It's Always Dysfunctional in Cleveland

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Kevin Love, NBA, Trade Deadline, Tristan Thompson

The Cleveland Cavaliers are teetering. An inept franchise for most of its existence, a lucky bounce of a few ping pong balls and LeBron James’ desire to win a championship in his home precinct gave Cavs fans a brief sniff of success. The four straight Finals appearances and the 2016 title are over, however, and the remaining players from those glory days are unhappy with the organization, not long for Cleveland.

Kevin Love’s dissatisfaction with the Cavs franchise has been no secret. He’s pouted on the court and off while sporting a fluctuating effort level. His contract makes him nearly untradeable, as does his attitude. Woj reported on Sunday a trade wasn’t happening; the gulf between what the Cavs feel Love is worth versus how the rest of the league views him is too large. If Love was supportive of the front office and his teammates, I’d suggest keeping him and holding out for top dollar. He isn’t, however, and his poor attitude and disinterested demeanor are hurting everyone involved. The young guys are watching; it’s time to cut bait. Love is poisoning his impressionable teammates. The front office waited to trade Love, hoping he’d help their young core develop and add wins. He’s done neither. The move backfired, and they’re forced to either sell low or deal with his poor attitude for the rest of the season.

While he’s been a good soldier, Tristan Thompson has now voiced his desire for a trade, according to Joe Vardon of the Athletic. Thompson has defended his coach and teammates while giving maximum effort on the court. He sees an escape hatch, however. He’s played well this season and could help a contender with his hustle and championship pedigree. Will the Cavs agree to his demands? The organization covets 1st round picks, but Thompson is unlikely to bring one back in a trade. Will they settle for two second rounders? Can they pry a young player from someone? Since Thompson is a free agent at the end of the season, expect little in return. Chris Fedor reports the Cavs will hold firm with their desire for a 1st rounder. He’s leaving at the end of the season, however. Will Koby Altman stand his ground?

What happened? Two vets who wanted to remain in the organization are running from it. Though the front office expressed a desire to remain competitive after LeBron left, Thompson and Love knew a long rebuild was a possibility. Perhaps they overrated their abilities to produce wins on their own. Maybe, however, this organization is a mess behind the scenes. Dan Gilbert’s best season as an owner without LeBron is 33-49. He’s employed nine coaches in 17 years. Koby Altman was his first GM to get a second contract. Now rumors have surfaced that John Beilein won’t see another year.

This is absurd. The Browns’ organization is the gold standard for ineptitude in all of pro sports, yet the Cavs are begging for consideration. Kyrie Irving, LeBron James twice, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson have run or are running from Cleveland. Players who should be pillars are mere tent poles. Dan Gilbert had eleven years of LeBron James and won 1 title. A consensus top three player of all-time led the Cavs for eleven years and the franchise produced ONE title. Breaking down Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Kevin Porter may be a fruitless exercise. Regardless of how good they are, or how good they’ll become, they’ll never overcome a rudderless organization. The championship years supposedly taught them how to be a stable and consistent franchise. No signs of competency exist, and if Beilein gets canned after one season, just the second season of an arduous rebuild, forget about the Cleveland Cavaliers being anything more than an NBA laughingstock for a long, long time.

What’s What Around the League

1.When viewing Hawks’ games early in the season, one needed to overt their eyes to avoid the disaster that was Cam Reddish. Thrust into the starting lineup at first tip, Reddish lacked confidence, aware he wasn’t ready and didn’t belong. In his first ten games in the league, starting 8 and averaging 23.5 minutes per, he averaged 5.5 points on 25% shooting, 19% from 3, and dished less than 2 assists per. Reddish contributed to the horrid start by Atlanta, predicted by some to contend for a playoff spot. The third wheel last year at Duke behind Zion and R.J. Barrett, Reddish’s reputation as a passive, willing bystander held. Fast forward to last week against Philly, an impressive Hawks’ win. Reddish was key in the victory, canning a 3, scooting back door for a dunk, and dishing to John Collins for the game-sealing slam, all in the last three minutes. His numbers over the last 10 (14 points, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 43% shooting, 45% from 3) represent a drastic change. His confidence is surfacing, and he’s flashing the talent many saw from him in high school. The Hawks have disappointed, but their young quartet of Trae Young, DeAndre Hunter, John Collins, and Reddish at least show a path to relevancy. Last night’s trade for Clint Capela adds interior defense and rim running on a good contract to the young quartet. Atlanta is getting there.

