Troy’s Top Ten

NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.The Eastern Conference champion seemed a lock entering the bubble, but Milwaukee has looked……… off, and Toronto and Boston have taken turns as media darlings throughout the seeding games. But what about the Heat? Like almost everyone else, their play has been inconsistent, and Jimmy Butler missed three games before returning against Indiana. While Butler will decide their ceiling, the energy boosts come from Bam Adebayo. He starts fast breaks off of rebounds by pushing the pace on his own. His 5.1 assist per game average is eye popping for a center; his dishes are bettered at the position by only the best passing big man in history, Nikola Jokic. Adebayo is a powerful roll man on offense, while also able to find Miami’s plethora of 3 point shooters lined around the arc. He’s long on defense, quick, and in the right spots. No one guards Giannis, but Bam flustered him into a 6-18 shooting night in early March. His size, length, quickness, and take no B.S. attitude is the perfect antidote for Antetokounmpo. Consider: Miami led the league in 3 point shooting percentage on the season at 38.1%. The Bucks give up the most 3’s in the league. Milwaukee doesn’t want the Heat in Round 2.

2. Dallas’ young core of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have the Mavs in the playoffs, but for them to rise to title contender, they’ll need a reliable 3rd scorer. The Mavericks lead the league by 3 points per possession on offense, the best rating in league history. That number speaks to the brilliance of Doncic. Tim Hardaway Jr. has had a fantastic season after being thrown in by the Knicks in the Porzingis trade (15.3 points on 43% shooting, 39.8% from 3). The consistency just isn’t there, however. Look at his scoring numbers in the bubble. 2,22,8,8,27. Hard to count on that in the playoffs. Hardaway is an improved player, and valuable as a shooter flanking Luka. But his destiny is as a sixth man. Trey Burke’s 12.8 points and 43% 3 ball shooting in the bubble has been eye opening, but you want to count on that for a full season, or a big playoff series? Hardaway sliding down a notch, and finding a strong 3rd piece (Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan types) would make the Mavs a 2021 contender.

3. Among the arguments for the Warriors’ trade of De’Angelo Russell to the Timberwolves at the trade deadline for Andrew Wiggins and a protected 2021 1st rounder was they wouldn’t get more out of him and his max contract. But there’s always an opportunity cost. What if Philly blows it up during whatever this off-season looks like? Ben Simmons may be the perfect complement to Golden State’s star trio and would make the Warriors the favorites again in 2021. His defense, transition work, and passing acumen fit, and his lack of shooting becomes negligible next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Simmons for Russell and either the Warriors 1st this year, or that T-Wolves pick would have piqued interest from the Sixers. An adept pick and roll point guard in Russell, capable of knocking down 3’s next to Joel Embiid, along with a new head coach? Philly GM Elton Brand would have to think long. But Golden State’s trade for a blah Wiggins negated even the chance for a monster deal that would’ve improved both teams.

4. Bol Bol picked up minutes for the Denver Nuggets during the restart, and while it’s too early for judgment, there are glimpses of something. Being 7’2” makes him a rim protector, he can shoot 3’s like his dad, and this play shows at least some athleticism. He won’t give them anything in the playoffs, but Bol is an intriguing lottery ticket.

This kid has something. Is it anything?

5. As for Philly and Joel Embiid, he needs a swift kick to get physically and mentally ready to guide a contender. The Sixers are nowhere bound now that Simmons’ injured left knee will require surgery and keep him out for the rest of the season. With a chance to rally the troops after his teammate’s injury, Embiid huffed through the first half on Saturday against Orlando, scoring 6 points, before deciding to join the game in the second half, dominating the 3rd quarter and exerting the Sixers to a tougher than needed victory. The Embiid experience is frustrating. He could be the best player in the league if he got in shape and gave a rip. Will he ever care enough? The franchise needs an overhaul, if only to provide the shakeup needed to see what their star is about.

