Being a fan of an NBA team deep in rebuild mode requires extreme patience. The Cavaliers, during the last decade and a half, have volleyed between being a contender for the title and hoping for the number one pick in the draft. No ambiguity existed in Cleveland. Could this team make it to the middle? Dreaded by most in the league, being below average, instead of bad, puts a team in no-man’s-land. If not a title contender, fight for the top pick instead of the 14th. For the Cavs, however, being ‘meh’ could be what the franchise and fan base need.
With a compelling mix of veterans and rookies, the Cavs are fun. For them to approach average, the defense must improve from last year. After two games, they have yet to give up 100 points. Though the competition, Orlando and Indiana, are two of the most offensively challenged teams in the league, this represents a vast improvement over a year ago. Bad teams would light up the Cavaliers’ D, the worst, according to defensive rating, in the history of the NBA.
The young guards are struggling on that end, as predicted. Malcolm Brogdon netted 30 on Saturday night, while Evan Fournier and Markelle Fultz beat them off the dribble in Orlando. They’ve been bad instead of “worst in the league’s history” bad, though. Look for improvements where you can find them.
Sexton and Garland have shown playmaking abilities early, another worry coming into the season. Garland has tallied 9 assists in two games and seems to hunt for his teammates. Perhaps overlooked coming out of college, his passing to this point is encouraging. The touch from deep has been impressive, while he’s also shown a knack for getting to the rim. Through two games, Garland is unsure of himself, trying to fit in, yet his abilities have flashed.
Sexton is searching for teammates out of the pick and roll more than last year. He’s comfortable at the shooting guard position. While used to having the ball in his hands, Garland at the point frees Sexton to force the action on offense instead of running it, a more natural spot for him. Still feeling each other out, the guards have shown promising signs early that they can work together.
Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson dominated the Pacers Saturday night. Love, under-used in the opener, was the fulcrum of the offense. Set up primarily on the left side of the floor, Love drew fouls on Indiana’s bigs and showed playmaking skills not seen in his time in Cleveland. His 9 assists unlocked opportunities for his teammates and will be a key number to watch as the season progresses. The attention he draws will free space for everyone else on the floor.
A Love-Thompson pick and roll, seen a handful of times against the Pacers, is intriguing if not unusual. Love lacks the ball handling skills required for it to be an offensive staple, but for a few possessions a night can be helpful for the Cavs. By putting two opposing bigs in the play, the Cavs will force defenses into uncomfortable spots. Thompson has always been a solid roll man, and Love has shown the ability to make tight passes or hit open 20 footers, whatever the defense gives him.
While the defense is promising, in transition the Cavaliers have struggled. The young guys aren’t reacting, allowing run outs and layups on the other end, whether off makes or misses. The Cavs’ bigs are slow, lacking athleticism to run the floor. The mindset when a shot goes up has to switch to defense. Other than Tristan Thompson, the others must forego offensive rebounds for defensive positioning. Faster teams will bury them early if the mental lapses in this area continue.
Though it’s understandable why John Beilein has a soft spot for Matthew Dellavedova (all coaches do) his minutes should go to the young guys. While he can run the offense and get the team into their sets, he brings nothing else to the table. A leader on the bench and in the locker room is his proper role at this point in his career. The team would be better served allowing the young guys to make mistakes and learn from them at this stage. Delly is slow on defense and can’t shoot or get to the rim on offense. His performance in Game 3 of the 2015 Finals will remain forever in Cavs lore. Any Dellavedova floor time belongs in the past.
What’s What Around the League
1. The player of the week has to be Trae Young. Averaging 38, 7 rebounds, 9 assists, and a steal and a half, Young has dominated both times he’s stepped on the floor. A Young/Jabari Parker pick and roll on Saturday night chewed the Pistons defense to pieces, allowing Atlanta’s offense to get whatever it wanted. Experts’ opinions on this squad varied, many worried the kids would struggle with expectations. If Trae continues his torrid start, however, playoff and All-Star game appearances will begin this year.
2. A question mark for Milwaukee was how much they would miss Malcolm Brogdon. An outstanding player who’s shined so far with Indiana, he grabbed the reins during the playoffs when Eric Bledsoe faltered. Milwaukee cast their lot with cheaper, aging veterans, and so far, Wes Matthews fits. A favorite among NBA nerds, Matthews has struggled in recent seasons after an Achilles tear in 2015. A tough injury to return from, Matthews may have found a spot that plays on his strengths. He won’t get overused and can set up behind the arc, waiting for Giannis kick outs. If he can stay healthy, a big if, Matthews will be key to a Bucks’ title run.
3. Mike Budenholzer is an excellent defensive coach, but Giannis’ length is the ultimate weapon. Able to cover ground from the rim to the three line in an instant, Antetokounmpo covers the flaws of his slower footed teammates like Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. He allows Coach Bud to play these guys when teams ordinarily run them off the court. While he’s averaging a triple double, his D may be his most valuable asset.
4. When I’m running an NBA team, Patrick Beverley will be on it. A bulldog, he does whatever is asked of him. Do you need your 6’1” guard to rebound? Done. He had 10 against the Lakers. Guard LeBron, get in his head? No problem. Play suffocating D? Sure, 5 steals against Golden State. He backs down from no one, always assisting his teammates. Beverley is a dog.
5. Can we get rid of the coaches’ challenge yet? The green light is annoying, and it’s only been a week. Replay has jumped the shark in all sports, yet its worst in the NBA. A game dictated by flow, the challenge kills it. If it’s in play during the playoffs, when it matters most, we can discuss it, but lose that light for the regular season.
6. The Washington Wizards lost in San Antonio Saturday night, marking their 20th straight loss in the city. How is this possible? Yes, the Spurs have dominated for decades, but the Wiz never caught them on an off night? Gilbert Arenas never lit up Pop’s D? Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland, and Juwan Howard couldn’t slow down David Robinson and Sean Elliott? This one is shocking.
7. Kristaps Porzingis is one of the best rim defenders in the league. At 7’3”, his combination of size and quickness makes him an ideal shot blocker, and he’s looking healthy in his return from injury. Damian Lillard cared for none of that, however. Lillard abused Porzingis Sunday night, fueling a Blazers 19 point comeback by attacking the rim in the fourth quarter, snubbing his nose at Kristaps as he went by. Lillard is a top ten player in the league, overlooked each year for reasons unknown. No one drills clutch shots like Dame.
8. If the Miami Heat finish the year close to the top of the East, Jimmy Butler will be the reason. Right behind him will be Bam Adebayo. A wrecking crew in Milwaukee Saturday, Adebayo kept Giannis out of the paint in the fourth, neutralizing the MVP. A chase down block of Eric Bledsoe in O.T. sealed the win, along with clutch free throw shooting from the former Kentucky big. An eye popping 8 assists, Adebayo has a feel for the game that allows him to control it. Excited to watch his continued development.
9. Kyrie in Brooklyn has been a show. 50 in the opener, he averaged 37.7 for the week. I’ll always have a soft spot where Irving’s concerned, and now that he’s away from Boston it’s safe to root for him again. The handles, the shot-making around the rim, the desire to shut out the rest of his teammates and do it all himself, it’s perfect. He’s must watch all year.
10. Coby White had a good first rookie week for the Bulls. 16, 5, and 3 from their point guard is what the Bulls need to make a playoff run. With the East in the shape that it’s in, and Lauri Markkanen poised to have a breakout season, if White can stabilize a position that’s been a black hole for the Bulls since Derrick Rose left, Chicago will be the 7 or 8 seed in April.