Collin Sexton: Changing the Narrative

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, NBA

The unfair pressure on Collin Sexton started the moment his name was announced 8th during the 2018 draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers franchise was about to lose LeBron James for the second time; another long rebuild awaited. The pick acquired from the Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade, the one Koby Altman refused to swap to add one more piece for a chance to dethrone the Warriors, was used on a 19-year-old from Alabama. Sexton was the new savior.

The adversity has washed over Sexton’s career. One upheaval of the system, or his role in it, after another. The vets grew tired of his style before Thanksgiving last year. A coaching change from Ty Lue to Larry Drew. A Rising Stars snub. The drafting of another small guard. A coaching change to John Beilein. Division among fans over his long-term role. More head butting with vets (Kevin Love). A coaching change to J. B. Bickerstaff. Criticisms of his game, his lack of defense or passing, and his eventual fit in the league are fair. The tide is shifting on Collin Sexton, however.

A week in which he averaged 31 per and 2 team wins has furthered the narrative change. Instability and indecisiveness among the front office and coaching staff stunted his development; unfair expectations were unreachable. The comparison I made to Russell Westbrook is on point in this respect. Both players play hard and fast, and fans have chastised them far more for what they can’t do than credited them for the havoc they cause opposing defenses.

Since the Cavs traded Jordan Clarkson on December 23 and the coaching staff gave Sexton more scoring responsibility, he’s averaging almost 22 per game. Sexton is quick; his speed and hesitation moves allow him to get his shot against any defender. Only 20 players in the league net more per game. Sexton’s ability to get consistent buckets cannot be dismissed. The 76ers, for instance, will probably fall short of expectations, in part because of a lack of a ‘me first’ scorer late in games.

He uses Love’s screen perfectly here. The hesitation dribble, then burst of speed gets him to the bucket with ease.

And he’s taking better shots. Last year, 35% of Sexton’s shots were mid-range jumpers; that number is 22% in ‘19-20. His eFG% is 51.4% this season, up from 48% a year ago. He’s become pickier about where he fires from and has gotten smarter at using screens to get to his spots. Whatever criticisms fans and media members have of his game, Sexton isn’t a chucker.

But can he pass? Will he ever develop into a playmaker? These improvements have been more incremental. Sexton seems to want to get his teammates involved, yet struggles to see the nuances in the passing game. He fails to make the correct reads. On a break against the Celtics, Kevin Porter (33.5% from 3) was on his right behind the line; Matthew Dellavedova (21%) on his left; both wide open. He dished to Delly, and the shot took out a fan. Sexton’s bull mentality serves him well as a scorer, yet curbs his development when getting his teammates involved.

There are signs of improvement, however. He’s averaged 4.3 assists since the All-Star break. On two straight possessions against San Antonio he made passes he wouldn’t have seen even a month ago. The progression is obvious.

Sexton doesn’t have to lead the league in assists. He’s beginning to reap the benefits of his improved vision, however. It opens driving lanes when defenders have to wait that extra tick before helping against him. His enhanced passing led to his scoring outburst last week. The Cavs have others who can initiate offense. Sexton just has to do it enough to remain unpredictable.

The NBA creates this early conclusion jumping by placing 18-19-year-old kids in losing situations. Fan bases expect greatness from players who aren’t physically or emotionally mature enough to deliver it. Cleveland’s franchise thought it grew into a contending outfit after 4 years of employing one of the greatest of all-time and expected to stay there. It doesn’t work that way. Teams gutted because of cap hell and exiting stars, especially those in less desirable markets, don’t recover from those loses. Sexton isn’t a perfect player, few are. He fights, plays hard, and has never missed an NBA game despite his size, qualities that should play well in Cleveland. His scoring ability is rare and will only improve. Instead of judging Collin Sexton against what he can’t do, focus on the talents he brings to the organization. He won’t carry a franchise, but that isn’t his job. Allow Sexton to be his own player; it’s Koby Altman’s job to fit the correct pieces around him.

What’s What Around the League

1.Jae Crowder can stop bricking threes whenever. Though his percentage is bad from behind the arc (32%), it’s the shots he misses that are most disturbing. 68% of his 3’s are wide open or come with no defender within 4 feet. Teams allow him to shoot from deep and he doesn’t punish them. Though the league seems to like Crowder, execs pass his contract around the league like the flu. With the plethora of young shooters eager to contribute off Miami’s bench, the Heat would be wise to leave Crowder in his warm-ups during the playoffs.

2. What’s going on in Brooklyn? A “mutual separation” with Kenny Atkinson last weekend should send off alarm bells to Nets fans. Atkinson was an integral part of turning the asset poor Nets into a desirable free agent destination for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. With both missing essentially the entire season, Atkinson has taken a roster of 4s and 5s and guided them into the East playoffs. Considered by many as one of the best young coaches in the league, something stinks. Durant and Irving are mercurial; neither expressed confidence in Atkinson. Regardless, this isn’t a hopeful sign for the future in Brooklyn. Is there a coach alive that can placate these two? A franchise expecting to compete for a title in the coming years may be in for more turmoil than they’ve bargained for.

3. The Lonzo Ball bandwagon boards here. Lonzo is the engine that drives New Orleans. He’s a winning play maker, doing the things successful teams need to stack victories. Always pushing, Lonzo leads the breakneck New Orleans pace, and with weapons like Zion, Brandon Ingram, and Jrue Holiday on the break, the Pels run opponents ragged. With his improved shooting (38% from 3, up from 31% in L.A.), aided by a change in his arm and elbow placement on release, excellent defense, and superb passing, Lonzo is the glue that will hold the Pelicans together for years to come. Though facing a steep challenge to make the playoffs (4 games back of Memphis with 18 to play), they’ll be staples in the Western Conference bracket soon. Ball will be an important, and overlooked, part of their success.

4. An aggressive Jamal Murray is special.

5. When NBA talking heads get bored, the drive to create a narrative kicks into overdrive. LeBron James’ and the Lakers’ big weekend has reopened the MVP race for some; those in need of something to talk about. Victories over the Bucks on Friday and the Clippers on Sunday have plenty jumping on the “James for MVP” bandwagon. LeBron is an all-timer; no discussion there. In fact, the Lakers are now the prohibitive favorites. With LeBron and Anthony Davis dominating, who their teammates are seems immaterial. Can one weekend reshape the MVP race, though?

6. The Bucks are three games better in the standings. Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t have a top-five talent playing alongside him. Need numbers?

GiannisLeBron
Player Efficiency Rating31.725.9
Win Shares10.49.4
Box Plus Minus11.58.5
Offensive Rating116117
Defensive Rating96.3105
Value Over Replacement65.5
PPG, APG, RPG per 36 minutes34.5/6.7/1626.5/11/8.1

The per 36 numbers matter because Giannis averages 30 minutes per game. He’s missed Milwaukee’s last two, and Phoenix and Denver waxed them. LeBron deserves every ounce of praise thrown his way. To do what he’s doing given his age and minutes played over his career is stupefying. There’s a better-than-average chance his experience and intelligence will take over in the playoffs, and he’ll win his 4th title. He isn’t the MVP, however.

7. Which brings us to Kawhi Leonard. He’s missed too many games, and the Clips coast through too many others for him to sniff the MVP race, but he’s made it clear his goal is to manage his body for the playoffs. The L.A. match-up seems inevitable; LeBron has Davis, while Kawhi has a deeper roster around him. Paul George will need to step up to offset the damage Davis will do to the Clippers interior, but the heavy lifting falls on Leonard. His run in last year’s playoffs was historic, yet he missed Kevin Durant and LeBron James. With the power of a title and a Finals MVP in his pocket last summer, he made moves befitting of the league’s alpha. Since 2012, only Kawhi has stood toe-to-toe with LeBron and vanquished him without a roster stacked with 4-5 Hall of Famers. If Leonard does it again this year, the league’s G.O.A.T. will be indisputable.

8. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a future All-Star. Not sure what this is.

