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Cavaliers Newest Trio Welcomed To Cleveland

Basketball Insiders was in attendance for the Cleveland Cavaliers introductory press conference for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Ante Zizic.

Spencer Davies

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Basketball Insiders was in attendance for the Cleveland Cavaliers introductory press conference for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Ante Zizic.

Here are the main elements in review.

NOT TALKING ABOUT HIPS

In his second straight public appearance as Cavaliers general manager, Koby Altman did not want to speak about the negatives. Instead of focusing on a “proud day for the organization” as he prefaced before things got started, everybody’s eyes were on the condition of Isaiah Thomas. The media contingent was persistent in asking for an update and a timetable for his return, but Altman refused to budge.

“I don’t want this to be the Isaiah Thomas hip press conference,” Altman said adamantly. “If we want to talk about Isaiah, let’s talk about Isaiah the All-Star. Let’s talk about Isaiah, the guy that averaged 29 points a game last year.

“Let’s talk about him as a leader and what he’s going to bring to this franchise in terms of his performance on the floor when we get him back.”

The Cavaliers are keeping mum on the situation at hand, which raises the question: Do they even know when that will be? Since Altman went with the “no comment” approach, it seems as if the reports about Thomas’ torn labrum potentially holding him out for an extended period of time aren’t an exaggeration.

So what course of action is Cleveland taking to ensure the 28-year-old returns to full strength to help compete for another championship run?

“Our responsibility is to get him back to a hundred percent,” Altman said. “Our performance team has mapped out a great plan, a multi-faceted plan, to really attack this thing. Isaiah is deeply committed to that, so day-by-day as he gets better, I think we’ll have a better grasp of it. We’ll let you guys know when those thresholds are crossed, but that’s sort of all I’ll comment on that for now.”

Altman did squeak out one detail about the recovery, though.

“Our plan is a non-surgical plan.”

Thomas followed up with a tongue-in-cheek comment after being further pressed.

“Y’all hear that,” he said to the group of reporters. “Everybody want to be doctors now, damn.”

As for what he’s able to do at this point right now, Thomas relayed that he’s been getting treatment and hitting the weights.

“Like Koby said, we have a plan and we’re just going to attack that plan and get me back to 100 percent as soon as possible.”

IN THE MEANTIME

Before the blockbuster trade went down, Cleveland announced the signing of multiple veteran players to help bolster the depth of their roster.

Luckily for Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, waiting on Thomas to rehab won’t hurt too much because one of those additions is former MVP Derrick Rose, who will be counted on to hold things down for the team at point guard for the time being.

“D. Rose, who averaged 10 points in the paint last year In New York and averaged 18, 5 and 4, getting to the basket, playing with our team and the way we space the floor and the shooters we have, he will be living in the paint and be able to do that.”

Thomas is confident in his new teammate’s abilities to do so as well.

“Derrick Rose is really good,” he said. “He’s still really good and I think his peers know that more than anything.”

Jose Calderon will assume second unit duties. The soon-to-be 36-year-old has been tirelessly working in the gym since his arrival. Whether or not he’ll be able to keep up with today’s fast-paced style remains to be seen, but Lue knows the experience he brings is valuable.

“Calderon is a steady guy who is a backup, who comes in and is not going to turn the basketball over,” he said. “Great shooter, great passer.”

Whenever Thomas does return, he’ll need to be integrated into the coach’s system rather quickly as the wine-and-gold prepares for the postseason. For somebody completely new to pick up the scheme in basically a month or two, it should be demanding on both parties. Lue accepts the challenge.

“I want him to be Isaiah,” Lue said. “Don’t come in and defer and look to try to fit in. And LeBron, Kevin and those guys, they don’t want that. Come in, play his game, be aggressive, be the scorer that he is that we know can score the basketball. We’re just very excited we can get a guy that averaged 29 points a game and gets to the free-throw line, makes big shots and is not afraid of the moment. It’s big for us.

“Just come in, play your game, be who you are, and that’s what our team is all about from a team level,” he continued. “They want guys to come in and be themselves – Kyle Korver and all the new additions we’ve had over the years – they all come in and fit in well. Just be who you are and we’ll be able to adjust.”

Lue knows losing Irving is going to change things for the team, especially on the offensive end of the floor, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a step back.

