Troy’s Top Ten

NBA, NBA Bubble

The bubble debut for the NBA has been fantastic. Players are in shape, the games have an outstanding atmosphere, the intensity level is high, and no one has tested positive for COVID-19. The protocols and guidelines the league took months to set up are paying off, and we should commend the players for bringing their A game. A March Madness feel has overtaken the league, with high stakes games being played at all hours of the day. This has a chance, and with the uncertainty surrounding baseball and football, NBA playoffs in September and October may own the landscape. Here’s what was interesting during the first week back:

1.Houston’s size problem may have a Robert Covington solution. The 6’7” forward, always a defensive menace, has flexed his muscle around the rim. Five blocks in their first 2 games have given the Rockets a presence in the paint. He’s rejected 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis and 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Add in 6 steals, and the weak Houston defense at least has an active member causing havoc on the back end. Is it enough to change their trajectory? Time will tell if Covington’s body can withstand the pounding he’ll take, guarding bigger guys every night. Most bigs shy away from it. But for now, consider Covington the smallest rim protector in the league.

2. Once the trade from Houston to Oklahoma City occurred last summer, speculation began on who Chris Paul would suit up for this season. The Thunder wouldn’t keep the 35-year-old point guard due $123 million over the next three years in a rebuilding situation. OKC didn’t dump him, however, and now the Thunder may be the third best team in the West. Paul is a conductor, orchestrating the moves of teammates and opponents while dominating games without posting monster stats. His understanding of the game, bettered only by LeBron, is PhD worthy, and he’s been overlooked in the MVP conversation. What he’s done in OKC, after they traded away both Russell Westbrook and Paul George last off season, deserved MVP votes. Paul’s name will hit the rumor mill again, yet Oklahoma City may be wise to keep him. Young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an All Star in the making. Learning from an all-time great point guard will only speed up his development.

3. Though he’s turned it around, Jayson Tatum’s start in the bubble was clunky. A 5 point, 2-18 shooting opener against Milwaukee, following a poor exhibition slate is troubling. 34 against Portland on Sunday may allow Celtic brass to sleep better, but is this the guy Boston is resting future title hopes on? We’ve seen flashes from him before, only to see Tatum revert to a passive entity, flowing in and out of games. He switches between attacking and hanging out behind the three point line. While Tatum has more talent, Jaylen Brown has more fire. Brown doesn’t take plays off. His shot selection is sometimes questionable, but his ability to guard 1-5 on defense gives Brad Stevens tons of flexibility. The push and pull between these two young players, and Boston’s hierarchy over the next few years, will remain engrossing.

4. Most counted Toronto out as defending champs as soon as Kawhi Leonard packed for L.A., yet the strong fit of the pieces collected by GM Masai Ujiri and the heart of Kyle Lowry is keeping them on the periphery of the title chase. A defensive masterpiece on Saturday night against the Lakers is forcing everyone to consider them a contender. Lowry, recovered from the PTSD of so many subpar performances against LeBron’s Cavs in the playoffs, has become a clutch, go to player in crunch time. Anyone Nick Nurse puts on the floor plays defense, and Pascal Siakam is edging toward superstardom. Ask NBA experts who the best coach in the league is, and a majority will answer Nurse. So why the lingering doubt over the Raptors? The defense is trustworthy, but can they count on Lowry and Siakam to get crunch time buckets with defenses designed to stop them? Kawhi garnered the attention last year. But if those two take another step, the Raptors may make the Finals for a second year in a row.

Defending LeBron/Davis pick and roll. Doesn’t get any better than this.

5. New Orleans wants to be careful with their lottery ticket, but is playing Zion Williamson only 18 minutes per game, and sitting him during crunch time, the best strategy? The fear of injury is overtaking sports. Pitchers can’t throw over 100 pitches per outing and prized NBA draft picks get babied mercilessly. How many players handled with kid gloves reach stardom? How many others flame out, or get hurt anyway? And if he’s on a minute restriction, why not save some of those minutes for the end of games? In a near must win in their opener against Utah, Zion sat for the last 7 minutes as his teammates coughed up a double digit lead. On a team NBA execs want in the playoffs, New Orleans’ bosses seem to have other ideas. Question is, when will they unleash the beast? At some point, Zion has to play NBA basketball, or his development will suffer. If he’s injury prone, we’ll find out soon enough.