9. Lou Williams shoots the 3 at 36%, but how much better would he be if he just took the easy ones? Channeling J. R. Smith, Williams turns simple, wide open jumpers into something else by taking 1-2 dribbles and falling to his left instead of just catching and shooting. They look pretty when they drop, but hurt his team when they don’t. Twice against the Lakers Sunday, Williams went for style points instead of, you know, actual points. Include the fact that the Lakers hunted Lou on defense, and Sunday was a rough one for the perennial Sixth Man of the Year. The Clippers will need more from Williams in the playoffs.

10. Utah against the Raptors Monday night at home:
Bojan Bogdanovic 5 points, 2 assists, 24 minutes, -23
Rudy Gobert 6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block, 31 minutes, -22
Donovan Mitchell 11 points, 3 assists, 34 minutes, -30
The Jazz should have been considered a sleeper for a Finals appearance after acquiring Bogdanovic and Mike Conley in the off-season, but things have gone sideways. Conley, confusingly, doesn’t fit. Mitchell scores sporadically; Gobert’s defense has even fallen off a bit. Jordan Clarkson may be the most consistent player on the team, which says a mouthful. Even with a successful regular season, the questions concerning their playoff readiness would surround the organization. What seems more likely now, a Finals run or a first round loss to the Thunder?

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Who’s Feelin’ Kevin Porter?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Kevin Porter Jr., NBA

Perhaps the thing missing from this Cleveland Cavaliers team is something unseen or undefined. Collin Sexton is a bucket getter, while Andre Drummond snarls rebounds and junks his way into 16-20 points per night. Darius Garland has moments, but his inexperience shows more often than not. Cedi Osman, Dante Exum, and even Tristan Thompson lack it, and it holds them back. Most of the parts on Cleveland’s roster have no feel.

To reach another level in the NBA, players and coaches need to understand the game and what to give at any moment. LeBron James is one of the greatest players in history because of his size, speed, passing acumen, and work ethic. James’ most important quality, however, is his intelligence. Distinguishing when to get his teammates involved versus when to take over a game on his own. Is he needed on defense, or is his energy best saved on offense? His team is getting destroyed on the boards; LeBron rebounds. Kyle Kuzma heats up; James feeds him the ball. Danny Green is struggling defensively; James takes his man for a four-minute stretch. LeBron is the obvious example, but other players in the league feel the game, knowing what it needs from them.

It’s the reason Kevin Porter Jr. is the future of the Cavs’ franchise. Though only 19, Porter has the feel his teammates lack and the abilities to give what they need from him. He isn’t the best scorer or rebounder, passer or defender. He does a little of everything.

Porter’s athletic ability, versatility, and smarts in one play

Feel on the court is the innate ability to make the right play. Cross-court passes to the open man for a corner three. When to attack the basket off the pick and roll, and when to take the shot or dish to the roll man. Pushing the ball in transition, or pulling back to half-court to run offense. Though young and still mistake prone, these are the things Porter executes better than his teammates. He sees the floor well, knowing where his teammates are at all times. His talent level, size, and athletic ability contribute, but Porter understands the game.

Helping his big in the PnR, then knowing to push up court

Per 36 numbers aren’t gospel, but they give a peek into Porter’s future. 15.5 points, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 5 rebounds, and a half a block. Nothing noteworthy, except that he gives the Cavs a little of everything. And he’s just a rookie. Porter spent the first month of the season lost, struggling to fit on an NBA roster. A 30 point game last week. Six assists in 26 minutes against Philadelphia. Four 2 or 3 steal games over the last month. He’s gaining confidence in his place in Cleveland and the NBA.

If the current rebuild transitions into a franchise competing for the playoffs within a few years, it will be because of Kevin Porter. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Larry Nance Jr., and maybe Dylan Windler can be nice pieces on a good team, but Porter has star potential. Playoff teams need an All-Star, someone capable of getting crunch time buckets in isolation and creating open looks for teammates. Porter possesses those talents. Will he mature into that player?

What’s What Around the League

1.If the Clippers’ roster has a problem, it is a lack of size. Yet on the buyout market, L.A. signed another score first guard from Detroit’s scrap heap, Reggie Jackson. Since a useful stretch in Oklahoma City off the bench in the Durant/Westbrook years, Jackson has gotten paid and seen his worth plummet. Can he be of use to the championship hopeful Clippers? A 10 point 7 assist outing Friday in a huge win against the Nuggets notwithstanding, anything Jackson brings to the Clips is redundant. What does he do differently, or better, than Lou Williams? Is he going to out shoot Landry Shamet? Will the 6’3” guard lock up the opposition on defense in crunch time? It’s difficult to envision Jackson playing any meaningful minutes in May and June for the Clippers; this signing was done to keep him from the cross hallway competition rather than help the Clips.

2. Bradley Beal has erupted over the last week, averaging 41.5 per to climb into 2nd in the league in scoring. Bereft of anyone to help carry the scoring load or exert any effort defensively, Wizards’ games are only a stage for Beal to cook. Will he hit 12 threes? Can he score 60 while being tripled teamed? Beal is one of the top 15-20 players in the league, giving the Wiz an interesting decision to make. Trade rumors swirled in the off-season before he signed a two year, 72 million extension to the 5 year, 127 million dollar deal signed in 2016. Does Washington see any long-term success between Beal and John Wall, if and when Wall returns from an injured Achilles, or would the franchise rather have the massive haul it would receive by trading Beal? Two young players and multiple 1st rounders for the dynamic guard would make the front office think. New Orleans has a stash of picks from the Anthony Davis trade, as does OKC from their myriad of transactions. Both teams are on the rise and would benefit from a star instead of an abundance of future rookies. Beal, Ingram, Lonzo, and Zion? Sign me up.

3. The Nuggets have stayed in the 2-4 position all season out West, and Nikola Jokic, after a slow start, deserves to be in the MVP discussion once again. Denver has title aspirations, however, and will need more than Jokic’s passing and shot making to advance in the Western Conference playoffs. The leap Jamal Murray made in last year’s playoffs turned into a back slide for most of the season, yet Murray has shown signs of stepping back into the leadership role he must garner in order for the Nuggets to compete with the Lakers and Clippers. Averages of 24 points and 5.6 assists over his last 8 portend an awakening for Murray, an always intriguing but never-quite-consistent conundrum for Mike Malone. Gary Harris, Murray’s young backcourt mate, has struggled all season, leading many to call for his benching. Denver can’t afford growing pains from both. In the year of the duo, Denver’s is the weakest. Murray needs to be a reliable force, a strong two behind Jokic, for the rest of the season and playoffs if the Nuggets are to contend.

4. Nutmegging is cute at all, but watch yourself around vets.

5. Doug McDermott is an analytics department’s wet dream. 54% of his shots are 3’s, and he makes 43% of them. 26% of the rest of his shots are within 3 feet; he feasts off of defenses overplaying him, back-dooring opponents to death. His size (6’7”) makes him an adequate defender, and his 7 million salary is a steal. While Victor Oladipo eases his way back into playing shape, it’s fair to wonder how much damage the Pacers could do in the playoffs. With the Bucks blow torching the league and Toronto and Boston beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference pack, Indiana is once again the forgotten squad. Perhaps the star power isn’t there and Oladipo will need until next season to return to 100% from his injury. The Pacers are deep, however, and T.J. Warren (22 ppg last 7) seems more comfortable in Indy. Watch out for them in May.

6. Injuries are killing Portland’s chances of making the playoffs. They’re missing four starters and the one that matters most, Damian Lillard, hasn’t dressed for any of the Blazers’ last six games. The 8th seed race in the West will provide needed intrigue over the last third of the NBA season, and while the masses are rooting for a Zion-LeBron 1st round matchup, Memphis, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, and even Phoenix are on the periphery of the race. While N.O.-L.A. is glitzy, Portland would provide the biggest chance of an upset. Lillard and C. J. McCollum are battle tested; they know how to score against defenses designed to stop them. For all the Lakers’ size, their guard play lacks punch. Portland has slogged through this season; only Lillard’s 6 game, 48 point average onslaught produced any consistency. LeBron and Anthony Davis are the best duo in the league, but they don’t want any part of a hot Portland backcourt in the 1st round.

