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NBA AM: Teams Underachieving And Overachieving

Lang Greene looks at how each team has played early in the season, labeling the underachievers and overachievers.

Lang Greene

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Overachieving, Underachieving or Overhyped

The grueling 82-game NBA season is a marathon not a sprint, so there’s a strong chance the trends you believe are developing as we head into December will be completely flipped down the stretch. However, every season brings a host of overachievers, underachievers and teams that were overhyped entering the campaign.

Let’s take a look around the association at all 30 teams and analyze their current trajectory after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Atlanta Hawks
2015-16 record:
10-7
Status: Underachieving

The Hawks won 60 games last season and were expected to be among the top three teams in the Eastern Conference heading into the season. After a hot start, the team has lost six of its past nine games and is currently seventh in the East. Atlanta has been hit hard with injuries during the early going and still appear to be missing a nightly grit after the departure of DeMarre Carroll in free agency.

Boston Celtics
2015-16 record:
8-7
Status: Performing as expected

The Celtics are a team that wouldn’t surprise most observers if they flirt with 50 wins or end up with just 35 victories at season’s end. The team’s core group is young, which leads to bouts of inconsistency but there’s no denying the talent the franchise has on the roster. As of now, the team is positioned to make a run for the playoffs and that’s a reasonable expectation.

Brooklyn Nets
2015-16 record:
3-12
Status: Performing as expected

Gone are the title expectations that were dreamed about with Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett once in the fold. Joe Johnson is the last remnant of that roster and he will be hitting free agency next summer. The Nets are in rebuilding mode and performing how most expected them to be entering the season.

Charlotte Hornets
2015-16 record:
9-6
Status: Overachieving

Hornets head coach Steve Clifford earned a multi-year contract extension based on the team’s performance to start the season. What makes Charlotte’s start even more impressive is the fact forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been watching from the sidelines injured. Charlotte is benefiting from two of their forwards, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, having strong bounce-back campaigns. The Hornets appear to be headed in the right direction.

Chicago Bulls
2015-16 record:
9-4
Status: Performing as expected

Ushering in a new voice in the locker room is always a tricky terrain to navigate; however, the Bulls have looked strong to start under new head coach Fred Hoiberg. The team is 6-3 versus teams with a winning record and the squad suffered little moving longtime starting Joakim Noah to a bench role.

Cleveland Cavaliers
2015-16 record:
11-4
Status: Performing as expected

The Cavaliers are right where they expected to be, at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The team should be boosted by the return of All-Star guard Kyrie Irving in the next month and forward Kevin Love finally looks comfortable. Of course, LeBron James is still putting up monster numbers. Cleveland will be a tough out come playoff time.

Dallas Mavericks
2015-16 record:
9-7
Status: Overachieving

The Mavericks have responded well after a rough summer that saw them lose the commitment of center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. But the team responded by trading for rugged center Zaza Pachulia and secured former All-Star Deron Williams after he parted ways with Brooklyn. There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, but Dallas appears poised to be in the playoff mix down the stretch.

Denver Nuggets
2015-16 record:
6-9
Status: Overachieving

The Nuggets won just 30 games last season, but featured veterans Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler. Lawson is now in Houston (more on this later), while Chandler has yet to see action this season due to a hip injury. But the team is on pace to surpass last season’s win mark with the arrival of talented rookie Emmanuel Mudiay and the reemergence of veteran forward Danilo Gallinari.

Detroit Pistons
2015-16 record:
8-7
Status: Overachieving

The Pistons have cooled off after a hot start, but the play of Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson has the club above .500 and relevant again in the Eastern Conference (for the time being).

Golden State Warriors
2015-16 record:
16-0
Status: Performing as expected

This is what you expect from a defending champion, a take no prisoners attitude. The Warriors are running roughshod through the league and, barring any serious injuries, should make a run at the regular season win record (72) once it’s all said and done.

