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NBA Saturday: Cleveland Cavaliers Making Big Strides

The Cavaliers have made huge strides and won six straight games, so perhaps there’s no need to panic after all.

Alex Kennedy

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Which NBA players seem poised to make their first All-Star appearance this season? Alex Kennedy, Steve Kyler, Jessica Camerato, Eric Pincus and Joel Brigham discuss in this video.

Cavaliers Making Big Strides

Less than two weeks ago, the basketball world was panicking about the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team that everyone expected to dominate the Eastern Conference was just 5-7 and in the midst of a four-game losing streak that caused them to drop in the standings (and nearly out of the playoff picture).

Cleveland was clearly struggling, particularly on the defensive end (ranking in the bottom five in points allowed per 100 possessions). David Griffin said that no player on the roster is untouchable. LeBron James displayed some of the worst body language of his career, and took some subtle shots at Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters that suggested they have bad habits from losing and playing selfish basketball in recent years. Kevin Love seemed unhappy, which led to rumors that he could bolt as a free agent after this season.

Things weren’t looking good for the Cavaliers, and some people were already comparing them to 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers that failed to live up to expectations with Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol (and subsequently lost Howard after one season in L.A.).

However, the Cavaliers have silenced many of their critics and are playing much better lately. Cleveland has won six straight games, thanks to an improved defense that is now ranked in the top 15 and an elite offense that is sixth-best in the league. James, Love and Irving seem to be jelling and the team is doing a better job of executing head coach David Blatt’s system on both ends of the floor.

After a recent Cavs win, Blatt summed up what’s different about his team:

“We became the aggressors and we became the attackers as opposed to being attacked,” Blatt said. “We’ve been defending and we’re not giving away opportunities and giving away points. We’re defending as well as we’ve defended the whole season.”

After their four consecutive losses to the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors, Cleveland rattled off wins against the Orlando Magic, Wizards, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Raptors to gain confidence and momentum. The revenge wins against Toronto and Washington were impressive, since they are the top two teams in the East.

LeBronJamesInside1The winning also takes Cleveland out from under the microscope at least in the short-term, since every mistake, facial expression and quote had been over-analyzed after their early-season losses. Some of their wins haven’t been pretty, but Blatt couldn’t care less because a win is a win.

“I got a great friend who coached with me at Maccabi Tel-Aviv for a couple of years and he once told me, ‘Never underestimate a win,’” Blatt said. “I don’t know what ugly means and I don’t know what not pretty means.”

James said that it’s not just the winning streak that has created optimism; he’s just as excited about the fact that the team seems to be getting more comfortable as a group and, most importantly, playing unselfish basketball.

IN RELATED: The Cleveland Cavaliers’ salary cap page

“Wins help,” James said. “I think more than that, [it’s] the way we won. We played basketball the right way. We shared the ball, we defended, we sustained effort for as close to 48 minutes as possible.

“I think offensively, we’re starting to understand how fun it is to share the ball. When you get the ball moving from side to side, everyone feels a good rhythm. I think that’s very important.”

James has also loved his team’s defensive effort, which wasn’t always there earlier in the season.

“I think we’re contesting more shots, we’re understanding what the teams are running and we’re just making a conscious effort of understanding how important every possession is defensively,” James said. “It’s a lot easier offensively when we defend, when you’re not taking the ball out of the net, and we’ve done that the last few games. … In order for us to be great we have to play defense and we have been doing that. I think defensively, [we’re] taking pride in it. Guys are taking their individual tasks very [seriously] and that’s helped us.”

Love has been making an effort to play better defense lately, and that has helped Cleveland. The All-Star power forward is the first person to admit that he’ll never be a great defender, but he wants to do his part and become more of a two-way contributor.

“[I’m] just understanding it better,” Love said when asked about his improved defense. “I’ve never been really known for that in my career. Being a lockdown defender is something that I know I’ll never be. But as far as being a team defender, being in the right spots… being physical, doing those things, I can get a lot better at that. [I’m] just continuing to break down film and seeing where I can get better out there. I think it’s something I can continue to buy into and get better at.”

While the Cavaliers are playing better, some of the early criticism directed at the team was an overreaction to a small sample size. Whenever a star-studded team is assembled, there tends to be an adjustment period where the players struggle. Those early issues were magnified for the Cavs since they are a team that is full of young players and have a first-time NBA head coach who has no experience with these individuals.

Yes, it was concerning that Cleveland looked horrendous on defense and that the team was playing selfish basketball and bickering at times. But the group seems to be coming together and playing much better recently, and they seem to think that the early panic was ridiculous. Irving was recently asked how he feels about his teammates now that the Cavs are winning, and he made it clear that his relationships with his teammates are strong and don’t change for better or worse based on wins and losses.

“My feelings haven’t changed – it’s not like one week I’m going to be mad at these guys and the next day I’m going to be okay with them,” Irving said. “We’re in the trenches together every single day. That’s what I love most about this team. We get a lot of veteran leadership that keeps everything cool, calm and collected. It really boils down to our veterans. They make my job a lot easier… When we’re in the trenches together, I’m ready to fight and I’m ready to do anything it takes to win.”

