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 losses. 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

 

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.

 

Splitting up the Cavs’ Dueling Banjos

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, NBA

Point guard is the most important position in the league. Good floor generals control every aspect of an NBA game; they define winners and losers each night. The Cleveland Cavaliers have invested in lead guards over the past two drafts, but does either fit the position? They have to score, find teammates, and defend opposing ball handlers every night. No playoff team is deficient at the position. Have the Cavs found their leader?

Darius Garland’s game shows signs. The process has been slow; the rust he accumulated from not playing basketball for a year was clear over the first two months of the season. Unsure of himself and inefficient, Garland too often has been passive with the ball and hesitant to shoot open jumpers. He’s played an apologetic style, wanting only to stay out of the way to his teammates happy. The uneasiness is wearing away, however, buoyed by a growing confidence in his shot. Before Thanksgiving, Garland shot 34% from 3 on 4 attempts per game. Since then he’s at 39% on 5.5 shots from behind the arc. Garland’s NBA ready skill was shooting; Cavs operatives marveled at the pre-draft clinic he put on in Los Angeles from deep. His form is more consistent, and he’s getting shots on the rim quicker than earlier in the season.

His vision shows flashes. He’ll mix in a 5 or 6 assist game bunched around 1 or 2 dish contests. Garland will always shoot well; his playmaking will make or break him in this league. If he can hand out 7-8 assists per game he’ll become a potential All-Star. Against Charlotte last week, Garland had 8 assists and 1 turnover. The Cavs lost by 3, yet Garland was the only starter with a positive plus/minus at +17.

The ball fake, drive, and dish. Reads the defense perfectly. Superb by Garland

Garland sharing the floor with good defensive players has been beneficial for the Cavs. Though they’ve played only 14 minutes together, the Garland/Exum/Porter/Nance/Henson lineup has shown promise, outscoring opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. The Garland/Henson pairing is being outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions in 130 minutes, the best net two man combination for the rookie. Not great, but it proves he’s better with a plus defender on the floor with him. The Cavs have two competent defenders in Dante Exum and John Henson. Allowing Garland to play minutes with those two will take pressure off defensively and give him more control on offense.

Though still early in both players’ careers, these numbers point to a need to stagger more of his and Collin Sexton’s minutes. Sexton is great in transition and has improved on defense. He’s a valuable NBA player. Sexton’s focus is on scoring. That’s fine; there’s a spot for him and his skill set on this team. Garland has a higher ceiling, however, and fits better with a broader range of players. In time, Sexton will be more valuable off the bench in the Jordan Clarkson role. The lead guard on a playoff team cannot be as one-dimensional offensively as Sexton. Too many Cavs’ possessions consist of Sexton dribbling the duration of the shot clock, the only player to touch the ball. He doesn’t purposely ignore his teammates, but he isn’t hunting them or identifying mismatches, either. The Kevin Love blow up from Saturday night resulted from Sexton being oblivious to Love’s mismatch in the post against Chris Paul. John Beilein took responsibility, but Sexton is the culprit here.

Garland’s skill set includes a wider range of talents. He sees the floor better and seeks his teammates. He’s a better shooter and is just as capable of getting to the rim in the half-court. Are they franchise changers? It’s too early, but both can grow into valuable pieces on a good team. This is the test for the higher ups in the franchise. Can they develop the talented young players they’ve drafted and set complementary pieces around them?

What’s What Around the League

1.The buzz for Michael Porter Jr. started over the summer, when reports from Denver raved about the Nuggets’ 2018 1st round draft pick. Back surgery caused him to miss the 2018-2019 season, but insiders claimed he would break out in 2019. Then nothing. He received 9 DNPs during Denver’s first 21 games and averaged 8 minutes per when he stepped on the floor. Something has changed over the past week, however. In the Nuggets’ last four games, Porter is averaging 20 minutes, 15.5 points, and is shooting 74% from the field, 50% from 3. A 25 point outburst in Indiana last Thursday on 11-12 from the floor has made the league take notice. Is this the Michael Porter we’ve been waiting for? If so, Denver is a title contender. Nikola Jokic has rounded into shape over the last month and looks like the Joker of old. They’ve won 17 of 24 and sit just 3 games below the Lakers in the West. If this Porter continues to show through May, the West becomes a three team race.

2. Zach LaVine is an NBA scorer. He averages 23 a game and has improved his 3-point shot throughout his career, from 34% as a rookie to 39% this year on 8 attempts per. But…… man, he just isn’t a smart, winning player. Down two against Utah with 30 seconds left and a full shot clock, LaVine buried his head and attacked the basket, only to find Rudy Gobert waiting for him at the rim. Next possession, down 4, LaVine takes an abhorrent step back 3. No chance, game over. LaVine is polarizing. His scoring and increased efficiency give some hope, yet he isn’t improving on defense. The Bulls are 9 points better on that end when he sits. Add it up and you have a losing player who the Bulls owe 39 million to in 2021 and 2022.

Attacking Gobert at the rim is a fool’s errand

3. Ja Morant puts asses in seats.

4. A win Thursday at home against Memphis snapped an 8 game losing streak for Sacramento. The Kings are the latest example why it’s foolhardy to trust poor ownership, no matter the talent level. While De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley have missed extended time because of injury, dysfunction in the Kings’ organization remains the primary culprit of their continued losing. Dewayne Dedmon, a nice free agent pickup over the summer, has fallen out of Luke Walton’s rotation and requested a trade through the media, resulting in a $50,000 fine. Buddy Hield complained last week about trust issues creating problems in the locker room. This coincided with a horrid 7 game stretch for Hield in which he shot 26% from 3. The Kings have the most talent on their roster since the Chris Webber days. If Fox can stay healthy, they’ll have a shot to make a run at the last playoff spot in the West, but the sniping and losing culture in Sacramento seems too strong to overcome.

5. It’s a make or miss league, and no one epitomizes that more than Mike Scott. The 76er bench is more beholden to Scott to score than it should be, and they’re vulnerable to the unpredictability of his 3-point shot. He’s shooting 35% on the season from deep, a respectable number, yet isn’t reliable game to game. In 12 contests he’s made zero threes; in 12 others, he’s shot 50% or better from behind the arc. Philly’s offense can’t get consistency from anywhere. A steady Scott would be a huge boost in the playoffs but, like everyone else on this roster, he’s impossible to predict.

