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 Re-Preview

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, Zion

Can the NBA get this right? 2020 is standing on its head, desperate for attention and getting it. But can basketball steal the focus away and deliver a two-month playoff run unlike anything we’ve seen? The star power in the NBA is strong; no league markets its talent better. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and the rest have an opportunity unlike any other. They will transfix eyes on Orlando, to see if they can pull off a health and safety nightmare, and to see the stars. Will LeBron lead a rickety roster to his 4th title? Can Kawhi go back-to-back? Is Giannis ready to snag ownership of the league away from his older brethren? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook conquer their playoff demons? What will this look like without fans?


Three teams can win the title. While others will provide interest, only the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks feel like contenders. Forget the notion of a tainted title because of the circumstances. In fact, the 2020 champ will have endured more adversity than almost any other in history. The rings won in October, after the nonsense this year has given us, will be iconic. So who will wear them?

Los Angeles Lakers


Why they’ll win the title: Not rocket science here. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They’re the best duo in the league. James will finish second in the MVP race; Davis fifth or sixth. Davis will also make either first or second team All Defense. While Davis’ defensive numbers are good, not stellar, what he does for LeBron on that end is unquantifiable. Davis protects the rim, hedges pick and rolls, and closes on 3 ball shooters at a doctorate level. He allows James do to what he does best: roam. LeBron’s defensive numbers are the best since he left Miami. Poor defenders in Cleveland, along with his blasé regular season attitude, created a fair narrative that his skills had slipped. AD’s length covers his teammates’ rear ends and allows LeBron to use his athleticism and smarts to read opposing offenses and react. A team bereft of top line defenders, Davis almost single-handedly vaulted the Lakers to the third ranking defense in the league.


But I have buried the lead. If the Lakers win the title, it’ll come down to one play, LeBron-Davis pick and rolls. The best passer and finisher in the league, the smartest player in the league, the most battled tested player in the league, controlling the offense and dishing to the most devastating finisher in the NBA. When the games slow down in the playoffs, buckets get tough. But LeBron manipulates defenses like few players in history. He’s methodical. He’s surgical. He’ll wait an extra tick before whipping a pass to Danny Green in the corner for an open 3. He’ll push the pace off defensive rebounds if he sees an advantage. He moves his teammates around at will, searching for preferable match-ups and court spacing. James will create good shots for either himself or his teammates when possessions become essential. That ability, to score points in the tightest situations, separates champions. No player is more prepared to play in the bubble and all the challenges it will bring than LeBron James. The playoffs reveal fear every year. There is none in 23.

Look at the options off this pick and roll. Davis dunk or Green 3?

Why they’ll lose: After 1 and 2, this roster is hot garbage. Avery Bradley opted out of the bubble, and his absence hurts, especially on defense. While Danny Green is a powerful wing defender, Bradley is quicker and more capable of guarding opposing point guards. With the injury to Rajon Rondo keeping him out for most of the playoffs, Bradley gave L.A. another ball handler other than LeBron. Now who handles the rock when LBJ sits? Quinn Cook? Troy Daniels? J. R. Smith? Dion Waiters? Have fun with that ragtag mix of misfits. Alex Caruso must step up for the Lakers in the bubble. Solid all season, he and LeBron are the best 2 man combo on the team, at plus 20.9 per 100 possessions. At 18 minutes per game, he’s averaged 5 points and 1.8 assists, however. Is he ready for big minutes handling the rock for a title contender?

Is anyone on this roster? Davis has playoff experience, but none as a title favorite and LeBron sidekick. The pressure on him will be immense. Kyle Kuzma was unsteady in the regular season. Give me Danny Green in crunch time. The rest of the Dwight Howards and Jared Dudleys are all yours.

Los Angeles Clippers


Why they’ll win the title: Kawhi Leonard. He established himself as one of the five best players in the league, with an argument for the one spot, with an epic title run with the Raptors that showcased every talent he possesses. After his switch on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis wilted, along with the Bucks. He carried the offensive load on a team made up of third options, averaging 30.5, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and almost 2 steals per. Now he’s head of perhaps the best talent in the league. Montrezl Harrell is the likely sixth man of the year, Lou Williams has won the award multiple times and is a walking bucket off the bench, and Patrick Beverley is the dog every team needs in the playoffs that will outwork the opposition while barking at them throughout a series. Then there’s Paul George. Injuries are an issue, but the layoff should find him healthy. An MVP candidate throughout much of last year, George only bows to his teammate Leonard as the best two-way player in the league. If the James-Davis pick and roll is the ultimate weapon, George and Leonard provide the best opportunity to neutralize it. Those match-ups in crunch time of a Western Conference Finals will be epic.

Landry Shamet provides shooting off the bench, Ivica Zubac has played sneaky well in the starting lineup, and Marcus Morris is a prototypical body to steal minutes for George and Leonard on defense against LeBron. And Morris shot 41% from 3 on the season. No roster in the league has the combination of talent and experience that the other L.A. team possesses.

Why they’ll lose: Some in-fighting occurred between the holdovers from last year’s spunky Clippers team and the recent additions. Did the layoff allow them to re-focus on what’s important? How will Paul George fare? Early in his career, his playoff battles with LeBron pushed those Heat teams to the brink. Can George sit behind Leonard, or will he disappear at crucial moments? PG13’s so-so ball handling skills rear their head at inopportune times, so he needs to knock down open jumpers and eliminate crunch time turnovers. And can they handle size? Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and even Steven Adams could give them fits in a 7 game series. Harrell will see 4th quarter minutes at center, yet he’s only 6’8”. Zubac has been good, but does Doc Rivers trust the unathletic big man in high-pressure situations? Will Paul George or Kawhi Leonard have to guard skilled opposing big men? An interesting sub-plot to watch as the playoffs progress.

