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NBA Sunday: Can the Cavaliers Win It All?

LeBron James is pitch-counting himself. That makes him and the Cavs a threat to win the championship.

Moke Hamilton

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After speaking for 11 minutes, the candid LeBron James exhaled, put on his sunglasses and exited stage right.

For 11 minutes, he answered all kinds of questions: some about his return to Cleveland, some about Andre Iguodala and some about the losses of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.

What all of those questions had in common was that they came in the aftermath of the Cleveland Cavaliers faltering due to a talent deficiency and succumbing to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals.

Collectively, they have been waiting for an opportunity at redemption.

* * * * * *

The Cleveland Cavaliers will enter the Eastern Conference Finals having gone 8-0 over the course of the first two rounds of the 2016 NBA Playoffs and they will be heavily favored to reach the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season. Before our very eyes, they have become a new team. Chemistry, cohesion, ball movement, three-point shooting and big contributions from those not named LeBron—these Cavaliers have it all.

What they also have is an opportunity to pull off a shocking upset and walk away with the 2016 NBA Championship, regardless as to who they may face in the NBA Finals.

If there is one thing we have learned from the Oklahoma City Thunder and their improbable toppling of the San Antonio Spurs, it’s this: the game isn’t played on paper.

Somewhere between Game 3 and Game 4 of that Thunder-Spurs series, Billy Donovan realized that having Kevin Durant play off of the ball was most effective. He also realized that playing Steven Adams and Enes Kanter were a part of the recipe for success. Most (including yours truly) picked the Spurs to win the series, but what Donovan has proven is the extent to which heads up coaching and unforeseen adjustments can cause disruption to the point of destruction—of the opponent, at least.

In the minutes following last season’s Game 6 loss, James questioned whether he would rather not make the playoffs at all than to lose in the Finals. Per James, the mental and physical toll that is taken is tremendous, and it’s difficult to argue with that.

Believe it or not, James is finishing up the 13th season of his NBA career. He has played 986 games and has looked like it at various points during the season. Traditionally, players begin to regress after they cross the 1,000 games played mark and James will do exactly that next season. It’s sad to say—especially after losing Kobe Bryant—that it is time to come to terms with the fact that James is going to have to pitch count himself from here on out. Still considered by many to be the greatest player in the game, James will continue to be dominant, just not every single night.

That will become easier to come to terms with when one realizes that over the past five seasons—all of which have resulted in NBA Finals appearances for James—he has played an additional 107 games. And over the course of his 13-year NBA career, James has played a total of 186 playoff games. Though not necessarily the same level of competition as the NBA, James has also played quite a bit of international basketball, participating in the 2006 FIBA World Championship, the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament and on the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams.

He may still have some tread on his tires, but James’ odometer has steadily accumulated miles.

In a way, though, that may make him a dangerous man. Older and wiser, one could only imagine that James has begun self-preservation.

With his prior losses in the Finals fueling him, one could only wonder what he still has left in the tank for what seems to be an inevitable battle with the Golden State Warriors or the Thunder.

One thing is for certain: with the Cavaliers playing the way they have over the past few weeks, they will have an opportunity to win the championship, regardless as to who they play. Agreed, the Warriors are a better team than they were last year, but so are the Cavaliers. And if there is one major advantage this year’s Cavaliers have over last year’s team, aside from health, it would appear to be coaching.

* * * * * *

David Blatt appears to have gotten a raw deal while Tyronn Lue seems to have gotten a windfall. In this space a few weeks ago, it was suggested that Luke Walton hadn’t done anything overly impressive in helping the record-setting Warriors burst out of the gate en route to their 73-win season.

One could easily argue the opposite about Lue.

From the time he took over in Cleveland, Lue vowed to hold players more accountable for their shortcomings and keep honest and open dialogue with everyone. A player on the team recently told Basketball Insiders that the team seems to communicate better, both on and off the court, and that there seems to be a genuine level of trust that hadn’t previously existed. That is something that should be credited to Lue.