6. The Rockets are fascinating to watch. Their energy and effort level leaves Mike D’Antoni wanting many nights, then James Harden starts cooking, and the show begins. A step-back 3 over an excellent defender in Al Horford, net. Guarded one-on-one by possible All-Defensive selection Ben Simmons, an easy blow by and layup. Jason Richardson’s up next, a long, quick, capable defender in his own right. Another layup. And another step-back dagger. Harden is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA, and he carved an outstanding defensive team in Philly with ease on his way to 44. The Rockets aren’t always fun to watch, but sitting back and enjoying a dialed-in Harden is.

7. It’s a minute detail, but why is getting someone to in-bound the basketball after a made basket such a chore? If the point guard is the first one to the ball, forget about it. He’ll motion for a teammate to do the task instead of throwing the ball in play and calling for it back. Big men are busy trying to get back on offense. Wing guys are sprinting to position themselves in the corners. Good transition teams seem to have a better plan of action for this overlooked play, realizing they can take advantage of a sleepy opponent 3-4 times a game. Have a plan to start the offense as quickly as possible is all.

8. There isn’t a number that can define how important Marcus Smart is to winning. His shooting numbers are bad: 37% overall, 32% from 3. 11.5 points a game is fine, as are his 4.7 assists. His on/off numbers are even bad; Boston is 5.4 points better offensively and 1.1 better defensively when he’s on the bench. If there’s a loose ball, however, Smart gets it. Need a big stop on defense? Smart is there with a steal or a drawn charge. He’ll clang ill-advised 3’s off the back of the rim most of the night until he drains one with less than a minute left. The little things are an abstract measurement meant to describe the indescribable, and Smart is a little things poster child. Here, the numbers lie. You need Marcus Smart on your team.

9. What in Sam Hell is this guy doing?

10. Steven Adams is a bull, a one man road grader. Dig into the hustle stats; his name litters the leaderboards. He’s ninth in loose balls recovered per 36 minutes. Fourth in screens set, fifth in screen assists. He gums up opposing offenses, sitting fifth in contested twos per game (NBA.com). Oklahoma City has surprised this year and sits 7th in the West, comfortably in playoff position. Would they consider trading Adams, however? His contract is huge (25 mil this year, 27 mil next), and his timeline doesn’t match with the franchises’. A salary match makes a trade difficult, but if OKC moves him, watch Boston. Thin on the front line, playoff match-ups with Giannis, Joel Embiid and Al Horford, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and Bam Adebayo loom. The Celtics are close, a threat to make the Finals, but size is lacking. A wall of a screen setter and elite rebounder could be the piece they need to push them deep into the playoffs.

 

Is Kevin Porter the Cavs’ Future?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr., LeBron James

As the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season trudges along, Kevin Porter Jr. is beginning to look like the future of the organization. A top pick in the 2020 draft could change that, but of the guys on the roster, Porter has the highest ceiling and best chance at stardom. He can shoot. He’s become more decisive on his drives to the bucket. His jerky style confuses defenses and spectators. It’s hard to discern if he’s unsure of himself or probing the defense, looking for a crack to exploit (a little of both). His defense has improved. With his length and quickness he can be a good defender. His instincts are good, averaging a steal per game. Only 20, will Porter mature into a player the franchise can build around?

Darius Garland is improving in fits and starts. His trigger finger is getting quicker; he’s shooting 2 more threes a game over the last 10 contests. The questions entering the year centered on Collin Sexton and Garland and how they would play off each other. Now it seems more important to play Garland and Porter together. While it’s still early, Sexton’s future role is scorer off the bench, a la Jordan Clarkson or Lou Williams. Sexton is adept at what he does, getting downhill with the ball in his hands, attacking the basket. His defense and 3 point shooting need to improve. He doesn’t see the floor or his teammates well. Sexton can still get better, but to expect more from him is a stretch.

John Beilein began playing Garland and Porter minutes together this week. While Garland starts, he’s being replaced five minutes in with Matthew Dellavedova. He’s re-entering with the second unit, and that lineup has flourished. Garland, Clarkson, Porter, Larry Nance, and John Henson closed a 9 point deficit in Milwaukee Saturday night to one in 6 minutes together before the starters returned and the lead ballooned. It’s a small sample size, just 42 minutes together, but the group is plus 8.8 per 100 possessions. Henson is far and away the team’s best defender; his length adds a dimension the team lacks. Nance is a Swiss army knife, Clarkson is a scorer. Watch this lineup over the next few weeks.

Porter’s overall numbers are poor. His shooting percentages and defensive on/offs show a horrid NBA player. The eyes are the key metric with him, however. He looked lost the first month and a half of the season, but is improving. The constant pump fakes behind the 3 point line are becoming catch and shoots. He’s attacking the rim off the dribble instead of bouncing the ball with no purpose. He recorded 3 steals in his first nine games, total. He’s averaging 1.3 per game since. Porter is immature and played little college ball. His game fits in the NBA, however. If John Beilein can mold Porter Jr. into an All-Star level player, the franchise will consider his work a success.

Porter was indecisive here early in the year. Now it’s a catch and shoot

Cavs Quick Hits

Cedi Osman and Tristan Thompson dribble too much. Their handles are subpar; in the NBA that leads to turnovers. Both are fine when shooting off cuts or post ups. Osman is a better 3 ball shooter off catch and shoots. When they put the ball on the floor, they become turnover machines. Neither’s handles are even average, and on a better team they wouldn’t have the opportunity to dribble. Beilein needs to get the ball out of their hands.

Collin Sexton shot 40% from 3 last year, a shock to most who thought he lacked a jumper. He’s regressed this year, however, shooting only 29% from behind the line. Which shooter is the real Sexton? If he is to be a useful NBA player, it can’t be this year’s version. His quickness level is elite; he’s one of, if not the fastest, players in the league. His transition game devastates opponents, but he can struggle in the half court. Defenses are keeping him out of the lane by giving him the 3, hurting the team’s spacing. If he can’t keep defenses honest by canning triples, he’ll continue to struggle and hurt the offense.

