Cleveland Cavaliers Midseason Report

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, NBA

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

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

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

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

What’s What Around the League

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

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

3. Sekou Doumbouya made Tristan Thompson question his existence.

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

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

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

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

8. Your weekly Ja Morant highlight.

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

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

The Young Cavs Don’t Suck

Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA, Trae Young

Being a fan of an NBA team deep in rebuild mode requires extreme patience. The Cavaliers, during the last decade and a half, have volleyed between being a contender for the title and hoping for the number one pick in the draft. No ambiguity existed in Cleveland. Could this team make it to the middle? Dreaded by most in the league, being below average, instead of bad, puts a team in no-man’s-land. If not a title contender, fight for the top pick instead of the 14th. For the Cavs, however, being ‘meh’ could be what the franchise and fan base need.


With a compelling mix of veterans and rookies, the Cavs are fun. For them to approach average, the defense must improve from last year. After two games, they have yet to give up 100 points. Though the competition, Orlando and Indiana, are two of the most offensively challenged teams in the league, this represents a vast improvement over a year ago. Bad teams would light up the Cavaliers’ D, the worst, according to defensive rating, in the history of the NBA.


The young guards are struggling on that end, as predicted. Malcolm Brogdon netted 30 on Saturday night, while Evan Fournier and Markelle Fultz beat them off the dribble in Orlando. They’ve been bad instead of “worst in the league’s history” bad, though. Look for improvements where you can find them.


Sexton and Garland have shown playmaking abilities early, another worry coming into the season. Garland has tallied 9 assists in two games and seems to hunt for his teammates. Perhaps overlooked coming out of college, his passing to this point is encouraging. The touch from deep has been impressive, while he’s also shown a knack for getting to the rim. Through two games, Garland is unsure of himself, trying to fit in, yet his abilities have flashed.


Sexton is searching for teammates out of the pick and roll more than last year. He’s comfortable at the shooting guard position. While used to having the ball in his hands, Garland at the point frees Sexton to force the action on offense instead of running it, a more natural spot for him. Still feeling each other out, the guards have shown promising signs early that they can work together.


Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson dominated the Pacers Saturday night. Love, under-used in the opener, was the fulcrum of the offense. Set up primarily on the left side of the floor, Love drew fouls on Indiana’s bigs and showed playmaking skills not seen in his time in Cleveland. His 9 assists unlocked opportunities for his teammates and will be a key number to watch as the season progresses. The attention he draws will free space for everyone else on the floor.


A Love-Thompson pick and roll, seen a handful of times against the Pacers, is intriguing if not unusual. Love lacks the ball handling skills required for it to be an offensive staple, but for a few possessions a night can be helpful for the Cavs. By putting two opposing bigs in the play, the Cavs will force defenses into uncomfortable spots. Thompson has always been a solid roll man, and Love has shown the ability to make tight passes or hit open 20 footers, whatever the defense gives him.


While the defense is promising, in transition the Cavaliers have struggled. The young guys aren’t reacting, allowing run outs and layups on the other end, whether off makes or misses. The Cavs’ bigs are slow, lacking athleticism to run the floor. The mindset when a shot goes up has to switch to defense. Other than Tristan Thompson, the others must forego offensive rebounds for defensive positioning. Faster teams will bury them early if the mental lapses in this area continue.

Watching the ball, jogging instead of hustling back to the paint


Though it’s understandable why John Beilein has a soft spot for Matthew Dellavedova (all coaches do) his minutes should go to the young guys. While he can run the offense and get the team into their sets, he brings nothing else to the table. A leader on the bench and in the locker room is his proper role at this point in his career. The team would be better served allowing the young guys to make mistakes and learn from them at this stage. Delly is slow on defense and can’t shoot or get to the rim on offense. His performance in Game 3 of the 2015 Finals will remain forever in Cavs lore. Any Dellavedova floor time belongs in the past.

