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NBA Sunday: Are The Cavaliers The Favorites In The East?

With LeBron James and Kevin Love heading to Cleveland, are the Cavaliers the best team in the Eastern Conference?

Jesse Blancarte



Are The Cavaliers The Favorites In The East?

When LeBron James announced that he would return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after four seasons with the Miami HEAT, Cleveland fans celebrated as if they had just won an NBA championship. The return of LeBron would usher in a new era for the Cavaliers, who had just drafted number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins. However, soon after LeBron’s announcement, reports surfaced that the Cavaliers were in position to acquire disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love in a deal that would include Wiggins.

After weeks of speculation, on Thursday Adrian Wojnarowksi of Yahoo Sports reported that the Cavaliers and Timberwolves had an agreement in place to send Love to Cleveland. Due to league rules the trade cannot be made official until August 23, since that is 30 days after Andrew Wiggins signed his rookie contract with Cavaliers.

When the deal does happen, Love will officially join LeBron and Kyrie Irving to form arguably the most formidable big three in the league. Now the question is, are the Cavaliers the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference and reach the NBA Finals next season?

For the last two seasons, the Indiana Pacers have been the biggest challenger to James and the HEAT in the East. However, with the gruesome leg injury to Paul George, which is expected to keep him out for the entire 2014- 15 season and the loss of Lance Stephenson, the Pacers are no longer the threat they once were. While the additions of C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey somewhat help fill the void left by Stephenson, there is simply no way the Pacers can make up for the loss of George. This is especially true considering that Wojnarowski is reporting that veteran free agent forward Shawn Marion is heavily leaning towards taking a veteran’s minimum deal to join LeBron in Cleveland, rather than taking more money to join the Pacers.

The Chicago Bulls have been without Derrick Rose for the last two seasons, yet without the former MVP they nearly won 50 games through disciplined team-defense. Now, Rose is reportedly 100 percent healthy, competing with Team USA, and is set to rejoin the Bulls for the upcoming season. All reports coming out of the USA camp have been positive, and by all accounts Rose has recaptured his explosiveness. He will be rejoining center Joakim Noah and head coach Tom Thibodeau, who together made Chicago one of the toughest defensive teams in the NBA for the last few years.

Noah was last season’s Defensive Player of the Year and is one of the biggest difference makers in the league. Thibodeau is one of the best defensive coaches in the league and has arguably done the most out of all NBA coaches with the talent available to him these last few seasons. So while defense has not been an issue for the Bulls these last two years, the offense has been a different story.

Last season, the Bulls scored 99.7 points per 100 possessions, which was tied for third-worst in the league with the Boston Celtics. However, this offseason the Bulls landed free agent power forward Pau Gasol, who even at age 34 remains one of the most productive big men in the league. Last season, in 60 games with the Los Angeles Lakers, Gasol averaged 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 blocks, and shot 48 percent from the field. Gasol is an effective post scorer and mid-range shooter and next to Noah forms one of the best passing frontcourts in the NBA.

In addition, the Bulls are bringing over star European forward Nikola Mirotic, who is a good shooter, adding a stretch-four to the offense to backup Taj Gibson. The Bulls also acquired the draft rights to rookie forward Doug McDermott out of Creighton. McDermott led the nation in scoring last year, is the fifth-highest scoring college player in NCAA history and is more ready to contribute than other rookies from this class after playing four years of college basketball.

With these significant additions, it is not hard to imagine that the Bulls will significantly outpace their 48-win season from last year and compete for the title of best overall team in the East.

The Toronto Raptors, just like the Bulls, won 48 games last season and made it to the playoffs. The big question entering this summer for the Raptors was whether they would be able to retain free agent point guard Kyle Lowry. The Raptors stepped up and offered Lowry a four-year, $48 million contract, which Lowry accepted. With Lowry’s return, and the continued development of players like DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, and another year under head coach Dwane Casey, the Raptors are again a threat to compete at a high level.

Another team that the Cavaliers will have to watch out for are the Washington Wizards. Led by John Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat, the Wizards proved to be a stingy defensive team last season (102.4 points per 100 possessions) and have an interesting mix of young developing talent and veteran leadership, including recently acquired long-time Celtic and former Brooklyn Net Paul Pierce. Pierce brings with him playoff experience and clutch shooting, and he is expected to help fill the void left by small forward Trevor Ariza, who signed a free agent deal with the Houston Rockets this offseason.

Wall and Beal are the Wizards’ best young players and both competed with the USA national team this summer, but were recently dismissed. However, their inclusion with the program and improved play last year are reason enough to believe that this backcourt combo will only be better next year. Otto Porter, drafted with the third overall pick last year, showed flashes of an improved overall game at the Las Vegas Summer League.

Another tough team in the Eastern Conference is the rising Charlotte Hornets, who signed Lance Stephenson away from the Pacers this offseason.

Stephenson joins a team featuring talented players like Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, and young developing players like Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Headed by coach Steve Clifford, the Hornets were one of the best defensive teams in the league last year. Like the Wizards, Charlotte features bright young talent mixed in with veteran leaders that plays tough defense, giving up only 101.2 points per 100 possessions last season. That was good for sixth-best in the NBA.

While Clifford had Charlotte playing top-level defense last season, it was their offense that was below league average. However, Stephenson, who was the Pacers’ best playmaker last season, brings with him a mix of ball-handling and creative passing that will add a new element to the Charlotte offense.

