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Five Key Questions: Cleveland Cavaliers

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By mid-July, Cleveland could kick woebegone for “Here Come the Cavs.”

Reality or dream sequence? The answers to these five questions will ultimately decide.

Armed with the No. 1 overall pick for the third time in four years, the ball could bounce the organization’s way with the top pick and the ability to spend this summer.

Prodigal son LeBron James seems a longshot to return to his Akron roots and the franchise he sent into a tailspin with his publicly torturous exodus for the Miami Heat in 2010. James went to four straight NBA Finals with Miami, and can opt out of his contract. Even if his high school sweetheart-turned-wife is ready to come home, James is faced with conflicted set of circumstances.

If there is no sense that James wants a second spin in Cleveland, the Cavaliers could push to package picks and veterans — former top-10 picks Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters are the most attractive, moveable pieces on the roster not named Kyrie Irving — to pull in a second weapon to pair with Irving. If the team would like his future to be with the Cavaliers, it’s time to build a contender or risk losing him when Irving reaches free agency.

That snapshot of the draft-week status of the Cavaliers only begins to unravel the subplots surrounding the franchise. Here are five questions for the Cleveland Cavaliers:

5. Did they get it right this time?

For the third time in three seasons, a new coach and new system is in place. David Blatt, a longtime European coach long sought for associate head-coaching spots — he was in line to serve as Steve Kerr’s No. 2 in New York, then Golden State — replaces Mike Brown. Blatt runs a motion offense that works best with athletic big men who can pass and knock down an open jump shot from 17-plus feet (Pau Gasol could be the budget buy, Kevin Love and Chris Bosh the pipedream fits). The roster will be tweaked, but not overhauled, based on the number of young recent draft picks combining to serve as the team’s foundation. Blatt thinks young. Peers described the 55-year-old as innovative. If the same tricks that helped funnel Blatt championships in Russia and Isreal and European points between can be effective, a relatively rapid turnaround in the meddling Eastern Conference is possible.

4. What’s the deal at No. 1?

Jabari Parker worked out for the Cavaliers after Andrew Wiggins and before Joel Embiid and the Duke forward would bring a skill set and fundamental base to move all around the rotation for Blatt. It’s possible — even likely — they get a better offer tied to the Philadelphia 76ers’ third overall pick and another player, such as volume scoring small forward Thaddeus Young. Philadelphia also has the 10th overall pick. With the 76ers deep in rebuilding mode anchored by the youngest roster in the league, it is important to the franchise to get this pick right, and Kansas’ Wiggins tops their draft board. In light of the foot surgery Embiid required last week and his growing durability concerns, Milwaukee would almost definitely select Parker or Wiggins at No. 2, and ownership said Monday that Embiid is not an option. That isn’t true of the 76ers, who have no qualms with the big man’s medical records and history shows no philosophical pause exists drafting players in the same position. Recall the 76ers last year traded for lottery pick Nerlens Noel, the Kentucky shot-blocking center who spent the entire 2013-14 season recovering from knee surgery.

3. Can the Cavaliers lure Love?

Would Kevin Love sign a long-term deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers? The answer can be known only if Cleveland opts to part with the No. 1 overall pick and several of the players it spent time developing the past few years. Shooting guard Dion Waiters and power forward Tristan Thompson are thought to intrigue Minnesota, but without the promise of a future pick, the Timberwolves are taking a large pace backward on paper by parting with Love for a fistful of complementary parts and a No. 1 pick that might not be a home run. And the other bind for the Cavaliers is timing. With Irving’s deal eligible for extension July 1 and the prospect of a potential reunion with LeBron James — we again acknowledge the major if factor here — the Cavaliers would be hesitant to empty their wallet for Love.

2. What’s the key to Kyrie?

The time is near for the Cavaliers to build a pedestal for Irving and hurl a max contract over his neck as the four-year, $23.198 million rookie deal that began in 2011-12 nears expiration. The team holds the option on his 2015-16 contract but does not want to see Irving hit that point with the same stance that is paving Kevin Love’s way out of Minnesota — this month or in February, via trade. Irving can earn $7.1 million in 2015-16, but don’t expect him to get through this season without being signed to a megabucks, near-max extension in the five-year, $90 million range. It’s only feasible for Irving to contemplate less than the max if the Cavaliers reel in a prize-winner in free agency.