“We’re going to be different, but when you add an All-Star, a guy that was up for MVP, fifth in MVP votes, and you add LeBron James, who can play with anybody in the world, it’s not going to take long for those guys to click.

“Our main goal, our main focus is being healthy when the playoffs start,” he continued. “We talk about that every season, taking our time, not rushing situations, taking time off when we need time off and getting guys healthy and get the guys 100 percent because we know once we hit the playoffs, if we’re healthy, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”

According to Thomas, the transition shouldn’t be so difficult. With the stars already there and the new talent joining them, it will make things easier on everybody involved.

“Like coach said, once we gel and figure things out that this is a team where I’ve watched from afar, no matter if there’s new guys on the team midway through the season, a guy like LeBron makes it that much easier for everybody else just because of how good he is and how good everybody else is.

“You can see as a team it’s really a team having fun and they’re excited about everybody’s success, you don’t get that a lot.”

ABOUT THE OTHERS

Believe it or not, there were other pieces to this deal.

Surprisingly, not one question about the 2018 unprotected first-round pick via the Brooklyn Nets arose. Nobody was inclined enough to ask Altman to assess the impressive Euroleague play of Turkish forward Cedi Osman, either.

However, Jae Crowder did get plenty of encouraging words in about his new opportunity in Northeast Ohio, especially in regards to getting the chance to play together with one of his former rivals, “The King” himself.

“Well, trying to slow him down is very tough obviously,” Crowder said of limiting LeBron as an opponent. “I tried to study him. I studied play calls, as coach knows. It’s tough.

“You have to do your homework for sure and I learned that the hard way early in my career and from that point on I took it very serious, my match ups with him because he’s an incredible player and you learn to expect this by the way he approaches the game and for me to play alongside him will be pretty scary for opponents.”

As a guy who can play almost every position on the floor, Crowder will allow James to wreak havoc in those passing lanes to force turnovers, so needless to say Lue can’t wait to see the two side-by-side locking down their competition.

“Jae can always guard the tougher opponent which allows LeBron to roam, which he loves to do on defense, pick off steals and passes and anchor our defense by talking and communicating, so it’s going to be a great duo defensively and I’m excited for it.”

Croatian big man Ante Zizic was the under-the-radar portion of the move. He only took the microphone once to talk about his success overseas and basically describe what he brings to the table.

“There’s a big difference between Euro style of basketball and NBA style of basketball,” he said. ‘I’d say I need just a little bit of time to acclimate this type of game. My style of game is a big guy who runs well, good defense, good rebounder. Set good screens for my teammates, making shots and layups. That’s my game.”

Altman raved over his potential.

“Ante Zizic we know pretty well through the draft process and then also scouting him this past year,” he said. “He’s a 20-year old that’s played at the highest level of the Euroleague. He’s also tough. He plays with motor and we’re excited about his growth as a young big for this franchise.”

TAKEAWAYS

1) Isaiah Thomas won’t be back for quite some time. It seems that it’s inevitable, but Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon will have to temporarily lead the team in their respective roles. That’s not what the fans want to hear, but it is what it is.

Call me crazy, but having Rose as the starting point guard isn’t exactly a bad thing. He can still play at a high level and contribute. Surrounding him with the talent that Cleveland has will only make him better.

2) Jae Crowder will immediately help the Cavaliers. On the floor, he’ll be a force that brings versatility and physicality to a team that has desperately needed it for years.

He’s gotten better as a shooter as his career has progressed and will only get better as he becomes a key piece to a championship-caliber squad. Crowder’s toughness should rub off on the others right away.

3) Iso ball will fade away in Cleveland. It was a staple of the Kyrie Irving skill set. The one-on-one dazzling handles and ability to finish were fun to watch, but now without him, Lue knows there will have to be more ball movement to succeed as an offense.

It will be interesting to see how he meshes in this new talent with what’s already there. Expect Kevin Love to have a monster season as the secondary scoring option while LeBron James will once again put the Cavaliers on his back as they try to figure things out with this turnover on the roster.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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Bobby Portis’ Time to Shine

Bobby Portis talks to Basketball Insiders about his increased role on offense, the Bulls’ young core of talent and more.