In terms of what has transpired on the court, we have seen the Cavaliers adjust their offensive attack in a way that measures and gives repetitions to Kevin Love. Upon taking over, Lue vowed that, while still expecting Love to be willing to sacrifice his own shots and statistics, that he would feature Love more on the low box, both in an effort to keep the big man happy and preserve James’ legs. Lue being true to his word is proven in the fact that Love averaged 12.4 field goal attempts per game under Blatt this season. Thus far, through eight games in the playoffs for the Cavaliers, he has averaged 16.5. It should also be noted that after failing to register as many as 20 shots in any game during the regular season, Love has done so twice in the playoffs.

Love aggressively given scoring opportunities—aside from keeping him motivated—has the effect of keeping opposing defenses guessing. Without question, Lue’s utilization of Love has been a positive development.

The other major adjustment Lue has made relates to Timofey Mozgov. Although not substantially, Lue used Mozgov a bit less than Blatt and, during the playoff run, has committed to Tristan Thompson as his starting center. Although Thompson has less length than Mozgov, his biggest strength on the defensive end is being able to effectively guard pick-and-roll ball handlers. Thompson is also one of the best offensive rebounders that the league has seen recently and—when playing with Iman Shumpert and LeBron James—gives the Cavaliers three somewhat malleable defensive presences, all of which can protect the shortcomings of Love and Kyrie Irving.

Lastly, Lue has managed to find minutes for Channing Frye and help put him into situations in which he can be an asset. Over the course of their sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the playoffs, Frye played about 20 minutes per game in which he converted about three three-pointers on 58 percent shooting from behind the arc.

They may be minor adjustments, but they may be indicative of Lue’s ability to react to what he sees as flaws in his team’s approach. What they also may indicate is that Lue knows a thing or two about what it takes to be successful in the NBA, and more importantly, what his personnel needs to finally get over the top.

During the 2015 NBA Finals, in Cleveland, I had a few conversations with Lue. He struck me as incredibly humble, approachable and honest. We spoke at length about Tristan Thompson and about what the Cavaliers were attempting to build around LeBron James in the second go round. Lue told me that he felt the team was ready to compete, but that they still had much untapped potential. He seemed to think that they had another gear and that, so long as they re-signed Thompson, they could get there.

Coincidentally, he now has the opportunity to prove his theory correct.

* * * * * *

As LeBron James put those dark sunglasses on and seemingly held back his pain, he exited stage right, embarking on yet another long summer wherein he would introspect and consider what it was that he needed to do to help get his team over the hump.

Ironically, it seems that the answer there was “less.”

As James continues to advance in his career and in age, the pitch-counting seems to have begun. The 38.8 minutes per game he has played is these playoffs is the second lowest of his career while the 19.1 shots attempts per game pales in comparison to the 27.2 he had to take last season.

Make no mistake: James is far from done, but he is feeling his mortality. Stategically, he and Tyronn Lue have worked to preserve him and knowing that he will only have but so many opportunities left, I suspect that, at least for this season, we are yet to see the best LeBron James.

Stephen Curry may be the Most Valuable Player, but I’ll still take a hungry and motivated James over any other player in the league. And if there would be some words of advice I would give to any NBA fan wondering if the pursuit that James and his Cavaliers are on will ultimately end up fruitless once again, it would be to never discount greatness.

After all, as the Thunder helped remind us just recently, regardless as to what the experts have to say, the game isn’t played on paper.

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G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts

David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.

Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.

Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.

With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.

1. Christian Wood

Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.

His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.

2. Jameel Warney

Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.

With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.

3. Melo Trimble

After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.

He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.

4. Joel Bolomboy

Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.

At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.

5. Jeremy Evans

Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.

With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.

Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.

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NBA Daily: Potential Trade Targets to Get the Sixers to the Playoffs

On the cusp of a playoff appearance for the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers could cement their postseason status with a move at the trade deadline.

Dennis Chambers

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At times this season, the Philadelphia 76ers look like they’re capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best teams. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at their disposal, along with capable three-point shooters, the Sixers have shown flashes of being a force to be reckoned with.

And at other times, well, they look like a discombobulated young team, with serious flaws in the construction of its roster.

Despite the lapses they display, the Sixers are still right in the thick of the playoff race. Currently, at 21-20, they hold a half-game advantage over the Detroit Pistons for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.

While they await the return of top overall pick Markelle Fultz, who has still yet to hit the court after being shut down earlier this season with a shoulder injury, the Sixers will continue to miss depth on the wing and a particular skill set that holds them back from winning games they seem to have locked up with double-digit leads. For all the greatness that is Embiid, and all of the promise that is Simmons, when the former isn’t on the court, the latter struggles to shoulder the scoring load due to his inability to shoot jump shots.