6. Anthony Davis dominated the Jazz Monday night with a performance the Lakers will need replicated for the next two-and-a-half months. 42 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals, plus multiple wow plays on defense carried L.A. while LeBron ramps up in the bubble. Watching Laker games, the lack of talent behind their top two is glaring, however. Could Dion Waiters be their best bench play? Can they count on Kyle Kuzma as the 3rd option? Davis cannot have games like Saturday night against the Raptors, when he took 2 shots in the first half, and only 7 total in the game. The Lakers may be the favorite, but their margins are razor thin. Davis cannot afford to be passive, especially against smaller teams like the Rockets and Clippers. When he has a mismatch, he must dominate. With no other reliable ball handlers, Frank Vogel will tax LeBron with that duty throughout. AD has to carry the scoring load on offense to allow LeBron to set up their less reliable teammates.

7. Jrue Holiday’s defense gets overlooked. Strong enough to battle bigs in the paint and quick enough to stick on guards, Holiday schooled Rookie of the Year in waiting Ja Morant on Monday in a game the Pelicans had to have. Drawing the rookie on most possessions in the first half, Holiday used his size to push Morant around, forcing him into 3-11 shooting, 0-6 from 3. Morant ended drives off balance, unable to finish at the rim because of Holiday’s presence, while Jrue’s quickness didn’t allow Ja any separation on his jumper. Though New Orleans’ defense has been abominable all season, and may keep him off All Defense teams, Holiday, at minimum, provides an example for the young Pelicans on that end if they are to become a contender in the West. His 1.7 steals per game ranked 7th in the league. His ability to switch gives their defense flexibility. When the Pelicans become a problem, Zion will be their star, but Jrue Holiday will be their backbone.

8. Put Doris Burke on the main broadcast team with Mike Breen, ESPN. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy complain too much; do they even like NBA basketball? Burke’s understanding of the game is unmatched. She sees all and explains it with an intelligence and charisma that is a joy to listen to. She’s funny, and her love of the game shines. Add that to Breen’s exceptional play-by-play skills and knowledge, and you’ve created the perfect tandem. Van Gundy and Jackson are stale. If they aren’t complaining about referees or players, they’re over-hyping mediocre coaches. Putting Breen and Burke together makes too much sense.

9. Dame Time has arrived in Orlando, and teams out west have a fresh fear. At the controls of Portland’s offense, Damian Lillard has made the Blazers the early favorites for the 8 seed on averages of nearly 27 points and 11 assists per. A lock for an All-NBA spot, Lillard has made his case as the best point guard in the league. With Jusuf Nurkic’s return from a horrible leg injury and Zach Collins back from an early season dislocated shoulder, the Lakers should fear Dame and C. J. McCollum driving the bus. While New Orleans may have been the fans’ pick for the 8 seed, they would pose little resistance to L.A. Not so with the Blazers. A team that reached the West Finals last year, they’re healthy, have added a decent Carmelo Anthony, and possess the best backcourt in the league. LeBron’s path to title four gets tougher if Portland squeezes in.

10. Michael Porter Jr. posted back-to-back 30 point games this week and is the punch Denver’s offense needs in the playoffs. With three starters injured, the Nuggets have relied on Porter during the restart, something coach Mike Malone has hesitated to do. While he makes gobs of rookie mistakes, Denver needs to lean on the talented first-year player more if they hope to advance in the West. Everyone assumes the L.A. teams will meet in the West Finals. If Porter grew up over the layoff, and Malone will trust him, the Nuggets may force their way into the conversation. At worst, the rookie will gain valuable experience for future playoff runs in Denver.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

NBA Trade Season

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, NBA

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

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

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

Not Getting Traded

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

Not Getting Traded, But…..

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

What will you give us?

Cedi Osman
Dante Exum

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

The Assets

Kevin Love
Tristan Thompson

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

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

Please, Help Yourself

Matthew Dellavedova
John Henson
Brandon Knight
Ante Zizic

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

What’s What Around the League

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

Excellent find for Zion’s 1st assist

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

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

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

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

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

7. Go easy on’em, DeAaron.

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

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

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

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com