Houston Rockets
2015-16 record:
5-10
Status: Underachieving

The Rockets are in a tailspin. Center Dwight Howard is still working his way back from injury, All-Star James Harden started the season in a horrendous shooting slump, Kevin McHale was fired and Ty Lawson has failed to live up to expectations as the team’s floor general. Houston is struggling.

Indiana Pacers
2015-16 record:
9-5
Status: Overachieving

The Pacers took huge risks before the season. With David West and Roy Hibbert gone from their once deep interior, the team stated their plans to play Paul George at power forward. The franchise also signed prolific scorer Monta Ellis in free agency and vowed to play at a faster pace. It appears to be working out for Indiana, but can they sustain this success?

Los Angeles Clippers
2015-16 record:
7-8
Status: Underachieving

For a team that entered the season with title aspirations, the Clippers appear lost. Offseason acquisitions Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce haven’t provided the return on investment. All-Star point guard Chris Paul has spent time on the shelf due to injury. DeAndre Jordan hasn’t shown much in the way of improving his offensive involvement. If it wasn’t for the continued improvement of forward Blake Griffin, the Clippers would be in deep trouble.

Los Angeles Lakers
2015-16 record:
2-12
Status: Performing as expected

This is about where you expected Los Angeles to be, but in a more competitive position. Instead, future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant appears to be completely shot and the team is 0-10 when opposing teams score 100 points or more. Ultimately, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel for Lakers fans, but right now there isn’t a flicker on the horizon.

Memphis Grizzlies
2015-16 record:
9-7
Status: Underachieving

While we currently classify Memphis as underachieving, the team has been playing spirited basketball as of late and appear to be finding a rhythm. The trade for veteran guard Mario Chalmers has given the team a much needed offensive spark off the bench.

Miami HEAT
2015-16 record:
9-5
Status: Performing as expected

The post LeBron James era hasn’t been as tough for the franchise, as most expected. With that, the team appears headed toward a playoff berth after a one-year absence.

Milwaukee Bucks
2015-16 record:
6-9
Status: Underachieving

More was expected from this Bucks unit than what they’ve shown thus far. The team invested big money in free agency to retain Khris Middleton and secure Greg Monroe. For a team sitting under .500, this isn’t the return that was expected.

Minnesota Timberwolves
2015-16 record:
7-8
Status: Overachieving

Andrew Wiggins looks like a future star. Karl-Anthony Towns appears to be a strong interior building block. The veteran presence of Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller has paid dividends. Minnesota’s young core appears to be on the verge of making some noise in the next two or three years.

New Orleans Pelicans
2015-16 record:
4-11
Status: Underachieving

For a team that won 45 games last season and reached the playoffs, the Pelicans have been a disappointment. Yes, there has been a plethora of injuries. But remember, departed head coach Monty Williams flirted with 50 wins last season and didn’t have Anthony Davis at his disposal for 16 games. Alvin Gentry may prove to be the better long-nterm fit, but he’s gotten off to a rocky start.

New York Knicks
2015-16 record:
8-8
Status: Overachieving

For a guy booed relentlessly on draft night, Kristaps Porzingis has been a huge reason for the Knicks’ strong start to the season.

Oklahoma City Thunder
2015-16 record:
10-6
Status: Performing as expected

Although former MVP Kevin Durant has missed time, the Thunder are right in the thick of things at the top of the Western Conference. All-Star guard Russell Westbrook is putting up an MVP-caliber season of his own and new head coach Billy Donovan seemingly has the buy-in of his troops.

Orlando Magic
2015-16 record:
7-8
Status: Performing as expected

The Magic are slowly becoming more relevant after a patient rebuild following Dwight Howard’s departure years ago. The team is still missing a true star, but the franchise has plenty of young assets to target someone via trade.

Philadelphia 76ers
2015-16 record:
0-16
Status: Underachieving

Some would argue the Sixers are performing right along with expectations. But at 0-16, we can’t fully endorse that logic. The team should have at least two or three wins on the table at this point.

