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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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The Lakers Have Finally Stabilized

After a tough five-year period filled with loss and disappointment, the Lakers have finally put themselves back in a position to succeed.

Matt John

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On paper, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row would rarely be considered impressive, but for the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that’s suffered pretty much nothing but misery over the last half-decade, this season was a sign of progress.

Leading up to this past season, the previous four years overall were anything but easy on the Lakers. Besides consistently being one of the worst teams in the league, some of the team’s high lottery picks, such as D’Angelo Russell, did not pan out as well as they had hoped, and management baffled the fanbase when they signed both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to approximately $140 million combined over four years.

This season, things finally took a turn for the better. The team’s youngest players, particularly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball, started to yield positive results. The team’s new acquisitions, specifically Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and briefly Isaiah Thomas, made a notable impact on the season. Second-year head coach Luke Walton proved himself to be up for the job with improved personnel at his arsenal. That may have led to only 35 wins, but compared to the previous four seasons’ final results, 35 wins is about as good as the Lakers could have hoped for.

And it should only get better from here. The biggest positive is that the team’s long-term outlook is now the brightest its been since Dwight Howard skipped town in 2013. Their impending return to the glory days is still up in the air, but the Lakers can finally look forward to a promising future for two reasons.

Cap Flexibility

When the Lakers replaced Mitch Kupchak with Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to run the team, the two of them went to work right away. Pelinka and Johnson knew that if the Lakers were going to attain relevance again, they had to undo the franchise’s previous mistakes, even if it meant getting rid of some of their young talent.

It’s as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Making said omelet started with getting rid of their albatross contracts. The Lakers found a taker for Mozgov when they traded him to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, but that deal also required trading Russell. Mid-season, the Lakers found a taker for Jordan Clarkson when they traded him to Cleveland, but that deal also required trading Larry Nance Jr.

Losing Russell and Nance Jr, and to some degree Clarkson, may have been tough cheese to swallow, but with Mozgov and Clarkson off the payroll, the Lakers have a ton of cap space at their disposal. In fact, this summer, the Lakers have only $34.5 million in guaranteed contracts, which will be the lowest payroll in entire NBA. This is a much bigger deal now that it’s been in the past for one simple reason: Hardly any teams will have cap room this summer.

The NBA salary cap’s drastic rise in 2016 caused many teams to overshoot their mark over the past two off-seasons. Because of that, quite a few teams will be paying the luxury tax while others will do everything in their power to avoid the luxury tax. This means that only a select few teams will have cap room to add a free agent on a max deal. The Lakers, on the other hand, have the cap room to add two.

Their situation only gets better given the competition in free agency. Most of the other teams that have cap room are in rebuilding mode, so the Lakers shouldn’t expect many competitors in their chase for marquee free agents ie LeBron James and Paul George this summer. The only other team that will be competing for their services with available cap space is Philadelphia, who only has $44 million on payroll this summer. Houston will also be in the race, but they will have to get creative if they hope to add a max free agent this summer plus keep Chris Paul AND Clint Capela.

Even if the Lakers whiff on LeBron and George, it isn’t the end of the world. They can afford to re-sign Thomas and/or Caldwell-Pope to one-year deals worth over $10 million because hardly anyone else can do the same. Even if absolutely nothing goes their way this summer, they’ll have flexibility again next season. While having cap space does not automatically mean free agents will come to the Lakers’ door next season, it’s better to have money available to offer than having to spend it on Clarkson and Mozgov.

Promising Youth Movement

Many knew the Lakers’ young core was nothing to sneeze at, but for the first time since they’ve started their rebuild in 2013, their youth movement’s talent finally translated into wins. They didn’t do it all on their own, but nothing makes a team’s future brighter than their young players starting to reach their potential.

That starts with Brandon Ingram. Ingram was the textbook example of raw his rookie season, but his sophomore year, he started living up to his billing as the second overall pick in his draft. Across the board, he improved his numbers, but his shining moment came when the Lakers turned to him to run the point with Lonzo Ball out in late-January. During that stretch, the Duke alum averaged 18.4 points on 52 percent shooting including 46 percent from three, 5.4 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. Ingram struggled mightily with injuries after that, but his vast improvement should be very beneficial in the long run.

Then there was the biggest surprise of the season: Kyle Kuzma. When the deal was first agreed to, Kuzma was originally a throw-in when the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell for Lopez, but knowing Brooklyn’s luck, Kuzma may wind up being the best player in this deal. Kuzma wowed the fans at the Staples Center, as he averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the field. Since Kuzma is only 22 years old, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.

Then there’s the first lottery pick the Lakers drafted in their rebuild: Julius Randle. Randle got himself in the best shape of his life in preparation for this season, and it paid off on the court. Randle averaged career-highs in both point average (16.1) and field goal percentage (58 percent), but his best stretch came in February through March. In that time, Randle averaged 21.2 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Randle is a restricted free agent this year, but with the lack of available money this summer, his best option may be to stay in LA.

Finally, the biggest wild card of the Lakers’ young talent: Lonzo Ball. Ball was both injury-riddled and inconsistent his rookie year, but he showed flashes every now and again of the player his humble father said he would be. While he had his issues putting the ball in the bucket, Ball’s much-hyped passing translated in the NBA, averaging 7.2 assists a game, and his rebounding was terrific given his size, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds a game. The jury is still out on Ball, but he should be given a full season before anyone comes to judgment.

In short, the Lakers’ cap flexibility and promising youth movement give them stability that not many believed they would have had at the end of last season. Inadequacy and incompetence have plagued the Lakeshow for the past several years, but now that they’ve brought the right people aboard, they are now pointed in the right direction.

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NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man

Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.

In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.

Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.

“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”

In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.

He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.

“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”

It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.

“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”

Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.

While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.

“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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