7. This is obscene.

8. Caris LeVert is a young but dynamic player; his 51 point outburst last night in Boston is evidence of that. Injuries have disrupted his entire career, however. He’s only played over 60 games once in his 4 years in the league. Brooklyn will sneak into the East playoffs because of the garbage at the bottom of the conference, but the real question for the Nets is how he’ll look beside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant next year. LeVert is shooting 41% overall, 38% from 3, and 30% on jump shots. How will that play alongside two All-Stars? Is he someone who needs the ball in his hands? If so, he may benefit Brooklyn as a sixth man. He has good size and shows promise on the defensive end (3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor). After a red-shirt year, the pressure in Brooklyn will ratchet higher in 2021. Finding the correct role for LeVert will be paramount.

9. Ben Simmons has a back injury that will sideline him at least two weeks. Joel Embiid’s shoulder gets re-tested next week. Al Horford doesn’t fit, and rumors swirl that Philadelphia will try to move him over the summer. The 76ers’ season can be saved with a run to the Finals, but is that realistic? The injuries never stop, and the pieces don’t fit. If the likely implosion occurs in May, Brett Brown will get canned and Simmons or Embiid (likely Simmons) will be on the trading block. Have fun with that Elton Brand.

10. Per usual, dysfunction, injury, and in-fighting plagued Sacramento this season. Though a strong second half has them on the edge of the Western Conference playoff race, the Kings organization still cannot get out of its own way. Buddy Hield and Dewayne Dedmon (before being traded to Atlanta) fought with teammates and the organization early, and De’Aaron Fox’s injuries almost killed any shot the franchise had of carrying over success from last season’s 39 win team. Perhaps the quickest player in the league, Fox speeds up Sacto’s pace, allowing Marvin Bagley (only 13 games played this season), Hield, Richaun Holmes, and Bogdan Bogdanovic to excel in the open court. The Kings are surging behind a healthy Fox, winners of three straight and up to 9th in the West. A future exists where the Kings are a perennial Western Conference playoff team and Fox an annual All-Star. Can this young core overcome their inept organization?

 

Andre Drummond? Sure

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News

Andre Drummond will not change the fortunes of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Should they have made the deal? Absolutely. Drummond is a two time former All-Star, the league leader in rebounding, and an upgrade at the center position. The second-round pick used to acquire him will fall at the end of the 2023 draft. The money the Cavs will pay him this year and next, if he picks up his $28 million dollar option (almost a guarantee), is of no use to the organization this summer. Drummond’s contract will be of the expiring variety in 2021 and will be an asset at next year’s deadline to swap short term money for longer contracts if cap strapped teams are looking to clean their books ahead of summer 2021 and a stout free agent class. A year and a half look at one of the top five centers in the game is worth the price Koby Altman paid for an organization in the early stages of a deep rebuild. Still, don’t expect Drummond to turn this ship around.

The Cavs’ biggest weaknesses are youth, transition defense, half-court defense, rim protection, ball movement, and turnovers. Drummond has been in the league eight years and may provide strong leadership to the young guys, but he helps little in the other deficient categories. While he averages 1.7 blocks per game, Drummond allows opponents to shoot 65% against him in the restricted area (NBA.com), ranking him in the bottom half of the league. His overall defensive rating is 110.9, worst of his career. He does, however, rank third in the league in steals (2 per game). While his size is an asset, he isn’t a stout defender and won’t improve the Cavs on that end of the floor.

On offense, Drummond leads the league in offensive rebounding. He positions himself well and can use his size and athletic ability to clean up after his teammates. The Cavs now have the 1st and 3rd ranked offensive rebounders in the league (Tristan Thompson). He’s a good pick and roll screener (14th in screen assists, 17th in screen assist points) and will clear space for Sexton and Garland in the half court. He’s improved his passing, and he and Love can have success off each other in high-low actions. After that, it gets murky. He shoots less that 40% outside 3 feet, ranks 466th in the league with a 15.7% turnover percentage, and shoots 58% from the line.

This is the stuff Drummond will do for the offense. Can the guards can get him the ball?

Drummond will have some gaudy stat lines; expect a few 20/20 games. But will his skill set produce victories? From Detroit’s perspective, he wasn’t leading their team to wins and makes a pile of cash. They thought it best to cut bait now for nothing in fear of him picking up his $28 million player option next season. They preferred cap space over Drummond.

Is he an upgrade over Tristan Thompson? This trade signals the franchise’s desire, or Thompson’s, to separate after the season. They pay Drummond 10 million more per, but their skill sets are the same. Thompson has been a hard worker throughout his career, stepping into a leadership role after the departure of LeBron James. Will Drummond do the same?

The tough reality for NBA old schoolers to accept is that one-dimensional centers in an era of pace and space are obsolete. The Cavs played Drummond off the floor in 2016 during their first round match-up in the playoffs. Drummond couldn’t guard anyone in the James/Irving/Love/Smith/Jefferson closing lineup and wasn’t good enough offensively to justify court time down in fourth quarters. With so many teams forsaking offensive rebounding for transition defense, they procure rebounds in other ways, without a behemoth inside. Still, with Drummond’s obvious flaws, it was a price worth paying for Cleveland. Maybe Drummond can add to his game and become a winning player. Maybe his leadership skills will develop and he’ll be a positive influence on the young guards. Maybe he’ll develop a friendship with Kevin Love and settle Love’s frequent outbursts. Doubtful, but in the position the franchise is in, this was a chance worth taking. (Just don’t sign him to a multi-year extension. Yikes.)

What’s What Around the League

1.The sight of Houston’s small ball lineup on the floor shocks the system. With no one on the roster over 6’7” slated to get meaningful minutes, this experiment, executed by Daryl Morey, was the next logical step in the Rockets’ push to the edges of analytics. Will it work? Clint Capela didn’t make them a Finals contender; this risk is more a Hail Mary than another significant shift in the way teams play the game. They will get destroyed on defense, the size mismatches they’ll face in the Western Conference are significant. The Lakers, Nuggets, and Jazz will feast in the paint, wearing out the likes of P. J. Tucker, Thabo Sefolosha, and Robert Covington over a 7 game series. But wow, do they get the looks on offense. Surrounded by mismatches at every position, Houston gets open corner 3s and layups off isolations with ease. The spacing is ridiculous, and James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the perfect duo to take advantage. Listen, the Rockets aren’t making the Western Conference Finals, and were never going to. But their quirky new take on team building is something to gawk at.

2. My do the Andrew Wiggins takes change when a respected NBA franchise trades for him. The shock of the Warriors trading for an inefficient scorer and subpar defender still hasn’t worn off. Since Bob Myers has gained clout around the league for building champions, however, he receives the benefit of the doubt. This is the best he could have gotten out of D’Angelo Russell? The positional fit is better, but Russell is a more talented basketball player. Russell isn’t perfect, but has more worth around the league than Wiggins. Why not keep Russell until next season’s trade deadline, testing his fit next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson after they get healthy? Minnesota has been salivating over Russell since the summer; this trade wasn’t going anywhere. Hell, the T-Wolves would’ve gotten more desperate to make this move as the losses mounted and Karl-Anthony Towns’ frustrations grew. Is it possible Wiggins blooms under a competent NBA franchise? Sure, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

3. There is no better organization at finding and developing talent in the league than the Toronto Raptors, and it isn’t close. Winners of 15 straight, the Raps continue to plug 2nd round picks and undrafted players into the lineup, turning them into contributors.
Pascal Siakam– 27th overall pick
Norman Powell– late 2nd rounder
Fred VanVleet– undrafted
Terence Davis– undrafted
Chris Boucher– undrafted
All key cogs in Toronto’s excellent season; all virtual afterthoughts on draft day. With strong veteran leadership and championship pedigree, the Raptors have has good a chance as anyone in the East to upset Milwaukee. Siakam can bother Giannis defensively and no one on the roster fears the Bucks. Masai Ujiri has built a masterpiece in Toronto.