2. Has Russell Westbrook changed his game? The talk after his trade to Houston centered on his 3 point shooting, or lack thereof. Through Christmas, Russ was bad, shooting 23% on 5 a game from deep. Houston loves 3’s, but analytics adores other shots as well; those in the restricted area. While Westbrook can’t shoot, he sure as hell can get to the rim. Since December 25, he’s only taking 2 from deep per game, but is on the attack. In January, 63% of his shots are at the rim, 69% from within 10 feet. He’s shooting 52% from the field and averaging 32 during one of the most efficient stretches of his career. While he’s flourishing, however, his partner has struggled. Over that same span, James Harden is shooting 35%, 27% from 3. Can these two get on the same page? Both are outstanding, two of the greatest with the ball in history. If they can’t meld their games though, another disappointment awaits them in May. Russ has adapted to Houston, no longer being the alpha dog, and their playing style. Is it time for Harden to give a little?

3. This Lonzo assist. Though they’ll struggle to make the playoffs this year, the excitement in New Orleans is palpable. Ball’s game is the perfect complement to Zion.

4. One ancillary effect of referees’ quick whistle on jump shots is the horrid flopping and side jumping of shooters into defenders trying to draw fouls. It’s ugly to watch and embarrassing for the players. Just shoot the ball. Untouched players, humiliated after watching a one-armed heave from the hip careen off the side of the backboard, make themselves look worse by over complaining to the refs for a foul that never occurred. Quit flailing and shoot the ball to make it, not get fouled.

5. The Timberwolves are a disaster, and after trading away point guard Jeff Teague to Atlanta, Shabazz Napier was a big part of the problem. Once drafted by the Heat in a desperate attempt to re-sign LeBron James (oof), Napier took over the starting point guard role after Teague’s departure and the Wolves haven’t won since. Napier misses wide open cutters, takes ill-advised shots, can’t shoot, and is too small to guard anyone. Anything else? Minnesota should be a Western Conference force by now, yet haven’t been able to teach Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins how to play defense, nor have they built a stable roster around them. An effective point guard is a must, yet they handed the reins to someone in danger of being out of the league. The Wolves traded Napier away in the big four teamer last night along with Robert Covington. Perhaps a move to acquire……

6. All the injuries pushed Golden State to the bottom of the standings, but they won’t be there long. Steph and Klay will be back next year, so what will become of D’Angelo Russell? A good scorer and playmaker, this year was a test to see the fit alongside Curry. The injuries nixed that plan, however. The team above, Minnesota, tried signing Russell last summer, but got usurped when Brooklyn swapped him in a sign and trade for Kevin Durant. Now at the trade deadline the rumors are swirling again. Russell and Towns are friends; he would solve their point guard situation. What does Minnesota have that G.S. wants, however? Andrew Wiggins? Please. Minnesota is the desperate party here. The Warriors plan to re-enter the title mix next year with a healthy roster, does Wiggins seem like a championship level player? They’ll need a third team to satisfy all parties. Stay tuned.

7. Kings

8. Julius Randle is a good player and could be an important piece on a contender one day. His focus is lacking, though. He’s chasing numbers instead of wins, which is fine; most young players do. On the court, he’s scatterbrained. In the first half in Cleveland Monday, he twice asked coach Mike Miller to review obvious calls against him, stopped playing to complain to a ref and allowed a Collin Sexton offensive rebound and score, and airballed a 3 with no one around, yelling toward another referee. Randle can be a useful NBA player, maybe even a difference maker. First, he needs to get his head right.

9. The Memphis Grizzlies and Andre Iguodala agreed after they traded for him he would sit out until the Griz found a contender to send him to. Nothing has materialized, and all parties are antsy ahead of the deadline. Iguodala wants to play for a title, and Memphis has stated they won’t release him if a trade doesn’t happen. Memphis’ young guys have spoken on Twitter.

Then Steph Curry clapped back.

10. The NBA, home of expert level pettiness. I understand the young guys feel unwanted, but let’s settle. The team and player were fine with this arrangement in the off-season. No one saw the Grizzlies in the playoff hunt this year. Still, they aren’t winning a title and regardless of how much money he’s being paid, asking a 36-year-old who’s played in the last 5 Finals to hitch up to a rebuild is a tough ask. Here’s hoping a trade to Philly comes to fruition.

 

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.

 

How good is Tristan Thompson?

Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA

It’s no surprise that Kevin Love is posting monster numbers and leading the Cavaliers. Assuming health, Love would hoard rebounds and points this season on a young team with few established NBA veterans. The true revelation after six games, however, the heart and soul of this young squad, is Tristan Thompson. Though he’s spent his entire career as a hustler and one of the top offensive rebounders in the league, he’s taken a backseat to bigger stars since being drafted. The fourth pick in 2011, he played second chair to the number one selection, Kyrie Irving. Just when Cavs’ coaches began running parts of the offense through him, LeBron James and Kevin Love entered. A key cog in four years’ worth of Finals runs and the championship, we still saw Thompson as expendable.


No longer.


Now a true leader, Thompson joins Love as the only leftovers, with Matthew Dellavedova, who own a ring. The improvements he’s made to his game have been stark. Considered a great rebounder but limited offensively, he’s showing parts of his game not seen before. Averaging 16.5 points and 2.5 assists, these offensive numbers are significant leaps from his career averages of 9.3 and 0.9. Long and quick for his size, Tristan could always hold his own when switched onto guards. His defense on Steph Curry during the 2016 Finals was essential. Now, however, he’s added shot blocking to his repertoire. A slow jumper, it’s caused him to get his shot blocked and kept him from becoming a good rim protector, until now. His 1.7 blocks per game this year have given the starting unit protection on the back end of the defense.


The advanced stats spell out his importance. Per 100 possessions, the Cavs are 14 points better offensively and 8.6 points better defensively when he’s on the floor vs. the bench. Skewed by the poor bench units of the Cavaliers, those numbers are still impressive. Love’s numbers are 6.8 on offense and 6.2 on defense.


No part of his game is more important than hustle, however. A fighter who never gives up on possessions, he’ll be remembered as one of the better offensive rebounders in the game’s history. Now he’s leading this young group, along with Kevin Love. Their experience and knowledge of the NBA is invaluable. They have the jewelry to reinforce their words. More feisty than expected to this point, these two along with John Beilein deserve the credit for making Cleveland fun.


Before the season, I wondered if the Cavs would, or should, extend a contract to Thompson after this season, his last on the five year, 82 million deal signed in 2015. If his play keeps up, it’s an easy decision. The leadership and experience he brings to the team will hasten the rebuild. Winning is a tough, and he and Love have been through the battles. A 5 year, 100 million dollar contract, if he wants to be in Cleveland, should get done before free agency.

The two rookies seeing time on the floor, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter, have struggled more than not. Only six games into their NBA careers, both are unsure of themselves, thinking too much on the floor. Both seem eager to impress their coaches and teammates. They’re passing too much, giving up open shots in favor of ball movement. Both need to be more selfish.


Garland only played five games last year at Vanderbilt, so some rust was expected. His three-point shot isn’t falling yet, only shooting 29% from three. An NBA shooter, Garland’s 3’s will drop sooner than later. His passing has shown signs, however. A question mark coming into the league, he sees the floor and is running the team well. Once he learns where and when his teammates like the ball, his assists will rise from the 3.7 he’s averaging.


Porter is all over the place. Against the Bulls, he passed up a dunk and an open shot at the end of a quarter in favor of worse shots for teammates. He then stepped up in the 4th, drilling a three, blocking a shot, and finishing with a dunk at the rim. On Friday in Indiana, he had three turnovers, was the worst player on the floor, and looked lost. He rebounded on Sunday, scoring 8 against Dallas and dishing 2 assists. Porter Jr. then received a one game suspension for bumping a referee at the end of the third quarter. This seems to be nitpicking, though. His reputation was a bigger factor here than the inadvertent bump.


Consistency will come for the rookies. Both talented, they’ll find themselves once they get 30 games under their belts. After the All-Star break, we’ll learn more about these two.

What’s What Around the League

1. Does it get better than a Joel Embiid-Karl Anthony Towns brouhaha? Short on punches yet long on drama, the altercation between the two is peak NBA pettiness. Embiid has never shied away from confrontation, on or off the floor, while Towns is trying to re-establish himself as the best young big in the league. The Timberwolves’ 4-1 start is promising, and KAT’s 27 and 11 averages are encouraging. Minny must show sustained success and maturity to contend in the West, however. In the meantime, circle March 24th on your calendar for Philly’s visit to Minnesota. It will not disappoint.

2. Golden State, woo-boy. First Kevin Durant, then Klay Thompson. Now Steph Curry has a broken hand and will miss three months. D’Angelo Russell will average 30 in Curry’s absence and the Dubs will still lose by 25. When Glenn Robinson III is your second best scorer, dark days are ahead. Not how Warriors’ brass envisioned opening a new arena, the NBA is an abyss for championship squads when the title window closes. The four straight Cavs-Warriors Finals seem so long ago.