Milwaukee Bucks

Why they’ll win the title: They’re the number 1 offense in the league. Their defensive rating per 100 possessions also leads the league by 3.3 points. Giannis is the unquestioned MVP. LeBron was excellent in leading his Laker team, but perhaps it’s Giannis’ league now. 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, in only 31 minutes per game. He dominates opponents in the paint with deft footwork and power. He glides in the open floor, the most devastating fast break in basketball. And the defense. He stretches from baseline to baseline, a rim protector, on ball stopper, and rotation expert rolled into one. Bucks GM Jon Horst stacked the roster with excellent defenders (Brook Lopez deserves an All Defense nod, and Eric Bledsoe strong consideration), but Antetokounmpo is on another level. He cares, and it shows by his hustle and desire to gut opponents. Giannis didn’t come to make friends, and a title is the only acceptable outcome for Milwaukee. If the Clippers don’t have the best roster in the league, the Bucks do. George Hill, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Korver all shoot over 40% from 3. Ersan Ilyasova and Wes Matthews are over 36%, devastating shooting to arrange around Giannis. And that number 1 defense? They do things differently that most. Milwaukee has allowed the most 3s made and taken against them in the league, yet they stifle the paint, only allowing teams to shoot 41% against them on the season. They rarely foul; teams shoot the sixth lowest amount of free throws in the league against them. They must keep LeBron and Kawhi off the line in any Finals matchup.

Why they’ll lose: Can they afford to give 3s to Toronto, Boston, or either of the L.A. teams? Mike Budenholzer has been outstanding in Milwaukee, but refuses to budge from what they do in a seven-game series. Being who you are is great, but small tweaks make the difference. The Bucks must adjust their defensive philosophy according to their opponent. If a second round match-up against the Heat, the best shooting 3 ball team in the league, occurs, Milwaukee must adapt. Miami lines up well with them, and a few games of hot outside shooting may put them on the ropes.

Will Eric Bledsoe show this postseason? Describing Bledsoe’s performance in last year’s playoffs as a train wreak would be too kind. He was unplayable against Toronto’s Lowry/VanVleet backcourt, benched in favor of George Hill. Malcolm Brogdon was Milwaukee’s best guard last postseason, but he’s now in Indiana. Bledsoe has rebounded, averaging 15 on 35% 3 shooting and 5.4 assists per game while playing defense at an All NBA level. He has to produce this year, or the Bucks won’t win the title. His defense is too important to be on the bench during crunch time if he becomes a human turnover and brick layer on offense. As he goes, the Bucks will go.

The Rest


Houston Rockets

What will James Harden look like with a four-month rest leading into the playoffs? Perennially gassed by May from the load placed on his shoulders in the regular season, is Harden a playoff choker, or just overused in the regular season? We’ll find out in the bubble. Throw in a rejuvenated Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets are the league’s biggest conundrum. A title would surprise, but any other result would not. First round loss? Sure. Western Conference Finals? Maybe. A roster built to run opponents off the floor and hoist 3’s from everywhere, they’ve once again redefined what small ball means. They start no one over 6’8”, and while Tyson Chandler (7’0”) may see sporadic minutes, look for the Rockets to run opposing bigs off the floor. While Harden and Westbrook will draw the spotlight, the key to Houston’s success will be P. J. Tucker and Robert Covington. Both need to guard above their weight class on defense and punish power forwards and centers on defense by dragging them out of the paint and knocking down 3s. If Tucker and Covington succeed, the Rockets will surprise in the West.

Houston’s starting lineup

Toronto Raptors

The defending champs have mastered carrying a chip on their shoulder. Overlooked as the champs, the fans and players in Toronto are tired of being scoffed at, and they should be. Perhaps the best fit roster in the league, the Raps have length and shooting at every position. Pascal Siakam made MVP noise over the first two months of the season before injuries slowed his ascend to superstar. He’s a perennial All-Star, however, and Kyle Lowry’s clutch Game 6 in last year’s Finals removed the playoff choker tag from his career. Lowry is battle tested and tough. The second best defense in the league, try to find a weak spot. Marc Gasol, Lowry, Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby are smart, long defenders who lock up opponents. While they lack the firepower to beat Milwaukee, a second round series against Boston could be a classic.

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson, who else? While my Lonzo Ball love is well documented, and he and Zion are glorious together, Pels games are must watch because of the rookie. Now in shape, the future of the league is here. Though New Orleans’ goal will be to play their way into the 8-9 Western Conference play-in game, the groundwork for their future will begin construction in Orlando. Are Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, and Jrue Holiday the correct pieces around the phenom? Can they make a push for the Western Conference Finals as soon as next year? Williamson is that good, but are his teammates? GM David Griffin can’t afford to waste one off-season in New Orleans. Every game played by New Orleans in the bubble will be an evaluation for how high their expectations will be next year.

Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum made the leap in February. 30 points and 8 rebounds on 49% shooting, 48% from 3, the numbers, and his on-court confidence, screamed superstar. Thrust into championship contender talk, Boston seems to be a smidge short. But what if February Tatum makes his way to Orlando? Jaylen Brown has some believing he’s the better of the two players. Kemba Walker makes big shots in big moments, and Marcus Smart wins games. Giannis is a tough match-up on a smallish Boston team, however. Their lack of size, less of an issue against Toronto, will prove costly in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Philadelphia 76ers

We should consider them with the title contenders. What happened? Philly posted the best home record in the league, yet the 20th best road mark. What does that mean in Orlando? Confused? Welcome to the 2019-2020 76ers. Joel Embiid is engaged, sometimes. What kind of shape will he be in? He and Ben Simmons are a janky fit. Brett Brown moved Shake Milton into the starting lineup during bubble scrimmages to allow Simmons to play more power forward. But is taking the ball out of his hands, and deadening his passing abilities, the right move? And why has Al Horford been such a poor fit? His offense and shooting has suffered with less space provided to him by his Philly teammates, and another year on his body has made him 5% less effective on defense. Listen, the Sixers have the talent to make a Finals push. But the questions only continued to pile up throughout the season. How many are too many?