What’s What Around the League

1.I hate 2 for 1s. There, I said it. While the math is the math, and 2 possessions at the end of a quarter should be advantageous, the execution is lacking. The result is two bad shots; a rushed heave or out-of-control drive to the rim followed by the same after getting the ball back from your opponent, who ran their normal offense and got a quality shot. Coaches seem to feel the same way. While I have no numbers to back it up, the 2 for 1s seem down this year. Again, no numbers, but running offense and getting one quality shot instead of forcing two for the sake of getting the ball on the rim leads to more points. Quantity isn’t better than quality.

2. Ja is special.

3. Devonte’ Graham is a revelation. A breakout star for a feisty Charlotte team, one many expected to be the worst in the league, Graham is the Hornet offense. Shifty and quick, with a split second release, Graham’s game is Iversony, a smallish bulldog who can score at will. His 40 in Brooklyn, capped off by a dagger 3, highlighted his importance in Charlotte. With his team struggling to find offense, Graham rained 3’s, creating space with speed and cagey dribbling. After bouncing between the G-League and the big team last year, Graham no longer spends time in Greensboro, and, while he isn’t there yet, deserves to be in the All-Star conversation. 19.9 points and 7.6 assists on 42% from 3 are take notice numbers, but can he sustain them? On a team with few offensive weapons, Graham’s next challenge will be to prove he isn’t a flash in the pan.

4. Though Ja Morant receives high praise in Memphis, the Grizzlies other rookie can turn heads too. Brandon Clarke is a springy big. His athleticism draws the eye, though the rest of his game demands attention. His post game is strong; good footwork and a quick first step are allowing him to shoot a tick below 70% three feet from the rim and 66% within 10 feet. Though he only takes 1 per game, he’s canning 50% of his threes, showing potential behind the arc. Grizzly fans must hardly be able to contain their excitement. Morant is a superstar in the making. Jaren Jackson Jr. dropped 43 against Milwaukee last week, and Clarke seems a perfect fit next to them. Memphis is a juggernaut in waiting.

5. How good can this Laker team be? The ancillary parts are what they are, but a locked in LeBron James and Anthony Davis are unlike any duo the league has seen. James has coasted since the title in ‘16, turning up only in the playoffs, a right he’s earned. Whether because of Davis’ arrival or the off-season passing of the best player torch in the media to Kawhi Leonard, scorched earth LeBron has returned. His defense, gone since his Miami days, is back, and he’s leading the league in assists for the first time in his career. Davis provides him with the most devastating weapon he’s ever possessed. His athleticism and defense provide cover for LeBron to do what he does best. He’s free to roam on defense, hunting steals and blocks. No longer the singular focus of defenses, LeBron has room to probe and survey on offense, a death sentence for the opposition.

6. James’ vision and passing acumen improve his teammates; they furnish Davis with a path to the MVP. LeBron moves defenses at will, giving AD space he never knew existed for lobs, one-on-one post ups, and open 3’s, which he’s canning at a career best 34%. The Lakers are unguardable, regardless of the 3 other players sharing the floor with these two. We know Kawhi will turn it up for the playoffs. James Harden has ghosts he needs to abolish, and Luka Doncic wants a seat at the table. LeBron and AD are just different, however. The title runs through them.

7. The Luka Doncic injury, he sprained his right ankle Saturday night, will give us more info on the Mavericks’ roster. Full of guys playing above their heads, can they continue winning, or is this a Doncic driven improvement? Kristaps Porzingis needs to become more involved, and Tim Hardaway Jr will have to carry more of the offense. A road win in Milwaukee Monday night suggests Dallas’ bench mob is for real. Check in on the Mavs in a few weeks.

8. The 76ers desperately need a point guard who can handle the rock and shoot the three at the end of games. Would the Bulls be interested in trading them Tomas Satoransky? He’s an excellent point guard on a good contract. The Bulls signed him to as a free agent this off-season, but have a promising young point guard in Coby White and adequate backups in Kris Dunn and Ryan Arcidiacono. There are protections involved, but the Sixers have their 2021 and 2022 first round picks available. With a chance to win the title, would Elton Brand consider a 37% 3 point shooter who’s averaging over 5 assists per game worth one of those 1sts? He’d take pressure off Ben Simmons.

9. Markelle Fultz is slick. There’s a good player here. Can the Magic unlock him?

10. We know as good as Kawhi Leonard is now, he’ll jump another level in the playoffs. The Clippers’ title chances, therefore, rest on Paul George. The Lakers’ duo looks unstoppable. For the Clips to beat their cross-hallway rival, George will be key. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron years ago during those Heat-Pacers series, but slumped in May with the Thunder. Injuries were a cause, as was Russell Westbrook. The Clippers will need either George or Leonard guarding LeBron at all times, a luxury for sure, but also a necessity, to beat the Lakers. If James controls playoff games in his normal fashion, the purple and gold LA squad are the champs. The Clippers All-Pro defenders must make him work for positioning on the floor. They will have to make it difficult for him to get the ball. With no answer on the roster for Anthony Davis, slowing 23 is their only hope.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Are the Cleveland Cavaliers falling off a Cliff?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Collin Sexton, NBA

A lousy week for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the first of the season, is cause for concern. Will this team descend to the depths most everyone predicted for them, or can John Beilein, the coaching staff, and the veterans rid the team of the bad habits of the past three games? The first real challenge of Beilein’s NBA coaching career is upon him. The effort is there, but the results haven’t been.


In Philadelphia last Tuesday the Cavs played tough, hanging with the 76ers until being shut down offensively in the last five minutes of the 4th quarter. While one of the better games the team has played, issues affecting them now began creeping into their play during the Sixers’ 4th quarter comeback. Too often, the Cavs are gripping too tightly; while hanging in, they’re a few bad plays from losing confidence and allowing an avalanche to bury them. If they miss a few shots on offense or an assignment on defense, they lose their margin of error.