4. Though a huge disappointment in his career, seeing the Hornets buyout Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was another lesson in the direction the league has taken. 15-20 years ago, a perimeter defender of Kidd-Gilchrist’s ilk was still useful; Bruce Bowen and Tony Allen had successful careers in the role. There just isn’t a spot on the floor for non-shooting wings anymore, regardless of how well they lock up their man on the other end. The spacing issues they create shrink the floor; throw in a poor shooting big man and your offense is toast. The speed and pace of the league is fun, though the amount of 3s being taken is reaching a tipping point. Here’s hoping lock down perimeter defenders don’t go the way of the center position.

5. Gordon Hayward seemed to be returning to All-Star form before an injury early in the season cost him a month. Though still playing well, his scoring, rebounding, and shooting numbers are all down since his return. The Celtics are in the mix for the 2 seed in the East along with Toronto, Miami, Philadelphia, and Indiana, but seem to lack that something needed to go toe-to-toe with Milwaukee in the playoffs. Kemba Walker has established himself as the leader, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were both All-Star worthy after subpar years alongside Kyrie Irving last year. Still, Boston needs Hayward. His shooting and size on defense will be key in the playoffs; he must help Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter rebound against bigger squads. The Celtics are talented, and Kemba knows how to hit big shots in pressure moments. Still, they’ll need peak Gordon Hayward to advance.

6. Marcus Smart’s flopping will get him injured.

7. Memphis didn’t waste any time cutting Dion Waiters after acquiring him from Miami, and who could blame them? Waiters’ act would be toxic in that young locker room. Desperation in L.A. has earned him a workout with the Lakers, however. With zero path to improvement because of the assets given to trade for Anthony Davis, the buyout market is the only way for the Lakers to add talent. Still, Dion Waiters? No one loves the roller coaster ride Waiters provides more than I, and LeBron has a way of integrating troubled players into his orbit, but he failed with Waiters once already. When J. R. Smith got shipped to Cleveland, he knew it was his last chance and fell in line. Waiters still seems to think he’s the best player in the league, itching for a chance to prove how wronged he’s been. For the Lakers’ sake, they should stay away. For entertainment purposes, sign Dion up ASAP.

8. With All-Star Weekend on the horizon, let’s pay homage to the greatest dunk contest performance of all time.

9. What to make of Kristaps Porzingis? Luka has missed six straight, and Porzingis has averaged 27 in those games, though he’s missed 2 himself. The fit with Doncic hasn’t gelled as expected, however, and the Mavs have fallen to 7th in the West, losers of 5 of their last 8. Porzingis/Doncic lineups outscore opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions, a ‘meh’ number considering both of their net overall ratings is 6.3. They are too young and have played too little together to make sweeping judgments on them as teammates, however. Injuries have cut into their time together on the court. The pick and roll between them should devastate in time. Let’s see how they fare when they get healthy in the playoffs.

10. Now just two games behind the Rockets and breathing down their necks for the 5th seed, the play of Oklahoma City this season defends Chris Paul’s career. Paul is one of the great point guards to play the game. He’s elevated so-so supporting casts throughout his career, getting rosters into the playoffs that otherwise would have languished deep in the lottery. He made those above average Rockets’ teams great; his injury likely cost the franchise a title in 2018. Paul’s failures in the postseason and lack of a title hurts his resume, but he never shared the floor with the same talent as his peers. This season’s Thunder squad puts last year’s, with Russell Westbrook and Paul George at the helm, to shame, all because of Paul’s brilliance. Give the man his due.

 

It’s Always Dysfunctional in Cleveland

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Kevin Love, NBA, Trade Deadline, Tristan Thompson

The Cleveland Cavaliers are teetering. An inept franchise for most of its existence, a lucky bounce of a few ping pong balls and LeBron James’ desire to win a championship in his home precinct gave Cavs fans a brief sniff of success. The four straight Finals appearances and the 2016 title are over, however, and the remaining players from those glory days are unhappy with the organization, not long for Cleveland.

Kevin Love’s dissatisfaction with the Cavs franchise has been no secret. He’s pouted on the court and off while sporting a fluctuating effort level. His contract makes him nearly untradeable, as does his attitude. Woj reported on Sunday a trade wasn’t happening; the gulf between what the Cavs feel Love is worth versus how the rest of the league views him is too large. If Love was supportive of the front office and his teammates, I’d suggest keeping him and holding out for top dollar. He isn’t, however, and his poor attitude and disinterested demeanor are hurting everyone involved. The young guys are watching; it’s time to cut bait. Love is poisoning his impressionable teammates. The front office waited to trade Love, hoping he’d help their young core develop and add wins. He’s done neither. The move backfired, and they’re forced to either sell low or deal with his poor attitude for the rest of the season.

While he’s been a good soldier, Tristan Thompson has now voiced his desire for a trade, according to Joe Vardon of the Athletic. Thompson has defended his coach and teammates while giving maximum effort on the court. He sees an escape hatch, however. He’s played well this season and could help a contender with his hustle and championship pedigree. Will the Cavs agree to his demands? The organization covets 1st round picks, but Thompson is unlikely to bring one back in a trade. Will they settle for two second rounders? Can they pry a young player from someone? Since Thompson is a free agent at the end of the season, expect little in return. Chris Fedor reports the Cavs will hold firm with their desire for a 1st rounder. He’s leaving at the end of the season, however. Will Koby Altman stand his ground?

What happened? Two vets who wanted to remain in the organization are running from it. Though the front office expressed a desire to remain competitive after LeBron left, Thompson and Love knew a long rebuild was a possibility. Perhaps they overrated their abilities to produce wins on their own. Maybe, however, this organization is a mess behind the scenes. Dan Gilbert’s best season as an owner without LeBron is 33-49. He’s employed nine coaches in 17 years. Koby Altman was his first GM to get a second contract. Now rumors have surfaced that John Beilein won’t see another year.

This is absurd. The Browns’ organization is the gold standard for ineptitude in all of pro sports, yet the Cavs are begging for consideration. Kyrie Irving, LeBron James twice, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson have run or are running from Cleveland. Players who should be pillars are mere tent poles. Dan Gilbert had eleven years of LeBron James and won 1 title. A consensus top three player of all-time led the Cavs for eleven years and the franchise produced ONE title. Breaking down Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Kevin Porter may be a fruitless exercise. Regardless of how good they are, or how good they’ll become, they’ll never overcome a rudderless organization. The championship years supposedly taught them how to be a stable and consistent franchise. No signs of competency exist, and if Beilein gets canned after one season, just the second season of an arduous rebuild, forget about the Cleveland Cavaliers being anything more than an NBA laughingstock for a long, long time.

What’s What Around the League

1.When viewing Hawks’ games early in the season, one needed to overt their eyes to avoid the disaster that was Cam Reddish. Thrust into the starting lineup at first tip, Reddish lacked confidence, aware he wasn’t ready and didn’t belong. In his first ten games in the league, starting 8 and averaging 23.5 minutes per, he averaged 5.5 points on 25% shooting, 19% from 3, and dished less than 2 assists per. Reddish contributed to the horrid start by Atlanta, predicted by some to contend for a playoff spot. The third wheel last year at Duke behind Zion and R.J. Barrett, Reddish’s reputation as a passive, willing bystander held. Fast forward to last week against Philly, an impressive Hawks’ win. Reddish was key in the victory, canning a 3, scooting back door for a dunk, and dishing to John Collins for the game-sealing slam, all in the last three minutes. His numbers over the last 10 (14 points, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 43% shooting, 45% from 3) represent a drastic change. His confidence is surfacing, and he’s flashing the talent many saw from him in high school. The Hawks have disappointed, but their young quartet of Trae Young, DeAndre Hunter, John Collins, and Reddish at least show a path to relevancy. Last night’s trade for Clint Capela adds interior defense and rim running on a good contract to the young quartet. Atlanta is getting there.