It feels like the Lakers. The Bron-Davis duo is too good on both ends of the floor, and James has stared down more adversity in his career than perhaps any player in history. He was built for this moment, and at 35 his title chances are dwindling. The Bucks and Clippers are deeper, and probably better teams. But when buckets in the closing minutes get tough, I know I can rely on that James-Davis pick and roll. One of the greatest to ever do it gets his fourth ring.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

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: Trading for Defense and the Youngn’s

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News

The Cleveland Cavaliers have strung some wins together, victorious in 4 of their last 5. The schedule has softened and the young talent is becoming more assertive on the floor. A need to free up minutes for Kevin Porter while also netting a return on a soon-to-be free agent allowed the Cavs to make a deal with Utah last week.

The Cavs traded Jordan Clarkson to the Utah Jazz for Dante Exum and two second round picks. A logical trade for each team, the acquired players better align with the timelines of their new teams. Clarkson provides the Jazz with much-needed scoring from their second unit. The Jazz rank 29th in the league, getting 26.7 points off the bench (NBA.com). A team with realistic title hopes entering the season, Utah has underperformed. Mike Conley has struggled with his new team, Rudy Gobert’s defense is ticking downward, and Donovan Mitchell’s ascendancy has plateaued. The Jazz have shown themselves to be a second half team under Quin Snyder, however, providing hope they’ll still be a force in April and May. Clarkson should help, and his expiring contract adds flexibility for the front office next summer.

The acquisition of Exum for the Cavs was the proper decision for multiple reasons. On the floor, Exum adds length and a defensive presence to a small backcourt. Friday in Boston, Cleveland’s lack of size was obvious. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward took advantage of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, shooting over the smaller guards and bullying them in the post. Exum showed upon checking in the effect he’ll have on his new team. A lineup of Nance/Exum/Porter/Henson/Dellavedova showed promise as a unit John Beilein can go to for defensive stops. An athletic five, the length of that lineup shuts off passing lanes and provides rim protection. The scoring, however, is suspect. For that five to get buckets, Kevin Porter will need to provide offense, and he’s still erratic. It’ll be an interesting lineup to watch.

Exum will help Garland and Sexton too. Splitting their minutes by placing either alongside Exum relieves pressure on the defensive end. He’ll guard the more dangerous offensive threat and should provide resistance to opposing offenses, something that’s nonexistent now. John Henson’s return from injury has caused a dramatic change in the Cavs’ defense when he’s been on the floor; Exum should provide the same.

Off the court, Dante Exum’s acquisition helps the books. The difference in the money of his contract compared to Clarkson’s (9.1 million vs. 12.5 million) gives the Cavs an extra 3.4 million cushion to play with in future trades. Just 1.7 million under the luxury tax level before the trade, the swap gives them extra cash to play with. Cleveland won’t go over the taxpayer level for a 25 win team. They need to avoid the tax line, or they’ll be subject to repeater penalties, costing Dan Gilbert even more money. This trade gives Koby Altman a touch more breathing room when discussing Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, or anyone else on the roster with other GMs.

The second round picks acquired give Altman another tool in his chest to grease the wheels on trades. He used 4 second rounders to trade back into the 1st round to draft Porter. Another interesting element is the years the picks fall, 2022 and 2023. Most expect the NBA to revoke the age limit for players eligible for the draft in either 2022 or 2023. There will be a college freshman class eligible and the first high school senior class available for drafting, doubling the talent of the pool. The value of picks in those drafts should only appreciate.

These are the trades and returns to expect from the Cavs in the coming weeks. While they’ll hunt for young players and 1st rounders, the pieces Cleveland can trade likely will bring back 2nd rounders and draft busts or oft injured players teams have lost patience with. Other than Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, the Cavs have no one of help to a contender. They don’t seem to be in a rush to trade those veterans, and shouldn’t be. Unless a team is willing to meet their high demands, keep both and allow them to continue molding the young talent.

What’s What Around the League

1.The L.A. battle on Christmas Day only re-emphasized the fact the Clippers are the Lakers’ biggest threat to the title. While the James-Davis duo is devastating and capable of carrying the team themselves, Doc Rivers’ squad matches up well against their arena mates. Patrick Beverley proved his determination on the defensive end again, blocking LeBron James’ final shot attempt despite giving 8 inches and 65 pounds to him. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s defensive reputations are beyond reproach, Mo Harkless is 14th in the league in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (3.5), and Montrezl Harrell has improved each year on that end of the floor. The fifth best scoring team in the league can lock anyone down and has the reigning Finals’ MVP in tow.

2. The 76ers also won on Christmas, but their future is murkier. Joel Embiid was fantastic, yet the team’s offense is too reliant on the whims of their 3 point happy center. Embiid hoists 4 threes a game, makes 33% of them, and has shot 2 less 2’s per game this year over last. Teams running an offense through a traditional center are clunky, yet it’s Philly’s best option. Embiid needs to work as hard each night as he did on Christmas. The Sixers are a unit that has never made an Eastern Conference Finals, yet flows in and out of games. They’re too inconsistent. Milwaukee failed to show on Wednesday, and Embiid defended Giannis superbly. In a seven-game series, however, I doubt those results hold.

3. Nikola Jokic made himself an easy target by coming into the season out of shape, but the Serb’s game is picking up. His vision and covert ball handling skills are exquisite.

4. Another byproduct of the NBA’s new challenge system is the annoying habit of players spinning their finger in the air after a questionable call, pleading with their head coach for a challenge. Coaches feel obliged when star players are making the request, and Nick Nurse succumbed to Kyle Lowry on Saturday night on a meaningless play in the first quarter. Toronto led by 7, and though the Raptors won the challenge, saving Lowry a foul, this isn’t the best use of the system for coaches. They need to implement a “no challenge until the fourth quarter” rule to keep the players off their backs. Since they’re permitted only one challenge per game, using it in the 1st quarter is a waste. Save them for crunch time.