Collin Sexton, Kevin Love, and Jordan Clarkson drove the offense in Philly. After leading by 5 with 6 minutes left, the Cavs struggled to get good looks against the tough 76er defense. While Beilein’s offense needs movement and passing, in late game situations he should lean more on his bucket getters. Sexton’s quickness frustrated Philly all night. When he wasn’t beating their defense down the floor, he exposed cracks in the half court by getting to the rim. In crunch time, however, when the defense and nerves tightened, the offense lost its flow. In the last two minutes, Beilein should have gone to a Sexton/Love pick and roll. Sexton’s quickness and Love’s ability to either pop and shoot or post up a smaller defender on a switch would have created better shots. On the final possession, a Clarkson/Love pick and roll generated Love’s wide open three that was a touch strong, bouncing off the back of the rim. Get to those pick and rolls earlier.

Clarkson/Love pick and roll. Clarkson draws the D, Love gets a great look


Sexton’s quickness is elite. More at ease, he’s seeing the floor and taking advantage of defenses much better than a year ago. If opponents give him baseline, he attacks and gets to the paint. If his defender hesitates getting back, Sexton is past him and at the rim. When he’s in control and sure of himself, he’s a joy to watch. Once he gets to the bucket, however, he needs to finish. While the NBA average field goal percentage at the rim is 64.6% (nbadata.com) Sexton only shoots 59% (nba.com) from there.

Sexton sees the defense is giving him baseline, so he takes it


On defense, Sexton has improved from his rookie year. His defensive rating a year ago, 118.1, has improved a staggering amount, down to 108.6 this year (nba.com). He works harder on that end and has a better feel for schemes while being more in tune with what his man wants to do. Sexton is a worker who plays hard and fights to make himself and his teammates better. Though undersized, he’s long and driven. That alone will allow him to be an average or better defender.


Defensively, he needs to work through picks more aggressively. A problem all of last year, Sexton still goes under too many screens against plus three point shooters. Any space given to good shooters is death. By ducking under the screener, Sexton is giving some of the best shooters in the league wide gaps to get shots off.


A bad loss to the Knicks in Madison Square Garden last night has the team spiraling. Offensively, they’re gummed up. The Cavs spend too much time thinking instead of reacting. Catch and shoots turn into catch and pump fakes, catch and jab steps. Beilein’s system hasn’t taken hold yet. This is causing long scoring droughts. Cleveland’s coaches should preach aggression on offense. The passivity is causing turnovers, shot clock violations, and bad shots.


The week ahead consists of a rematch with the Heat in Miami, a trip to Dallas, and a visit to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse by Damian Lillard and the Blazers. All playoff worthy teams, the Cavs are in danger of being blown out in each if they continue their struggles. Effort is no longer good enough. While they may have sneaked up on opponents early, teams are ready for a fight from them. The defensive lapses and offensive stagnation must improve or 20 point losses will become the norm. Consistency is the next step.

What’s What Around the League

1. Save the Phoenix Suns, perhaps the biggest surprise early is the Miami Heat. The Heat are using defense (a 101.1 defensive rating, 4th in the league according to NBA.com) and passing (65.5% assist percentage, 2nd in the league according to NBA.com) as guide posts during their 9-3 start. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo excel at each, both excellent passers who also set the tone defensively. Adebayo ranks second in assists per game at the center position, trailing only Nikola Jokic. A big man who can rebound, bring the ball up the floor, and distribute to his teammates is a luxury few teams have. The rest of the roster just fits. Goran Dragic has accepted his bench role, providing scoring and playmaking. Kendrick Nunn has been the G-League find of the year, giving the offense an unexpected punch. Tyler Herro has impressed, as expected, as a rookie, averaging 13.4 off the bench. Meyers Leonard is shooting 68% from 3. Top to bottom, the entire roster contributes. The Heat aren’t going anywhere.

2. The Philadelphia 76ers will be in the title discussion all year, but unless their offense improves, the chances of them winning the Larry O’Brien trophy are slim. Off to a ho-hum 7-5 start, their 18th ranked offense (106.1 rating) will continue to hold them back if Tobias Harris doesn’t improve. While Joel Embiid is a superstar and MVP candidate, a center can’t control the game in today’s NBA during crunch time. Harris, miscast in the role, is the only option on a team lacking shooting and playmaking threats. Ben Simmons cannot shoot and refuses to do so, making him a liability in crunch time situations. Harris, shooting 24% from 3 so far, must improve for the Sixers offense to function at the end of games. Better cast as a third option, it may be asking too much of Harris, yet Philly has no other choice.

3. Carmelo Anthony has signed with Portland, but will he help? The Blazers have struggled out of the gate at 5-8 and 11th in the West during a year the team expected to build off last year’s Western Conference Finals appearance. Is Anthony the answer? While there’s no doubt he’ll get buckets, Melo has been a disaster defensively for years. A turnstile on that end, his inefficient scoring will not make up for the holes on that end of the floor. A Hall of Famer who deserves a place in the league, Melo hasn’t shown the willingness to adapt his game as he’s aged, however. Offensive possessions where he gets the ball on the right side of the floor, jabs, jabs, jabs, dribbles, dribbles, backs into his man, then takes a fall away jumper won’t help Portland. Melo can be a scoring punch off the bench for 15-20 minutes a game while grabbing a few rebounds, but will be settle for that role?

Vintage Melo

4. Nikola Jokić may be the best passing big man ever.

5. The flashes suggest he’s a future All-Star, but Caris LeVert cannot stay healthy and it’s becoming likely he never will. Off to a great start and averaging 17, 5, and 4 while shooting 36% from 3 and playing excellent defense, he’s now out 5 or 6 weeks following right thumb surgery, an all too common occurrence with him. LeVert possesses the size and scoring ability to be a star in the league, but until be proves he can stay healthy for more than a month at a time, the Nets cannot count on his production.

6. An early season meltdown in New York is surprising to no one. After the Cavs demolished the Knicks two Sundays ago, both president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry found it necessary to hold an impromptu press conference to let every know the obvious, that the Knicks are a dumpster fire. A team with minimal talent, the brain trust’s embarrassment of losing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to the Nets caused the signing of a slew of power forwards. The franchise’s hopes now rest with rookie R.J. Barrett. The only ones expecting anything out of this roster, the brain trust in New York is flailing, and the problem lies with ownership. James Dolan is a horrible owner and the Knicks will struggle as long as he remains. Fans overlook the main problem with bad organizations because they can do nothing about it. Horrid ownership, like in Cleveland with the Browns, drags franchises down, regardless of who the players, coaches, or GMs are. Something is waiting around every corner, another piece of drama for these stuck in the mud franchises. The pompous billionaires who own them aren’t smart enough to get out of their own way. James Dolan deserves the team and organization he’s built.

