inexperience will be exploited and abused by the veterans he'll be forced to guard.

There is no way that Hickson playing major minutes in the playoffs is a good thing. In future years, that will hopefully change, but for now the Cavs need a veteran big man, and the best option of all the realistic options appears to be Smith.

The problem is, he's under contract with the Thunder, so the Cavs can't influence any potential buyout negotiations under the NBA's anti-tampering rules. The best Danny Ferry can do is cross his fingers and hope that Smith sees an opportunity to help out his former teammates in Cleveland.

It's highly doubtful that Smith would leave the Thunder and sign with a contender just to be a spare part. The idea of fighting with Hickson for minutes behind Wallace, Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas probably didn't appeal to him. But now that the Wallace injury has opened up minutes in the Cavs frontcourt for an able-bodied veteran, Smith might find the prospect of returning to Cleveland more attractive.

What we do know is that landing a player like Smith has become more of an necessity than a luxury for the Cavs at this point.

It wouldn't be the end of the world if the Cavs don't. The season won't screech to a halt, and the Cavs should still be able to advance deep into the playoffs. But when it comes to the prospect of knocking off the Celtics in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup, or the Lakers or Spurs in the NBA Finals, heading into battle with a creakier-than-ever Ben Wallace and an unready J.J. Hickson is far from ideal.

Smith, currently a part-time player on a bottom-feeding team, is a buyout away from becoming an important player in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

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