Phoenix Suns
2015-16 record:
7-8
Status: Performing as expected

The team’s exciting backcourt, which consists of Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe, continues to put up gaudy night statistics. However, it will be the development of young supporting cast members such as T.J. Warren and Alex Len that will ultimately determine how far this franchise can go this season.

Portland Trail Blazers
2015-16 record:
6-10
Status: Overachieving

For a team that lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Arron Afflalo during the offseason, the Blazers have held it together – relatively speaking. Talented guard Damian Lillard could make a run at a scoring title and the emergence of C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee have been pleasant surprises.

Sacramento Kings
2015-16 record:
6-10
Status: Performing as expected

Rajon Rondo is reestablishing himself as one of the league’s better playmakers and DeMarcus Cousins’ game continues to evolve. While a playoff berth may not be in order, the Kings look more cohesive on the floor.

San Antonio Spurs
2015-16 record:
12-3
Status: Performing as expected

Father Time is undefeated when dealing with athletes on a one-on-one basis, but as a collective unit the old man Spurs continue to win. LaMarcus Aldridge is still adjusting to his new environment, but the team is still on pace to win 65 contests.

Toronto Raptors
2015-16 record:
10-6
Status: Performing as expected

The question surrounding the Raptors isn’t whether the team can reach the playoffs. They’ve overcome that hurdle. The question surrounding the Raptors is whether they have the “it” factor to advance past the first round of the festivities.

Utah Jazz
2015-16 record:
7-7
Status: Performing as expected

The Jazz slow the game down and play hard-nosed defense, which is the foundation for success. The team is young and getting better. Not sure if we’re ready to make a playoff prediction, but the future is getting brighter in Utah.

Washington Wizards
2015-16 record:
6-6
Status: Underachieving

This is a Wizards team that should make a run at 50 wins this season – on paper. Of course there’s still time, but the unit has been wildly inconsistent to start the season and could easily find itself fighting for its playoff life come April.

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NBA Daily: Andrew Wiggins Clicking in Ryan Saunders’ System

We’ve seen a different Andrew Wiggins this season, one more aggressive and confident than ever before. Douglas Farmer examines what has enabled those changes and what it could mean for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Douglas Farmer

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As the calendar flipped from 2018 to 2019, Andrew Wiggins had dismissed Minnesota Timberwolves fans with profanity.

As he closed out the year with just five of 12 free throws made, in a three-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Minnesota and Target Center faithful reigned boos down on the former top pick. As far as Wiggins was concerned, the boos revealed those fans’ true character.

But, just 11 games into the 2019-20 season, those same fans have showered Wiggins with praise on a semi-regular basis. When he went for 40 points in an overtime victory against the Golden State Warriors on Friday, Wiggins’ postgame interview was interrupted by their cheers, a moment he openly relished. Wednesday’s blowout of the San Antonio Spurs was more of the same, capped off with a standing ovation.

Wiggins’ unexpected development this season, particularly in the last five games, is certainly fraught with the “small sample size” qualifier and concerns of sustainability. In fact, that binary change from the crowd may be the most surprising part of it all.

But, so far, Wiggins has looked like a truly transformed player and, over the last five games, has reversed course to become a crowd favorite, a clutch player and a decent distributor. Even Timberwolves’ head coach Ryan Saunders couldn’t have seen such a drastic change coming so quickly.

To start the season, Wiggins missed his first 13 attempts from beyond the arc, including six to start Minnesota’s home opener against the Miami HEAT. If the boos hadn’t come, it was only because the Timberwolves had stayed close to Miami in spite of Wiggins.

Then he hit a 3 off a cross-court pass from Robert Covington.

And, with that, the floodgates broke open. In the next few minutes, Wiggins hit another three shots from deep to put the HEAT away, the second game he closed for Minnesota despite an otherwise rough shooting night.