6. Ya’ll know his name. 37 points, 9 assists, 41% from three in the bubble. Dame Dolla, Dame Time. Whatever you call him, call him one of the best in the league. Damian Lillard has gone supernova the last two weeks, carrying the Portland Trail Blazers to the brink of the play-in 8-9 game out West by being the best player in Orlando. Lillard created some stink during shutdown, asserting that if the Blazers weren’t playing for anything, he wouldn’t leave the bench during the restart. He’s showing all now why the NBA used smart judgment in giving all teams invited a shot at the playoffs. The league has overlooked Lillard for All-Star games and All NBA teams in the past, but no more. 45 last Thursday. 51 Sunday. 61 Tuesday. Dame is one of the most clutch, big game players in the league, and now will be a lock when analysts argue their top ten players for the nth time. Only Steph is a better point guard, and Lillard gives Portland a puncher’s chance against the Lakers in round 1, though LeBron and AD likely are too much.

7. However, another, perhaps more unlikely, guard has also looked MVPish to this point. Devin Booker has dragged Phoenix to the brink of the play-in game. The Suns are 7-0 in the bubble and Booker, another under appreciated Western Conference guard, has graduated from sideshow on a loser to legitimate superstar. Wins will do that. He’s become a playmaker (6.5 assists on the year) and his shooting percentage has skyrocketed from his first two seasons (from 42% to 48.8%). DeAndre Ayton’s development on both ends helps, and Phoenix’s future, murky after suspect drafts and bad trades (T. J. Warren for cash considerations, oof) is more interesting now that the young’ns have flexed. Hope for a Phoenix-Portland play-in. Memphis has bombed in the bubble, but these two have been fire. Lillard vs. Booker this weekend, please.

8. Doug McDermott has no shot anyway, but what do you do with this? Harden makes 45 look easy, but shots like this aren’t. The most dangerous weapon in the NBA will, at worst, make the Rockets compelling.

9. The Goran Dragic/Derrick Jones Jr. pick and roll in the second quarter against the Pacers this week illustrates the danger the Heat pose in the playoffs. Dragic is perhaps the most over-qualified bench point guard in the league, able to shoot from distance and carve defenses in the pick and roll. Jones Jr., while smallish, is bouncy and quick, an outstanding rim runner. The Pacers couldn’t crack it, and other teams’ bench units are on alert. Miami’s can flip a series.

Dynamic pick and roll duo

10. Boston worked Toronto last week, a 122-100 thumping causing some to question their Toronto love. Boston’s long guards could give the Raptors smallish backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet fits. The Raps want to push the ball, and Brad Stevens’ aim in a playoff series will be to slow down Toronto’s deadly running game. The Toronto D will cause Boston fits though, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will find scoring opportunities much different in the playoffs than last Thursday, when they posted 18 and 20 on 50% shooting. Two more evenly matched teams don’t exist. Other than L.A.-L.A., no other match-up is more anticipated in league circles. While the playoffs start next week, the first round may be a slog. But Toronto-Boston, Milwaukee-Miami, Lakers-Rockets, and Clippers-Nuggets second round match-ups are a dream. Bring on the playoffs.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Cavs Problems, Beilein Solutions

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, NBA

The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the weeds. They’ve lost six in a row and 12 of 13. After a respectable start, they now rank 29th and 27th in offensive and defensive ratings. The sniping has started, according to the Athletic, and questions about the makeup of the roster are growing louder. Who is talking? Do any of the guys other than Kevin Love have value on the trade market? How do you form cohesion between 19-year-olds and vets with rings?

It’s best to ignore the comments made last week by anonymous players to the press. Beat downs create frustration, and the Cavs have endured plenty of them. Twenty games in, the players quoted are grasping at something to blame for their poor play. A college coach dipping his toes into the NBA waters makes for a perfect scapegoat. Long film sessions and practices, lack of communication, and a better rapport with the head assistant are standard complaints made by excuse makers unwilling to take responsibility for their current situation. Who on this roster will be around when the Cavs are good again?

The struggles reveal who doesn’t belong as much as who does. Any player or coach or front office member unwilling to shoulder their share of the problems can go. Subtract LeBron James. What success has anyone involved with the Cavaliers’ organization experienced?

