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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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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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