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Honeymoon Is Over, But Cavaliers Will Figure It Out

Spencer Davies offers his takeaways Cleveland’s new team five games in, their struggles this past week, and why they’ll be okay in the long run.

Spencer Davies

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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.”

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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NBA Daily: Trade Watch: Southwest Division

Drew Maresca identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Southwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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As of Thursday, 60 percent of the Southwest division was at or above .500. The Western Conference’s brutal competition will likely fix that as the season grinds on, but the number of surprises in the division thus far is shocking – be they pleasant or otherwise.

Basketball Insiders continues its Trade Watch series with an eye on the Southwest Division, examining players that might be on the move and teams that should be looking to wheel and deal.

  1. Houston needs Ariza (and vice versa)

The Houston Rockets need help on the defensive end of the floor; they will almost certainly look to add some wing defenders before the trade deadline in February. The Minnesota Timberwolves passed on their offer of four future first round picks, Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss for Jimmy Butler. But fortunately for the Rockets, there’s a player that should fit right in who may be available via trade – Trevor Ariza.

Yes, he would come at a price; but the Rockets see what life is like without Ariza patrolling the perimeter, and something or someone must stop the bleeding. The Rockers are 6-7 through 13 games. They need to recapture some of the magic they tapped into last season, and Ariza is part of what’s missing. They won’t be able to execute a deal until December 15 per NBA rules, which can’t come soon enough for the defenseless Rockets.

  1. New Orleans should be buyers at the deadline

This is the season in which the Pelicans must prove to Anthony Davis they’re serious about building a winner around him. They made nice additions this offseason in Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, and they have a nice combo guard in Jrue Holiday.

But still, they’re only 7-7 despite Davis’ extraordinary play. They need a second star (and then some).mFortunately for New Orleans, such a player should be available – assuming he returns fully recovered from injury this season: Kevin Love. The Cavs are not interested in remaining competitive – in fact, they’re nearly openly welcoming losses at this point (Hello, Zion).  The Pelicans can include Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and others in a deal, which should be a net positive for the Pelicans depending on Love’s health.

  1. DeAndre Jordan

Early reports out of Dallas are that DeAndre Jordan isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the Mavericks’ locker room. And that’s fine because Jordan doesn’t align with the Mavericks’ young core of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas should shop Jordan to a team that’s in need of an athletic center.

The Wizards have looked better at times with Dwight Howard on the floor than they did prior to his return. So why not upgrade? After all, it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to break-up the Wall-Beal core.

In return, the Wizards would probably be willing to build a deal around Otto Porter – who, at 25, arguably aligns much better with the Mavericks’ young core. While Porter’s deal extends as long as two years beyond Jordan’s one-year contract, the fact that the Mavericks traded the rights to their 2019 first-round pick to acquire Doncic makes nabbing a young, well-rounded player like Porter all the more appealing.

  1. Spurs need help at point guard

The Spurs’ 2018-point guard plan broke down before the season started with Dejounte Murray’s knee injury – and the team still needs help. While they don’t seem to have the assets to return high profile point guards like Terry Rozier or Goran Dragic, there are alternate options.

The Knicks have an abundance of point guards, none of whom stands out as a huge difference-maker for them this season, but any of whom could help as a short-term solution in San Antonio. And what’s more, the Knicks probably wouldn’t require much in return – with one caveat being that they prefer to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr., as well. Fortunately for the Spurs, Lee can contribute nicely in Coach Gregg Popovich’s system, assuming he gets healthy sometime soon.

The Spurs should look to flip some of the players who aren’t currently in the rotation for a capable point guard. While New York isn’t sending out capable players for free, the price tag on some of these guards shouldn’t be too high.

  1. Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol

Both Conley and Gasol are still members of the Memphis Grizzlies, and there have been no rumors of either of them being shipped elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

The Grizzlies hold first place in the Southwest Division at 8-5 with wins against the Jazz (twice), Nuggets, Pacers and Sixers. They’ve dropped some easy ones, too. Basically, they’re good, but the cold, hard reality of the situation is that advancing beyond the second-round out west will require more than what they currently have on their roster.

Meanwhile, Conley and Gasol are still assets, but aging ones who will return exponentially less every year they’re not moved. Conley is still playing well in his twelfth year, averaging 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game. And Gasol is averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in his eleventh season. It would behoove the Grizzlies to put feelers out there to any team that fancies themselves buyers in the lead up to the deadline. The time is now to embrace a rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. and get everything they can out of their star point guard and center.

In all likelihood, teams will only become more desperate as the season plays out. With the Philadelphia-Minnesota deal in the books, other teams are sure to follow suit. Considering the parity, every team in the Southwest Division should seriously consider making moves — after all, the division is still entirely up for grabs.