John Beilein has proved over a 40 year career that he can rebuild basketball teams. His experience at molding players is all that matters at this stage. Anyone unwilling to accept him as the voice of the franchise doesn’t belong. If good players get traded or cut, so be it. No player on a 5-17 roster is indispensable.

This would never be a quick rebuild. Owners and execs preach patience, but is it practiced? The young guys show flashes, but overall have been bad. There’s no guarantee Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, or Kevin Porter Jr. will be here when the team is competing for a playoff spot. Establishing a culture of responsibility is imperative. Look at Miami. And Dallas. Those organizations have won titles and lost icons. They’ve struggled through disappointing seasons, yet the voices at the top are the same. Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra remain because they provide stability regardless of the players on the floor. They’re running the two most surprising teams in the league because they’ve built a sustainable system. Look at the NBA landscape. Player movement is rampant. Counting on players to steady the franchise is fruitless.

Beilein is this guy for the Cavs, and the front office and fans must put their trust in him. For however long his age and drive allows, he needs to be the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Nothing on the floor works right now. A few quick hits of things in need of improvement.

Matthew Dellavedova is shooting 11.4% from three. He averages 1.5 fouls and a turnover in 13 minutes a game.

No one stops the ball on defense, whether in transition or in the half court. The lack of athleticism and length is a factor, but the scheme isn’t helping. Defenders are sagging too far off their man when providing help. When the ball swings, defenders are out of position, can’t recover, and are giving up layups. Another factor is the Cavs’ on ball defense. They’re shading guys to their weak hand, giving them driving lanes. NBA ball handlers are unfazed by defenders forcing them left and take advantage of the free space. Guard guys chest to chest.

The offense is stagnant. Too often, one action gets run early in the shot clock, then the team stands and watches as the ball handler prods at the defense for 8-10 seconds, searching for a nonexistent opening to attack. Beilein preaches ball and player movement, but neither is happening. While simplistic, the Cavs would be better served running pick and roll over and over. And over. They have quick ball handlers and three capable screeners in Love, Tristan Thompson, and Larry Nance Jr. Love and Nance can shoot, while Thompson and Nance are capable rim runners. The action will move defenses, opening cutting lanes on the weak side and providing open shots. It isn’t sexy, but there’s a reason pick and roll is the bread and butter play for NBA teams.

4 guys standing behind the 3 point line watching Thompson dribble isn’t ideal

What’s What Around the League

1. The jokes centering on Nikola Jokic’s fitness level are abundant and on point. The Joker neglected to hire a personal trainer last off-season and his game is suffering. Shooting percentages -from 2 and 3-, points, rebounds, assists; they’re all down. The fourth place finisher in last season’s MVP vote, Jokic expected to lead the Nuggets deep in the playoffs. Denver is third in the West without his best, however, getting strong contributions from the rest of the roster and sporting the second best scoring defense in the league. Denver’s task is tall; the Lakers are a juggernaut; the Clippers haven’t hit their stride yet, and Luka Dončić has the Mavericks ahead of schedule. Jokic needs to return to form, and soon.

Jokic family meal time

2. The Lakers’ length causes huge problems for their opponents. JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, and Anthony Davis are three of the most athletic big men in the league. With LeBron James orchestrating L.A.’s offense, oops and savage dunks are plentiful. They lead the league in blocked shots, while opponents record the fewest swats per contest. Though the game is being played further from the hoop, paint protection remains vital. Slash and kicks are the most efficient way to get open looks from 3, yet penetrators shy away from the forest of Laker big men inside the paint, making it difficult to generate open looks. With a strong defense to fall back on, the Lakers have catapulted into the favorites spot for the title.

3. The Russell Westbrook experiment in Houston has gone as expected, though Russ’s broken shot is worse than ever. Look at these percentages:
3 point%- 21.6
EFG%- 42.8
3 to 10ft.- 46.6
Hell, he’s only 11-16 on dunks. Westbrook is a bulldog. He plays at light speed with the ball in his hands and competes with a fire possessed by no one else in the league. He’s an alpha, however, on a team already with one. For Houston to be successful, the ball must be in James Harden’s hands. This leaves Westbrook as a catch and shoot player. Not ideal. Westbrook is best leading the fast break and still causes havoc for Houston in these situations. When the playoffs roll around and these opportunities wither, however, the Rockets may as well.