5. While we’re on pet peeves: how come when a defender brushes a shooter’s elbow during a jump shot, referees have a quick whistle, yet if a player is on the ground with the basketball, defenders may jump on, grab, shove, and fight to procure a jump ball call? Once there’s a chance of a loose ball, anarchy ensues. The court turns into a football scrum after a fumble. Jumping unto a player already on the floor should result in a foul call, not a reward.

When there’s a loose ball

6. The Oklahoma City Thunder used an unprecedented amount of leverage against the Clippers in the Paul George trade, bleeding them dry of 1st round picks for the next half decade. The best asset acquired in the heist, however, was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A long guard capable of causing havoc on defense (1.2 steals per game), Gilgeous-Alexander has found his scoring touch. He shoots 36% from three and has raised his scoring average this year from 10.8 as a rookie to 19.8. He’s averaging 27 over his last 5, and he and Chris Paul have the Thunder comfortably in the Western Conference playoff bracket, sitting 7th with a 3.5 game lead on the 8th seed. SGA (that name sucks to type out over and over) is a franchise changer and, paired with Paul, has made the Thunder rethink the tank. While they’ll trade Paul to any taker (he’s due 123 mil over the next 3 years), the knowledge SGA is siphoning off Paul is invaluable. With the picks and Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder’s 5-10 year future is brighter than anyone else’s in the league.

7. Derrick Jones Jr., murderer of Defensive Players of the Year.

8. The Heat aren’t fading. Winners of 5 in a row, Miami is the second best team in the East. With a go to crunch time superstar in Jimmy Butler, a championship winning coach in Erik Spoelstra, and a do everything center in Bam Adebayo, the Heat match up with any other team in the league. They do almost everything well. Second in three point percentage (38.5%), seventh in defensive rebounding, eight in scoring, second in free throw attempts, eight in assists, fifth in field goal percentage, 10th in field goal percentage defense, and 12th in scoring defense, the Heat’s roster has few holes. They play hard each night and never get out-toughed. Other than against Milwaukee, it would be difficult to pick against them in a seven-game series in the East.

9. If you don’t already love Giannis and the Bucks, your tune will change after viewing their pre-game routine.

10. Trae Young’s offensive game is jaw dropping; a marvel to watch. Atlanta has 6 wins, however, worst in the league. If Young can’t at least try on defense, his wizardry with the ball will be for naught. 440th in the league in defensive rating (115.6), the only players lower are fellow Hawks’ teammates, injured guys, and a boatload of Wizards unaware that there are two ends to the court. Young should make the All-Star team for his offensive exploits, but will he ever pilot a playoff team? His size will never allow him to be a great defender, but his effort level and awareness have to improve or he’ll never be more than a fun sideshow.

Young (11) with little desire to stay in front of Sexton

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.

 

NBA Meets Christmas Vacation

Christmas Vacation, NBA

Christmas is all about traditions. The decorating of the tree, the unwrapping of gifts, Cousin Eddie, the NBA on T.V. The pillars of the holiday are Clark W. Griswold and the chance to overindulge on basketball. Though two months old, most consider Christmas Day to be the unofficial start of the NBA season. The league takes full advantage of its ownership of the day by showcasing the best players and rivalries to viewers who may be tuning in for the first time. So whether you’re trying to catch up on the happenings in the league over the first quarter of the season, or looking for something witty to say to your family while the games play in the background during the unwrapping of gifts, here’s a preview of the Christmas Day games and an abundance of Christmas Vacation GIFs to help describe them.

Boston Celtics-Toronto Raptors


The day kicks off with the defending champs playing host to the Celtics, two Eastern Conference teams on the periphery of the title conversation. Boston’s young, talented forward duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, after disappointing seasons a year ago, are thriving once again. Both are in the conversation for All-Star game spots. Gordon Hayward has returned to All-Star form as well despite missing time with injuries. The biggest change, however, has been the switch from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker at point guard. Irving is enigmatic and aloof. He clashed with his young teammates and struggled in a leadership role. Enter Walker, a more affable leader only looking to win after many disappointing years in Charlotte. The fighting and backstabbing has ended in Boston and the Celtics have the toughness to compete in the playoffs with Eastern Conference behemoths Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Kyrie hate lingers in Boston, however, and is holding them back. They need it off their chests once and for all.

After winning the title, then losing Kawhi Leonard, most expected the Raptors to free-fall, even enter tank mode. Strong leadership from Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, combined with Fred VanVleet’s ability to carry over his success in last year’s Finals has kept Toronto in the Eastern Conference mix. The reason for the Raptors’ early season success, however, is Pascal Siakam. He’s replaced Leonard as a legit MVP candidate, averaging 25 a game and playing elite defense. Siakam is torching the league.

Milwaukee Bucks-Philadelphia 76ers


Presumptive Eastern Conference finalists before the season, the Bucks have buzz sawed through the league. At 26-4 they’ve blazed out of the gate, owning the best record in the league without the help of a non-caloric silicon based kitchen lubricant.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is dominant. The obvious MVP choice to this point, he’s added the 3 ball to his game, shooting it at 34% on the season. He hit a career high 5 to defeat the Lakers last week. Bucks fans shouldn’t take him for granted.

The Sixers defense is smothering, as expected. Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Ben Simmons, and rookie Matisse Thybulle are all above average defenders. Philly’s offense, however, is, uh, clogged.

Embiid is the league’s most dominant smack talker, despite promising in the off-season to curtail his trash talking. After clashing early in the season with rival Karl Anthony-Towns, leading to a semi-wrestling match, it’s clear Embiid is a dog with a bone.

Houston Rockets-Golden State Warriors


After Klay Thompson’s ACL injury in the Finals, losing Kevin Durant in free agency, and trading Andre Iguodala, Steph Curry broke his hand early in the season and will miss at least two more months. The Warriors are a shell of themselves, a team gassed and torched after five straight Finals appearances.

Draymond Green is the only healthy reminder of what the Warriors were, and he’s slogging through the season, watching DeAngelo Russell jack up shots and a slew of journeymen and rookies desperate to find a home in the league. With the worst record in the NBA, it won’t get any better for Golden State.

