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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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NBA Daily: Is The NBA Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With so many elite players heading towards less than expected post-season exits, is the NBA heading towards an epically chaotic off-season? Steve Kyler looks at some of the situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff teeing up what could be some early exits for some of the bigger names in basketball, there is a growing sense that major change could be heading towards the NBA this offseason. While the odds that everyone that might be unhappy or exiting early are really moved is pretty slim, it does present some interesting options to watch.

Here are a few of them:

LeBron and the Cavaliers

With LeBron James reminding the basketball world to stop underestimating him, the specter of his future in Cleveland still isn’t any clearer. The prevailing thought among NBA insiders and executives is that LeBron will be gone at season’s end unless the Cavs get to and compete in the NBA Finals. Seeing how the Cavs support players are playing against the Pacers, it’s hard to imagine they can get to the Finals, but LeBron is LeBron, and he has been beyond special (again).

There have been so many reports suggesting that LeBron would meet with this team or has interest in that team that it seems redundant to talk about any of them with any seriousness.

Sources close to the situation in Cleveland have been really adamant all year that unlike previous points in LeBron’s career when he could exit, he genuinely won’t entertain the ideas. He dismisses his teammates when they might talk about it, he dismisses and thanks fans and media when they bring it up, but there is a real sense that LeBron is singularly focused on the task at hand and won’t consider his future until the season is over.

There are some realities to the situation, too. LeBron’s kids are entering the AAU world and building foundational relationships that LeBron is deeply committed to. There are a hundred reasons not related to basketball for LeBron to remain in Cleveland beyond this season. However, almost no one in the NBA world believes that going to happen without a championship run (win or lose).

The prevailing thought from outside the Cavaliers is that LeBron forces a trade rather than walking away. Much like his good friend Chris Paul, LeBron can choose to opt into his final contract year and push his way to a team with existing stars – like Houston. The fact that teams like the Lakers and even the Philadelphia 76ers could sign him outright in free agency gives him some leverage. The question remains would the notoriously icy relationship with Cavs ownership, block any chance at an amicable divorce as the Clippers got with Paul?

There is little doubt the direction and focus of the Cavaliers change pretty dramatically if LeBron exits the team, meaning inflated cap-killing deals wouldn’t get it done. But, as we saw last season in the Paul situation, there are creative ways to meet the salary cap requirements of a trade that might not need to include big ugly contracts that linger on the books long after LeBron is gone.

All of this may be a bit premature, especially considering how consistent and adamant the talk from LeBron’s world has been, and if he can get his team where he wants to be it could all be moot. However, if there was ever a game-to-game pendulum hanging over a franchise, the future of LeBron James is a very real one in Cleveland.

Paul George and the Thunder

When the agent for Paul George notified the Indiana Pacers that his client would not be signing a new deal in Indiana, it was a foregone conclusion George would eventually end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers. Then the unexpected happens, and George was traded to Oklahoma City.

At the time of the trade, no one believed the move was anything more than a rental for the Thunder and a “dare to be great” move meant to lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal. The idea that George would stay was at best laughable, but then he started to tell people publicly and privately how much he liked the situation. He would talk about how much fun it was to have two other star-level players to share the season with and how the Thunder organization was so impressive.

There was a stretch of several months where the sense in NBA circles was that George would seriously consider staying for another season and allow Carmelo Anthony to finish his deal and the Thunder to add more players in free agency and build a real contender. While that remains a possibility, the way the Thunder season has played out over the last couple of months and how funky things have gotten is pointing toward George moving on.

There is still a window of hope that the Thunder can advance and make some noise, but most in NBA circles see George heading to his personal dream situation in L.A. with the Lakers or looking at the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s far from decided, but it seems more likely than not that this postseason run turns out to be exactly what it looked like when the trade was consummated, a one-season dare to be great rental.

Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs season is officially in the books, and the focus of the team is shifting toward fixing the painfully obvious rift between the team and its very best player, Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard has been away from the team rehabbing what is actually a pretty serious injury. While some have tried to be dismissive of whether or not Leonard could have played, medical experts all over the sports world have weighed in on exactly what quadriceps tendinopathy means (you should read this one). It is a pretty scary injury for a player facing the possibility of missing out on a $219 million contract extension.

Knowing exactly how the injury could play out, there is zero reason for anyone to have expectations that Leonard should have played, regardless of what the team’s medical staff may have determined. The risk to Leonard’s future was too great, especially if he was still having pain and discomfort.

The big issue was the disconnection between Leonard and the team. While it is easy to say Leonard wants out or that he wants a new team because the optics of all of this were and are so bad.

