You know the saying, “What a difference a week makes?” Boy has it ever applied to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the month of February.
Their very first game, on the 3rd, they got—putting it favorably—trounced by the Houston Rockets on national television at home. Then came an embarrassing 18-point loss to the Orlando Magic on the road, a game where the wine and gold were up 16 at the half.
If that two-game sample didn’t make it clear enough, something had to change. In their final time sharing the court together, the old Cavaliers won an emotional overtime game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in an instant classic. But even with that victory, it was only a matter of time.
Five days removed from a complete blitzing by James Harden and company, Cleveland had thoroughly re-shaped its roster. Out went six players and in came four new faces.
The excitement in general manager Koby Altman’s voice was palpable. The sense of relief on the remaining roster was evident. The enthusiasm from the fresh crop of players was obvious.
Even more so, it sparked the short-handed Cavaliers to play free and easy to start their three-game road trip, leading to a lopsided visitors’ victory over the Atlanta Hawks. A short 48 hours later, Cleveland’s face-lifted group made an outstanding debut against the Boston Celtics at the T.D. Garden, winning their first game together in convincing fashion.
The roadie concluded with a stop in Russell Westbrook country, where the Cavaliers bared down and defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder for their second straight win on national television. They had lost all eight previous games in those scenarios.
All in all, the trade acquisitions looked good in their respective roles.
Jordan Clarkson stood out as an energetic dynamo that ran the break and scored with ease. Rodney Hood played with more of a deliberate tempo, but shot the ball extremely well and defended his assignments admirably. Larry Nance Jr. provided the dirty work on the glass and in passing lanes while putting on a show with his patented dunking abilities. George Hill took some time finding his niche offensively, but really put a stamp on guarding his assignments.
Then, unfortunately, the All-Star break came. It slowed down the momentum that Cleveland had after four straight wins, with two of those coming courtesy of a re-invigorated roster.
“I think that was one of the worse things we had to deal with,” Hill said. “Finding that rhythm and then taking that 10 days off. But we can’t make excuses.”
Hood and Clarkson agree with the veteran guard about the ill-timed hiatus.
“Just learning each other,” Hood said. “The break just kinda hindered what he had going the first two games. We’ll get it back.”
“All-Star break kinda didn’t help us,” Clarkson said. “Have to get in a groove with everybody offensively and defensively. It just shows that we still got a long way to go.”
Since then, the Cavaliers have gone 1-2 and hit a bit of a setback for the first time.
The sample size is rather small, but telling enough to draw certain conclusions from. In five games together, here’s what we know about the Cavaliers.
The Rims Have Been Kinder Away From The Q
In the last two games Cleveland has lost, the team’s three-point percentage was one more miss away from being identically awful. Both times, they only knocked down eight threes and attempted over 30. Contrary to the poor shooting before the deals went down, these guys are capable of hitting outside looks. Sometimes it’s poor offense and selection, but in the case of games against Washington and San Antonio, it’s flat-out misses and unfortunate luck.
“We’re gonna have some games where we look great, we’re gonna have some games that we don’t look as great,” LeBron James said. “I think we played well [Sunday]. We just didn’t make shots. Same thing with the Washington game—I think we played well that night.
“It’s not a surprise, not to me. I know. I’ve been through this. It’s gonna be a transition period and it’s gonna be some games where we play exceptionally well. There’s gonna be some games where we could’ve played better. But one thing about it, I don’t fault our effort. Not [Sunday] or the Washington game. Our effort is there.”
The Half-Court Offense Is…A Work In Progress
Notice that in those defeats, James has had to carry the load as Cleveland’s everything, which makes sense considering that somebody has to make shots. But when he’s out there as a one-man wrecking crew for the entirety of a game with others struggling, that’s not the recipe for success and wins with this kind of roster.
Starters have not done their part consistently enough. Cedi Osman brings the energy, but has shown his first sign of rookie struggles in the last two home games. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson are fine contributors when they’re playing up to their abilities, yet absolute team killers when they’re not doing their part.