The Harden-Westbrook marriage in Houston is proceeding as expected. Westbrook has taken a backseat to James Harden, allowing him to control games with his over dribbling, foul drawing, step back three taking style. It works, however, as Harden leads the league in scoring, posting an eye-popping 38.8 points a game. Viewers hate watching the Rockets, yet Houston doesn’t care what the rest of the league has to say about their style.

Problems will arise in the playoffs, however, if Westbrook can’t improve his 3 point shooting (23.7%). Playing off the ball, Russ will have to hit open jumpers behind the line to keep defenses from packing the lane.

L.A. Clippers-L.A. Lakers


Christmas’ marquee match-up, the two L.A. teams have hoarded top end talent and, along with Milwaukee, are the three teams most likely to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. A duel of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George vs. LeBron James and Anthony Davis is the best the league has to offer.

They’ll battle throughout the year. The Clippers, with Leonard and George, along with Patrick Beverley, have three of the best individual wing defenders in the league, and can shut down anyone defensively. Leonard proved his chops in last years’ playoffs and, despite some load management criticism, may still be the best player in the league come June. LeBron took offense to his torch being passed to Kawhi last off-season, however, and has teamed with Anthony Davis to form one of the best duos in the league’s history. If LeBron stays locked in and AD continues his MVP-type season, the Lakers are title favorites regardless of their so-so supporting cast. The rest of the league would love to rid themselves of these two juggernauts.

New Orleans Pelicans-Denver Nuggets


An attempt to showcase rookie phenom Zion Williamson by the league backfired as Zion’s knee injury lingers. The Pelicans, expected by many to push for a playoff spot, have floundered without the first overall pick. Many thought the rest of the roster would tread water until his return, but other than Brandon Ingram (averaging 25 a game) New Orleans has disappointed.

At first expected back by mid-December, the wait for Zion’s debut continues. Some reports have him returning after the All-Star break; others say he’ll miss the entire season. Fans’ frustration continues to mount, eagerly anticipating the debut of the best talent to enter the league in a decade.

While most of Denver’s roster worked out during the off-season in hopes of a run to the Finals, their MVP candidate, Nikola Jokic, took on all comers at the dinner table.

Jokic has been working his way into shape over the first two months of the season while his teammates have kept the Nuggets afloat, currently 3rd in the West. Denver is young and talented, but the road in front of them is steep. Without more from Jokic, rookie Michael Porter Jr., or a significant trade, a match-up against either L.A. team in the playoffs won’t end well.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

Here’s hoping everyone has a joyous Christmas season. Happy Holidays and much success for all in 2020!

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.

 

Are the Cleveland Cavaliers falling off a Cliff?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Collin Sexton, NBA

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

What’s What Around the League

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

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

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

Vintage Melo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ahead of Schedule?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Darius Garland, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Love, Kevin Porter Jr., NBA, Trae Young, Tristan Thompson, Uncategorized

When a young NBA team expected to lose begins stacking wins together, their confidence level rises. It’s happening right now with the Cavaliers. Regardless of the competition (the Wizards and Knicks are bad) back-to-back road wins by a team supposed to be one of the worst in the league breeds assurance that the system is working, and the effort is worth it.


John Beilein is an excellent coach. This was never in doubt. The questions related to his hiring focused on his age and his ability to sell established NBA players on his “old school” principles. Koby Altman nailed his first coaching hire. Beilein is a master at player development and getting the max out of his roster.


His most important sell, and the reason for the Cavs’ early success, was getting Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love on board. The two title holdovers have grabbed leadership rolls and are taking pride in guiding the young players through the trials of an NBA season. On the court, throughout games, both are teaching, pointing out defensive mistakes to guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, while also praising them when they succeed. Coming into the season, each was a prime target for a trade. Trades may still happen, and both are becoming more valuable as they continue to play well, but the organization is in a great position. Their worth to the young players is clear. The opportunity to bounce ideas off ring owners, players who battled with LeBron and Kyrie against one of the greatest teams of all time, is priceless. The rebuild will be less painful with Thompson and Love embracing the situation.


If the front office wants to trade them, however, the price is increasing. Since the Cavs need not trade either, they can afford to hold teams’ feet to the fire. If, say, Portland or Boston get desperate, Cleveland can extract a high price from someone for their playoff tested vets.


Beilein’s best work has been the rookies’ development. Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. are improving. Small changes are paying big dividends. The most obvious is the aggression of the rookies. Both tentative early, they’re finding their footing while gaining confidence. Garland’s playmaking skills are showing; he tallied 12 assists in two games over the weekend, while also scoring 27. He’s started making shots, which has given him the confidence to attack. On those drives, he’s having success throwing lobs to Thompson or shooting floaters over the defense. Though the 3 ball isn’t falling, with his mechanics and quick release, it’s a matter of time.


Porter Jr. is a herky jerky, “No! No! Yes!” type of shooter, who, if he figures out the league, will be a dynamic scorer. He has size, quickness, ball handling skills, and the shooting touch to average 20 a game. Can he harness his bad habits? This will be Beilein’s greatest test. If he turns Porter into the player he has the talent to be, the Cavs’ rebuild will shorten.

Porter Jr. can score at the rim when the mood strikes


Want a stat that illustrates why the Cavaliers have surprised? Cleveland’s starting five man lineup is outscoring opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions. Only Denver’s is better.


Now the bad.


Kevin Love is the Cavs best player, and the offense must run through him to function well. Love needs to cut out the dribbling, however. When he catches in the post, takes 1-2 dribbles and either shoots or passes, he’s fine. When he pounds and pounds the basketball he gets in trouble. The Celtics guarded him with Marcus Smart and, trying to take advantage of the height mismatch, Love took bad shots while allowing Smart to take the ball from him on multiple occasions. Same on Sunday against the Knicks. Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris pestered him into turnovers when he over dribbled. Love’s a better passer than he’s given credit for. He needs to keep the ball moving after he’s drawn the defense’s attention.


