Shaquille O'Neal's out for the regular season and probably a significant chunk of the playoffs, depending on how his thumb heals and his conditioning. But what does that mean for Cleveland and their title hopes?
All right, toss out the regular season. The Cavs have a six-game lead on the rest of the East, the best player in the NBA, a deep team regardless and they play in the Eastern Conference. Even in a worst-case scenario they fall to number two in the East behind Orlando, which actually might work out better for them.
The regular season doesn't matter, but the postseason does. Let's take a look at the teams they could end up facing and how Shaq's absence could affect things. We'll assume three things. One, Zydrunas Ilgauskas re-signs with Cleveland, since even with him supposedly "mulling it over," odds are he comes back "home." And two, we'll assume Shaq is not available until the Eastern Conference Finals. He could be back as early as the end of the first round, but we'll go ahead and assume a moderate-case scenario, factoring in conditioning. Three, we'll assume the Raptors get the fifth seed because of their offense and get bounced in the first round because of their defense.
Let's start with the first round of the playoffs.
(Fear Factor on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being Summer School, 5 being The Shining.)
Fear Factor: 3
Charlotte Bobcats: The Cats are a dangerous team, and currently in eighth. They play the Cavs tough, feature shooters and again, tough, tough defense. But the bigs aren't really a concern. Tyson Chandler hasn't strung together enough healthy games to be considered a threat and Nazr Mohammed has had a great season, but is banged up as well and just isn't as much of a threat. The concern with this team is who guards Stephen Jackson, and that's got little to do with Shaq.
Fear Factor: 2
Miami Heat: The Heat are currently the worst of the potential first-round foes. They also pose the biggest problem with Shaq out. Call it the Wade-LeBron matchup, call it a matchup difficulty, call it whatever, but Miami always plays Cleveland tight (staying with their theme of playing up or down to their opponent). And their second best player is inarguably Jermaine O'Neal. Shaq is needed to slow down J.O. and force him to shut it down, which would mean a quick end to the Heat. Throw in Beasley's penchant for occasionally crashing the boards and the presence of Udonis Haslem, and a big body like Shaq (the biggest) is vital against a team like that. There's little doubt the Cavs' talent would overwhelm the Heat, but it might take them a few games, even against the worst team.
Fear Factor: 4
Chicago Bulls: There's very little chance the Bulls fall this far, with a softer schedule and Hakim Warrick (sarcasm), but in case they do, they're not much of a threat to the Cavs, with or without Shaq. Noah's been terrific when healthy this year, but he's not healthy, and won't be healthy and outside of that they have no bigs. Ilgauskas, Varejao and Powe should be able to handle things down low. As long as Mo Williams doesn't let Derrick Rose go nova, no problems.
Fear Factor: 1
Boston Celtics: This is a toughy. On the one hand, Boston plays mean, physical basketball. So you'd think having Shaq would be of vital importance against Glen "Big Baby Thumb Twister" Davis and Kendrick Perkins. But like we saw in their last matchup, the way to beat this Celtics team is to outrun, out-talent, and out-athletic them. Which Shaq isn't so much a part of. Not having Shaq against the C's would mean more opportunities and an excuse to run and gun, which led them to a blowout in their last game. The playoff are a different beast, it's true, but the players are the same and the mileage is the same. This is a best-case scenario for the Cavs, as weird as that sounds.
Fear Factor: 1
Atlanta Hawks: The Cavs have matchup advantages all over the court against Atlanta, so Shaq's really the least of Atlanta's problems. But with Smith and Horford, it would be nice to have O'Neal to shut down that part of their game. If the Cavs can force the Hawks to be a perimeter club, you're looking at a much easier route to a result like last year. While the overall fear factor isn't terribly high, having O'Neal would be a considerable advantage for the C's, defensively and offensively. If you control the paint on the Hawks, it's pretty much a wipeout.
Fear Factor: 3.5 (ish?)
Fear Factor: 5