7. Skip Hawks’ games at your own peril. Trae Young is must watch, and along with Luka Doncic provides the best night to night show in the league. He proved it again last week in Denver, posting a ridiculous 42 point, 11 assist stat line. While his pull up 35 footers are worthy on their own, his mid-range floaters, slick dribbling, and acute passing mesmerize, drawing the eye to him where ever he is on the court. Write him down as an All-Star lock one month into his sophomore season.

8. If you aren’t on the Ja Morant train, time’s a wasting. Memphis will be a force, and soon.

9. James Harden: 39.5 points, 7.8 assists. Can he keep this up? The answer is yes, and it may get worse for opponents. Harden is only shooting 42% from the field, 33% from 3. Career wise, those numbers are 44% and 36.5%. What’s driving this scoring explosion, you ask? Harden is shooting 15 free throws a game and making 13 of them, jarring to see on paper. Harden’s unique size, quickness, and ball handling skills, along with the hidden advantage of being a lefty, gives him an uncanny ability to get to the line. Defenders aren’t used to guarding lefty’s; no matter how well they prepare, their minds play tricks on them, forgetting for a handful of possessions, at least, that Harden is going left. To average 40 for a season, the free throws are critical. In the years Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 and 44.8, he got to the line 17 and 14 times per game. It’s impossible to score that much without forcing the action and getting to the line. While previously unthinkable, could Harden average 40 for the year?

10. Load management is a way of life, so teams, fans, television execs, and reporters may as well get used to it. Though old timers stomp their feet and pound their fists discussing the controversial topic, the top 15-20 players in the league wield the power in the NBA. If they feel the strategy will keep them healthy for the post season, it will continue. Fans and media have asked for this. As long we’re judging players disproportionately on the number of rings on their fingers at the end of their careers, load management will get worse. By comparing every player to Michael Jordan and hyperbolizing his 6-0 Finals record, those judging the game have decided what’s most important to a player’s legacy. If titles are what you’ve decided define legacies, this is a byproduct of that.

 

Eastern Conference Preview

Cleveland Cavaliers, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Love, NBA, Trae Young

Western Conference Preview is here.

1. Milwaukee Bucks 61-21
When young teams take the leap from scrappy playoff out to title contender, they label the year a success. Considering the MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year awards went to Bucks, 2019 was a gigantic leap forward in Milwaukee. Playoff loses have a way of redefining progress, however. After leading the league with 60 wins and racing to a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee was within arm’s reach of a championship. They wouldn’t win another game.


Playoff disappointments aside, last season was a breakthrough for the organization. Winning a playoff series for the first time in Giannis’ career, the Bucks now must deal with expectations and pressure. Anything less than a Finals appearance is a failure. Antetokounmpo is the favorite to win back-to-back MVPs, and the East figures to be a two team race. Questions abound, however. Eric Bledsoe signed a 4 year, $70 million extension before the end of the season, then gagged all over himself in the playoffs, rendered unplayable. Malcolm Brogdon, the Milwaukee guard who came through in crunch time, was deemed too expensive by Bucks management and signed with the Pacers. Still, Giannis is one of the top three players in the league. He is a force on both ends of the floor, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago. He is unguardable without a three-point shot. If he improves his shooting, game over.


To win the title, the Bucks will need contributions from oft injured Wes Matthews, Pat Connaughton, and growth from Donte DiVincenzo. George Hill, excellent in last years’ playoffs, must continue his stellar play in high leverage minutes. What can they get out of Sterling Brown?


The clock is ticking. Antetokounmpo’s contract is up in two years. If the Bucks struggle or do not make the Finals, the questions will start if they haven’t already. Will Giannis bolt or sign the mega extension only the Bucks can offer? A high leverage season in Milwaukee.

2. Philadelphia 76ers 60-22
The Sixers dealt with their own playoff nightmare this off-season, reliving Kawhi Leonard’s three that bounced, bounced, bounced, and bounced on the rim before dropping in Game 7 of the conference semis, sending Philly home. Closer to the title than many gave them credit for, the Sixers retooled, trading Jimmy Butler, per his demands, to Miami in exchange for Josh Richardson, a long defender and excellent three ball shooter. They will need his outside touch to replace some of what they lost after J. J. Redick departed. The signing of Al Horford away from Boston, however, was the biggest splash made during the summer. A Hall of Fame defender, Horford’s experience, defense, and outside shooting boosts Philly, while giving them a fail-safe to replace Joel Embiid when he’s injured or on the bench.


With Jimmy Butler gone, who will handle the ball during crunch time? It’s time for Ben Simmons to step into this role. If the 76ers are to win the title, Simmons needs to be successful with the ball in his hands at the end of games. He is a devastating slasher and pinpoint passer. Can he knock down enough jumpers to keep defenses honest?


If Embiid can stay healthy and is in as good of shape as claimed in training camp, he’s MVP worthy. Stout defensively, his arsenal of offensive moves are unparalleled. The Sixers are title contenders if Simmons and Embiid take the next steps in their development. With Butler gone, both need to replace the scoring and toughness he brought. The starting five may be the strongest in the league. The bench is short, however. Will it stop them from winning a title?

3. Boston Celtics 52-30
Will the swap of Kemba Walker for Kyrie Irving work as well as those in Boston envision? Walker is a smidge worse at just about everything than Irving, yet Celtics fans hope the attitude adjustment Kemba brings will make up for the lost talent. One subtraction they have not replaced is Al Horford. His defense, offensive adaptability, and leadership loss will hurt come playoff time.


For this team to reach the potential its brass has been crooning about since the Brooklyn heist, the Celtics need Jayson Tatum to become their best player. Ultra talented, they seldom saw the Tatum who flashed in the playoffs in 2018 last year. He disappeared too easily on offense, taking an alarming amount of long twos and rarely attacked the basket. An All-Star exists there; will he shrug off his poor sophomore year?