“I’m glad he stuck to the shot values,” Saunders said after the game. “I told him that in the locker room.”

“We’ll continue to say that. He was big. I’d like to hit threes earlier in the game, too, and in the middle, instead of just saving them for the end, but I’ll take them.”

Even with the clutch barrage, Wiggins’ early-season shooting didn’t improve much. Through the Timberwolves’ first six games, he was only 13-of-39 from deep and shooting 43.2 percent from the field, averaging 21.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.

But Wiggins was, at least, still buying into Saunders’ spacing system.

Saunders’ system has worked to Wiggins advantage this season in that it has created chances for him to drive to the basket, one of his few strengths in previous seasons. With a big, usually Karl Anthony-Towns, on the perimeter, there is plenty of space available for Wiggins to operate in the paint.

In fact, its often Towns setting up Wiggins for such drives.

Wiggins had his struggles with the Timberwolves’ new up-tempo style, dump-offs like this while he cuts to the basket was never one of them. Rather, it was the outside aspect that plagued him.

Minnesota’s preseason featured multiple, awkward sequences of elongated stepbacks, trying to turn long 2s into 3s. Once the season commenced, Wiggins’ teammates were creating open looks, but he just simply couldn’t hit them. But, in shooting from deep, even if missing, Wiggins was taking a positive step in his growth.

“It’s tough because it is a complete change in system and philosophy from what he has been used to,” Saunders told Basketball Insiders. “Not to say that he was ever wrong by any means, but it’s how we’re going to do things moving forward. 

“He has to break habits, I guess,” Saunders said. “Everybody knows how hard it is to break a habit. He has to break habits. That’s why I do preach patience.”

Wiggins hasn’t completely broken his worst habit, an over-reliance on the mid-range jumper, but he has distinctly cut back on it. Last season, more than 30 percent of Wiggins’ shots came further than 10 feet from the hoop but short of the three-point arc, but he made only 33.6 percent of them.

Through 11 games this season, Wiggins has taken only 20 percent of such shots, while his percentage on them has ticked up to 39.1 percent. He has changed his game, at least to a degree, and it has added some variety to his offense.

Rather than just pulling up from mid-range, Wiggins now more often bodies a defender into the post in transition.

Or he pulls up from deep.

Or he knocks it down out of the corner.

Those are the tenets of Saunders’ offense, and in the last five games, Wiggins has embraced them to the tune of 31.6 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from deep.

“He’s going to have a very good year,” Saunders said. “It’s going to take time for all of it to come together with our emphasis and changing of systems, but he is going to have a good year.”

Saunders said that after Wiggins lifted them over Miami, back when he was still struggling to find consistency in Saunders’ new offensive. But Saunders preached patience. And, while he didn’t anticipate Wiggins exploding just two weeks later, nor that said explosion would come without a true point guard on the active roster — for much of Wiggins’ hot streak, Jeff Teague has been sidelined by illness while Shabazz Napier has been working through a hamstring injury — he believed in him.

With time, Wiggins has broken through with 88 fourth-quarter points this season, highlighted by 35 in clutch situations while shooting 13-of-21 from the field and 4-of-8 from deep. He’s delivered the Timberwolves four of their wins, while he has risen to the occasion in multiple late-game situations.

Wiggins has also dished out at least five assists in five straight games, a rarity in seasons past.

It took four coaches, six seasons and countless mid-range jumpers, but Wiggins has been embraced by fans and teammates like never before. But, perhaps all he needed was time, some patience from others and the ball in his hands.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Pacific Division

Surprises can be disappointing, but can disappointments be surprising? Basketball Insiders looks at three unexpectedly slow starts within the Pacific Division.

Ben Nadeau

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When Basketball Insiders’ writers were tasked with discerning the most unexpected surprises of the early season aughts, the Pacific Division couldn’t hold its own metaphorical tongue. As a result, most of the chosen entries acted instead like a stern parent trying to ground a rule-foregoing child — well, we’re not upset, we’re just surprisingly disappointed, you know?