2. Has Russell Westbrook changed his game? The talk after his trade to Houston centered on his 3 point shooting, or lack thereof. Through Christmas, Russ was bad, shooting 23% on 5 a game from deep. Houston loves 3’s, but analytics adores other shots as well; those in the restricted area. While Westbrook can’t shoot, he sure as hell can get to the rim. Since December 25, he’s only taking 2 from deep per game, but is on the attack. In January, 63% of his shots are at the rim, 69% from within 10 feet. He’s shooting 52% from the field and averaging 32 during one of the most efficient stretches of his career. While he’s flourishing, however, his partner has struggled. Over that same span, James Harden is shooting 35%, 27% from 3. Can these two get on the same page? Both are outstanding, two of the greatest with the ball in history. If they can’t meld their games though, another disappointment awaits them in May. Russ has adapted to Houston, no longer being the alpha dog, and their playing style. Is it time for Harden to give a little?

3. This Lonzo assist. Though they’ll struggle to make the playoffs this year, the excitement in New Orleans is palpable. Ball’s game is the perfect complement to Zion.

4. One ancillary effect of referees’ quick whistle on jump shots is the horrid flopping and side jumping of shooters into defenders trying to draw fouls. It’s ugly to watch and embarrassing for the players. Just shoot the ball. Untouched players, humiliated after watching a one-armed heave from the hip careen off the side of the backboard, make themselves look worse by over complaining to the refs for a foul that never occurred. Quit flailing and shoot the ball to make it, not get fouled.

5. The Timberwolves are a disaster, and after trading away point guard Jeff Teague to Atlanta, Shabazz Napier was a big part of the problem. Once drafted by the Heat in a desperate attempt to re-sign LeBron James (oof), Napier took over the starting point guard role after Teague’s departure and the Wolves haven’t won since. Napier misses wide open cutters, takes ill-advised shots, can’t shoot, and is too small to guard anyone. Anything else? Minnesota should be a Western Conference force by now, yet haven’t been able to teach Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins how to play defense, nor have they built a stable roster around them. An effective point guard is a must, yet they handed the reins to someone in danger of being out of the league. The Wolves traded Napier away in the big four teamer last night along with Robert Covington. Perhaps a move to acquire……

6. All the injuries pushed Golden State to the bottom of the standings, but they won’t be there long. Steph and Klay will be back next year, so what will become of D’Angelo Russell? A good scorer and playmaker, this year was a test to see the fit alongside Curry. The injuries nixed that plan, however. The team above, Minnesota, tried signing Russell last summer, but got usurped when Brooklyn swapped him in a sign and trade for Kevin Durant. Now at the trade deadline the rumors are swirling again. Russell and Towns are friends; he would solve their point guard situation. What does Minnesota have that G.S. wants, however? Andrew Wiggins? Please. Minnesota is the desperate party here. The Warriors plan to re-enter the title mix next year with a healthy roster, does Wiggins seem like a championship level player? They’ll need a third team to satisfy all parties. Stay tuned.

7. Kings

8. Julius Randle is a good player and could be an important piece on a contender one day. His focus is lacking, though. He’s chasing numbers instead of wins, which is fine; most young players do. On the court, he’s scatterbrained. In the first half in Cleveland Monday, he twice asked coach Mike Miller to review obvious calls against him, stopped playing to complain to a ref and allowed a Collin Sexton offensive rebound and score, and airballed a 3 with no one around, yelling toward another referee. Randle can be a useful NBA player, maybe even a difference maker. First, he needs to get his head right.

9. The Memphis Grizzlies and Andre Iguodala agreed after they traded for him he would sit out until the Griz found a contender to send him to. Nothing has materialized, and all parties are antsy ahead of the deadline. Iguodala wants to play for a title, and Memphis has stated they won’t release him if a trade doesn’t happen. Memphis’ young guys have spoken on Twitter.

Then Steph Curry clapped back.

10. The NBA, home of expert level pettiness. I understand the young guys feel unwanted, but let’s settle. The team and player were fine with this arrangement in the off-season. No one saw the Grizzlies in the playoff hunt this year. Still, they aren’t winning a title and regardless of how much money he’s being paid, asking a 36-year-old who’s played in the last 5 Finals to hitch up to a rebuild is a tough ask. Here’s hoping a trade to Philly comes to fruition.

 

NBA Trade Season

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, NBA

This may very well be the worst stretch of basketball the Cleveland Cavaliers have played all season. In late November-early December, they lost two games by 40, on the road against playoff teams in Dallas and Philadelphia, however. They dropped three in a row last week, all at home to bad Eastern Conference teams (Knicks, Wizards, Bulls), all by double digits.

The turnovers are grotesque. They’re averaging over 16 a game. Combining passivity with the ball, confusion with what to do with the ball, and the wrong guys handling it contribute to a looseness that is unacceptable. Certain guys shouldn’t be dribbling. Better offensive design would help. Run sets that don’t put players in a position where they’re forced to do too much. And get into those plays faster. The Cavs have a blasé attitude on offense until the shot clock reaches single digits. Too much confusion and too little movement leads to over dribbling and rushed shots. The Cavs must develop a sense of purpose on the offensive end if the turnovers are to subside.

With the team fumbling along and the trade deadline nearing, the attention turns toward Koby Altman and the Cavs’ front office. Will anyone get flipped? Who is most valuable to teams looking to strengthen their playoff chances? Who do the Cavs want to move?

Not Getting Traded

Darius Garland
Kevin Porter Jr.
Dylan Windler
The three rookies drafted last year have shown the most promise, save Windler, who hasn’t played a down and won’t; he has no trade value and the Cavs want to see him healthy. Porter has shown flashes of star quality, as has Garland. If anyone on the current roster makes an All-Star team, it’ll be someone from this group. The Cavs will hold on to these three.

Not Getting Traded, But…..

Collin Sexton
Larry Nance Jr.
Nance is a young, athletic big who shows well in all aspects of the game, and he wants to be in Cleveland. He’s making 12 million this year and his contract deescalates, down to 9.6 million in 22-23. Nance isn’t going anywhere unless a team approaches them with an absurd offer (not happening). Sexton is a bulldog who can score. His shot selection is iffy, he sometimes plays selfishly, yet he’s the best player on the team scoring with the ball in his hands. He’s young, so the Cavs will allow him to grow, hoping he continues to improve. Playoff teams would like his scoring off the bench, but won’t offer enough to entice the Cavs.

What will you give us?

Cedi Osman
Dante Exum

Capable NBA players, Osman and Exum have little value outside Cleveland. Exum has dealt with injury the entirety of his career, but shows flashes defensively and scored 28 earlier this month. Osman is best fitted as a 7 or 8 man on a playoff team, giving solid D and decent 3 ball shooting for 15-20 minutes per night. Each has a role in the league, and the Cavs would move them, especially as pieces in part of a bigger deal. They won’t bring anything on their own, however, and will probably still be in Cleveland after the deadline.

The Assets

Kevin Love
Tristan Thompson

The two vets with rings, both rumored to be on the block since training camp, are the obvious trade pieces. Both could help playoff teams. Are there fits anywhere? Love’s massive contract is a sticking point; he’s due another 91 mil after this year. The Cavs have held out for a 1st rounder and another young player so far, but have Love’s actions changed their stance? Love seems disinterested and is no longer setting a good example for his young teammates. He has some instance once a month, apologizes, plays well for a week, then becomes dispassionate again. Lather, rinse, repeat. I felt all along the Cavs should hold out for as much as possible and were in no need of trading Love. His behavior has changed that, however. Love wants to play for a winner and his attitude yo-yos. Perhaps both parties need to move on. Will his contract allow the team to move him? Hard to see the Cavs giving Love away without that 1st round pick.