If Matthew Dellavedova plays another minute, it’s too many. He isn’t bringing anything of value to the court. He can’t shoot, is turning the ball over, and gets smoked on defense. At least Brandon Knight can knock a 3 down.


An improved defense has resulted from the team trying harder on that end than last year. While Sexton is better and Thompson has been stronger defending the rim, there aren’t enough natural defenders on the roster for them to be an above average unit. Altman’s next challenge will be to draft long, athletic wings capable of guarding multiple positions to mask the deficiencies of the smaller guards. John Henson’s return will help the bench unit tremendously.


Although he’s a dynamic scorer, Jordan Clarkson’s game is a nuisance. Too often he doesn’t have it, yet is firing away. He’s bringing nothing else to the table, so when his shot isn’t falling Clarkson becomes a burden. Maybe Beilein can get him to look for his teammates more often, but there’s been no sign he’s willing to share the rock. On nights when he’s cold early, the Cavs would be better off with him sitting next to Dean Wade during second halves.

 

What’s What Around the League

1. In Utah, Giannis showed the grit and determination that made him an MVP. Two time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert locked him down in the first half, holding Antetokounmpo to 2 points on 0-7 shooting, with a disrespectful rejection at the rim thrown in for good measure. Giannis awoke in the second half, however, dragging the Bucks back from a 20 point deficit by draining 3’s and re-establishing his dominant paint presence. His 28 in the second half was only overcome by a Bojan Bogdanovic 3 at the horn to give Utah the W. While Milwaukee’s roster remains thin, the Bucks will have the best player on the floor in any playoff series in the Eastern Conference. Is Giannis good enough to topple better rosters in Philly and Boston?

2. With a collection of young talent and a bona fide superstar in Jimmy Butler, the Heat are feisty in the East. Though his shooting numbers are poor, 38% from the field and 25% from 3, the playmaking of Justice Winslow is superb. Despite the lack of shooting, his ability to get to the rim draws defenses’ attention in the pick and roll, allowing him to thread pocket pass after pocket pass to the roller. When the weak side defense sags toward the lane to cut that action off, he’ll whip a cross-court pass to an open shooter. An enigma for much of his early career because of injuries and position confusion, Winslow is establishing himself as a top of the rotation player for a dangerous team.

3. The rules of basketball are hard.

4. Orlando has disappointed, and it’s time to throw more responsibility Jonathan Isaac’s way. The Magic offense is a slog; they’re worst in the league in 3 point percentage and 26th in points per game. Isaac owns Orlando’s best shooting numbers, hitting 36% from deep and 58% on twos while only taking 9 shots per game, fifth on the team. More of the offense needs to flow through him. Long and athletic, Isaac possesses the ideal NBA body type, giving him the versatility to guard anyone on the court and score from anywhere on the floor. His stat line against Dallas, 13 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 5 blocks, is an example of the adaptability of his game. Though Orlando is 3-6, he’s 7th in the league in plus/minus rating. His 92.8 defensive rating is fourth. If the Magic are to rebound, realizing who their best player is needs to occur soon.

5. The trade to New Orleans has been a godsend for Brandon Ingram. Out of the L.A. spotlight, where he never seemed comfortable, Ingram has become one of the better scorers in the league. His 25.9 points per game rank 11th in the league on 53% shooting. A career 34% shooter from 3, he’s shooting 47% from deep to this point. Though the Pelicans aren’t winning, just 2-7, Ingram is becoming more consistent. New Orleans’ future will hinge on Ingram and Zion meshing on the court.

6. If you’re a big in the NBA, do your best not to get switched onto Trae Young.

7. Through the injuries and Boston’s drama of last year, it’s been easy to forget about Gordon Hayward. The best player on the East’s best team to this point, Hayward has re-established himself as the All Star he was in Utah. The league overlooks his size and strength. It allows him to find his comfort zones on the floor where he can shoot over his defender or probe closer to the basket. His mid-range shooting touch is elite. The Celtics were dealt a tough break Saturday, however, when Hayward fractured his left hand, putting him out of the lineup indefinitely. Boston may find their way into Finals contention, but they’ll need Hayward to return from this injury at the level he’s played so far.

8. If you could have made a bet before the season started on which NBA player would eat an edible on the team plane and have a panic attack, Dion Waiters would have been the 1:5 favorite, right? Who else is even on the board? JaVale McGee would make for a good exacta wager, I suppose.

9. While the trade for Mike Conley garnered the headlines, the Jazz signing of Bojan Bogdanovic was as important to the team’s title chances. With Giannis leading a Bucks second half comeback Friday, Bogdanovic shouldered the offensive load, scoring 13 straight for the Jazz and drilling a three at the buzzer to seal the win. Though Conley can take some playmaking pressure away from Donovan Mitchell, Bogdanovic’s clutch shooting is as important. The spacing he’ll provide those two in tight playoff games will be key for Utah to score enough to keep up with Houston and the L.A. teams.

10. Pascal Siakam may have won Most Improved Player last year, but how many expected him to develop into an MVP candidate? The Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Siakam is averaging 27, 9, and 3.7 while shooting 50% from the field and 37% from 3. His Raptors are 7-2, and play like this from him gives them a shot at the Eastern Finals. Though most expected a drop off and consequent tear down of the roster, the Raptors’ organization is proving once again that culture matters. Toronto is taking its title defense seriously.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Eastern Conference Preview

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

Western Conference Preview is here.

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Does anyone remember the Raptors are the champs?


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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

The Last 20 years of Knicks basketball

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

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

Brad Beal, or James Harden?

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

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

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

Western Conference Preview

Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, LeBron James, NBA, Zion

The NBA is back. Since Kevin Durant joined Golden State in the summer of 2016, the champion was all but decided before the season started. Injuries and a historic playoff run by Kawhi Leonard allowed Toronto to topple the Warriors in the Finals last June. Then all hell broke loose.