Two weeks later, it’s no longer a shock as to why the Golden State Warriors remain poor — injuries, shooting their championship banners into space, etc. — or how the Sacramento Kings haven’t made new in-roads toward reclaiming their spot as popular water cooler fodder — but it also makes this piece, an article about disappointments, a bit trickier to navigate.

Still, there are silver linings around every corner and these frustrations may not be so forever — it’s not even time to cut the Thanksgiving turkey, after all. With a little readjustment, health and new contributions, these players and teams can stop disappointing their imaginary parents and get back on the path toward NBA bliss.

The Rejuvenation of Marquese Chriss Was A Grift

During the preseason, Marquese Chriss — noted dunker-at-times — jumped and scored a couple of easy buckets against the Los Angeles Lakers, enough, presumably, for the internet to announce his rearrival. Quick to point fingers, the Phoenix Suns took heat for an inability to train up the athletic prospect, while the Golden State Warriors were praised for finding another diamond in the rough. Hell, even Draymond Green got in on the action.

“He’s been in some pretty tough situations,” Green told Wes Goldberg of The Mercury News. “No one ever blames the situation, though. It’s always the kid. No one ever blames these s—ty franchises. They always want to blame the kid. It’s not always the kid’s fault.

“. . . So I’m happy he’s got another opportunity to show what he can really do. Because he’s a prime example.”

And yet, through 12 games, Chriss has done next-to-nothing. Even with the glut of injuries the Warriors have seen already — particularly so to Kevon Looney and Green — the youngster has failed to leave his mark. With 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds, on a team that’s 2-10, and over just 15 minutes per contest — no such resurrection has been found. Of course, that doesn’t mean Green was wrong about those ready to write off talented athletes at a moment’s notice. It does, however, suggest that Chriss is nowhere near an ascendancy.

Build A Bridge, Get Over It

Last summer, the Phoenix Suns made Mikal Bridges the No. 10 overall pick in hopes of adding a defensive punch that made him a staple at Villanova. Instead, now in the midst of an unexpectedly stellar team start, it’s Bridges’ offense that has held him back. The 23-year-old played all 82 games for the Suns in 2018-19, tallying averages of 8.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists over 29.5 minutes per contest. This time around, however, Bridges has seen his minutes drop by one-third and he remains the franchise’s biggest question mark moving forward.

In short, Bridges has little-to-no range and, frankly, it’s getting worse. As a rookie, just over half (55.6 percent) of Bridges’ shots were three-pointers — a distance that he converted on at a 33.5 percent clip. Through the first 10 games of 2019-20, the former Wildcat has struggled from deep and sits at 20 percent on just 1.5 attempts per game. From 0-to-3 feet, Bridges has seen his shot tendencies jump from 27.7 to 45.2 percent between seasons. Moreover, he’s yet to make a single shot between 10 feet and the three-point line.

With the Suns’ defensive rating currently in the middle of the pack, they’ve been less inclined to play Bridges. Given Ricky Rubio’s deficiencies as a reliable three-point shooter, forcing Bridges into the lineup gets even harder. Utilizing one offensive weapon without a deep threat is a choice (particularly so when it’s of Rubio’s playmaking variety), but two at once becomes an ignored handicap.

Furthermore, Phoenix has officially become a modern, deep-shooting outfit and only seven other franchises have converted on more three-pointers so far this season. So, if you can’t shoot three-pointers, the Suns may have significantly less room than usual — sorry, Mikal!

Krusing for Kuzma

When the Los Angeles Lakers made their long-awaited splash for Anthony Davis, they only had one major goal in mind: Holding onto Kyle Kuzma.