Thompson’s situation is different. In the last year of his contract, TT can walk with no compensation in the off-season, so the Cavs need insight on his thought process. Thompson plays hard and seems invested in the rebuild. He sets a good example for his young teammates. He’s defended rookie head coach John Beilein multiple times. Does he want to be in Cleveland? If the answer is yes, the Cavs should do whatever it takes to sign him. He’ll provide leadership that young teams need to learn how to win. If he wants out, however, Thompson might provide the most return. His expiring contract won’t hurt his new team’s books, and his hustle, rebounding, switchability on defense, and postseason experience would be a boon for any contender. This is Altman’s trickiest decision.

Please, Help Yourself

Matthew Dellavedova
John Henson
Brandon Knight
Ante Zizic

All players on the last year of their contracts, the Cavs front office would love to use these expiring deals to flip to cap strapped teams, taking back longer contracts with more money attached in exchange for draft picks. This strategy has worked well in the past, but a weak free agent class this summer may cause teams to hold still. There aren’t an abundance of bad deals around, and teams aren’t looking to clear space for max slots this summer. They’ll scour the league, looking to jump into multi-team deals if another franchise needs a place to dump money, but the likelihood any of these guys gets moved is low.

What’s What Around the League

1.Zion’s first week has lived up to the hype. Athletic, smooth and smart, Williamson will change the league. His instincts are honed; he sees the game at a high level. His first assist as a pro showed his skills as a passer. He knows the right moment to provide help on defense. His size, speed, and strength allow him to get where ever he wants on the floor. It’s the reason he’s shooting 63% from the field and why he’ll always be an efficient player. The Pelicans are plus 16 per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. So why is he only playing in short bursts? They aren’t pulling him because he’s winded, it’s a load management play. If he’s healthy enough to play 20 minutes in an NBA game, he’s healthy enough to play 28-30. No study exists that suggests an extra 8-10 minutes on the floor leads to higher injury rates. New Orleans needs him on the floor; he makes them better, plus Zion needs minutes to get comfortable with the NBA game. His teammates need to play with him for their benefit. Get Zion on the floor and keep him there, New Orleans.

Excellent find for Zion’s 1st assist

2. Rumblings out of L.A. suggest some Clipper players are unhappy with the preferential treatment stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George receive from the coaching staff and management. Guess what, grow up. Stars have been and will always receive preferential treatment. How did the Clips fare without those two? The eight seed and a first round loss against the Warriors in the playoffs. Now they’re title contenders. Anyone else on that roster capable of putting a team on their back and leading it to a title as Kawhi did in Toronto last year? Thought so. If the Clippers make a deep run in the playoffs, it’ll be because of Leonard and George, and everyone on the team will get more recognition and cash. Get in your lane and stay in it.

3. What other player in the league’s history makes this pass? Few possess the size, let alone the instincts and vision to pull it off. Magic, maybe.

4. Christian Wood is one of those guys; stock dropped leading up to the draft, went undrafted, bounced from team to team, up and down from the G-League. Can he stick in the league? Wood is now 24. 6’10’, athletic with range, he’s getting a chance in Detroit to play steady minutes and has shown NBA rotation player talent. Since Blake Griffin’s injury, sidelining him for the season, Wood averages 11.5, 6 boards and 1 block in 21 minutes per, shooting 53% from the field and 38% from 3. He gets to the line, taking 4 free throws in those 20 minutes. The Pistons future is murky; Andre Drummond trade rumors have swirled for a while; will Blake Griffin ever be healthy? Derrick Rose is a nice story, but is he in Detroit’s plans? They need guys like Wood to change the trajectory of the rebuild. Finding and developing guys who have slipped through the cracks is a necessity for a franchise that isn’t a free agency destination. Is Wood one of those players? Too early to say, but length and athleticism from someone who can shoot the 3 isn’t a bad place to start.

5. Michael Carter-Williams, ugh. A former Rookie of the Year in Philly during The Process, Williams just doesn’t have it. His size is nice, he makes for a switchable asset on defense. He can’t shoot, however, and has zero feel. He’ll miss an easy oop to Aaron Gordon, either afraid to throw it or unable to see it develop. An airballed 18 footer, an ill-advised 3. When shooting 39% from the field and 23% from 3, you better be a lockdown defender or a capable playmaker. Williams is neither.

6. Who doesn’t love Kyle Korver? One of the top five shooters in NBA history, Korver fits in Milwaukee, giving the Bucks knock down 3 point shooting in 17 minutes per game. 161 of Korver’s 201 shots on the season have been 3’s, and coach Budenholzer calls beautiful sets to get Korver open looks. Will the Bucks be able to play Korver in the postseason, however? He’s an extreme liability defensively. Smart on that end, he has to cheat so blatantly to make up for his lack of athleticism that he gives up easy stuff to smart offenses. Korver could be handy if the Buck offense needs a boost for 3-5 minutes in the postseason, but he’ll be a spectator in May and June. His 3 ball shooting could swing a postseason game, however, and here’s hoping he gets a ring to cap off an outstanding career.

7. Go easy on’em, DeAaron.

8. It should scare NBA players to put the ball on the floor anywhere around Jrue Holiday. Other than Kawhi Leonard when he’s engaged, no player in the league gets his hands on more balls defensively than Holiday. He leads the league in deflections (4.5 per game), is 6th in loose balls recovered (1.5) and 7th in steals (1.7). Holiday disrupts opposing offenses at the most important position; he defends and frustrates point guards like no other. He and Lonzo Ball, each with great size and instincts, make getting into sets hell for the opposition.

9. Since two of his draft mates are starting the All-Star game, it’s easy to dismiss DeAndre Ayton as a mistake by the Phoenix Suns. While they would draft Luka Doncic or Trae Young over the 7 footer if they got a do-over, Ayton has played well since his return from a 25 game drug suspension. He has good footwork in the post, allowing him to get buckets around the rim with ease. Ayton’s improving as a rim protector as well(1.4 blocks per compared to 0.9 last year), and the Suns are 4 points better defensively when he’s on the floor. Over his last seven contests, he’s averaging 20 and 13. While he isn’t Luka, don’t label him a bust just yet.

10. RIP Kobe, Gianna, John, Keri, Alyssa, Christina, Ara, Sarah, and Payton. There aren’t words capable of soothing hearts after tragedy, only love. Be kind to your fellow man, flaws and all. The world is tough and unforgiving, impossible to understand. Always, always choose love.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Collin Sexton is Russell Westbrook*

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton

Collin Sexton is a year and a half into his NBA career and the questions have plagued him since his first dribble. Who’s game does his most resemble? Can he become Player X or Player Y? The public compares no professional athletes to their counterparts like those in the NBA. Sexton’s game doesn’t allow for a straight one-to-one comparison, however. Still, he looks an awful lot like Russell Westbrook.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Sexton will never be Westbrook. He will not win an MVP, and he’ll never average a triple double. Chances are he won’t make even one All-Star game. Sexton’s lack of size compared to Russ prevents him from being as good a rebounder from the guard position. He doesn’t possess Westbrook’s abilities as a passer, either. For comparison’s sake, lets use Russ’ second year as a pro to compare to Sexton this year. That season, Russ averaged 8 assists. Sexton averages 2.3 to this point in the season. Westbrook played with Kevin Durant and Sexton has never shared the floor with anyone close to that talent level. Still, Sexton plays with blinders on. He has one goal, and that is to score.

So why make this comparison? Simple. Both are bulls on the floor. They’re players you want to go into battle with. Sexton is the hardest working player on the floor every night. He’s diving for loose balls. He goes hard at the rim, regardless of who is in his way, sometimes to his detriment. No one can accuse Sexton of not caring or not wanting to win. When he takes the floor, he believes he’s the best player on it. He backs down from no challenge; he’s unafraid to play the game his way. Sound familiar?