The HEAT may also pose a challenge to the Cavaliers. While losing James is a crushing blow to the franchise, team president Pat Riley managed to bring back Chris Bosh, re-sign Dwyane Wade and add other solid players like Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger.

Wade has reportedly lost weight in an attempt to recapture his old form and Bosh will be featured more so than he was the last four years, which means he may look more like the 20-10 player he was in Toronto at the beginning of his career.

So after sizing up Cleveland’s competition for this upcoming season, how do the Cavaliers stack up in the East?

The Cavaliers finished 33-49 last season, falling well short of the playoffs. The team was inconsistent throughout the season, relying on relatively inexperienced players like Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, role players like C.J. Miles and experimenting early in the season with the mercurial Andrew Bynum. Even veteran small forward Luol Deng, who was acquired mid-season, was inconsistent.

After the season, the Cavaliers fired (for a second time) head coach Mike Brown and subsequently hired David Blatt, who has coached overseas for several years, but has no prior NBA coaching experience. Blatt is noted as an offensive guru and comes to Cleveland with a reputation for getting along with his players. However, similar to Erik Spoelstra four years ago, Blatt will have the task of meshing together three star players along with a cast of supporting players.

It is impossible to know what exactly the Cavaliers’ offense and defense will look like under Blatt, especially with the addition of players as talented as James and Love. However, we can surmise that Blatt will look to run a fast-paced offense that utilizes floor spacing, which will be generated from players like Irving, Love, Waiters and recent acquisitions Mike Miller and James Jones. Blatt will also likely use Love’s underrated post-up game to draw double teams and find open shooters. When there isn’t an open shot on the perimeter, James, Waiters or Irving can drive to the rim to suck defenses in and either finish at the rim or look for kick-outs on the perimeter, something that each player is well suited to do.

Also, Love’s rebounding and elite outlet passing will give James and Irving, who are both very dangerous in transition, the opportunity to leak out for full-court passes before defenses can get set. Think of how effective Love was out-letting the ball to Corey Brewer in Minnesota, and then replace Brewer with James and you can imagine the potential this Cavaliers team has in transition. Even Anderson Varejao, who is another very good rebounder, is a good enough passer to hit James or Irving in stride to put pressure on opposing teams. While the Cavaliers did not play at a particularly fast-pace last season (they ranked 18th in pace last season), the presence of Blatt and players like Irving, James, Waiters and Love make an up-tempo attack a natural weapon to use against opponents.

The Cavaliers’ defense may be a little harder to predict. Last year, the Cavaliers averaged the second-fewest blocks per game in the league (3.6) and had no one to anchor the defense and protect the rim. Varejao has only averaged more than one block per game once in his 10-year career, and there is no reason to expect that will change next season. There is no indication that Cleveland will be able to bring in a rim protector before the season starts. This is a similar problem that the Timberwolves had last year with Love playing next to Nikola Pekovic. Neither big man could stop players from attacking the rim, which put pressure on all other aspects of the Minnesota defense, an issue that will likely continue in Cleveland with Love playing next to Varejao. Thus, Blatt will likely look to use James, and perhaps Marion (if he signs with Cleveland), to pressure wing players and prevent penetration at the rim. However, while James and Marion are noted perimeter defenders, Irving and Waiters are average at best, and Miller and Jones are both well over 30 years old and past their physical primes. For this reason, the Cavaliers, as they did last year, will at times sag off of wing players and give up a large number of three pointers in order to keep opponents from penetrating and scoring at the rim. It will be a calculated gamble – one that represents the difficulties of playing team defense when there is no defensive anchor protecting the basket.

Nevertheless, with James, Irving and Love together in Cleveland playing under an offensive-minded coach, we can predict that the Cavaliers will be one of the best offensive teams in the league next year. What is not clear is whether that offense will be enough to overcome other teams like the Bulls, considering the likely shortcomings of the Cleveland defense.

As of now, it seems as though the Bulls are best situated to stand between the Cavaliers and the NBA Finals. But from a talent standpoint, it seems the Cavaliers are the favorites in the East heading into next season. The Bulls, as they do every year, will be tough competition and may have added enough offensive firepower to overcome the Cavaliers this upcoming season. The Bulls also have the advantage of years of experience playing with one another, and being coached by one of the best proven coaches in the league. Other teams like the Hornets, Wizards, HEAT and Raptors will also challenge the Cavaliers, but there is a big talent gap between those teams and Cleveland.

We won’t know for sure how good Cleveland can be next year until the season starts, but, as of now, it looks like it may be a two-team race in the East between the Bulls and the Cavaliers.

Up Close With Jerryd Bayless

Basketball Insiders caught up with Milwaukee Bucks guard Jerryd Bayless at adidas Nations. Check out the video interview below:

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.


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NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future

Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.

James Blancarte



On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.

Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.

Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with athe season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.

Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.

“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”

Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.

“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”

Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.

“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.

While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.

“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.

Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.

There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.

“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”

Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.

“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”

Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.

“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.

Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.

“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.

When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.

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Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers

Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.

Spencer Davies



The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.

The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.

With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.

Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:

“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.

“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.

“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”

There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.

Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.

Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.

Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.

Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.

LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.

“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”

The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.

The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.

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NBA Daily: Calderón’s Late NBA Start

Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.

Joel Brigham



There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.

“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”

Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.

“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”

That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.

“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”

As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.

“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”

Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.

“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”

He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.

“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”

The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.

“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”

That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.

“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”

Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.

“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”

He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.

Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.

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