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NBA Daily: Role Players Vital to Pacers’ Success

In a star-heavy league, Jordan Hicks takes a look at why role players are so vital to the Pacers’ wins this season.

Jordan Hicks

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In today’s NBA, you have to have star players if you want to compete. Gone are the days of having one or two All-NBA caliber players take you deep into the playoffs. Nowadays, with as much talent as there is in the league, you need three or four. And for teams located in northern California, you might even need five.

But does this apply to everyone?

The Indiana Pacers have started the season off on a quiet note. They aren’t doing anything incredibly flashy, nor do they have any overt weaknesses. But they do have eight wins compared to only six losses. Three of those wins have come against teams with above .500 records, and all of their losses have come from the Bucks, 76ers, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Rockets – all good teams if you don’t want to look it up.

Most would consider Victor Oladipo a star. Sure, he’s only had one All-Star nod in his young career, but he’s proven on more than one occasion that he can be elite on both ends of the floor.
But apart from him, the Pacers are nothing but a mix of role players. But the role players on the roster aren’t just “good” – they seem to know their roles and execute them to a high degree.

To the casual fan, this would seem like it should be a given. But getting grown men with egos to consistently play their part isn’t as easy as it seems, and the Pacers organization might actually have something to work with. Sure, they are still a star (or two) away from actually competing for a title, but they were one game away from knocking off the former Eastern Conference Champions in last year’s playoffs, and, with any luck, could make it even further in the playoffs this year.

After the departure of Paul George, it was easy to read the writing on the wall. Most assumed that the Pacers would be headed to the lottery for a year or two while they worked their eventual rebuild. The franchise itself has consistently been considered one of the better small market organizations. With players like Reggie Miller, Danny Granger and George – it is easy to see why. They’ve only missed the playoffs five times in the last 20 years. But losing a mega-star like George usually contributes to a negative campaign the following season.

To the shock of the entire NBA, Oladipo led the Pacers to the five seed last year after posting a 48-34 record. Oladipo obviously played a huge part in this, but it was the help of the many role players, most of whom remained on the roster for this season, that likely made the biggest contribution to their positive season.

Through the beginning of the the 2018-19 campaign, the team statistic that sticks out the most for the Pacers is their opponent points per game. They are currently second in the league, allowing only 103 points a night behind only the Grizzlies. In comparison, both teams are also in the bottom two for pace. Controlling the flow of the game seems to be an important part of their game plan, and it is currently paying off as they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The list of role players making a significant contribution for the Pacers is quite long. In fact, over nine players are averaging more than 15 minutes a game. Keep in mind that eight of the nine players have a positive plus-minus, with Tyreke Evans being the sole player to fall under zero at -0.8. Let’s take a look at a few individuals and see what they may be doing to make a significant splash.

Oladipo is leading the team in scoring at 23.8 points per night, but he also leads the team in assist percentage at 24.4 percent and steal percentage at 27.8 percent. His impact on both ends of the floor is tremendous, and he is one of the few players in the NBA that leads his team in usage percentage and still maintains All-NBA level defense on the other end.

Domantas Sabonis is currently leading the team in rebound percentage at 18.3 percent. He is also second on the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game on a 68.8 effective field goal percentage. He’s doing all that coming off the bench.

Cory Joseph is currently posting the highest net rating on that team at 8.4. The Pacers also enjoy their lowest defensive rating, 98.7, when Joseph is on the court.

Myles Turner is starting to come into his own on the defensive end of the court. Currently posting 2.4 blocks a game, good for fourth in the league, his presence is being felt more and more at the rim. While his offensive game still needs to be polished, Turner has done a great job at amplifying his defensive position on the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is tied for second in scoring at 14.1 points a game. He’s doing so by shooting a blistering 51.7 percent from three on over four attempts a night. He’s second on the team in minutes and eighth in usage percentage, showing just how effective he can be off the ball. He boasts the third best plus-minus and fourth best net rating.

Plenty of other players could get nods here – guys like Thaddeus Young, Doug McDermott, Darren Collison and Evans. This just shows the talent night-in and night-out that the Pacers deploy.

The point of this article is not to say that the Pacers have a legitimate chance to win the East. They’ll likely finish outside the top four behind the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics. But the Pacers definitely have one thing going for them – a roster full of talented role players that, in today’s NBA, can certainly be positive when deployed correctly.

We are still very early in the season. Another star could potentially emerge mid-season for the Pacers or they could make a bold move at the All-Star break. It is very unlikely that Indiana brings home a championship this year or even the next. However, they are still a team to watch throughout the season. They are a well-coached squad and play an incredibly selfless style of basketball.

Who knows? Maybe they can turn heads in the postseason. But in the meantime, they for sure prove one thing.

Role players are vitally important to a team’s success.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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