Sexton is one of, if not the quickest, players in the league, a title Westbrook owned for many years. It’s Sexton’s greatest strength. He’s lethal in the open floor and attacks if given space in the half court. If he sees daylight off a pick and roll, he’s at the rim. His speed frees him for most his shots. It’s his one elite level skill. While he doesn’t have the athleticism to unleash the rim rattling dunks Westbrook is known for, both end up at the rim because of their quickness with the ball in their hands.

Sexton and Westbrook also love the mid-range shot, a habit the Cavs have weaned Sexton from. The Rockets, a team that detests mid-range jumpers, only allow Russ these shots; he hoists most of his team’s unanalytic jumpers. In the first half of his rookie year, Sexton shot too often from mid-range before the Cavs organization steered him toward more advantageous spots on the floor. Last year, 21% of Sexton’s shots were from the 16 foot-3 point line range. This year that number is 6%. In Russ’ second year, 38% came from there; it’s the same percentage this year. While Westbrook got caught in the switch from mid-range jumpers to 3 pointers, Sexton’s push away from the basket came early in his career.

Both attack the rim. Sexton takes 32% of his shots at the rim; Westbrook took 39% his second season. The difference is their 3 point shooting. 9% of Westbrook’s shots were 3’s, making 22% of them. Sexton takes 3’s at a 21% clip, canning 32%. Neither is a great shooter; the NBA game calls for Sexton to take more shots from behind the arc. Shooters shoot, however. Sexton averages 16 attempts per game and shoots 45% from the field, Westbrook averaged 21 on 42% shooting. Both are inefficient scorers, though the Cavs and, to his credit, Sexton, work to get him shots either from 3 or at the rim.

A Westbrookian possession

A frustrating part of Sexton’s game continues to be possessions in which he dribbles, dribbles, and dribbles before hoisting an 18 footer. Think back to the rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden on the floor at once. How many times in close games would Westbrook grab a rebound, dribble up the floor, probe, probe, probe the defense, wave off a screen, beat his man off the dribble, then pull up for a foul line jumper? Frustration from fans and media never deterred Westbrook, however, proving his strength and self-confidence.

These possessions I could do without

Again, Sexton does not play with the same talent as a young Westbrook, but the complaints are the same. Too often, Sexton takes control of the offense, leaning on his own talent instead of attempting to include his teammates. If he scores, great. If he misses, he’s selfish and unable to read the situation and involve his teammates. Sexton’s self-confidence can hold him back.

The confidence, hustle, and self-belief in both Collin Sexton and Russell Westbrook make for a good comparison. Each leaves every ounce they have on the floor, using devastating speed and hard work to their advantage. They need their confidence and ability to handle criticism to withstand the noise directed toward their unorthodox games. Both are frustrating, yet marvelous players to watch. Sexton will never reach the All-Star, MVP level of Westbrook, but he’ll continue to fight his way through the league. A poor man’s Brodie.

What’s What Around the League

1. The Ballad of Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota took an upbeat turn at the start of this season, yet the old tune has returned in 2020. A fun start, he’s regressed to the mean. His shooting percentages are now lower than his career averages and the T-Wolves are back to their old, haphazard ways. A thwarted comeback in Indiana showed his shortfalls. Wiggins helped lead the squad back from a 10 point 4th quarter deficit, attacking the basket for layups and drawn fouls. In the last two minutes, however, he missed 2 shots at the rim and stepped out of bounds, turning the ball over in a crucial spot. While some players step up during crunch time, Wiggins retreats.

2. No matter who Milwaukee runs onto the floor, Mike Budenholzer’s squad doesn’t miss a beat. A hodge podge of youngish players mixed with seasoned vets have coalesced around Giannis Antetokounmpo, complementing the MVP perfectly. George Hill leads the league in 3 point shooting at 53%. The Lopez twins play outstanding interior defense, masking the deficiencies of their teammates. But at the center, Giannis dominates, sucking the air out of opponents. While Miami is feisty, Philly talented, and Boston and Toronto lurking, the Bucks have no excuse but to cruise to the Finals. Can they win it? The pressure then will fall onto Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Miscast as 2nd and 3rd options on a contender, each would be better off a rung lower on the hierarchy. Will they step up in the playoffs, giving Giannis the smidge of help he’ll need for Milwaukee to hoist the trophy?

3. This is nothing more than a Ja Morant stan account at this point.

4. Though his teammate owns the award, here’s a vote for Montrezl Harrell for sixth man of the year. He averages 19 and 7 for the Clips, giving them a presence inside on an otherwise perimeter heavy team. While Ivica Zubac starts, it’s Harrell who plays the important minutes. He forms an unstoppable pick and roll combo with Lou Williams; his mixture of quickness, strength, and touch around the rim makes him unguardable for most bigs in the league. While Williams can gyrate from scorching to ice cold, Harrell is a rock. Doc Rivers knows what he’s getting when Trez steps on the floor. Will his defense hold up in the playoffs, however? Match-ups with Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, and Nikola Jokic await. L.A. will count on Harrell to guard these All-Star bigs in crunch time. How he performs on that end will determine the Clippers’ fate.

5. The Grizzlies are on fire, having won 7 in a row and 9 of 11, taking over the 8th seed in the West. Ja Morant leads the charge, but don’t overlook the success of his backcourt mate Dillon Brooks. The Griz have just one loss when he scores at least 20, and during the winning streak he’s averaging 21 on 46% shooting, 48% from 3. Brooks makes a perfect safety valve for Morant, a spot up shooter he can find when other avenues close. The most help he gives the rookie, however, is on defense. Ja is just 6’3” and a wiry 175 pounds. At 6’7”, 200, Brooks possesses the size to guard bigger, stronger wings Morant struggles with. The Grizzles have the look of a franchise that will contend for the next decade. Configuring the correct pieces around Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. will decide how much of a force Memphis will be. Brooks is a free agent after the season, and a must re-sign for the Grizzles front office. He’ll get a large raise from the 1.6 million he’s making this year, but with just 57 million on the books for 2020-21, the time for Memphis to pay up is now, before Morant and Jackson Jr. are due.

6. The definition of a bad NBA shot.

Wide open 3, two dribbles into a contested 18 footer

7. Zion awaits, and the NBA world is atwitter with excitement for his debut. The Pelicans have warmed the seat for him, winning 10 out of their last 15 to pull closer in the race for the West’s final playoff slot. Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are playing well, so how will the rookie fit? Williamson is unlike any player to enter the league. His size and explosiveness allow him to get whatever he wants on the floor offensively and defensively; his 71% shooting from the field during the preseason attests to that. Still, entering the lineup for a hot team in the middle of the season with roles already defined will be a challenge. As great as Zion is and will be, his first few weeks may be more difficult than some expect.

NBA fans on Zion debut day

8. Why is Milwaukee so good? The hustle and ball movement on this play highlights the great cohesiveness Mike Budenholzer has instilled.

9. Whenever Kyrie Irving opens his mouth, controversy follows. This week’s media uproar surrounding Irving involves him mentioning after a loss to the Sixers that the Nets were “1 or 2” players short, inferring that Brooklyn wouldn’t be title contenders until Kevin Durant returns. Is he wrong? Kyrie mentioned a few of his teammates’ names as good NBA players, but left others out. I doubt he meant to disparage anyone, however. Irving has crossed a threshold; everything he says -or doesn’t say- causes a stir. Yes, media members are important. Yes, players talking to them adds interest in the league. But does everything have to be something?

10. Kyrie doesn’t spit out typical player speak. Everyone claims to love candid interviews until they hear one. Like him or not, Kyrie speaks about how he feels at that moment. The backlash he receives will change how he interviews at some point, however. A person can only take so much criticism. If you respect the player’s right to his opinions, don’t chastise him for it when he expresses them or nitpick a name put on or left off a list given in a post-game interview. Though Twitter would disagree, you don’t have to voice an opinion on everything.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers Midseason Report

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, NBA

After last night’s beat down against the Clippers, the Cavaliers have reached the halfway point of their season. The team resembles their makeup in every sense. The young ones dazzle and frustrate. Seasoned vets are at once having career years and boiling over in frustration at the losing and dumb mistakes. John Beilein, the 66-year-old rookie head coach, must be spinning. His team started well, drawing praise as a scrappy, play hard bunch. The valleys have been low, however. Criticism of Beilein early for hosting long film sessions and being a fundamentals stickler ruffled the team. Last week, the slug/thug controversy led to questions of whether he would keep his job. Throw in Love’s tantrum directed at Collin Sexton for missing him being guarded in the post against Chris Paul, and the team has faced a season’s worth of adversity to this point. The thing to focus on is what hasn’t happened.