David Yapkowitz

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When the Chicago Bulls acquired Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in the summer of 2016, it was assumed that they were gearing up for another strong season and a playoff appearance. Fred Hoiberg had just finished up his first season as head coach and the team ended with a decent 42-40 record, albeit missing the playoffs.

They struggled the following season, however,but snuck into the postseason as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 41-41 record. They put a brief scare into the Boston Celtics in the first round, but Bulls management ultimately decided to move in another direction. They traded franchise cornerstone Jimmy Butler, bought out Wade’s contract and allowed Rondo to sign elsewhere.

The departure of their veteran players opened up minutes and opportunities for the younger guys on the team, in particular, Bobby Portis. Currently, in his third year with the Bulls, Portis was surrounded by veteran guys during his first couple of years in the league. It’s a different type of environment now in Chicago.

“We went from a veteran-led team, very experienced team, to now having guys on the team here who have never played in the playoffs,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a different team, but at the same time we’re gonna grow together and get better together.”

A McDonald’s All-American coming out of Hall High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Portis was one of the best college basketball players in the nation during the 2014-15 season. He was named the SEC Player of the Year and he declared for the NBA Draft after his sophomore season at the University of Arkansas.

He was selected with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 draft but having joined a team that had serious playoff aspirations, he saw only sporadic playing time as a rookie. His second year in the NBA, he started seeing increased playing time, but he still had a string of DNP’s throughout the year. His role changed this season when the Bulls front office started heading down the rebuilding path.

“I’m just playing more minutes and actually having a defined role on the team. I don’t have to come in worried if I’m gonna play or not, I know I’m gonna play,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the biggest thing for me. Also, the coaching staff having the utmost confidence in me to go out there every night and do what I do.”

This season, he’s emerged as one of the young Bulls most dependable reserves. He’s averaging a career-best 21.3 minutes per game while putting up 13 points on a career-high 10.7 field goal attempts and shooting 47.5 percent from the field. He’s also improved his outside shooting, connecting on 34.7 percent of his attempts from the three-point line.

With many of the Bulls top scoring options gone, Portis has had to take on a much bigger role in the Bulls’ offense. On Thursday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, he dropped a career-high 38 points on 57.7 percent shooting and 6-9 shooting from beyond the arc. In the Bulls’ 22 games since Jan. 1, he’s only failed to reach double-figures in scoring in seven of those games.

“I always say my role is to bring energy and toughness off the bench. Now I feel like my role has changed a little bit,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I have to be more aggressive on the offensive end, even more so than last year. Going out there and trying to make my teammates better, moving the basketball, sharing the basketball, trying to lead by example.”

Although he’s been playing better personally, he’s also seen a change in the team as a whole as the season has progressed. The Bulls dug themselves into a hole to begin the season, losing 17 of their first 20 games. They had a much better stretch during their next 20 games, winning 11 of them, including seven consecutively.

“We’re learning how to close games out, learning how to finish games. That’s something we didn’t do earlier in the season, we let other teams come back and win,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “We’re learning some of each other’s tendencies with the basketball. Having chemistry on the court is always big.”

And as the Bulls move forward with their rebuilding project, they seem to have found at least one player in Portis who can be a part of that. He still has another year left on his contract before he can become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2019. He likes what he sees from the Bulls’ young core, and it’s something he’d like the continue to be a part of.

“Guys are going out there and getting minutes,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the biggest thing in this league, you play more minutes you get more experience. It’s having an opportunity.”

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NBA Daily: Jimmy Butler’s Potential Absence Could Doom Minnesota

Should Jimmy Butler miss an extended period of time, the Minnesota Timberwolves could lose footing quickly in the tight Western Conference playoff race.

Dennis Chambers

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Say it ain’t so, Basketball Gods.

In his first game back from the All-Star break, coincidentally after logging zero minutes in the glorified exhibition game, Jimmy Butler left Friday night’s game with an apparent knee injury.

If the worst comes to fruition — a season-ending injury — Butler would join a laundry list of players whose seasons have been cut short.

 Butler’s Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of battling for position amongst their Western Conference peers for playoff spots. At the time of Butler’s injury, seeds three through nine are all separated by one game in the loss column.

Calling it a tight race out West would be a vast understatement. With a few more than 20 games to play, the seeding could land in a different order on basically a nightly basis. And for a team like Minnesota, losing their All-Star and veteran presence could be catastrophic.

