To say that things have changed somewhat drastically for the Brooklyn Nets over the past two seasons would be a bit of an understatement. Heading into their fifth season in Brooklyn, after seeing the likes of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson change zip codes, newly installed general manager Sean Marks installed Kenny Atkinson as his head coach. Atkinson will assume the helm as the fourth head coach hired since the franchise’s move to Brooklyn, and together with Marks represents a major departure from the “get rich quick” schemes that the franchise famously employed.
With a few budding prospects and a willingness to embrace a slow and steady rebuilding process, fans of the Nets will enter the 2016-17 season with hopes that the roster assembled can find a way to outplay its perceived talent.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Brooklyn Nets.
FIVE GUYS THINK
It’s easy to beat up on the Brooklyn Nets for the mistakes they’ve made over the last few seasons. However, I actually liked the strategy rookie general manager Sean Marks took this offseason. With essentially no assets to work with to replenish the team’s young talent, Marks went out and attempted to acquire some youth by extending big offer sheets to Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson. Those offer sheets were ultimately matched by each player’s original teams, which meant Marks had to go to Plan B. Sure, the offer sheets were overpays, but the cap will continue to rise next season, so I understand trying to lock in young talent with cap space when there is essentially nothing else to work with. Unfortunately, the Nets only managed to bring together a mishmash of players that are neither competitive now nor the foundation for a youth movement moving forward. Marks and the Nets will continue to suffer for the mistakes made by the past regime for the foreseeable future.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
With newly installed general manager Sean Marks assuming the helm in Brooklyn and with head coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets hope to begin piecing together some sort of a franchise in the aftermath of Billy King’s ouster. Unfortunately, that rebuild is something that is going to take a bit longer than one offseason.
Make no mistake about it, the Nets came away from the summer of 2016 about as well as they could have hoped, realistically speaking. With most of the league’s teams boasting significant cap space, it was difficult to imagine impact free agents taking residence in Brooklyn. Losing out of Allen Crabbe will hurt in the short-term, but at the very least, it shines a light on the blueprint that Marks will attempt to follow in rebuilding the franchise. He will take risks on young players with promise and will likely take fliers on some overseas and D-League prospects.
In the end, I’m not sure that Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez will be able to get anything of substance accomplished in Brooklyn this season. They still seem a relatively safe bet to finish ahead of the Sixers, but I’m not expecting much more from them than that.
4th Place — Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
From the front office all the way down to the locker room, the Brooklyn Nets have plenty of work to do and a long way to go to before becoming relevant in the win column again. Brooklyn has new leadership at the executive level (Sean Marks) and roaming the sidelines (Kenny Atkinson), but the scars from the franchise mortgaging their future in a failed title run a couple years ago are evident. Marks attempted to infuse the team with much needed young talent this summer by signing guards Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe to offer sheets. But those deals were matched by Miami and Portland, respectively, and left Brooklyn scrambling. There isn’t a quick fix to get Brooklyn back in contention for the Atlantic Division crown. This is going to be a painstakingly long rebuilding effort, if it’s done right. Be prepared Nets fans – for plenty of losing until the ship is righted.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
The Brooklyn Nets are going to win a whole bunch of games this year; the only problem is that they’re going to win most of those games for the teams they’re playing against. Completely stripped of any real transcendent talent outside of Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin, the Nets are stuck in NBA purgatory for the next couple of seasons while they wait to regain control of their own first-round picks. The real bummer in all of this is that Sean Marks can’t even focus on the rebuilding process because his high draft selections the next two seasons are headed to Boston. While it may be fun to see how rookies Caris LaVert and Isaiah Whitehead come along, this team looks like one that spent as little as they did.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
There really wasn’t much Sean Marks and his staff could do this summer in Brooklyn, as my colleagues have pointed out. With future picks still owed to the Boston Celtics, it’s hard to imagine this being anything but a long rebuild for the Nets. Marks will have to get creative to bring in new, young talent (as he tried to do this summer), but there’s no easy way to climb out of this deep hole. This is a cautionary tale for any team thinking of mortgaging their future for a one- or two-year contention window.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Brook Lopez
Say what you want about Brook Lopez, but you cannot deny that he is a gifted offensive player. In an NBA that is dominated by stretch-fours and floor-spacing centers, Lopez is a throwback who is capable of scoring with his back to the basket and from mid-range. His offensive versatility is somewhat overshadowed by his slow and plodding nature, which puts his team and coaches in a bit of a Catch-22. A team that plays to Lopez’s strengths will naturally play at a slower pace, but teams that are at a talent deficit will stand a better chance of winning games with hard-nosed defense and capitalizing on easy offensive opportunities born from turnovers.