The Cavs haven’t splintered. It would have been easy for Tristan Thompson to demand a trade or for Kevin Love to head home, refusing to play another game for the organization. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland have had every opportunity to throw their coach under the bus and brush off the old heads as past their prime. As a whole, the team blows leads late with turnovers, poor shot selection, and shoddy defense. Through the nonsense, however, strong leadership has won. Beilein deserves credit, as do Love, Thompson, John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova, and Brandon Knight. Too much controversy has reached the hands of reporters, yet the bad seems only to have brought them together.

Monday night against the Lakers, the team played an excellent first half, especially on the defensive end. In the second quarter, John Henson drew a charge against Dwight Howard and the bench erupted. The Lakers’ announcing team chuckled at the reaction, commenting that it was as if the Cavs had just won the title. While funny on the outside, it represents the strength within the team. They are a tight bunch and prove as much on the floor, infighting be damned. They’ve faced their share of adversity, caused by everyone in the organization throughout the season. The Cavs are playing better, but with the trade deadline looming, face the real possibility of losing Love, Thompson, and a few late season victories. What remains, however, will be most important. If they’ve instilled at least a bit of their championship knowledge, mentality, and work ethic into the young players, their legacy will last far longer in the locker room than they could have imagined.

This Darius Garland dish made me scream out loud. Just a beautiful look and excellent awareness of all bodies on the floor. Garland is coming as a point guard. He posted his first career double-double against the Clippers, 14 points, 10 assists. His reads are quicker. He’s more decisive when passing versus shooting, and he’s finding open teammates by probing opposing defenses. The game is slowing down for him; the six assists he’s averaging since the New Year proves as much. He’s taking a YOLO 3 or two per game, which is a positive; he’s a good enough shooter to knock a few of those down. Once he does, the seeds of a good NBA player will have sprouted.

What’s What Around the League

1.Luka Doncic’s rise to the superstar level is complete. Doncic has turned into a clone of his elite level brethren, wasting no opportunity to complain, demean, and badger the referees throughout games. He’ll flop on either end of the floor, exaggerating contact, then approach the refs hands out and whiny when he doesn’t get a call. One of the league’s biggest problems, the NBA should allow refs to be more judicious when handing out technicals for complaining. The league flirted with this a few years ago, but after a spike early in the season, T’s fizzled. Superstars will get calls. Are they so conditioned to get every whistle that anything missed is an affront to them as a human being? Just stop.

2. Players who excel in the post are a rarity these days, but Domantas Sabonis does just that for the Indiana Pacers. He possesses a smooth hook he can get off against defenders of any size, PhD level footwork, and superb vision and passing skills that allow him to swing the ball to open teammates. Sabonis averages 4.3 assists per game, a high number for someone who also leads the league in possessions as a screener. He and Malcolm Brogdon have developed chemistry in the pick and roll and form one of the most lethal duos of the league’s bread and butter play. Sabonis is second in the league in screen assists (6.8), and one assumes he’ll see that number increase when Victor Oladipo returns from injury. Throw in the 13.1 rebounds per game he averages and Sabonis is invaluable to the Pacers and their outstanding start to the season. If Oladipo resembles the player he was before getting injured last year upon his return, the Pacers will be a threat in the playoffs.

3. Sekou Doumbouya made Tristan Thompson question his existence.

4. It must disappoint the Nuggets that Gary Harris’s offense hasn’t developed as hoped. His three percentage has dropped to a career low 32%; he shoots just 42% overall. His 11 points per game are 6 off the 17.5 he averaged in 2017. Denver has a plethora of options to replace Harris’ lack of scoring, however, and his team is getting their money’s worth from him defensively. Harris befuddled Luka last week during the last five minutes in the fourth quarter. The MVP candidate was 0-3 from the floor with just 1 assist in crunch time, unable to shake Harris despite running him through a myriad of screens. In the playoffs, Harris will be on the floor in the closing minutes as a defensive stopper. Will he be able to knock down important shots on the other end?

5. The Sixers have ebbed and flowed through the season, causing them to spiral to 6th in the Eastern Conference standings. Now they’ll miss Joel Embiid for at least a few weeks with a torn ligament in his finger. Will they be able to hold their ground? No one will ever consider Embiid an Iron Man; it’s one reason the team signed free agent Al Horford. Philly performed without their star against Boston on Thursday, improving to 3-0 on the year against the Celtics. Horford, who’s struggled, had one of his better games this season, Josh Richardson put up 29, and Ben Simmons played more aggressively. Philly resembles the old Cavs, floating in and out of consciousness as the season rolls along. They have won nothing, however, and can’t afford to be on the road throughout the playoffs. Maybe Embiid’s absence will help, forcing all to take a step up on the responsibility ladder. Though they’re the most talented team top to bottom in the East, something needs to shock them into coherence, or else they’ll watch the Conference Finals from home.

6. A funky release draws criticism to Lonzo Ball’s shot, but his 3s are dropping. 35% on the year and 40% since Christmas, a Lonzo Ball who can bury jumpers is an interesting NBA player. Ball is a good defender and a capable passer and playmaker. With Brandon Ingram taking a leap and Zion Williamson’s return imminent, Ball need not be a high volume scorer or a team leader. Lonzo may never make an All-Star team, but a big guard who averages 12-15, rebounds, sees the floor, and plays superb defense is a necessity for teams looking to advance in the playoffs. The Pelicans are on the rise, and Ball and Ingram are leading the charge.

7. Each NBA team has 3-4 capable ball handlers on their roster, at most. Coaches should bar anyone else attempting to take over three dribbles at a time from the court. Dribbling the basketball is a high level skill that most players, even at the NBA level, aren’t good enough to be doing regularly. Defenders are too adept at swiping the ball loose from anyone whose handles aren’t tight, and high turnover teams are allowing too many dribbles from unskilled players. Coaches need to be more proactive about who may put the ball on the floor and what each player’s purpose should be once they do so. Passes are your friend.

8. Your weekly Ja Morant highlight.

9. Utah’s second half surge seems to have begun. A disappointment early, the Jazz have won eight in a row and are resembling the contender most thought they were in October. Now the second seed in the West, Utah’s defense has stabilized. They’re only allowing 102 points per game during their win streak on 43% shooting, numbers which would rank 1st and 3rd overall on the season. Joe Ingles has played well in the starting lineup alongside Bojan Bogdanovic while Mike Conley has battled a hamstring injury, but if the Jazz hope to compete with the L.A. teams, they’ll need Conley to return to Memphis form by the playoffs.

10. The Wizards made a semi-panicky move last December, trading Kelly Oubre Jr. to Phoenix for Trevor Ariza, an ill-fated transaction. Washington was hoping to make a playoff run and needed shooting and defense they weren’t getting from Oubre. John Wall injured his Achilles, however, and the young for old trade, foolish at the time, is now downright unforgivable. Oubre has been plucky for the Suns, averaging career highs across the board while boosting their defense by 6.4 points when he’s on the floor. He’s dynamic in transition and gives his team an energy boost upon entry with his quickness, explosion, and bounce. When the Suns make a run it involves Oubre, swiping passes on defense, hitting corner 3s, and hammering home thunderous dunks on the break. Phoenix has plateaued after their hot streak to start the season, but Oubre seems to be a block they can build around with Devin Booker. The bottom of the West is jumbled, with seven teams, including the Suns, within 4 games of the eight seed. Oubre’s athleticism and Swiss army knife style game gives Phoenix an important weapon in the battle.