But, not all hope is lost.

David Aldridge reported Friday night that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Given how tight the race is amongst the conference, losing Butler for any extended period of time is going to be a big blow to the way Minnesota operates. Very literally, Butler produces a drastic improvement on both ends of the court his team.

On the surface, Butler’s averages are good. They don’t blow you away, but it’s clear that his presence is felt on a nightly basis. 22.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists with a 59.3 true shooting percentage is more than worthy of an All-Star selection. But to the naked eye, it doesn’t scream that he’s the team’s most valuable player by a long shot.

So, let’s dig a little deeper.

When Butler is on the court, Minnesota benefits from a 116.3 offensive rating. Houston and Golden State have 115.7 and 115.4 offensive ratings for the season, respectively. The addition of Butler creates more free space for the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to play with.

Speaking of those two, with the addition of an established superstar like Butler, they’ve been able to focus more on playing basketball than leading a locker room, allowing for growth in their games — Towns especially.

Truly coming into his own as one of the league’s best big men this season, arguably nobody on Minnesota’s roster benefits more from Butler’s performance on the wing than Towns does. On the court together, Towns sports a pretty 114.1 offensive rating, which produced a satisfying 9.3 net rating. That’s winning basketball.

Take Butler away, though, and things get ugly. Fast.

Because of his vast arsenal of offensive versatility, Towns’ offensive rating doesn’t suffer when Butler isn’t in the fold. But his defense? Well, it falls off of a cliff. Towns’ defensive rating balloons to 120.9, bringing that once impressive 9.3 net rating all the way down to -6.5. Butler alone accounts for a 15.8 point swing in Towns’ net rating. The levels of codependency from Towns to Butler in relation to effective basketball are incredibly concerning if the latter is lost for an extended period of time.

Basketball isn’t just a two-man game, though. So, while Minnesota’s younger All-Star benefits greatly from his elder counterpart, maybe the rest of the roster isn’t in such bad shape without him, right?

Wrong.

In fact, as you could probably assume, the production for the Timberwolves as a whole plummets when Butler grabs a seat on the bench. Shooting percentage, net rating, assist rate, rebound rate, finishing at the rim, defending and just about any other conceivable statistic you can find is worse for Minnesota when Butler isn’t on the floor.

Beyond all of the stats though, Butler represented more to the Timberwolves this season. He was the star to get the team over the hump. The veteran two-way impact player that could take just enough of the load off of the two budding studs in Towns and Wiggins to make Minnesota a threat night in and night out. Tom Thibodeau brought Butler over from Chicago because he knew the level of work ethic and leadership he would bring to a team that had talent, but needed guidance.

Up until Friday night, the pieces were falling into place.

The state of Minnesota will hold its collective breath while waiting for the results of Butler’s MRI. For the sake of Timberwolves fans, the organization and most importantly, Butler himself, hope for a clean scan.

Without it, and without Butler, the team could find itself in a free-fall amid this clustered Western Conference playoff race.

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Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards Aiming For Consistency

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one talk with Otto Porter about the Wizards’ up-and-down season and why they’ve been clicking over the last few weeks.

Spencer Davies

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When a team loses an All-Star point guard after dropping four out of five games while other teams continue to improve and climb up the standings, it’s usually a sign that things are headed south.

But the Washington Wizards have debunked that thanks to a commitment from literally every man on the roster to step up. Since John Wall went down with injury, they’ve won eight out of their last 10 games and are a half game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

Why that is, is simple—there’s a balance.

“Everybody eats” is the mantra that Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal came up with when the tide started to turn and the D.C. family has been living by it for weeks now.

The setback has definitely forced them to alter their style of play, but it hasn’t been a bad thing so far, according to Wizards head coach Scott Brooks.

“It’s definitely a challenge missing one of the best guards, one of the best players in the league,” Brooks said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “We’ve had to change definitely the way we play a little bit. We couldn’t expect our point guards to play like John. His speed you just don’t come by often.

“We have to play a little different. I think guys have stepped up defensively. We’ve played well. We definitely had some favorable games go our way with the scheduling, but the challenge is ahead of us now. We’ve got a lot of tough games coming up, but we just have to still keep playing and focus on each game.”