To that end, it’s the job of Kenny Atkinson to figure out how to marry Lopez’s skill set with the rest of the talent at his disposal, but with a career average of 18.3 points and shooting percentages of 51.1 and 79.1 percent from the field and the free-throw line, respectively, there’s no question that the 28-year-old Lopez is the most gifted offensive talent in Brooklyn.
Top Defensive Player: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Anyone who paid even a tiny bit of attention to the Nets last season came away impressed with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, despite the fact that his work came in a very small sample size. Ankle surgery caused him to sit from early December through late March and resulted in him playing in just 29 games last season, but his defensive instincts were impressive. Hollis-Jefferson did a fair job of staying in front of his opponents and has a rangy frame that lends itself to peskiness both on the ball and in passing lanes. The Nets’ roster isn’t exactly full of defensive stalwarts, but among those that are there, it is safe to call Hollis-Jefferson the most complete and versatile defender of the pack.
Top Playmaker: Greivis Vasquez
One could make an argument that Jeremy Lin is a superior playmaker over Greivis Vasquez, but Vasquez has always been a player who has made the most of his opportunities and created for his teammates. Over the course of his career, his 7.3 assists per 36 minutes are a long way from Lin’s 5.9. Additionally, Vasquez could be fairly deemed a “pass-first” point guard, while many would argue the opposite of Lin. In all likelihood, the two will share the backcourt during the game’s key moments. In Charlotte, Lin had his fair share of moments playing alongside Kemba Walker, and that is something that was both a result of head coach Steve Clifford seeing limitations in Lin’s playmaking abilities as well as his belief that Lin could pay major dividends playing off of the ball and being featured as more of a finisher.
Top Clutch Player: Jeremy Lin
“Linsanity” may have been a long time ago, but Jeremy Lin has had some big moments since then as well. During last season’s playoff run with the Charlotte Hornets, Lin averaged 12.4 points per game in just 27 minutes off of the bench. On a roster with a number of players who haven’t been battle-tested, if the game comes down to one shot, in all likelihood head coach Kenny Atkinson will put the ball in Lin’s hands. It’s difficult to quantify which player is most clutch, but as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks during “Linsanity,” Atkinson had a front row seat to the magic that Lin was capable of producing. He probably still has some left in the tank, and we’re simply not sure if the same can be said of Brook Lopez.
The Unheralded Player: Trevor Booker
Trevor Booker is exactly the type of player that Sean Marks will have success with signing. After six years in the league, Booker has become renowned as a plus rebounder who is correctly served as a bench player who will warrant 15 to 20 minutes of playing time per night. Last season, Booker averaged 10 rebounds per 36 minutes, and that type of rebounding productivity is something that the Nets will need this season. With five of their top seven rebounders from last season now in new homes, Booker will have an opportunity to make an impact.
Best New Addition: Jeremy Lin
Of all the players acquired by general manager Sean Marks this offseason, Lin is most likely to pay the biggest immediate dividends. At the very least, Lin can create scoring opportunities for himself and help to open up the game for his teammates. Both Isaiah Whitehead and Caris LeVert could end up being difference makers for the Nets, but as of right now, it’s safe to assume that their chances of escaping the cellar of the Atlantic rest on the extent to which Lin can lead them. LeVert gets an honorable mention for his appreciable upside, while Whitehead tugs at the heartstrings for being the first Brooklyn-born player selected by the franchise since its relocation.
– Moke Hamilton
WHO WE LIKE
1. Bojan Bogdanovic
Completely lost in the circus around him, Bojan Bogdanovic has proven to be a very capable NBA player. Entering his third season, he has averaged a very quiet 14.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game over the course of his career. He also happens to be a 37 percent shooter from downtown. As the 26-year-old continues to grow and adapt to the NBA game, he will only improve.
2. Kenny Atkinson
For those who aren’t familiar, Kenny Atkinson has long been highly regarded around NBA circles. Atkinson spent four years as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks before heading to Atlanta for another four-year stint. Atkinson has become renowned as a head coach who loves nothing more than to teach, and a fair number of young players that have come of age in New York and Atlanta -most notably Jeremy Lin and Kent Bazemore – would credit Atkinson for helping them develop. The Nets will need similar returns from their young players, but the data suggests they have found the right man.
3. Sean Marks
Marks has spent the past few years with the San Antonio Spurs with a front row seat to the operations of the franchise that has become regarded as the gold standard of the NBA. The Spurs have excelled in finding talent and either cultivating it or flipping it into better pieces. Case in point: the Spurs selected George Hill with the 26th overall pick of the 2008 draft and ended up trading him for Kawhi Leonard. Although Marks shouldn’t get all of the credit for that, it stands to reason that he understands the concept of finding a diamond in the rough and maximizing the return on investment. In Brooklyn, those skills are sorely needed.