Kuzma, 24, was untouchable throughout negotiations, and the Lakers often touted him as a potential third star alongside LeBron James and a would-be Davis. Troubled by a preseason ankle ailment, it’s been slow-goings for Kuzma upon his return to the hardwood. Through seven games, the forward has averaged just 13.7 points and 4.1 rebounds on 28 percent from three-point range. Stunningly, Kuzma has notched 0.3 assists to 1.5 turnovers per game too, further spotlighting the difficulty of finding his place as a demoted third option.

Naturally, the third-year up-and-comer will need some time to readjust — both from the injury and his new teammates — but how much?

Luckily, thanks in part to strong contributions from Dwight Howard, Danny Green and others, the Lakers haven’t needed Kuzma to find his footing right away. At 9-2, Los Angeles has exceeded all expectations thus far — but one beast still looms: minutes. Before Wednesday’s game, James and Davis ranked as No. 9 and No. 10 in the league with 35.3 minutes each per game. Given Davis’ extensive injury history and the miles on James’ body that type of allocation is not sustainable — especially not if the Lakers want to come out of the battle-tested Western Conference in May. If Los Angeles wants to rest its two superstars without the frequent worry of falling behind or surrendering leads, that onus falls almost exclusively on a Kuzma-centered glow-up.

The Lakers are championship contenders already, but they won’t reach their highest gear until Kuzma does — so fingers crossed.

Kuzma, Bridges and Chriss all entered the season with heightened expectations — both on a large and small scale — as they appeared key to future successes. Early on, that hasn’t been the case at all. If it’s any consolation, their respective franchises haven’t been floundering without them — or at all — so there’s plenty of breathing room between now and April. Once held as a division with an overabundance of talent is suddenly down to just three viable postseason teams.

While Chriss may be stuck in no man’s land out in Golden State, Kuzma and Bridges have the talent to turn things around — their teams will certainly depend on it.

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NBA Daily: Beilein Ball Resonating With Confident Cavaliers

Why are the Cleveland Cavaliers off to a better start than many had anticipated? Spencer Davies takes an in-depth look at a few of the reasons.

Spencer Davies

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After rolling the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden to the tune of a 108-87 final score, it wasn’t the Cleveland Cavaliers who received praise.

Instead, local and national pundits destroyed the defeated franchise that got blown out on its home floor by a “hapless” rebuilding team. Of course, when you play in such a sizable market, haven’t had real success in nearly a decade and put forth an unacceptable effort for your fans, that should be expected.

But maybe, just maybe, the Cavaliers shouldn’t be considered as “directionless” as some may have thought before the season started. Maybe, just maybe, this is a team that has heard the noise and wants to stick it to those who have laughed. And maybe, just maybe, other teams shouldn’t take them so lightly because of that.

At the 10-game mark of the current campaign, Cleveland has a 4-6 record. With a pair of victories at home and on the road, the efforts have stayed consistent and the resilience has remained — regardless of where the games have been played. There’s been a game-to-game progression, with head coach John Beilein taking out small victories from each one.

For an organization reinventing itself with a new coaching staff, this kind of competitive start is welcomed. The question to ask is whether or not it is sustainable to continue at this pace, which if accomplished would result somewhere around a 30-win year.

That is looking ahead, though. Staying in the now, the Cavaliers are oozing with confidence and having fun — and there are many reasons why.

Leaders Lead

Raise your hand if you thought Tristan Thompson would Cleveland’s top two-way player before the season started. Bueller?

In all honesty, it wouldn’t have been an implausible prediction; few expected *this* kind of production, however. Beilein is running his offense through Thompson and Kevin Love, his veteran big men, and they’ve bought in. They are at the peak of the team list in passes made and top three in assists.

While Thompson and Love dominate the two-man game on their own, it’s the impact they make on the others that stands out. Of the nine teammates they’ve shared the court with, eight of them have a plus-8.7 net rating or higher, per NBA.com. Jordan Clarkson is the only player with a negative net — and even if that’s the case, his true shooting percentage is a blazing 72.1 percent playing with them.