4. Montrezl Harrell is the best bench player in the league. He does everything, including textbook high-low passing.

5. Cory Joseph and the Kings put on a clinic Friday in San Antonio on how to botch the last two minutes of an NBA game. And they did it twice. Up 9 with two minutes left in regulation, Joesph turned it over twice, Harrison Barnes got whistled for a charge and missed a free throw, and the team lost Marco Belinelli with 4 seconds left, allowing him to can the game tying 3. In overtime the Kings missed FOUR attempts in the last seventeen seconds to win the game. Whew. The Kings have rebounded, however, winning back to back tough road games in Dallas and Houston. Sacramento seems to have used Friday’s implosion as a team building moment. When De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley return, the Kings should begin to resemble the playoff team some predicted them to be.

6. The Pistons have won 4 of 5, trying to rebound from a poor start and re-enter the playoff hunt. Derrick Rose has been superb in their last ten (plus/minus of 6.7), forcing the action off the bench while also leading the team in crunch time. He beat the Pacers in the last minute on Friday, sinking 2 clutch baskets while assisting on Blake Griffin’s dagger 3, drawing the defense with penetration before kicking the ball to a wide open Griffin. A game winner Monday night against the Pelicans added to his fantastic week. Rose will never return to his MVP form and will become the first winner of the award not to make the Hall of Fame. He’s proving those who thought he was washed wrong (raises hand), however. He provides scoring and playmaking off the bench; the Pistons are 10 points better offensively when he’s on the court. If the Pistons have any shot of making the playoffs, Rose’s stellar play must continue.

7. The fourth best offense in the NBA? None other than the Washington Wizards. While Bradley Beal is a top 25 player in the league, the rest of the roster is lacking. Scott Brooks, often derided, deserves praise for designing an offense around Beal while extracting every ounce of talent out of his squad. While 30th in the league in defense, the Wizards are “run of the mill” bad instead of “worst team in the league” awful. Washington leads the league in assists and has four players shooting over 38% on threes. Beal has improved his game again, scoring 28 per game while dishing 7 assists. His playmaking skills were unknown with John Wall controlling possessions, yet Beal has showed he’s capable of running an offense. If they add a high pick in this year’s draft and John Wall can return at somewhat the same level, the Wizards become interesting again.

8. Giannis’ dunks are breathtaking to watch.

9. Ben Simmons has canned two three pointers this year, an improvement over his career total of zero. While it’s a step in the right direction that he’s taken a few from deep, his game is still a problem for Philly. He’s taking two fewer shots per game and averaging almost 3 points less than last year. The 76ers offense has no easy button. Their best player is a center. Tobias Harris, who they signed to a 180 million dollar deal in the off-season to be their crunch time scorer, is shooting 30% from 3, lowest since his third year in the league. Philadelphia may have the best roster in the East, and they can lock down teams defensively. Their offense is a slog, however. How will they score in the playoffs, when the transition points disappear? Unless they can keep games in the 80s, it’s hard to imagine a path to the title for Philly.

10. Many picked the Bulls to make a playoff push this year, but nah. Zach LaVine is an inefficient, score only guard best suited for the slam dunk contest. The real problem, however, has been the erosion of Lauri Markkanen’s game. He’s down almost 6 points per game on four fewer shots than last year, shooting worse from in front of and behind the arc, and is even rebounding less. Chicago lacks star power, and while Markkanen may be ill-fitted for the role, he’s the best shot on a roster full of role players. The Bulls should shift shots from LaVine to Markkanen. Jim Boylen should establish a hierarchy in Chicago with the correct player at the top.

LaVine’s specialty

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Cleveland Cavaliers and Black Ice

Cleveland Cavaliers, Darius Garland, LeBron James, NBA, Tristan Thompson

A tough week for the Cleveland Cavaliers ended on Saturday night with a fun win over a toiling Portland team. Whipped in New York, Miami, and Dallas, the team needed a victory for their psyche. The schedule is brutal for a struggling team. The games keep coming and the losses can mount. Self doubt is a sickness that spreads when getting throttled by 40.

