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NBA PM: LeBron James’ Quest for Cleveland’s First Title

A look at LeBron James’ quest to bring Cleveland their first major sports title in 52 years.

Cody Taylor

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LeBron James warned all of us two summers ago. Upon returning home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, James cautioned fans in his letter to Sports Illustrated that he wasn’t promising a championship. He remained realistic in his approach, and knew just how hard it would be to deliver the Cavaliers’ first championship.

James’ quest to deliver that elusive title looked at times to be extremely difficult. During the two years since James penned that infamous letter, the Golden State Warriors cemented themselves as the team to beat in the NBA. Stephen Curry transformed into arguably the best offensive player in the game. Klay Thompson took on the role as Curry’s sidekick to form one of the best backcourts in the league, and Draymond Green emerged as one of game’s most versatile players.

Cleveland’s hopes of returning to greatness with James coming back home were at an all-time high heading into the 2014-15 season. Shortly after James officially signed with the Cavaliers, the team pulled off the blockbuster trade to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Parting ways with the No. 1 overall pick in Andrew Wiggins seemed like a lot to give up, but if it meant Love would help bring a title to Cleveland, it would be worth it.

But when the Cavaliers began James’ first season back with a 19-20 start, it seemed a bit premature to believe Cleveland could win any sort of title soon. Questions were beginning to be raised about the team. When the best player on the planet states his desire to bring his hometown a championship – and things don’t go his way – we pay attention.

It almost seemed as though James and the Cavaliers were cursed. After all, the city had seen its fair share of bad luck. As James noted himself last night, “You could look back to the Earnest Byner fumble, [John] Elway going 99 yards, to Jose Mesa not being able to close out in the bottom of the ninth to the Cavs went to The Finals – I was on that team – in 2007, us getting swept, and then last year us losing 4-2.”

*****

In the midst of the Cavaliers’ rough start to the 2014-15 season, the team executed a trade to acquire J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks, and in a separate trade also picked up Timofey Mozgov. James revealed last night in his post-game press conference that Smith was a “throw-in” player in the deal.

The Cavaliers picked up a shooting threat in Smith, a great defender in Shumpert and a big man in Mozgov. In Smith’s second game with the Cavaliers, he led the team in scoring after dropping 27 points on those same Warriors that the Cavaliers would eventually battle in the Finals. While Smith might have been a throw-in player by the Knicks, he became arguably the most important player the team acquired in those two trades.

“It goes without saying,” James said last season of Smith’s impact to the team. “Sometimes what’s known doesn’t need to be said. He comes in with a defensive mindset for one. He plays all of the two-guards in our league. Then he just makes the right plays offensively. If he’s got a shot, he takes it; if not, he swings it. He continues to get everyone involved, but obviously his shooting ability definitely helps our team as far as space and it’s a very key component for us.”

Shortly after acquiring those three players, the Cavaliers went on to finish the rest of the regular season by compiling a 34-9 record. The team looked to be well on their way to the NBA Finals – James’ fifth-straight Finals appearance, and the franchise’s first since 2007. Of course, we know how that story ended: with the Warriors eliminating the Cavaliers in six games.

*****

The Cavaliers seemed destined to return to the Finals again this season. They were the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference virtually for the entire season and were the clear-cut favorites to advance out of the East. Their path through the playoffs offered little resistance as they suffered just two losses prior to the Finals (against the Toronto Raptors).

This was after the team opted to fire head coach David Blatt. It’s not often that a team in first place in its conference makes a coaching change during the middle of the season. But the reported turmoil between Blatt and James proved to be too much for the organization and Tyronn Lue was promoted to take over and quickly learned to be a head coach.

While the Cavaliers were adjusting to a new head coach, the Warriors were full-steam ahead to the best record in regular-season history. The Warriors had virtually no distractions during their historic run. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were mired in drama and were answering questions if their first-time head coach would be able to lead the team to a championship.

Players were sending cryptic tweets. James removed “The Land” from his Twitter bio and unfollowed the Cavs at one point. Kevin Love was involved in several trade rumors and was cropped out of a team photo. There were reports of players clashing in the locker room. Despite everything, James warned us in his letter that his patience would get tested and, by all indications, it was certainly tested and then some.