Each member of the Cavaliers’ championship frontcourt duo brings something different.

Love is more of your stretch-four type that spreads the floor and positions himself on the block. He’s been a little off from distance and turning the ball over more than usual, but his 51.7 percent conversion rate in post-up situations is good for the best in the NBA (min. 40 possessions). Defensively, he’s been outstanding guarding the roll man in pick-and-roll situations. That whole gobbling-up-defensive-rebounds thing is important, too.

Thompson is the middle man who has his back to the basket, hands off and creates for others by using his body like a brick wall — in fact, he is averaging 5.6 screens and 12.3 points created off of those per game, both ranking in the league’s top five. For the majority of his career, he has been a cleanup man on the offensive side and a reliable presence as a defender. Maintaining that reputation, he’s taken his game to new heights thus far.

Over the last two summers, Thompson has put an emphasis on fine-tuning his handle. We’re seeing that work pay off in games. Whether it’s been in isolation situations or even running the break, he’s taken good care of the basketball and made things happen.

As a scorer, the touch on his jump hook is as impressive as anybody’s. And of course, we can’t gloss over the fact that he’s knocked down three triples and recorded the first multi-three game of his career in Philadelphia.

With these two playing at the level they have, the trade chatter will only get louder as the days pass. Why wouldn’t it? Thompson is in a contract year making strides we’ve never seen before, and Love is an All-Star big man who can provide size and spacing — a commodity that’s currently scarce in the market — to a team trying to add that missing piece. It’s completely feasible that Cleveland’s front office hears an offer it can’t refuse and goes that route, too.

Be that as it may, keeping them around might be the smartest play. Nobody likes to be in basketball purgatory, but what some seem to forget about a rebuild is there has to be a voice in the locker room that knows the ins and outs of the league. Going full speed ahead with guys who have little experience and nobody to lean on won’t help them learn. It’s counterproductive to what you’re trying to accomplish — giving valuable minutes to guys who haven’t had much time at this level and showing them hands-on what it takes to win.

The importance of that winning feeling for development cannot be understated. Thompson and Love have stepped up as those vocal leaders who have essentially played the player-coach role in all of this. Beilein knew he would have to count on that as even he makes his transition to the NBA, and they’ve delivered on that promise.

A postgame quote by rookie guard Kevin Porter Jr. after a win in Washington says it all.

“Without them, we wouldn’t win a single game,” Porter said. “They’re our head of the snake and they just keep us all level-headed… They just pave the way for all of us.”

Running With The Young Bull

Ask Collin Sexton how much a year of NBA experience can do for you. At this point last November, there were many — including teammates — piling onto the former Alabama guard for a plethora of reasons. He was taking ill-advised shots, driving into trees without finishing and getting minced by nearly everyone he was tasked with defending. There was pressure to be ready with a mixed roster of leftover glory and young guys on their second or third chances — and he wasn’t quite there.

Fast-forward to now, carrying over momentum from the second half of his rookie season, and Sexton’s play has indicated that a sophomore surge may be in store in lieu of the dreaded common slump. Combine the fact that his work ethic is second to none and Beilein’s staff has put him in a position to succeed, and that’s a recipe for success.

Let’s start with the defensive end, an area Sexton struggled mightily with during his first year. Beilein believes he’s grasping his assignments’ tendencies better, along with the opponents’ different styles of play. Having once gone below screens in pick-and-roll situations frequently before, the Cavaliers are having him rather fight through and go over them now, at times denying handoffs and causing disruption to the ball-handler.

Sexton put on muscle this summer to adhere to said strategy, and he’s gotten results from it. Using NBA.com’s matchup data, he has held his opponents he’s guarded for at least three minutes to 38.7 percent from the field. Among those assignments were All-Star guards Kemba Walker and Bradley Beal, who combined to shoot 2-for-9 from the field. In addition, Knicks rookie RJ Barrett turned it over three times and was held scoreless by the feisty 20-year-old.