What’s What Around the League

1. The player of the week has to be Trae Young. Averaging 38, 7 rebounds, 9 assists, and a steal and a half, Young has dominated both times he’s stepped on the floor. A Young/Jabari Parker pick and roll on Saturday night chewed the Pistons defense to pieces, allowing Atlanta’s offense to get whatever it wanted. Experts’ opinions on this squad varied, many worried the kids would struggle with expectations. If Trae continues his torrid start, however, playoff and All-Star game appearances will begin this year.

2. A question mark for Milwaukee was how much they would miss Malcolm Brogdon. An outstanding player who’s shined so far with Indiana, he grabbed the reins during the playoffs when Eric Bledsoe faltered. Milwaukee cast their lot with cheaper, aging veterans, and so far, Wes Matthews fits. A favorite among NBA nerds, Matthews has struggled in recent seasons after an Achilles tear in 2015. A tough injury to return from, Matthews may have found a spot that plays on his strengths. He won’t get overused and can set up behind the arc, waiting for Giannis kick outs. If he can stay healthy, a big if, Matthews will be key to a Bucks’ title run.

3. Mike Budenholzer is an excellent defensive coach, but Giannis’ length is the ultimate weapon. Able to cover ground from the rim to the three line in an instant, Antetokounmpo covers the flaws of his slower footed teammates like Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. He allows Coach Bud to play these guys when teams ordinarily run them off the court. While he’s averaging a triple double, his D may be his most valuable asset.

4. When I’m running an NBA team, Patrick Beverley will be on it. A bulldog, he does whatever is asked of him. Do you need your 6’1” guard to rebound? Done. He had 10 against the Lakers. Guard LeBron, get in his head? No problem. Play suffocating D? Sure, 5 steals against Golden State. He backs down from no one, always assisting his teammates. Beverley is a dog.

Teammate

5. Can we get rid of the coaches’ challenge yet? The green light is annoying, and it’s only been a week. Replay has jumped the shark in all sports, yet its worst in the NBA. A game dictated by flow, the challenge kills it. If it’s in play during the playoffs, when it matters most, we can discuss it, but lose that light for the regular season.

6. The Washington Wizards lost in San Antonio Saturday night, marking their 20th straight loss in the city. How is this possible? Yes, the Spurs have dominated for decades, but the Wiz never caught them on an off night? Gilbert Arenas never lit up Pop’s D? Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland, and Juwan Howard couldn’t slow down David Robinson and Sean Elliott? This one is shocking.

7. Kristaps Porzingis is one of the best rim defenders in the league. At 7’3”, his combination of size and quickness makes him an ideal shot blocker, and he’s looking healthy in his return from injury. Damian Lillard cared for none of that, however. Lillard abused Porzingis Sunday night, fueling a Blazers 19 point comeback by attacking the rim in the fourth quarter, snubbing his nose at Kristaps as he went by. Lillard is a top ten player in the league, overlooked each year for reasons unknown. No one drills clutch shots like Dame.

8. If the Miami Heat finish the year close to the top of the East, Jimmy Butler will be the reason. Right behind him will be Bam Adebayo. A wrecking crew in Milwaukee Saturday, Adebayo kept Giannis out of the paint in the fourth, neutralizing the MVP. A chase down block of Eric Bledsoe in O.T. sealed the win, along with clutch free throw shooting from the former Kentucky big. An eye popping 8 assists, Adebayo has a feel for the game that allows him to control it. Excited to watch his continued development.

9. Kyrie in Brooklyn has been a show. 50 in the opener, he averaged 37.7 for the week. I’ll always have a soft spot where Irving’s concerned, and now that he’s away from Boston it’s safe to root for him again. The handles, the shot-making around the rim, the desire to shut out the rest of his teammates and do it all himself, it’s perfect. He’s must watch all year.

10. Coby White had a good first rookie week for the Bulls. 16, 5, and 3 from their point guard is what the Bulls need to make a playoff run. With the East in the shape that it’s in, and Lauri Markkanen poised to have a breakout season, if White can stabilize a position that’s been a black hole for the Bulls since Derrick Rose left, Chicago will be the 7 or 8 seed in April.

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.