For the Cavs to win, they have to outwork their opponents. They lack in talent in almost every matchup; if the energy level is low, they will get blown out. The wins are important to sustain belief. Losing causes doubt. Doubt creates lethargy. Two game losing streaks turn into 10 game streaks in a hurry. Cleveland needs wins to prove what they’re doing can work. The coaching staff needs stuff to point to in film sessions that work. If the young guys lose confidence, they may never regain it. This is John Beilein’s toughest assignment. How do you keep spirits up when you’re losing by double digits on the regular?

To come home after the beat downs on the road and post a win, even against a struggling Blazers unit, is encouraging. Watching the beatings is frustrating, but remember where the Cavs are in the rebuild. Three 20-year-olds are playing significant minutes. A fourth (Dylan Windler) will be once he’s healthy. The improvements made by Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. occur in fits and starts. It is tough, but necessary. No perennial MVP candidate is coming back in free agency. An All-Star duo will not team up in Cleveland. Those players will come through drafts and development.

Oklahoma City is the model. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden were drafted in consecutive years at 2, 4, and 3 overall. They won 20 and 23 games in Durant’s and Westbrook’s rookie years before surging to 50 in Durant’s third year. It doesn’t happen overnight, even for the greats.

When the team is struggling, Tristan Thompson tries to put the offense on his shoulders. This isn’t ideal. Too many possessions end with Thompson dribbling 6,8, even 10 times, probing his way into the paint before turning it over or unleashing an errand shot. Thompson has been fantastic this year. His leadership and effort are a godsend for this young squad, but there’s a point of diminishing returns when he has the ball in his hands on offense. Any possession in which he’s dribbling is asking for trouble.

Thompson is vital to the success of the offense, but use him without the ball in his hands. Pick and rolls with Collin Sexton, Garland, and Jordan Clarkson play to his strengths. Those three are quick with the ball and have shown a propensity to get to the rim. TT provides an outlet if the lane is closed. Thompson has always been a fantastic rim runner, and his improved hooks with either hand give him another weapon to finish in the paint off passes from the guards. Beilein seems to favor dribble handoffs involving a big and a guard versus the traditional pick and roll. These are plays are fine. They help the guards get to the basket, but also make it harder for the big to cut because of the way the defense guards the roll man. Run the hand offs with Kevin Love. He can pop off the pick to the three point line. Give the traditional pick and rolls to Thompson, who’s more dynamic going toward the rim.

Pick and roll between Thompson and Sexton gets Sexton to the rim

While Beilein harps on ball movement and the point guard has to set that example, Darius Garland should take a few games and fire at will from all over the court. He’s still tentative, hoping to satisfy his coaches and teammates instead of playing to his strengths. It’s important for his future development that he sees the floor and gets his teammates involved, but for his confidence today he needs to be more selfish. His aggression peaked in garbage time against Dallas when he posted a career high and lead the team in scoring with 23. Garland’s shooting led the Cavs to take him 5th overall in the draft, and it’ll be the reason he succeeds or fails in the league. Allow him to gain some confidence from his shot. Once he sees his scoring numbers increase, the playmaking will open up.

What’s What Around the League

1. De’Andre Hunter is a perfect compliment to Trae Young in Atlanta. The rookie has had a big week, posting a 27 and 11 against Milwaukee followed by an 18 point performance in Detroit. He’s found his footing in the league, reaching double figures in scoring in his last seven games, with a six steal game thrown in. Most expected Hunter to be a defensive force, and while he’s struggled on that end, his offensive game has Hawks’ fans salivating. The team’s offensive rating is 12.4 points better when he’s on the floor; he’s doing everything on that end. Hunter attacks the basket, a good dribbler who sees the defense well and attacks when a crack in the defense forms for him to exploit. He’s strong when he gets to the rim, able to finish over shot blockers. He shoots 35% from 3 and can post up when smaller defenders switch onto him. With Hunter and Young in the fold, Atlanta is a future contender.