Though he’s done well closing out on shooters, he still needs work defending handoffs. Still, the drive and determination of Sexton won’t allow him to back down from any challenge — and that’s the kind of attitude it takes to become a reliable defender in the NBA.

Switching gears to offense, Sexton hasn’t lost an ounce of aggressiveness, he’s just smarter about it. Slowly, but surely, he’s cutting down those overdrives where he puts himself in no man’s land, turns it over and gift wraps points going the other way, occurrences that Beilein refers to as 50/50 plays.

By letting the game come to him, Sexton is understanding the opportunities that are presented by moving without the ball and thriving off his dual-threat game. His 1.58 points per possession average on spot-ups is good for No. 1 in The Association (min. two possessions), so opponents are going to close out hard when he’s taking threes. Using his quickness, he’s a slight pump fake away from zooming into the paint and either finishing or finding a teammate.

Remember those long twos last season? Those are essentially gone. Sexton is much more cognizant of his shot selection and, now that he’s positioned on the elbow, can operate more smoothly within a free-flowing system. It’s definitely worth mentioning his growth on fastbreaks, too, scenarios in which he used to often outrun himself and get into trouble. He’s still the same blur of speed — just more aware of his surroundings.

Sometimes, as the coach has said before, doing less is more.

Cleveland is finding out the type of guard he is — a point guard who scores or a scorer who can be a point guard. What we’re witnessing suggests the latter and, unlike what his critics say, that’s just fine. Beilein has been in Sexton’s ear about being an efficient player, so regardless of his assist count at face value — he’s created the fourth-most points on the team, by the way — the Young Bull has answered the bell.

A Wolf Comes In For Backup

Jordan Clarkson is one of the most dependable scorers in the NBA. Beilein was an instant fan of Clarkson from the onset of training camp. He’s a player who hunts and will be aggressive in everything he does on the floor, which is a “wolf mentality” according to the Cavaliers’ coach.

You wouldn’t think it by the reaction he gets on social media, which seems a little unfair when you dig deeper into what he brings to the table. Clarkson has been a streaky guy for the majority of his career, but the work he’s put in to get better and contribute in multiple facets should be commended.

Did you know Clarkson’s 51 potential assists are the second-most on the team behind Darius Garland? According to Cleaning The Glass, he has a 17.9 assist percentage.

How about his average of 0.396 points per touch leading Cleveland far-and-away, just like his 6.4 points per drive? Everyone needs that guy who can go out and get a bucket — and that’s exactly what Clarkson does.

Yes, he can be a bit overzealous at times and a gambler on the defensive end — and it can hurt — but that’s in the nature of a wolf. He’s made more good decisions than bad, rarely turns the ball over and paces a second unit that desperately needs a boost in the offense department.

With the bench, Matthew Dellavedova needs to be better. Larry Nance Jr. has improved as a shooter, yet needs to take the defensive challenge more consistently. Porter is figuring out his niche. All of this probably goes smoother if John Henson or Ante Zizic reenter the mix to stop everybody from playing up a position.

While Garland has shown flashes of brilliance, he is still finding his footing as Sexton had to last year, and Cedi Osman has to be more reliable on both ends.

There’s no question that there’s work to be done. Being in the close games that they’ve been in, executing in crucial situations has to be a focus.

But Cleveland is jelling as well as it ever has as one cohesive, structured group. The old sports cliche is you win as a team and lose as a team, but that saying couldn’t be truer in this case.

Touches are about equal all-around. The ball is moving. There hasn’t been a game yet where the outcome has been decided before the fourth quarter, a normal staple of rebuilding organizations that take bumps and bruises.

Are 10 games enough of a sample size to determine what’ll happen in the next 72? Probably not.

Is it fair to say it gives a glimpse of what the team’s identity could look like down the road? Most definitely.

Beilein Ball is only in its beginning stages.

Cleveland is eager to find out what the next step looks like.

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