*****

There were no excuses for the Cavaliers this year. They were at full strength, unlike last year when they were missing two of their top players in Love and Kyrie Irving in the Finals. They played nearly the minimum amount of games through the Eastern Conference and were about as healthy as a team can be heading into June.

All indications pointed to a more competitive series this year between the Warriors and Cavaliers. With Love and Irving in the mix, the Cavaliers were going to seriously challenge the Warriors this year. James proved last season that one player can only take a team so far in a playoff series. He would need other players to step up and help him.

Through the first four games of the series, it was anything but competitive. The Warriors had stormed out to a 3-1 series lead after taking Game 4 in Cleveland. But, something happened that would alter the series in favor of the Cavaliers. James and Draymond Green were involved in an altercation late in Game 4 that saw Green take a swipe at James near his groin. The NBA reacted and assessed Green a flagrant foul, which in turn suspended him for Game 5.

It seems as though something was said that fired up James to a level that we hadn’t seen yet this postseason. During the scuffle, James said that he took offense to some of the things that Green said. The motivation that fired up James was likely comments made by Klay Thompson regarding the incident between James and Green.

“I saw them barking at each other, but it’s nothing — I mean, guys talk trash in this league all the time,” Thompson told reporters. “I’m just kind of shocked some guys take it so personal (laughing). It’s like, I mean, you know, it’s a man’s league and I’ve heard a lot of bad things on that court, but at the end of the day it stays on the court. We’re all competitive people. I mean, trash talk is a part of the game in basketball. It’s a part of any sport, especially this competitive.

“I don’t know how [James] feels. But obviously people have feelings and people’s feelings get hurt even if they’re called a bad word. I guess his feelings just got hurt. I mean, we’ve all been called plenty of bad words on the basketball court before. Some guys just react to it differently. All I can say for myself individually, I just try to ignore it or just let it fuel the fire, but I don’t carry it with me when the job is done.”

This was followed by Marreese Speights tweeting out a baby bottle emoji. Following those comments, James came out and dropped two of the best Finals performances that we’ve ever seen. In Games 5 and 6, James combined for 82 points, 24 rebounds, 18 assists, seven steals and six blocks, while shooting 56 percent from the field. James, a 31 percent three-point shooter during the regular season, knocked down 7-of-14 shots from three-point range during those two games.

Of course, that set the scene for James and an encore performance in Game 7. While he didn’t score at least 40 points for the third-straight game, he did record 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocks and two steals to become just the third player in history to have a triple-double in a Finals Game 7. He is now tied for second place all-time for most Finals MVP awards, and won this season’s trophy unanimously.

*****

When LeBron James is done playing basketball and settled into retirement, this Finals performance will be what’s remembered most. His first championship with the Miami HEAT will be talked about to some degree since it was his first ring, but what he was able to accomplish this season will go down as one of the best Finals performances in history.

James will be remembered most for bringing the Cleveland Cavaliers their first championship in franchise history. He’ll be remembered for ending a 52-year major sports championship drought. He’ll be remembered for staging the biggest comeback in Finals history after trailing 3-1, and he’ll also be remembered for ending the Warriors’ chance at clinching the best season in NBA history.

James will eventually have a statue in front of Quicken Loans Arena and will go down as one of the best players to ever lace ’em up. In the meantime, we remember James for delivering on one of the greatest vows in NBA history.

“I came back for a reason,” James said. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and I knew if I had to — when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about.”

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17

Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.

As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.

 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.

The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.

 Andre Roberson

There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.

Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.

 Kevin Durant

Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.

How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.

 Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.

Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.

 Eric Bledsoe

Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.

Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.

 Anthony Davis

Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.

Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.

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Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets

The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.

Moke Hamilton

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It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.

Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.

Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”

After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.

The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.

“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.

“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”

Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.

Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.

“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.

“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”

It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.

When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.

In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.

As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.

Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.

Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.

“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.

“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”

Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.

“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.

But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.

“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.

With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.

Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.

But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.

That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.

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