4. Caris LeVert
Trading Thaddeus Young for the pick that ended up yielding Caris LeVert was a bold move made by Sean Marks and his staff. Standing at 6’7, though, LeVert is a knockdown shooter whose size should help his game translate to the NBA. Whether he can remain healthy is a bigger question (and concern), but oozing with potential until he proves it is unfounded, there should be some excitement to see that LeVert is capable of at the NBA level.
5. Isaiah Whitehead
The Brooklyn-born guard will have the opportunity to suit up for his hometown team. He called it a dream come true and, odds are, he will be motivated to prove that he not only belongs in the league, but that he is capable of carrying Brooklyn on his back.
– Moke Hamilton
SALARY CAP 101
The Nets are significantly under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with 15 guaranteed players and a $75.6 million commitment in payroll. With up to $18.6 million in cap room, Brooklyn will be able to absorb players via trade throughout the season, although they’ll need roster space to do so. Additionally, if the team decides to keep partially-guaranteed players Beau Beech, Egidijus Mockevicius and Yogi Ferrell, they’ll need to cut or move a player with guaranteed salary.
Teams are required to spend at least $84.7 million this season. If Brooklyn doesn’t add salary before the end of the year, they’ll need to cut a check for $9.2 million to their rostered players. Looking ahead, the Nets project to have as much as $41 million in salary cap space next summer. They’ll also need to decide on rookie-scale options for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough before November – both likely to be picked up.
– Eric Pincus
Since being purchased by Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets have consistently found themselves stuck in a pattern of swinging for the fences and gambling their future away for the sake of short-term gains. From Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Nets traded away Derrick Favors and gave up the draft picks that ended up yielding Enes Kanter, Gorgui Dieng and Damian Lillard among others. In a way, Prokhorov and former general manager Billy King should be commended for having the guts to take huge risks, but in sports, when they don’t pay off, the repercussions can be felt for a decade.
As a result of their acquisitional tactics, since moving to Brooklyn the Nets always felt like a team full of mercenaries who were brought together (often against their own free will) and were asked to deliver on lofty promises made by Prokhorov. Now, the opposite is true. The Nets will head into the 2016-17 season with no expectations but with a roster featuring players who may amount to something—Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough and Isaiah Whitehead. The best part of all? So long as they remain together, these players will have an opportunity to grow and learn without any pressure.
– Moke Hamilton
It’s no secret that the teams that fare better in the NBA are the teams that have had an opportunity to play together for a while. Chemistry is real. Continuity is necessary. In some instances, however, talent and continuity can make up for one another. In other words, a less talented team that has played together for several years can eventually become a sum that is greater than its individual parts. On the other hand, a team that has a superior talent base can often find success even if the pieces haven’t fully gelled.
Unfortunately for the Nets, they are at a deficit in both departments. In terms of the proven talent that is already on the roster in Brooklyn, the Nets appear to be much closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference than anywhere near its top. And aside from having a new head coach, six of the top rotation pieces in Brooklyn are new to the team. In the NBA, that isn’t exactly a recipe for success.
– Moke Hamilton
THE BURNING QUESTION
How long will the Nets’ rebuild take?
The Nets have been the butt of many jokes over the past few seasons. From the ill-fated trade with the Boston Celtics that yield Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the messy divorce between Jason Kidd and the franchise, Billy King’s regime is not one that will be remembered for prudence or predictability.
In his departure, King left a franchise that seemed to be lacking direction and one whose future seemed bleak, at best. The Nets do not own their own first-round pick until 2019. In 2017, they will have the right to exercise the less favorable pick between theirs and the Boston Celtics. In other words, there is a dearth of available draft picks in Brooklyn for the foreseeable future. The bright side? The Nets were one of the most heavily represented teams in Chicago during last May’s draft combine, and scouts within the organization have raved at the resources that newly installed general manager Sean Marks is putting into finding players who can play. In his introductory press conference, Marks said he knew he would have to be resourceful, and indications are that is exactly what’s happening.
Until the Nets find a few players that have game-changing potential, though, they will be battling with the Sixers to avoid the dubious distinction of being the worst team in what has recently been the league’s worst division.
How long, you ask? Let’s just say that 2019 can’t come quickly enough.
– Moke Hamilton
NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity
The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?
The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.
“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.
Tyler Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday's game against the Bucks, still with no plans for an MRI on his sprained left ankle sustained Monday in Chicago. He remains with the team, which did not practice Tuesday.
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) January 16, 2018
Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.
“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”
Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.
“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”
Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.
“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”
Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.
“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”
The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.
NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?
Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?
Is It Time To Sell?
Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.
Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.
The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.
Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.
That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.
While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.
The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.
The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.
The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.
The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.
For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.
The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).
That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.
If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.
The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.
It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.
League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.
The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?
It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?
Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.
It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.
At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.
If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.
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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal
Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.
Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.
So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.
You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.
With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.
He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.
But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.
Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.
Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.
These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.
Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.
The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.
Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.
The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.