3. Davis Bertans, now that Curry and Thompson are sidelined, is the best 3 point weapon in the league. At 6’10”, his launches from well beyond the arc are impossible for big men to cover. Shooting 55% from deep on 7 attempts per game, his 68.1% effective field goal percentage ranks sixth in the league, according to teamrankings.com. Sneaky good in San Antonio for three years, the Spurs traded him to Washington in the off-season to clear cap room to sign DeMarre Carroll. With the Spurs off to a surprising 4-1 start, they may regret losing Bertans’ shooting, considering the 2 points per game Carroll is averaging. While being wasted on a bad Washington team, Bertans and Bradley Beal provide a reason to check in on Wizards’ games.

Dude slings from deep

4. My God, Ja Morant is fun to watch. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. What is his game missing? He’s shooting 50% from 3 and gets to the bucket with ease. Thin and silky smooth, he slices double teams with precision. Already possessing a smooth floater, he can get his shot off over big bodies on the rare occasion he doesn’t get to the rim. With his expert level court vision and exact passing, a superstar is in the making. He controls the game when he’s on the floor. If the Grizzlies can keep Jaren Jackson Jr. healthy, they will be a Western Conference powerhouse soon.

5. If Kyrie Irving can continue distributing the ball to his Nets teammates, Brooklyn will rebound from their early 3-4 start and ascend the Eastern Conference standings. Ten assists in each game of a weekend back-to-back against Houston and Detroit, Irving’s growing trust of the young talent around him is promising. Caris LeVert is a future All-Star and Spencer Dinwiddie proved himself last year capable of hitting big shots and running a team, whether starting or off the bench. Joe Harris is a perfect safety valve for Kyrie, shooting 57% from 3. The rub for Irving will continue to be his mercurial nature. Reports from Brooklyn already are questioning his aloof nature, noting his propensity to shut off communication with those around him. The Nets must let Kyrie be Kyrie; they knew what they were getting by signing him. All superstars aren’t equal. Instead of chastising him for what he isn’t, embrace him for what he is and create an environment for him to thrive.

6. The biggest surprise in the West is Phoenix. An off-season touted as aimless by many, GM James Jones assembled a veteran unit. The professionalism in Phoenix has risen from years’ past; Ricky Rubio provides stable playmaking from the point guard position while Tyler Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr, and Dario Saric provide spacing for Devin Booker to cook on offense. The crux of their turnaround, however, is Aron Baynes. Averaging 15 and 5, he’s shooting 46% from 3. He’s fifth in the league in efield goal percentage (68.5% according to teamrankings.com) and 7th in the league in offensive win shares via basketball-reference.com. Considered a useful if unnecessary piece in Boston, the head scratching move by the Suns to acquire Baynes and Ty Jerome for a 2020 1st rounder seems savvy now. Though the Suns 5-2 start may be a mirage, the team’s plan to surround its young core of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton with experience is paying dividends early.

7. Eric Bledsoe has to be better for the Bucks to be a serious title contender. Perhaps hungover from his embarrassing Eastern Conference Finals performance, Bledsoe’s points per game, shooting percentages, steal percentage, and offensive and defensive win share numbers are cratering. The NBA is a tough league, especially for someone who signed a huge contract before being benched in the biggest series of his career. Giannis’ greatness will allow Bledsoe a chance to rebound, but he has to figure himself out or George Hill will play crunch time point guard minutes in Milwaukee.

8. The Pacers’ offense has struggled, but head coach Nate McMillan provides hope they’ll figure it out. Plodding along against the Cavs Friday night, Indy was hoisting bad transition shots early in the shot clock, leading to a dreadful, 19 point 1st quarter. McMillan’s team steadied themselves, getting to a Malcolm Brogdon/Domantas Sabonis pick and roll, leading to more efficient offense. An expected playoff team laboring early, the Pacers will be better served slowing down and grinding teams defensively, at least until Victor Oladipo returns.

9. Ranked 20th in defensive rating, the Mavericks will need to improve on that end if they hope to continue their hot start. One problem in no need of fixing, however, is rim protection. Kristaps Porzingis is second in the league in blocks behind Anthony Davis at 2.7 and cleans up his teammates’ messes at the rim. For all of Luka Doncic’s wizardry, his defense and the height challenged back court of Seth Curry and Jalen Brunson are putting a lot of pressure on the back end. Porzingis will be busy all year.

10. Houston was down by 59-18 on Sunday night in Miami. 41 down in the second quarter. South Beach on Saturday night is undefeated.