A free agent frenzy unlike anything professional sports has ever witnessed, this season is as open as any in the league’s history. Ten teams lay claim to legitimate title aspirations. Can LeBron and Anthony Davis join forces to win the King another title and restore the mystique of the Lakers franchise? Will Kawhi become the league’s unquestioned best player with another title in a third city? How will Giannis Antetokounmpo respond to his MVP season and disappointing playoff exit?


The following are my wild guesses as to the order of finish and records of the Western Conference teams. I’ll do the Eastern Conference on Monday. My extended Cleveland Cavaliers preview is here.

1. Denver Nuggets 58-24
By finishing second in the Western Conference a year ago, the Nuggets young core established themselves as a contender. Nikola Jokic is an MVP candidate. A wizard with the ball in his hands, he’s a 7 footer unlike anything the league has seen. Jamal Murray took a leap in his development in the playoffs, finding a consistency as a leader that many believed he lacked. By trading a 1st round pick for Jerami Grant, they acquired a versatile 3 and D threat at a position of weakness. The buzz surrounding Michael Porter Jr. this off season has built to a steady roar. If he’s capable of contributing, the Nuggets rise from an interesting playoff team into a title contender. The roster continuity of the 2nd seed in last year’s playoffs should allow the Nuggets to stack wins while their rivals in the conference fight early season growing pains. Tough to see them winning the title, but it won’t be a shock if they’re the 1 seed come April.

Porter Jr. Could make Denver a title contender

2. Los Angeles Clippers 55-27
The coup pulled by the Clippers in July, trading a nest egg of draft picks and up and comer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for Paul George and signing Kawhi Leonard to a free agent contract, netted them the best roster in the NBA and the favorites label for the title. Leonard established himself as a top three player in the league, willing the Raptors to the title, manhandling opponents on both sides of the ball. George is a rung below his new teammate on the NBA hierarchy, a consensus top three MVP candidate until a shoulder injury late in the year stymied his campaign. With Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley, L.A.’s defense will choke opposing offenses in crunch time. While George is out to begin the season, rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and Kawhi again scheduled to be load managed throughout the year, the win total in the regular season may suffer. The title, however, goes through the L.A. team you don’t hear about.

3. Los Angeles Lakers 51-31
The city’s other title contending team has again built a hodge podge roster around LeBron James. This year differs from last, however, because of Anthony Davis. The most skilled big man in the NBA fits perfectly with LeBron, giving the Lakers two of the top six players in the league. This L.A. team’s title chances are murkier, however. James will turn 35 this season and has shown no desire to play defense since his Cavs title in 2016. Will missing the playoffs last year and the Davis addition rejuvenate LeBron? The roster surrounding the two superstars is suspect; asking for contributions from guys like Jared Dudley and Dwight Howard is tough. Kyle Kuzma must improve while learning to play alongside Davis, and someone from the group of Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope must play with more consistency than they’ve shown in their careers. Danny Green should be helpful when the playoffs roll around. For the Lakers to max out this season, Anthony Davis needs to be an MVP candidate and LeBron must dial in for the regular season. A title is possible, but things must fall precisely.

4. Houston Rockets 50-32
The most bizarre, yet exciting, transaction of the off-season was the trade of Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. A marriage of the two most ball dominant players in the league will be fascinating. Russ must learn to do something positive on offense when James Harden has the ball for this experiment to work. The rest of the roster is untouched, though adding Thabo Sefolosha could give the team a defensive lift late in games. Expect plenty of wins in the regular season, but can Harden and Westbrook, who have struggled to advance in the playoffs, come together when the stakes are highest? I have my doubts.

5. Golden State Warriors 48-34
With the departure of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s injury, Steph Curry will be a show unto himself this year. He may lead the league in scoring and should be an MVP finalist. The Warriors roster is thin, however, after Curry, Draymond Green, and last year’s breakout All-Star D’Angelo Russell. a bench unit of Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks, and Alfonzo McKinnie will cause this team to get blitzed in non-Curry minutes. If Klay Thompson can return soon enough, say late February, to round himself into playoff form, they will be a tough out. They are champions and proved as much by pushing the Raptors to 6 games in the Finals despite the plethora of injuries they sustained. Who wants to face Steph, Draymond, and Klay in a seven games series, regardless of their teammates?

For old times’ sake

6. Utah Jazz 47-35
A underrated off-season netted the Jazz the perfect running mate to Donovan Mitchell. Mike Conley is a veteran who can run an offense, play without the ball, shoot threes, and hound point guards on defense. A team that has relied too heavily on Mitchell to score in crunch time now has another option in the fourth quarter, sacrificing nothing on the defensive end. If that wasn’t enough juice for the offense, Bojan Bogdanovic, another sly addition, gives them a third ball handler used to stepping up during tense moments. His exploits with an under-manned Pacer team in the first round of the playoffs last year against the Celtics proved as much. With Rudy Gobert, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, manning the middle, the Jazz may be more formidable on that end of the court than the Clippers. Another team with title aspirations, if they can add another shooter at the trade deadline, the Jazz will have as legitimate a shot as anyone.

7. Portland Trail Blazers 46-36
We mention the Blazers each year as a team that could miss the playoffs. They then surprise, ending the season with home court in the first round. The culture Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard have built in Portland is impressive, and a Western Conference Finals appearance last year attests to that. Lillard is underrated, a top fifteen player in the league and one of its best leaders. He and C. J. McCollum form the best backcourt in the league, non Steph and Klay division. This year’s iteration of the Blazers is heavy on guards and centers; a big with range could improve their ceiling. Watch them as a trade destination for Kevin Love.
Seven could prove too low for them. If Jusuf Nurkic can return around the All-Star break recovered from his devastating leg injury, Portland will prove pessimists wrong again.

