Troy’s Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.It is past time for all of us to listen.

2. LeBron has arrived. James slow played the bubble, and even the first two games of the playoffs, but the 34,9, and 9 he’s averaging over the last two has awakened the Laker team, transforming into the title contender everyone expected. Without another competent ball handler, L.A. needs James to get quality looks for his underwhelming teammates. Rajon Rondo will return soon. Most teams would view those words as a threat, but for the Lakers he’s needed to run the offense in the minutes James sits. And what to make of Anthony Davis? He’s dominant in some moments, yet has halves like the first in Game 3 in which he took just 3 shots. LeBron cannot win a fourth ring without a dominant Davis, and AD even admitted to feeling the pressure of the playoffs beside an all-time great. He’s complained about playing the 5 all year, yet the Lakers’ best lineups, and his superior position, is in the middle. Davis needs to suck it up and bang with the big boys if he wants a ring.

3. I questioned if Donovan Mitchell had the chops to be an alpha, A1 scorer on a contender, and he proved me wrong. He’s averaging 37.6 in the series against Denver and has two 50 point games. Mitchell is showing the ability to score efficiently and involve his teammates. Utah expected to contend this year but struggled with chemistry issues, folding new players into the lineup (Mike Conley), and seemed destined for another early round exit. Mitchell is changing things in this Denver series, but will it continue? He’s picking on the poor defense of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr., dissecting the Nuggets by hunting favorable match ups. If the Clippers are next, however, how will he navigate Paul George and Kawhi Leonard? More size and defensive acumen will present problems. How Mitchell handles those challenges deeper in the playoffs will show us how many steps he’s taken.

4. And how about Mitchell’s sniping opponent, Jamal Murray, dragging the Nuggets to a Game 5 win? Denver seemed finished early in the second half, down 15, showing little fight and having zero answers on defense. Then Murray happened. 33 points in the second half, Murray’s speed got him to the rim with ease or created space for his dead eye jumper. Though flaming, he didn’t force his shot either. Late assists on 3s to Michael Porter and Nikola Jokic sealed the win. Murray is tantalizing, yet cannot find consistency. His scoring numbers in this series (36,14,12,50,42) prove as much. The Nuggets need to know what’s coming each night if they’re to make the jump to contender. Denver’s defense is awful and may prevent them from coming back in this series, but Mitchell vs. Murray is must watch.

5. The Luka Doncic show from Sunday was unprecedented, and a welcome to superstardom moment for him. Luka controls an offense unlike anyone we’ve seen. He isn’t fast, but he’s quick enough. He’s not huge, but he’s big enough. Doncic’s footwork is majestic. His fundamentals, perfect. He reads defenses, moving defenders with his eyes and slight movements and jab steps that open corner 3s, driving lanes, or whatever the hell else he wants. Dallas is a title contender for the next decade, though they still may need a piece. But Luka is the future. His control of the team at 21 years old defies logic. His injured ankle, Kristaps Porzingis’ hurt knee, and the overwhelming talent gap between them and the Clippers seem too tall a mountain to climb. Never fear though, Mavericks fans. MVP awards and championship trophies are on the horizon.

6. Kawhi Leonard is one of the greatest defenders of all time. But you’re telling me he couldn’t have fought harder through this screen at the end of Game 4? Luka is taking that shot. He isn’t passing it to Maxi Kleber. So why give in and ride Kleber into the paint? And I understand that Reggie Jackson made a 3 and an outstanding hustle play to keep the Clippers in the game, but why give Luka a chance to work a switch onto him? He should’ve been on the bench. Baffling.

Come on Kawhi, fight through that screen

7. What’s left to say, standing over the dead carcass of the 76ers’ season? Brett Brown couldn’t motivate his players and got canned on Monday. Ben Simmons won’t shoot. Joel Embiid won’t get in shape. Philly needs a reboot, and tough decisions concerning the stars are on the horizon. The new coach will sell the front office on the idea that he, and he alone, can figure out the Embiid/Simmons problem, but even if he can, Al Horford is owed 81 mil over the next 3 seasons, while Tobias Harris is guaranteed 149 million over the next 4. Neither contract is tradeable, Horford is declining and an awful fit next to the two stars, and Harris isn’t the clutch, end of game scorer with the ball in his hands the team is paying for. Even if Simmons and Embiid can co-exist, is Philly a title contender as constructed? A lot of soul searching is in store this fall in Philadelphia.

8. Boston-Toronto. The series everyone wanted and expected has arrived. The Celtics and Raptors were 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the regular season in fast break points, so look for each team to run at any opportunity. Once the defenses get set, scoring will become difficult. The Raptors were 2nd and the Celtics 4th in defensive rating, and each team’s length will cause problems for the other. So who can score in the half court? Jayson Tatum has continued his breakout into superstardom in the bubble, shooting 3s well and penetrating more often. Jaylen Brown averaged 21.5 against the Sixers and shot 6 free throws a game, a welcome bump in his aggressiveness. If Kemba Walker’s 24 per game continues against Toronto, the Raptors are toast.

9. But the Raptors, with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka, have the length and quickness to match-up with Boston’s rangy scorers. Will Toronto score on their end? They were middle of the league in half court scoring, so Boston will try to keep them from running. Is Pascal Siakam a good enough offensive player to carry the load? How will Kyle Lowry fare? It’s his team, and Lowry must drive their half-court offense. He needs to score, but also construct scoring opportunities for Siakam and open 3s for Fred VanVleet. He buried his playoff demons in an epic Finals Game 6 in Golden State last year, and that Lowry has to show up here. Without a big series from him, Boston wins.

10. Houston might be the better team, but Oklahoma City has fought harder in games 3 and 4. James Harden, a renowned playoff -what disappearer?- was fine with 14 in the second half of Game 3, but only took 8 shots, and 1 in overtime. His 13 in the second half of Game 4, also fine, came on 14 shots. The Rockets can’t afford fine from their MVP. Houston designed their offense to utilize his talents. Any drop off from him is trouble. Chris Paul is controlling games for OKC and attempting to bury some of his own playoff demons. While Paul has a litany of poor playoff performances, no one questions his heart. His team is under-manned and shooting deficient, but they play harder. Houston needs to prove they can match the Thunder’s intensity, or they won’t make it to a hyped second round series against the Lakers.

 

Andre Drummond? Sure

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s What Around the League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

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.