Brad Stevens struggled last year, unable to balance the talent and egos of a team predicted by everyone to make the Finals. As one of the NBA’s best coaches, Stevens needs to prove he can win when he’s expected to. He must massage the Gordon Hayward/Jaylen Brown situation. One needs to come off the bench. Will either accept a lesser role with free agency a possibility for both next summer?

4. Brooklyn Nets 47-35
The Nets made the biggest splash of the off-season, yet they won’t be whole until Kevin Durant returns. In the meantime, it will be up to Kyrie Irving to prove that, now that he’s in the place of his choosing, the moodiness and drama are past him. One of the most talented players in the league, Kyrie is the leader of this young Nets squad while his partner rehabs.

Nets fans have to wait a year before seeing this duo in action.


Irving and Durant aside, the Nets amassed one of the best collections of young talent in the league, mostly without the benefit of first round picks. Jarrett Allen is a bouncy shot blocker and rim runner. Joe Harris is lethal from three. Caris LeVert, if he can kick the injury bug, may be one of the best young players in the league. Spencer Dinwiddie has shown he can score, either starting or off the bench, and run an offense. This team will be fun. In a muddled Eastern Conference, the Nets will attempt to lay a foundation this year for a title run when Durant returns in 2020.

5. Orlando Magic 46-36
One of the better defensive teams in the league a year ago, the Magic surged over their final 31 games, posting a 22-9 record and forcing themselves into the playoffs. Another jump is in store this year if they can solidify the point guard position. While D. J. Augustin shoots the 3 well and is reliable with the ball, the hope is for Markelle Fultz to regain the form which made him the number one pick in the 2017 draft. An enigmatic career to this point, Fultz has fought injury and self-confidence. A change of scenery from Philly should help.


Can Jonathan Isaac become a reliable starter, and can Aaron Gordon become an All-Star? Brimming with talent, Steve Clifford began to unleash the skill of these two. If they both make another leap, Orlando will as well.

6. Toronto Raptors 46-36
Rarely are the champs relegated to such a low seed the year after a title, yet the circumstances here are unprecedented. NBA Finals MVPs don’t leave in free agency. Kawhi is gone however, and the Raptors won a title. All sides won.

Does anyone remember the Raptors are the champs?


The Toronto front office has a decision to make. Keep the team together and stay respectable, or trade off parts for assets to hasten the rebuild? Kyle Lowry signed a one year, 31 million extension, yet it may make him easier to trade. Marc Gasol will be sought after again at the trade deadline. Serge Ibaka could draw interest. It may be difficult to dismantle a title team, but the returns could be too good to pass up.


The future of the Raptors lies with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. While Anunoby was injured during the title run, Siakam became a household name. A star in the making, he’s a future All-Star who’s too good to let Toronto tank. Trade the vets and build around Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet.

7. Miami Heat 44-38
Jimmy Butler may be the third best player in the Eastern Conference. A bulldog, he’s the type players yearn to go to war with. Outstanding defensively when he wants to be, Butler can take control of a game in the fourth quarter and will a team to victory. Very few in the league can do that.


The problem with the Heat is the rest of the roster. Goran Dragic, while still capable of scoring, has begun his regression. Dion Waiters is a thrill to watch ball; no one knows what will happen next, and it’s impossible to look away. Justise Winslow has always been intriguing and remains so, especially at point guard, but is inconsistent.


Bam Adebayo is the exception. Athletic and springy, Adebayo will take over the center minutes with Hassan Whiteside gone. Already a force defensively, he averaged 2.5 blocks and steals combined last year in only 23 minutes per game. The Butler-Adebayo pick and roll should be a headache for opposing defenses.

Bam Adebayo could become one of the best rollers in the league


The Heat seem to have a trade in them. While they sniffed around Chris Paul, the asking price was too high. Though they’re low on future assets, Pat Riley is looking to make one more run before he retires. If a big name asks for a trade, Miami will be lurking.

8. Indiana Pacers 42-40
If Victor Oladipo’s return from injury wasn’t up in the air, the Pacers would be higher. No timetable yet, rumors are he’ll return in December, yet may take longer to return to full strength. While the team held their own without him a year ago, Oladipo gives them a higher ceiling.


Once he returns, Oladipo will form an outstanding young backcourt with Malcolm Brogdon. Underrated by the Bucks, Brogdon provides the perfect complement to Oladipo. A high stakes player, Brogdon joins another free agent signee, T. J. Warren, adding offensive punch to a stagnant unit.


The team must decide if Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner can play in the same frontcourt. Both possess mid-range jumpers, while Turner is an excellent shot blocker and Sabonis a dominant rebounder. With Sabonis due to become a free agent and earn a higher paycheck, the Pacers need to find out if there’s space for both on the floor.

9. Detroit Pistons 40-42
Another season in Detroit, another rotation on the hamster wheel. The Pistons are perpetually in the 7-10 range in the Eastern Conference. Blake Griffin makes them somewhat interesting, a forgotten superstar who posted one of his best seasons last year. Averaging a career high 24.5 points per, he drained 36% of his 3s while taking 7 a game. Injured in the playoffs, however, Griffin can be counted on to miss 20 games a year.


Andre Drummond was a monster in the paint as usual, averaging 17 and 15, destroying teams in the paint who dared to go small. The fit of Detroit’s two best players remains clunky and places a ceiling on their expectations.


Could the Pistons be in the market for a point guard if one becomes available(Kyle Lowry)? The Reggie Jackson/Langston Galloway/Tim Frazier trio inspires eye rolls.


Luke Kennard can shoot. Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris will provide some veteran stability. Sekou Doumbouya is an intriguing young prospect from France, athletic and skilled offensively. He isn’t 19 yet, however. The Pistons will again play meaningful basketball in April, attempting to make the playoffs while most of the league is preparing for the postseason.

10. Chicago Bulls 39-43
A rebuild that is turning the corner, the Bulls will exit the tanking dregs in favor of the borderline playoff class this season.


A breathtaking scorer, Zach LaVine getting buckets is fun to watch. An effortless jumper and athlete, he may have another step to take in his development.