8. Sacramento Kings 43-39
Perhaps the most exciting team in the league last year, the Kings will again be a League Pass darling. Their up tempo playing style and dynamic young back court are impossible to turn away from. De’Aaron Fox could be the best point guard in the league in five years, and Buddy Hield is an electric shooter and scorer. Can they make the leap from spunky upstart to playoff contender? Marvin Bagley holds the team’s ceiling in his hands. If he becomes a 20-10 force, the Kings will ditch their 13 season absence from the playoffs and be a pesky out for one of the league’s contenders.

9. San Antonio Spurs 41-41
Predicting the Spurs to miss the playoffs is a fool’s errand. It’s been twenty-two years since the Spurs weren’t playing in May, and it’s hard to imagine Gregg Popovich, one of the three greatest coaches of all-time, not on the bench come playoff time. LaMarcus Aldridge continues as a mid-range wizard, one of the best in the game at scoring in spots the league has shied away from. The problem for them is their other semi-star, DeMar DeRozan, thrives in the same areas. For the Spurs to succeed, their young back court of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White must flash. Murray received breakout player hype last year before tearing an ACL and missing the year. White made strides last year, topped by his 36 point effort in Game 3 of their first round series against the Nuggets. Can the duo, under Pop’s guidance, extend the Spurs ridiculous playoff streak?

10. New Orleans Pelicans 38-44
By maximizing the return the team received for Anthony Davis, David Griffin turned New Orleans into one of the most envied situations in the league. Winning the Zion Williamson lottery didn’t hurt, either. Zion is the most anticipated rookie since Davis, catapulting the Pelicans to must watch status along with the L.A. teams. Alvin Gentry’s frantic playing style will benefit both Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. While LeBron elevates many he plays with, some buckle under the scrutiny he brings (Rodney Hood). If Ingram can make the leap from good to great scorer, think 25 a game, he could win the Most Improved Player award. The trade from Los Angeles should benefit Ball as well, calming the noise and allowing him to develop. He and J. J. Redick are a perfect pair. Perhaps the most underrated point guard in the league, though, is Jrue Holiday. An elite defender, Holiday is also a dynamic scorer and distributer. If Zion is as good early as many think he will be, the Pelicans may avoid the growing pains young teams fight.

Is Zion an All-Star already?

11. Dallas Mavericks 36-46
Luka Doncic will be a perennial MVP candidate soon. His playmaking is elite; he can score at all levels. Joining with Kristaps Porzingis is a dream; they are the perfect complement to each other’s games. If Porzingis can return healthy and stay that way, the combo can be one of the best twosomes in the game. At 7’3”, Porzingis is a dominant paint defender and a knockdown three ball shooter. His ceiling is limitless, hampered only by his injuries. The roster surrounding them, however, is garbage. Tim Hardaway Jr., J.J. Barea, and Dwight Powell don’t inspire hope in a stacked conference. Dallas will be an exciting watch; just don’t expect them to win enough to crack the top eight.

12. Oklahoma City Thunder 33-49
Will Chris Paul remain here the entire season? An obvious trade candidate, his absurd contract, due 38, 41, and 44 million the next three years, scares away trade partners. Danilo Gallinari is a useful player, plagued by the injury bug however, as are Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder, though all are on disgusting contracts too. While they may surprise and win enough games to remain on the periphery of the playoff race, the Thunder dove headfirst into a rebuild this off-season, receiving a massive haul of first round picks for Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Too many to list here, the pick cache acquired by the Thunder will accelerate the rebuild whether they use the picks or package them in trades. Westbrook will always be an icon in Oklahoma, the star who wanted to stay after the other bolted. It was time for a trade, however, and each side will benefit in the long run.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves 27-55
A team that should be entering prime contention years, the young core in Minnesota hasn’t matured. Andrew Wiggins has underwhelmed, an inefficient scorer who can’t dribble and never developed into the defender most thought he was destined to be when drafted. Now being paid max money through 2023, Wiggins’ combination of contract and skill set is as undesirable as there is in the league. Karl Anthony-Towns used to be mentioned in the same breath as Joel Embiid, yet despite his dynamic offensive game, Towns hasn’t shown the propensity to play defense or lead an NBA franchise. They need an attitude adjustment in Minnesota before they can be considered playoff worthy again. The Wolves front office is hoping that rookie Jarrett Culver can become the player Wiggins has refused to, an all around scorer who defends.

7 footers don’t do this. Why aren’t the Wolves better?

14. Phoenix Suns 24-58
By acquiring the point guard they have been desperate for since ridding themselves of Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, the Suns are hoping Ricky Rubio will stabilize their young roster. Established as a potent scorer, Devin Booker must now learn to choose his spots and learn to play without the ball, as Rubio will now initiate the Phoenix offense. An athletic freak, DeAndre Ayton needs to improve defensively in his second year, becoming the disrupter in the paint he seemed to be coming out of college. Will the Suns be able to run offense through him in the post? Ayton will have to improve on that side of the ball as well, though Rubio’s brilliant passing acumen will get him easy buckets. The Suns off-season was sporadic, trading a 1st round pick for Aron Baynes and Ty Jerome for reasons unknown and reaching for Cameron Johnson in the draft. The front office seems to be flailing. Their only shot at relevancy is Booker and Ayton becoming All-Stars, a tough ask.

15. Memphis Grizzlies 18-64
With the trades of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies embraced their reality. The Grit and Grind days of Memphis basketball are over. The beginnings of the rebuild have been a success, with Jaren Jackson Jr. showing flashes in his rookie year before going down with injury. He shot the three well at 36%, and with his length and athleticism is poised to take a leap in his second year. The key to the Memphis rebuild will be this year’s second pick in the draft, Ja Morant. An outstanding playmaker, his quickness and off the dribble shooting ability will put an extraordinary amount of pressure on opposing defenses. Add in the athleticism of their second first-round pick, Brandon Clarke, and the Grizzlies are ditching their old plodding ways for a faster paced style of play. They should be a fun watch. While they will struggle this year, allowing the youngsters to develop and procuring another high draft pick will pay dividends.

Devastatingly quick and athletic, Ja makes the Grizzlies watchable