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.
The 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.
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“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.”
It 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.”
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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.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.