Otto Porter has been somebody who’s really kicked it into gear at a higher level and looks like himself again after a tough start to the New Year. Since January 30th, he’s averaging 18.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and over a steal per game. On nearly 14 attempts per game during the stretch, he’s shot above 52 percent from the field.

When asked how Washington can best fill the void of Wall while he’s on the sidelines, he said it’s not possible to. Rather than focusing on that specific facet, it’s a responsibility of the group collectively to keep trending in the right direction.

“You don’t,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “I mean you just have to, next man up. You really can’t. X-Factor is everybody steppin’ up. With the guys that we have, it’s very simple. Just go out there and play for each other.

“Getting out in transition. Getting stops. Creating points. Threes. The ball going from side to side. That’s how we play. We goin’ through adversity, so we took the challenge.”

Mind you, this is a Wizards team that was once reportedly divided in the locker room. There were rumblings of disdain among certain players. Tweets, Instagram posts, and on-air interviews fueled the fire even more as the losses continued to pile up.

However, we all know the solution to any sort of rough patch is winning games. As soon as the victories started to come, the noise started to quiet down more and more.

“That’s with any sport for real,” Porter told Basketball Insiders after inquiring whether the negativity was overblown.

“I mean you gon’ have your ups and downs. You gon’ have that. But we’re gonna stick together no matter the wins or the losses. We’re gonna stick together. We’re not gonna let anything break us apart. That’s just how we feel.”

The All-Star break came at a good time for Porter, who admitted to Basketball Insiders that he was playing through with nagging injuries in the first half of the season and getting a week to see family and recuperate “was what I needed.”

In the meantime, he kept in contact with Beal, who was experiencing his first All-Star weekend in four years, except this time around he was selected by Team LeBron as a part of the big game.

“All-Star, he said he was mad busy,” Porter told Basketball Insiders of Beal’s hectic three days in Los Angeles. “That sucks ‘cause you know you really wanna—I mean All-Star is cool, but the guys all busy during All-Star. Seeing people, events, stuff like that, so you don’t really get a break. He enjoyed it though.”

Porter raved over the season Beal has had and what it’s meant to Washington. There hasn’t been a change in mentality at all, but the improvements are evident.

“He’s always been motivated,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “Each year he’s adding bits and pieces to his game every year that make him a threat and it shows this year.”

Another teammate of Porter’s that has taken on the challenge is Kelly Oubre. This month hasn’t been kind to him so far as a shooter, but taking the season as a whole, the third year forward is hitting a career-high 36.9 percent of his threes and averaging close to 12 points per game.

Not only that, but Oubre is always locked in defensively with an in-your-face method of guarding his opponents. It’s a physical style that constantly bothers opponents and most of the time, it works.

“He’s been improving,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I’ve seen him put in so much work this offseason on his shot improving his mechanics and it’s paying off.

“Aggressive defensively, getting his hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals. That’s what we want from him every game.”

Brooks has rewarded Oubre and Porter’s efforts by giving them a ton of playing time, something that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon considering the job they’ve done with the extra load.

“They’re gonna have to keep playing a lot of major minutes and keep getting better along the way,” Brooks said. “Otto’s really steady, solid. He’s started to make some shots again.

“And Kelly, he hasn’t shot the ball well in February, but we need him to break out of that and start shooting the ball better. With Kelly to me, it’s always how he’s locked in and focused on the defensive end.”

In order for the Wizards to continue scaling the ranks in the East it’s going to come down to consistency, a hurdle that they’ve tried to clear in past years and have a goal of leaping this season.

“We have to,” Brooks said. “Firstly, just takes that consistent effort to win games. This is not an easy league. Nobody feels sorry for you. Nobody gives you wins. You’ve got to go out there and earn it.

“I like the spirit of our team. We’re willing to accept the challenges. We know it’s not gonna be easy, but I like how we’re playing.”

Porter’s personal goal is to make it through 82 games healthy, but he agrees with his head coach about Washington’s top priority as a team.

“Right now yeah, it’s consistency,” Porter told Basketball Insiders. “And just sticking to what we do, sticking to our character. We know what type of players we are. We know how to play the right way and play Wizards basketball, so that’s what we’re gonna focus on.”

So far, so good.

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