Initially, that’s what Fultz was drafted for. A player that head coach Brett Brown has said many times before, has the talent to tie everything together with the Sixers’ roster. What he means by that is Fultz represents a scorer from multiple levels of the court who forces the defense to lock in on, potentially leaving the teams’ shooters open on the wing.

Without Fultz, and when Embiid is on the bench, the team lacks a player who can put the ball on the floor, create and knock down jumpers. Although long-term success is still very much the attention for Philadelphia, that doesn’t discount the fact that a team that finished with 10 wins just two seasons ago is on the verge of making a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011-12 with a core of young, promising players.

Because of that possibility, and because of the clear holes in team’s makeup that could prevent this from happening, the Sixers could become an interesting player at the trade deadline — especially considering the names that appear available, according to reports.

It’s no secret that Sixers’ president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo wants to keep financial flexibility heading into this summer, that’s the main reason players like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson were signed to one-year deals last offseason. Before the team has to start signing their own players to big extensions, the Sixers are in a unique position where they not only have elite homegrown talent, but the money to complement those players the best they can. Because of that, any deal that would return a player with money on the books past this season seems unlikely.

That being said, it just so happens that two players potentially on the trading block right now fulfill the Sixers’ most crucial need, and also aren’t on the hook for money past this year. Marc Stein of The New York Times reported that Rodney Hood could be moved before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, and that multiple teams are expressing interest in his services.

Along with Hood, Stein also reported that Lou Williams, who’s been the center of many trade talks around the league given his career-year and impending free agent status, was involved in specific discussions that would send him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

What should intrigue the Sixers about these two players is not only their ability on the court but also their flexibility off of it.

Let’s start with Hood. Before the rise of Donovan Mitchell this season, Hood looked to be in a position to assume the role as the dominant scorer on the Utah Jazz following Gordon Hayward’s departure. At just 25 years old and in the final year of his rookie contract, Hood may not be worth the price tag for Utah this summer considering their find with Mitchell.

Should the Jazz actually move on from Hood, it’s unclear what they would ask for in return at this point. Yes, Hood his an impending free agent, which could diminish his value. But the team trading for him would assume his Bird Rights, therefore giving them a better shot at retaining him this summer should they choose to do so.

The best part about his potential fit in Philadelphia is that he fits the timeline of the rebuild while also addressing a need in the present. Being just 25, Hood fits alongside the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington as a young player. If the Sixers were to miss out on whoever they were planning to target with their financial flexibility this summer, Hood would still be there to plug in for years with a contract extension.

Shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc this season, and displaying the track record of being able to fill up the score sheet, Hood could become the go-to-scorer for Philadelphia when Embiid isn’t on the court, or late in games when they need to stop an opposing team’s run.

While he appears to at least be on the table as of now, Hood is certainly worth checking in on from the Sixers’ standpoint.

Now, onto Williams. Drafted by Philadelphia all the back in 2005 with the 45th overall pick, Williams is enjoying the best season of his career for the Los Angeles Clippers. At 31, he doesn’t represent the long-term upside that Hood does, but for this season alone, bringing Williams on to this current Sixers’ roster could be that extra jolt to get them cleanly into the postseason.

Averaging 23 points per game and shooting 41 percent from downtown, Williams fits the role as an iso-scorer better than any player on the Sixers’ current roster. Alongside Simmons and Embiid, Williams could assume the role Fultz was supposed to this season.

Another interesting ripple to the potential Williams fit is that he was on the last Sixers’ roster to make the playoffs. Adding him to this roster would bring his career full circle. This summer, Williams is most likely going to test the market and given his age and potential price tag he may not fit so well into the Sixers’ plans moving forward. But with his history with the club and city, getting him on board for another playoff run with an exciting young team could arguably help in the negotiation process this offseason.

Neither of these potential trades are slam dunks, and it remains to be seen if either player will even be moved. But for where the Sixers stand currently, coupled with their growing postseason expectations, checking in around the league on trade targets that can fulfill obvious needs should be at the forefront of Colangelo’s agenda for the next few weeks.

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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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