The future of the Bulls and the key to success this season, however, is the frontcourt combination of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Markkanen has established himself in the league, a 7 footer who can score from anywhere on the floor. Carter seems to be the perfect fit alongside him, a gifted passer and rebounder who can set screens and allow Markkanen to stretch the floor.


By trading for Otto Porter Jr last year and signing Thaddeus Young and underrated point guard Tomas Satoransky as free agents, Chicago has added strong veterans to their young core. A playoff berth isn’t out of the question if the Carter/Markkanen combo blossoms.

11. Atlanta Hawks 37-45
An intriguing outfit, the Hawks are too young to be a playoff contender just yet. After struggling early, Trae Young popped as the season progressed, averaging 19 points and 8 assists. His elite level shooting and playmaking abilities should have Atlanta fans salivating. Though his size will never allow him to be a good defender, Young’s offense will make him an All-Star lock for years to come.

Can Trae Young make an All-Star team in his 2nd year?


Nailing the draft last year, GM Travis Schlenk has set the table for a quick rebuild in Atlanta. Kevin Huerter flashed as a shooter and passer in his rookie year, while John Collins showed tremendous finishing ability and rebounding.


Will this year’s rookies produce as well? De’Andre Hunter is expected to shoot the 3 and defend. Cam Reddish’s draft stock fell because of a so-so freshman year at Duke, yet has the size, athleticism, and shooting ability to be the steal of the draft. The floor is the ceiling for the Hawks.


There’s too much Alex Len/Jabari Parker/Chandler Parsons/Evan Turner on the roster for Atlanta to make a playoff push this year. This collection of veterans is a garbage dump of NBA what ifs. Never mind them, however. The young Hawks will be a fun watch.

12. New York Knicks 30-52
Spurned by the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving duo, the Knicks spent their cap money on a collection of decent NBA players who will at least make the Knicks watchable. Julius Randle is a high motor, point forward/bulldozer, a clunky shooter who does a myriad of things well, but nothing great.


For the Knicks to become the free agent destination they think of themselves as, the youth must grow in Madison Square Garden. R.J. Barrett has superstar potential. Excellent size, quickness, and scoring ability, Barrett can turn this morbid franchise around.


Can the other young Knicks make jumps in their development? Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson are good defenders. Kevin Knox showed little in his rookie year. Dennis Smith Jr. is an elite athlete who lacks shooting touch but can get to the rim and has shown some playmaking ability. If the Knicks hope to lure a free agent to New York in 2021, these four must join with Barrett to convince a superstar this aimless, punch drunk franchise has turned a corner.

The Last 20 years of Knicks basketball

13. Cleveland Cavaliers 26-56
Another long season is in store for the Cavs as they try to teach three rookies the NBA game while experimenting with a small but offensively gifted backcourt in Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Can they trade Kevin Love for picks and/or young players? Read my extended Cavs preview here.

14. Washington Wizards 24-58
One early season question was perhaps answered last week when the Wizards signed Bradley Beal to a contract extension. Coveted by many a contender throughout the league, if Washington wished to entertain offers, trading Beal would return a king’s ransom. His complete offensive game would fit with any team striving for the title. For now, however, he’s stuck in our nation’s capital, leading a team of no names and misfits. Is Thomas Bryant his best teammate? Unless Isaiah Thomas is about to throw it back to 2017, the Wizards may want to cash in their Beal ticket and begin the rebuild that is staring them in the face.

Brad Beal, or James Harden?

15. Charlotte Hornets 21-61
What can be said about this mish mash of players? Malik Monk is entertaining, I guess.

How many times will Jordan smack Malik Monk upside the head this year?

The Hornets signing Terry Rozier to a three year, 56 million dollar contract. They also have 70.5 million tied up in Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, according to basketball-reference.com. Oof.

Rebuild Year 2

Cleveland Cavaliers, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Love, NBA

Gone are the days of long playoff runs and Finals appearances. The realities of life as a small market NBA team are back. Instead of dissecting match-ups against the Celtics and Warriors, Cavaliers fans are left to argue over the merits of trading Kevin Love and the ceiling of Collin Sexton. The greatest era in the franchise’s history is over.


As the Cavaliers introduce a 193 million dollar refurbishment to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, formerly known as Quicken Loans Arena, the parallels between the re-polished arena and the on-floor product are obvious. The front office and ownership are hoping to take a tested, if aging, structure, add a bit of paint and shine, and rebuild with as little downtime as possible.

Two goals stand out for the team as the 2019-2020 season begins.
1. Can Darius Garland and Collin Sexton play together?
2. Will Kevin Love’s play and health allow the team to trade him for assets that will enhance the rebuild?

The Garland/Sexton pairing will dominate all discussions of this team throughout the season. Can two players this young, who both need the ball in their hands, learn to play off each other? While other teams in the league are experimenting with this question (see Houston), the stakes for the Cavs are lower.


Some draftniks questioned the Cavs’ selection of Garland, seeing the fit with Sexton as troublesome. The franchise isn’t chasing a championship or even a playoff berth. Garland was, without question, the best player on the board when the Cavs selected him with the 5th pick in the draft. They can’t select players based on need. The roster needs a large talent infusion. The pieces will sort themselves later.


Sexton and Garland will be a nightmare defensively. Both small guards at 6’2”, defending opposing point guards in the NBA is challenging with optimal size. Sexton rated 510th, out of 530 players last year in Defensive Win Shares, according to NBA.com. Rookies struggle defensively. He should improve, yet lacks the size to be more than an average defender. He has fight, however, and plays with fire, which can lead to passable defense in the league. It will be something to monitor throughout the year.


Garland will rank low in defensive ratings in his rookie year. Guards in the NBA are too good for rookies to handle on a night to night basis. The schemes are complicated. The Cavs are not a good defensive team, therefore providing no way to mask Garland’s deficiencies. When the Cavs are camped at the bottom of the standings, their defense will be the reason.