The Cavaliers are going to need Clarkson, Hood, and especially Hill to convert those perimeter shots on a nightly basis. Kyle Korver can benefit from other shooters being on the floor to draw attention away, so he’ll likely get going again.
There will be off nights for sure, but those threes give them that extra push. They’re getting into the paint and finishing inside for the most part, but when it turns into drive and kick, the shooter’s got to hit.
Of course, this is only an issue when the pace slows down. A crucial reason why the trades went down in the first place is that Altman was looking for speed and athleticism. That’s the pace Tyronn Lue likes to play and it’s worked out well for the most part so far.
It’s been proven with every game so far that Cleveland is at their best when on the fast break. If there’s a miss after a defensive stop, they’re off and running. If they get the ball after an opponent makes a shot, the tempo blatantly lets up and there’s discombobulation as a result.
Larry Nance Jr. Needs To Play More
Tinkering with rotations is not an easy job. Lue has been under fire for the majority of the year. With all the injuries and moving pieces and parts, he’s been the guy people are pointing the finger to — and the wrong source of blame.
That being said, he is a little too stubborn for his own good. There’s a loyalty to the guys that brought the Cavaliers their first championship in franchise history, almost to a point where he plays favorites. He elects to let Smith and Thompson figure things out a little too long and in some games, it costs the team.
Which leads to this: Nance Jr. deserves more run. Let’s face it, he’s probably been the most productive piece acquired the deadline as far as a two-way player goes. Yes, he has issues staying out of foul trouble at times. But aside from that, he’s disruptive to the opposition with his versatility and length, leading to aggressive steals and rebounds to get the Cavaliers out in transition, where, again, they do the brunt of their damage.
He fills the lane on those fast breaks beautifully, catches lobs from teammates on backdoor cuts and is a hard roller off of screens. Simply put, Nance plays with conviction and brings more than numbers to this team. Finding less than 25 minutes for him is foolish, and fewer than 20 minutes is not acceptable. And matchups are not an excuse here, because he is slotted at the five and can truly guard forwards, centers, and hybrids of those. It’s early and they’re trying to look at rotations, but there is no reason this should continue.
A Little Adversity Isn’t A Bad Thing
Basketball Insiders asked Cleveland’s four newest guys about experiencing some adversity after the loss to Washington. All of them concurred it can be taken as a positive as they try to put this thing together over the final stretch of games before the postseason.
Hill: “Definitely so. We’re still learning each other, still learning defensive schemes and offensive schemes here. We’ve still gotta learn plays, coach gave us a small playbook so far.
But we’ve still got a lot of plays that we need to learn just when we’re out there in different situations where things may not get to move, the ball’s not moving as much as we would like it to, to call different things. We’re still learning, but we’ve gotta take it one step at a time.”
Hood: “I guess you could say that. Just getting acclimated. Being in a close game helps. Being in different situations—gotta foul at the end of the game, gotta get a bucket at the end of the game, whatever it may be—it’s good to be in those positions and as we do more of those, I think we’ll come out on the other side.”
Clarkson: “I think so. It’s still early, but feeling it a little bit is pretty good for us. But you know we’re coming in here to win every game. Stuff like that happens—missed shots and making mistakes defensively, they just capitalized.”
Nance: “I agree. Better now than June, obviously.”
NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future
Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.
On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.
Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.
Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with athe season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.
“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”
Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.
“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”
Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.
“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.
While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.
“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.
Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.
There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.
“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”
Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.
“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”
Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.
“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.
Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.
“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.
When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.
Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers
Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.
The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.
The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.
With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.
Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:
“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.
“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.
“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”
There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.
Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.
Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.
Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.
LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.
“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”
The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.
NBA Daily: Calderón’s Late NBA Start
Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.
There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.
“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”
Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.
“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”
That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.
“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”
As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.
“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.
“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”
He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.
“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”
The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.
“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”
That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.
“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”
Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.
“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”
He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.
Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.