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NBA Saturday: Irving Won’t Be Last Man Standing

Yes, Kyrie Irving reportedly wants out of Cleveland. But don’t blame him for looking out for himself.

Dennis Chambers

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Kyrie Irving delivered the most unexpected move of the NBA’s offseason when it was reported on Friday by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that the point guard had requested a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Windhorst further reported that this move had “blindsided” teammate LeBron James and that James was “devastated” by this development.

This is the same Irving who just last month was in the Finals facing off against the Golden State Warriors for a third straight time with James and the remainder of the Cavs. The same Irving who just last year sank the three-point shot of a lifetime in Game 7 of the Finals to put away the Warriors, mailing in Cleveland’s epic 3-1 series comeback. And the same Irving who almost assuredly would have been a key component next season in the Cavaliers quest to make it to the Finals for a fourth straight season.

But instead, this Irving wants to take a different route, and quite frankly, you can’t blame him.

As information about the request from Irving to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert became public, the word reported by Windhorst was that Irving was ready to join a team where he was the “focal point” and no longer wanted to play in the shadow of James. But during Irving’s request, he gave a list of teams that he would prefer to be traded to. Those clubs were the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami HEAT, and New York Knicks.

It should be noted that Irving doesn’t possess a no-trade clause in his contract. So requesting to be traded to any particular team could wind up being a futile request, as Cleveland owes him no such favor. Should they decide to trade their franchise point guard, it would be wise to take the best offer available, not adhere to Irving’s request.

What else is interesting about Irving’s request is that two of the four team’s on his list, San Antonio and Minnesota, already have players that would stop Irving from being the “focal point” of the team, as he so badly desires. Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs is arguably a top-five player in the entire NBA, and the Wolves have Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, and Andrew Wiggins.

It wouldn’t exactly be the “Kyrie Irving Show” in either of those cities.

However, the narrative of wanting his own team could be a bit stretched out at the moment, and potentially even a scapegoat excuse for what Irving could believe is the end of the road for the construct of the Cavs as they currently stand. James is a free agent next summer, and the buzz around the league is that The King is looking to leave town for the second time in his career.

Before James returned to Cleveland from his Miami sabbatical in the summer of 2014, Irving had averaged just 26 wins a season as the “focal point” of the Cavs team. Granted, the club wasn’t nearly as talented as it is today, but nevertheless, Irving didn’t equate to enough wins for a postseason berth until the best player on the planet decided to return home. This request by Irving could be related to a personal feeling that James may take his talents elsewhere next summer, leaving his 25-year-old point guard on a depleted roster with minimal cap flexibility and assets. In a word, the move to be traded ahead of the curve is a proactive approach by Irving.

What usually gets lost in remembering James’ triumphant return home to Cleveland in search of delivering the city its first ever NBA championship is the mess he left behind in Miami for some of his running mates — particularly, Chris Bosh.

Bosh turned down a four-year, $88 million deal from the Houston Rockets in July of 2014, not wanting to break up the “Big 3” core of himself, James, and Dwyane Wade that had just lost to the Spurs in the Finals after winning back-to-back championships. But instead, James bolted from South Beach to The Land, leaving Bosh and Wade high and dry.

Two summers later, Wade left Miami for Chicago.

Amid a multitude of health issues, including blood clots in his lung, Bosh has barely seen the court since James left town. But that hasn’t stopped Miami from affecting his career in a negative way. HEAT president Pat Riley ended Bosh’s tenure last September, citing recent physical exams that didn’t leave Riley comfortable enough to put Bosh back on the court, despite Bosh’s optimism in achieving that goal. It wasn’t until earlier this month that the HEAT officially waived Bosh, setting him free to pursue other NBA opportunities.

Of course, health issues are out of the control of any one person, and certainly in no way was James’ departure from Miami an affecting factor in Bosh’s medical situation. But, the fact that James didn’t communicate his plans to return to Cleveland with his teammates left an individual in a sticky situation that took nearly three years to gain clarity.

At the end of the day, it wouldn’t be surprising if Irving wants to avoid being stuck in a similar situation: Left to pick up the pieces of a team that James up and leaves.

Despite the reports of Irving wanting out and the conversation about him wanting his own team, the Cavs aren’t in a pressure situation to trade their point guard right away. Under his current contract, Irving is controlled by Cleveland for this upcoming season and the season after until he gains a player option for the 2019-20 year. So, conceivably, the Cavs could keep Irving around for another season while they take one last swing at a championship and then deal him if James does, in fact, decide to walk. Obviously keeping a player on board when he doesn’t want to be there isn’t an ideal situation, but if Irving is looking out for his best interest, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Cavs did the same by using their last chance at league-wide relevance before potentially falling back into oblivion.

Time will tell if and when Irving ultimately gets traded out of Cleveland. But for a dynamic scoring point guard on the cusp of his prime, trying to stay ahead of the curve and look out for his own best interests shouldn’t garner criticism.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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