1. Will LeBron come home?

To pass on a one-year, $20.56 million deal — or a five-year, $120 million whopper if he opts out of the 2014-15 payment and re-signs a max contract — James will need assurances aplenty that the arrow is pointing up for the Cavaliers. If a trio of All-Stars — James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade — equated to a .500 record in the Finals with the Heat, what can James reasonably project out of Cleveland rebuilding operation with its third new head coach in three years? The moaning about Irving not being long for Ohio was real — he’s not thrilled with a mediocre roster in a perpetual dog paddle against the current. Adding James would be a boon — conceivably for all involved — with the only downside being the challenge for GM David Griffin to find a way to squeeze more talent onto the roster under spending limits. Of course, those are problems any front office would pine for where James is involved. Adding to the spicy speculation is a post on Instagram by James’ wife of a state map of Ohio that highlights Akron with the statement “The countdown is real! #330 (Akron’s area code)”

Cleveland can only hope.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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Rockets spoil Griffin’s return in testy affair

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If James Harden needed any extra motivation against the Los Angeles Clippers, he found it in the first half.

Harden scored 34 points, and the Rockets held on for a 100-98 victory over the Clippers in a sometimes testy affair on Sunday at Staples Center.

Point guard Chris Paul, who finished with 23 points, missed a contested shot at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.

“It was very important for us just to go out there and play well,” said Harden, who hit seven of 16 shots from the floor, three of five from 3-point range and 17 of 18 free throws. “The last two games we kind of struggled a little bit, but we got our pop back a little bit today, and it was a good win for us.”

Harden provided much of that pop, particularly in the second quarter after Clippers forward Matt Barnes was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after pushing Harden to the court at 6:02. Harden scored 15 of his 18 points in the period after that, leading the Rockets to a 58-50 halftime lead.

Did the flagrant foul add more fuel for the Rockets’ All-Star guard and MVP candidate?

“Yeah. Things like that are fun,” said Harden, who had 24 points in the first half. “We have fun, we got boosted off of that.”

The win ended a two-game skid for the Rockets (44-22). Houston forward Trevor Ariza scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while forward Terrence Jones added 16 points and 12 boards.

“This was a win that we needed, especially on the road,” Ariza said. “Going into the home stretch, these are the types of games we have to win.”

Los Angeles forward Blake Griffin returned after missing 15 games due to surgery on his right elbow. Griffin had 11 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but committed five turnovers in 41 minutes.

“I didn’t think I played well,” said Griffin, who managed 4-of-10 shooting. “I was out of rhythm. Way too many turnovers, obviously.”

Barnes scored 19 points and guard J.J. Redick had 15 for the Clippers (42-24), who fell into a tie for the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings with the Dallas Mavericks.

Paul lamented a host of turnovers in the defeat, including a critical one involving center DeAndre Jordan.

“I had some bad turnovers,” said Paul, who committed three of the Clippers’ 20 miscues compared to 13 for the Rockets. “On one, I drove it off DeAndre’s foot, the other one I lost towards the end of the half. We have to take better care of the ball. We still had an opportunity to win, but we just didn’t do it.”

The Clippers came back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Paul scored seven straight points, capping it with a 3-point basket to tie the score at 96 with 3:05 left in the game. Houston got a 3-pointer by Jones, but Barnes countered with a basket to keep Los Angeles within 99-98 with 1:35 left. Los Angeles, though, never scored again.

Griffin got a steal as Ariza attempted a pass to Harden, but Ariza drew a charging foul as Griffin bolted to the bucket with 12 seconds remaining. Griffin remained unhappy about the call after the game.

“If I speak on that, I’ll get fined,” Griffin said.

Harden hit one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left, capping the scoring before Paul failed to connect on a jumper in the lane with Ariza defending.

The Rockets outscored Los Angeles 36-20 in the second quarter despite making just 38.5 percent of their shots compared to 44.4 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers hit 43.9 percent to 37.2 percent for the Rockets. They also held an edge in 3-point shooting, converting 12 of 26 attempts to seven of 30 for Houston. The Rockets, though were 29 of 36 from the foul line to 14 of 24 for Los Angeles.