Irving has been a big part of Cleveland’s recent success, averaging 22.3 points, 4.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and just 1.1 turnovers during their winning streak. He has also shot 55.5 percent from the field and 44 percent from three-point range over those six games. In the Cavs’ win over the Knicks, Irving had 37 points on 12-18 shooting including a clutch teardrop that sealed the win for Cleveland.

“What I really like is that he’s been playing both ends of the court,” Blatt said of Irving. “He’s consistently played as a high-level, two-way player and that’s what you want from one of your lead guys.”

LeBronKyrieInside2It seems that Irving and James are figuring out how to best co-exist. Irving can run the offense and be the team’s facilitator while James attacks, but the two All-Stars have shown that they can also switch roles if necessary. At times, such as the game against the Knicks, James has gone into playmaker mode and Irving has gone into scorer mode. These two are figuring how to complement one another, which sometimes means taking on different responsibilities depending on who is hot and who has the best matchup.

“It’s more of just a feeling – whatever coach calls and whatever I feel out there as well,” Irving explained when asked how he decides to attack or facilitate. “If I have something quick in transition or within the pick-and-roll, I have all the freedom and all the trust from my teammates to go do that.”

“I took over the point guard duties as far as distributing the ball and he took over the scoring,” James said after the Cavs’ win over the Knicks. “We needed it. I read the game. I saw Kyrie got it going. You feed the hot hand and you make sure everyone else gets involved.”

Irving has been sacrificing shots, making smart plays, moving the ball and playing team-first basketball, which is impressive to see from a 22-year-old player who’s never been to the postseason. Irving has also been playing better on defense, stepping up and giving significantly more effort on that end of the court.

There have been times during the last few contests when Cleveland has played closer to their full potential, which can be a nightmare for opposing teams. After their double-digit win over the Pacers, David West praised the Cavaliers and suggested that it’s only a matter of time until they’re a juggernaut.

“They’re just tough, man,” West said of the Cavs. “They spread you out and they’ve got a bunch of ways they can attack you. They had us on our heels. We know they’re a good team. They’ve got a lot of [talented] guys over there. It’s just a matter of them getting their chemistry.”

With each passing game, Cleveland should continue to improve in all facets. While they have looked better lately, James isn’t satisfied and he has stressed to his teammates that they still have a long way to go before they can be content with their play.

“We have to continue to get better,” James said, even though the team has won several games in a row. “It is a process for us. We are a young group as far as our experience together. We will continue to build.”

MAKE SURE TO READ: Cavaliers considering signing Tayshaun Prince?

Wizards Emerging As Contender Behind Elite Defense

The Washington Wizards are currently 13-5, which is the second best record in the Eastern Conference behind only the Toronto Raptors. They have won four straight games and six of their last eight contests, with wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Miami HEAT, L.A. Lakers and Denver Nuggets.

This season, Washington’s biggest strength is their defense, which is ranked fourth in the NBA. During their last six wins, the Wizards have allowed just 88 points per game. Wizards head coach Randy Wittman has described his team’s defense as “phenomenal” since the group is shutting down their opponents by pressuring them and playing very physical basketball.

“That is what we hang our hat on every night,” Paul Pierce said of the team’s defense. “Right now, I think we are starting to put both together – we are scoring the ball really well and playing well defensively. That is why we are showing the results that we are getting.”

“I think [teams] are trying to think of ways to get into a secondary play and backdoor us, and then try and figure out something to get toward the basket, but I think we’re doing a great job denying everything and pressuring the ball,” Bradley Beal said. “We’re making it tough on them.”

Pierce has been on some excellent teams, since he went on deep playoff runs with the Boston Celtics and won the championship in 2008. He believes that the Wizards have the makeup of a championship team.

“This team definitely shares a lot of those qualities,” Pierce said. “I was telling Brad on the bench in the fourth quarter that when I look at this team from top to bottom, our depth, when guys get hurt, you see similarities to teams that have made long playoff runs and made it to the Finals. We just have to keep building on what we have and continue to get better. We are a work in progress. We know it is early in the season. We know we have to go out west and take on those teams, but we like where we are at right now.”

While the Wizards have gotten off to an excellent start, the team believes they still have a lot of room for improvement and that they aren’t playing anywhere near their best basketball, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.

“We know we’re a pretty good team, and we know that we can be an even better team,” Beal said. “That’s what makes us a good team, because we want to get better each and every game. We still play with that chip on our shoulder like we have something to prove. We’re going to continue to do that and continue to play the way [Coach] Witt wants us to play. It starts with our defense. As long as we continue to defend all of these teams, we’re definitely going to be in the running for one of the best teams in the league.”

“I focus one day at a time,” Wittman said. “We will take the good out of this and I think there are some things we need to work on. We will just keep building. I think that’s the main thing. You don’t want get satisfied. You just want to keep building. I don’t think we are near as good as we can be if we keep believing in this and keep working the way we are. It’s hard. It’s not easy to do, but that’s what they are doing right now from a defense standpoint.”

Four years ago, the Wizards had one of the worst defenses in the NBA and were a bottom feeder in the Eastern Conference. Now, they are an elite team with a smothering defense that could make a lot of noise come playoff time if everything goes their way and they continue to play this style of basketball.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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