Offensively, Garland and Sexton can thrive together if they can play off one another. Both are outstanding shooters, allowing each to be a threat when the other has the ball. The most important trait in the NBA is the ability to shoot the three ball. Sexton shot 40% from range last year, and Garland was drafted for his abilities from deep. Having two guards who can shoot threes will keep defenders attached to them, unable to help. With a lineup of Sexton/Garland/Love/Osman/Nance on the floor, the spacing provided should allow either guard to attack the rim and kick to open shooters. Sexton proved adept at getting to the basket a year ago, though he needs to improve his finishing rate at the rim. Via hoopdata.com, the average NBA player shoots 64.6% at the rim. Sexton managed 57% shooting within three feet of the basket, according to basketball-reference.com.


The questions surrounding the young guards on offense centers on their passing abilities. For them to thrive as a duo, at least one has to develop into an above average playmaker. Sexton struggled in his rookie year, only averaging 2.9 assists per game. While a dynamic scorer, he failed as a conductor of the offense, too often freelancing on his own and not relying on teammates. He must improve in this area.


The same concerns exist for Garland. While he only played five games on a talent bereft Vanderbilt team, he managed just 2.6 assists. While his college coaches rave over his passing abilities, he will have to prove he can be a playmaker in the NBA.

Will the Cavs be able, or even willing, to trade Kevin Love? The lone player on the roster with any value the team would consider parting with, his shooting and rebounding talents would be an asset for any contender. For a trade to materialize, however, Love must stay healthy. Injuries have plagued him throughout his Cavalier career, peaking last season when he missed 60 games. If he is on the floor, Love will flirt with being an All Star, and will put up numbers in the 20 point, 10 rebound range. Portland is an obvious candidate, considering their standing as a contender in a talented Western Conference with a guard and center heavy roster. Love’s abilities and championship resume would seem to be a fit. Would the Blazers be willing to part with the pieces needed to get him, however?


In any trade for Love, the Cavs should ask for at least 1 first-round pick and a young player with upside. For the Blazers, that would be rookie Nassir Little and second-year guard Anfernee Simons. Simons rarely played during his rookie year but exploded for 37 points in the last game of the regular season while the vets sat. Expect him to be Damian Lillard’s backup this year and lead the second unit.


A draft pick in the 20s, Portland’s likely draft position, is an unappealing asset. One of the young players packaged with it, along with Hassan Whiteside for salary matching purposes, however, should pique the Cavs’ interest. Would Portland be willing to give that up for Love? It depends on where they sit at the trade deadline and how well Love is playing. The Blazers reached the Western Conference Finals last year and, despite outside perceptions they may slip, have no intention of doing so.


Anything less than a package of that size for Love and the Cavs should keep him. His salary, while large, is not unmanageable. His knowledge and championship experience is invaluable to the young players the Cavaliers are trying to develop. A winning culture takes work. Love’s presence, if he wants to be in Cleveland, will be invaluable.

Beyond Sexton and Garland, developing the other two first rounders drafted in June will be the focus for the Cavaliers on the court. Dylan Windler, picked 26th, and Kevin Porter Jr., drafted at 30, need time on the floor. Can they eventually contribute to a playoff team? Windler seems to be a Beilein guy. 6’8” with three point range, he shot 43% from 3 at Belmont last year and rebounded well, 10.8 per game. Those two skill sets appeal to the head coach, and he should provide spacing on the court with the two guards. He’s injured at the moment, however. A lower leg injury will keep him out all of training camp.


Some scouts had Porter Jr. rated as a top ten talent in the draft. With great size, quickness, and elite athleticism, he can light up scoreboards whether slashing to the rim or shooting the three. Porter’s problems are with maturity. Wildness on and off the court plagued his freshman year at USC, undisciplined on defense and in his personal life. He was suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team in January, returning for the Trojans’ final three games of the year. Will his maturity issues continue to follow him?

Porter flashed in his preseason debut


Porter is the type of risk teams like the Cavaliers must take. Talent like his doesn’t last until the 30th pick in the draft without baggage. The championship infrastructure the front office seems proud of will be tested here. A hit on Porter would speed up the rebuild.


He is also an example of the value of second round picks. The Cavs stockpiled them last year when trading veterans like George Hill and Kyle Korver. Thought as throw-ins, the Cavs packaged four of them to the Pistons for Porter. Everything has value in the NBA if used correctly. Good move by Koby Altman.

Other than Kevin Love, the tradeable assets owned by the Cavs are expiring contracts. Brandon Knight, Tristan Thompson, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova, and Cedi Osman all are on the last year of their deals, totaling over 69 million in salary. Will the Cavs attempt to re-sign any of these veterans? Assume Osman is in the team’s plans. The rest are question marks. While Thompson and Clarkson could be back on smaller deals, are they interested in taking pay cuts? Or will they be forced into one by the market?


They could use all in trades in the hunt for draft picks. Other than superstars, the most valuable commodity in the NBA is cap space. The Cavs have a lot moving forward and it will not be used to sign free agents. Trading these expiring deals for longer bad contracts teams want to get off of to clean up their books, netting draft picks for their trouble, is the best way for the Cavs to use their cap space. It’s the strategy used in the Brandon Knight deal last year, gaining the 26th pick in the draft which became Dylan Windler. Koby Altman will hunt first round picks offered by desperate teams throughout the year.

How about the new coach?
The consensus around the league is that John Beilein is an excellent coach, one of the best in the country, regardless of level.
Will his style work in the NBA?
Will he have the patience needed to withstand the losing?
What about his age?


These are questions that face Beilein, coming into the NBA for the first time at 66 years old. He has only been a head coach and has succeeded from high school to small college to the Big Ten. He is old school, focusing on the fundamentals of the game. This should benefit the young roster of the Cavs, allowing them to grow into his style and vice versa. Beilein’s developmental approach melds with the team’s objectives at this point in the rebuild.
It remains to be seen whether his lessons will resonate. While Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan have had success in recent years making the jump from college, the record is spotty. Beilein’s temperament seems to match with Stevens and Donovan, as opposed to failures like Rick Pitino and John Calipari. The 82 game season is a grind, and he will most likely rack up more losses this year than his last five years at Michigan combined. Will he have the patience the rebuild will require? Will frustration lead him back to the college ranks?


Beilein is an impressive man. He’ll do the work and has the expertise to develop the young players. The key, as with any organization, is finding the talent to implement into his system.