Jordan finished with 20 rebounds and four blocks.

NOTES: F Blake Griffin’s return benefits PG Chris Paul as much as any Clipper. “Teams have been able to trap (Paul) far more than they can when Blake is on the floor because of (Griffin’s) ability to pass,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m sure CP is the happiest of all to have him back.” … Rivers isn’t sure if injured G Jamal Crawford would return before the playoffs. Crawford has missed six games with a right calf contusion. … Rockets C Dwight Howard sat out his 18th game with a right knee edema. “He’s doing everything he can, he’s trying to get better, but until you’re on the floor, it’s impossible to say,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said regarding Howard’s return. … Both clubs resume play Tuesday. Houston hosts the Orlando Magic, while Los Angeles plays the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center.

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Spurs’ Ginobili sprains ankle

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SAN ANTONIO — Guard Manu Ginobili was helped off the floor late in the third quarter of the San Antonio Spurs’ game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday due to a sprained right ankle.

Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points. He was immediately was led to the locker room, and he did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court. He did not return to the game.

In 19 minutes during the Spurs’ 123-97 win over the Timberwolves, Ginobili scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday and leading him to play limited minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.

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NBA notebook: Clippers’ Griffin cleared to return

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Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, out the last 15 games with an elbow injury, was cleared to return Sunday against the Houston Rockets.

Griffin had surgery five weeks ago to remove a staph infection in his right elbow.

“He said, ‘I’m ready,'” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before Sunday’s game. “Yesterday the trainers called me and said, ‘If he can go, he can go. He’s been cleared.'”

Rivers said timing likely will be an adjustment for Griffin.

“Timing is timing,” Rivers said. “You lose it when you don’t play in an NBA game. Sometimes you come back and you play great the first game and then you lose your timing. Sometimes it doesn’t. As far as the way we play, it won’t be hard for him at all.”

In 51 games this season, Griffin is averaging 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists.

–Spurs guard Manu Ginobili had to be helped off the floor late in the third quarter against Minnesota on Sunday. Ginobili went down with 43 seconds left in the quarter and with the Spurs leading the Timberwolves by 30 points.

He was helped off the floor and immediately was led to the locker room. He did not put any weight on his right leg as he was carried off the court.

Up to that point, Ginobili had scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 19 minutes. He battled a stomach illness last week, forcing him to miss a game against Toronto and play limited minutes against Cleveland on March 12.

–Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr sent emails to three fans who were disappointed that he rested several prominent players, including All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in Friday’s loss to the Nuggets in Denver.

“There’s two really good sides to the story,” Kerr said, according to the Associated Press report. “Nobody’s wrong here. … I can’t argue with them.”

Kerr received an email from a family that drove from South Dakota to Denver to see Curry, Thompson and the entertaining Warriors play. But Curry, Thompson, center Andrew Bogut and reserve guard Andre Iguodala did not play so they could be rested, and the Warriors lost 114-103.

“I heard from some fans. I received a few emails, stories about driving in from a long distance off and spending a lot of money on tickets,” Kerr said. “I have great sympathy for those people. I really do. It’s a tricky one. It’s something that I think Adam Silver is trying to address through the scheduling shuffling that he’s talking about.

–The Dallas Mavericks recalled center/forward Dwight Powell from the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League on Sunday.

The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Powell played in one game during his most recent assignment to the D-League and finished with 28 points, five rebounds and two assists to lead the Legends in a 115-89 win over the Austin Spurs on Saturday night.

Powell has appeared in 19 games for the Mavericks this season, averaging 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10.0 minutes per game.

–The Atlanta Hawks signed forward Austin Daye to a 10-day contract Sunday.

Daye appeared in 26 games (four starts) earlier this season with the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 10.3 minutes.

In 10 games this season with the Erie BayHawks of the NBA Development League, Daye has averaged 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks in 28.5 minutes.

–The Miami Heat recalled guard Zoran Dragic from the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League on Sunday.

Zoran appeared in four games (one start) and averaged 16.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.50 steals, helping the Skyforce to a 3-1 record over that span.

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