2. When Ben Simmons gets the ball in the paint, he has to shoot. For Philadelphia to be the team it wants to be, Simmons needs more aggression. Can Joel Embiid lend him some attitude?

3. Watching Luka Doncic control every aspect of each game is enthralling. Is it possible that he’s the best player in the league already? Maybe 3-4 guys are better passers, though even that seems high. He shoots 35% from three, 72% in the restricted area, and 75% from 16 to 24 feet (NBA.com). The league is witnessing the blooming of a superstar. His Mavericks are 5th in the Western Conference. He’s guiding an OK roster and has put them in contention to make noise in the playoffs as a second year 20-year-old. If you were drafting players for the next ten years, Luka is the easy 1st pick.

So quick…..and that court vision

4. Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo provided a glimpse of what’s needed from them if the Bucks hope to make the NBA Finals Thursday against the Blazers. By posting a combined 34 points, the duo provided spacing for Giannis to attack the basket while giving him a release when the defense collapsed. With Eric Bledsoe’s inconsistency and a lack of reliable playmaking from anyone else on the roster, Milwaukee has to find role players Mike Budenholzer can count on. Giannis is life changing. The contributions on the fringes will decide Milwaukee’s fate in May and June.

5. The Timberwolves are a difficult team to figure. Karl Anthony-Towns is an offensive blowtorch, scorching teams like no 7 footer in the league’s history. Averaging 26, 12, and 3 assists, Towns is shooting 45% from 3 on nine attempts a game. Just incomprehensible. His shooting chart is a stat geek’s wet dream; nearly all his shots are 3’s or within 5 feet of the basket. Now take a gander at Andrew Wiggins’ numbers. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists while also shooting the ball better than ever.

And the defense is okay; they’re 15th in the league in defensive rating. So why aren’t the T-Wolves better than .500? It’s too difficult running a team through the center. While Towns is unlike anything the NBA has seen, trying to develop flow through a big man is clunky. Wiggins has improved, but he’s not the guy you want at the end of games deciding wins and losses. Things seem to gum up on them in the fourth quarter. The potential for a good team is there. Will they put it together?

6. The 76ers rank 8th in the league in defensive rating, but when they turn the screws they become suffocating. In Jimmy Butler’s return Saturday night, a playoff-like atmosphere, Philly’s intensity on that end stymied the Heat. Once the playoffs roll around, will anyone be able to score with any consistency against Philadelphia? The 76ers continue to be the most fascinating story in the NBA.

7. A team known for outplaying expectations, the Blazers have reversed course this year. After making the Western Conference Finals last year, they’ve floundered in the first month of this season. Losing a bench core of Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, along with the underrated Al-Farouq Aminu, has hurt more than expected. Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum are still there, however, but a 5-12 start to the season has the Blazers in a hole they may not get out of. Lillard looked disinterested in Cleveland Saturday night and, while he was returning from injury, didn’t play with the passion the team needs from him to win games. Carmelo Anthony isn’t enough to shake Portland out of the early season doldrums.

8. These neon green Timberwolves jerseys burn the retinas.

9. It’s an amazing thing when LeBron James decides he wants to play defense. The Lakers are the best team in the league because of their defense and the effort exerted by James. After the title in Cleveland, he quit playing on that end of the court and his teammates followed suit. LeBron is a force of nature. If he hustles, his teams hustle. If he loafs, his teammates loaf. No one doubted his greatness, even in his 17th season. His regular season effort level was the question. This LeBron makes the Lakers the favorites and gives him one more shot at another MVP. Will he push for 82 games?

LeBron even got the refs convinced

10. Devin Booker is a “go win the game” scorer. Stuck in the mediocrity of Phoenix, the losses have mounted and questions surrounded whether Booker was a good player or just a stat sheet filler on a garbage team. With the Suns’ rise in the Western Conference, he’s proving himself All-Star worthy. Booker is one of the best pure scorers in the game and is doing it efficiently, shooting 52/45/95. When the game is on the line, he can create his own shot. At 6’5”, he has the size to shoot over defenders and the quickness to get to the rim. Despite their hot start, a playoff berth still seems unlikely. If they can sneak in, however, expect Booker to have a Kobe moment or two.