The Cleveland Cavaliers’ recent history can be divided into two periods: life-with-LeBron and life-after-LeBron.
The life-after-LeBron period has been somewhat of a roller coaster. The Cavaliers managed to swing a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers that netted them a 2011 first-round draft pick that became Kyrie Irving. This was the high point on the Cavs’ rollercoaster ride. However, it didn’t last long.
The Cavs then drafted Tristan Thompson with the fourth pick in 2011 and Dion Waiters with the fourth pick in 2012. Though Thompson and Waiters are talented players, the Cavs passed on players like Andre Drummond, Jonas Valanciunas and Klay Thompson to pick them. Then, after winning the 2013 lottery, the Cavs selected Anthony Bennett. The choice was so surprising, it caused ESPN’s Bill Simmons to emphatically say “whoa” during coverage of the draft.
In spite of these less than ideal picks, the Cavs still managed to acquire veterans this offseason like Jarret Jack, Earl Clark and controversial center Andrew Bynum. Clark and Jack were coming off strong seasons with their former teams, and Bynum had missed an entire season in Philadelphia while rehabbing. With a little luck (especially with Bynum), the team was primed to make a playoff run.
The Cavs didn’t have any luck, however, and are now 10th in the East and are facing another return to the lottery. Bynum and Clark are no longer on the roster and the general manager who assembled the team, Chris Grant, has been fired. Despite all these gaffs, the Cavs have flexibility heading into this offseason and the means to turn their fortunes around rather quickly. Here are some things the Cavs can do to make this happen.
Tell LeBron It’s Time to Come Home
It was not long ago that there were whispers that LeBron James could return to Cleveland if he exercised the early termination option in his contract with the Miami HEAT this offseason. It made sense, as the Cavs had an All-Star in Irving, up-and-coming talent in Waiters and Thompson, last year’s first overall pick in Bennett and James’ old coach Mike Brown.
However, after a disappointing 2013-14 season, the rumors have gone away. Bynum is in Indiana, Clark is currently out of the league, Bennett has underwhelmed and Irving has had a relatively down year for his lofty standards. So why then should the Cavs make an offer to James? Because they have the home-court advantage and he is the best player on the planet.
Don’t underestimate LeBron’s ties to Akron and Cleveland. He is a fixture in those communities and he knows the attention a return home would entail. Cleveland, like many of the small-market teams, struggles to bring in big-time free agents. But the situation is different with LeBron, who struggled to make “The Decision” to leave initially. Additionally, LeBron is such a transcendent player that if your team has even a one percent chance of landing him, you have to give it your best shot.
Though this scenario isn’t by any means a sure thing, the Cavs have to at least engage James this offseason if he does in fact opt out of his contract.
»In Related: Cleveland Cavaliers Salary Cap Info
Draft For Talent, Not Need
Drafting for need is what caused problems for the Cavs last year. Instead of picking someone like Victor Oladipo to play alongside Irving, they drafted Bennett out of UNLV. The idea was with Waiters in place, Oladipo was redundant. But now there are questions about Waiters’ long-term fit in Cleveland and his relationship with Irving. Having Oladipo, who may win Rookie of the Year, in town would make any issues with Waiters less concerning, but instead he is wreaking havoc on opposing wing players for the Orlando Magic.
The Cavs are projected to have a top-10 pick in this year’s draft, which is loaded with talent. Players like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Dante Exum are some examples of the talented prospects who will be available. These players will probably be off the board when the Cavs are up to pick, but there will likely still be plenty of talented players like Aaron Gordon, Noah Vonleh and Doug McDermott, just to name a few.
The Cavs will have a better idea of who they like once they have officially secured their position in the draft and start holding private workouts. Whoever the Cavs pick, it should be based upon overall talent, especially in a draft as talented as this. This is also the case because teams are valuing first-round draft picks more than ever since the new CBA makes it very difficult to simply add one solid veteran after another. It’s not about who is willing to spend the most money anymore, but about who can do the most with the cap space they have. First-round draft picks are the best bargains in the NBA because they play on capped salaries, and if valuable enough, they can be retained through restricted free agency, no matter how much other teams may offer them.
The Cavs have a better shot of making a good choice this time around with so much talent in the draft, but they cannot afford another significant draft-day mistake.
Make a Plan and Stick With It
ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst recently reported that the Cavaliers have been making strategic moves to position themselves for a big trade this offseason. They signed point guard Scotty Hopson, who had never played in the NBA before, to a two-year contract worth $3.8 million, the second of which is non-guaranteed. Hopson’s contract, along with the non-guaranteed deals of Alonzo Gee ($3 million), Matt Dellavedova ($816k) and Anderson Varejao (only $4 million of his $9.7 million is guaranteed) can be packaged and shipped to a team that is looking to free up cap space. These contracts provide the Cavs with flexibility to make deals come June and July.
If the Cavaliers don’t make a trade, they could enter the offseason with significant cap room to be players in free agency. Cleveland could have up to $23 million in cap space, allowing them to make a max offer to a player like James or pursue other free agents.
However, even if there aren’t any major free agent acquisitions, the Cavs can re-sign their own free agents, like Luol Deng, Spencer Hawes and C.J. Miles, and use their mid-level exception on a solid player. Then, they can hold onto the non-guaranteed deals and wait for a team to start a fire-sale of its players.
With all these options in mind, the Cavs need to make a realistic assessment of their roster, and what they can compete for. Their plan needs to be based on that assessment and needs to be properly executed. Either acquire more young talent and continue to rebuild, or keep adding on veteran players to put around Irving, Waiters, and Thompson.
»In Related: Central Division Cap Projections
Don’t Be Afraid to Admit You Made Mistakes
Refusing to acknowledge that drafting players like Waiters and Bennett or trading for Deng were mistakes will hurt the Cavs’ chances of turning this team around quickly. Masai Ujiri signed on to to be the general manager of the Toronto Raptors last offseason. He replaced Bryan Colangelo, and undid some of Colangelo’s biggest mistakes. Ujiri traded Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks and Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. Since trading Gay, the Raptors have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA, and players like DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have improved their play significantly.
Similarly, the Cavaliers need to be willing to trade players like Waiters and Bennett if the right deal comes along. Trying to make it work against all odds to prove the team was right in drafting them initially will harm this team. Replacing Grant with David Griffin in the front office was good, as Grant may have been hesitant to admit mistakes and hold onto players as they develop in order to protect his job. Griffin can step in and build the team as he sees fit, without the same ties that Grant had to his acquisitions.
Also, the Cavs cannot re-sign Deng to a contract beyond what he is worth. There may be incentive to retain Deng at all costs to avoid backlash for surrendering as many draft picks as they did to acquire him from Chicago. However, as good as Deng is, the CBA punishes teams that pay veterans substantially more than they are worth. Interestingly enough, cutting out of the Bynum deal was exactly the sort of move the Cavs need to make. Trading Bynum was an admission that their plan for him had failed. The only problem was they surrendered too much for a player on an expiring deal.
LeBron may not be coming home to Cleveland this offseason, but the team needs to try and make that happen. If that fails, the organization needs to start laying out plans to properly utilize its flexibility. The team cannot overspend on mid-level free agents, and should retain its flexibility until next year (when more free agents are likely to hit the market) if nothing significant materializes this offseason. The Cavaliers are in a position to correct their recent mistakes and, with the right moves, the next high point on this roller coaster ride might come sooner than many expect.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.