However, in a recent conversation with a former NBA player who went through something similar as Leonard, we posed the rather insightful questions: “What drove Leonard a normally tight knit team guy away?”

Was it the medical and coaching staff pushing him to play? Was it his veteran teammates that were in the swan song days of their Spurs career? Was he embarrassed that he couldn’t get right physically?

This particular player went through something similar where he had a pretty serious injury, and his veterans would give him grief about not wanting to play through pain. So, the story with Leonard resonated with him. This player was absolutely clear that he didn’t have any insight into what was going on, just wondered why no one was asking that question – What drove Kawhi away?

Sources around the situation have been pretty clear that the Spurs feel like they can repair the relationship, mainly because they can offer the so-called Super Max contract extension.

They plan to meet with Leonard and see where his head really is and will make decisions from there. There is no doubt that NBA teams would line up for the chance to get Leonard in trade. There is also a reality that Leonard is eligible for free agency in July 2019 and wouldn’t gain any real benefit from extending with a new team, especially considering the Super Max extension isn’t available from any team other than the Spurs.

There is no doubt that the Spurs and Leonard will be front and center in the rumor mill, right up until they either extend him or trade him.

There is a risk for any team obtaining him in trade, but given what he has become as a player, there is surely a title contender willing to take the risk.

The HEAT and Hassan Whiteside

It seems the marriage between the Miami HEAT and center Hassan Whiteside is on the rocks in a pretty significant way. The HEAT explored their options at the trade deadline and entertained a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the teams stayed their respective courses.

With Whiteside’s role diminishing in favor of rookie Bam Adebayo and veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, there is a growing sense that not only are the HEAT looking for an exit, so is Whiteside.

The challenge for the HEAT is Whiteside has regressed a lot since inking his max deal, a deal that including his player option has two years and some $52.5 million remaining on it.

The HEAT faces some additional pressures by way of the Tyler Johnson contract. The HEAT matched the offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets gave Johnson back in July 2016, and that deal balloons from $5.8 million this season to $19.24 million next season. As things stand today, the HEAT have $119.9 million in guaranteed salaries, putting them a few million under that expected $123 million 2018-19 luxury tax line.

Finding a new home for all of Whiteside’s contract may be a tough deal to make, but it seems as the HEAT season comes to an end, he is more likely to be moved than not.

The Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers had a pretty impressive run after the All-Star break in February. However, all that magic came to crashing halt after being swept out of the Playoffs at the hands of the streaking hot New Orleans Pelicans.

The questions surrounding the Blazers is what’s next?

The narrative out of Portland is no one is going to panic and overreact, but it seems fair to question the security of president Neil Olshey and even head coach Terry Stotts.

Equally, it’s fair to wonder what the roster will look like at the draft and into free agency.

Will the Blazers, who have historically been very aggressive around the draft, look to cash out roster players for picks? Will owner Paul Allen green light buying more picks, especially in the second round when cash can get you additional draft assets?

The Blazers have done a pretty good and consistent job of downplaying the idea of trading either of the Blazers cornerstone guys in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There is no doubting that one of those guys could net a king’s ransom in trade, as both are elite level guards that are under long-term contract as both have three more fully guaranteed years remaining on their deals.

There is no question change is coming in Portland, the question becomes how significantly. Like the HEAT, the Blazers are facing some tough cap decisions, especially with guard Shabazz Napier and big man Jusuf Nurkic hitting free agency and the Blazers sitting on $110.4 million in salary commitments for next season.

The fact that no one has been fired (as of this morning) bodes well for the leadership remaining intact; the question is how aggressively will the roster change for a team that failed pretty miserably in the postseason?

The Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not done yet, but after last night’s loss, the inevitable seems to be getting closer.

There is a growing sense in NBA circles that however special Wizards guards John Wall and Brad Beal can be together (they have their moments), the team isn’t nearly as dominant as many have hoped.

Maybe that’s a result of Wall’s injuries, or maybe the match just isn’t going to work.

The narrative around the team is that they are not going to consider breaking up the duo, but that won’t stop some teams from testing the Wizards resolve. The fact that both Wall and Beal are locked up long-term makes them fairly desirable in trade because of the security and team control that comes with their deals.

As things stand today, the Wizards have $115 million in committed salary for next season, giving them almost no wiggle room to be aggressive in free agency.

Unless the Wizards can find a home for some of their money, they may be handcuffed to this roster, which makes the idea of trading off one of their alpha guards at least something to entertain.

Without a trade, it seems unlikely the Wizards can do much to reshape who they are, and with a first round playoff exit, how soon will it be before the personality issues bubbling below the surface erupt into something difficult to come back from?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be digging more into the various NBA trade and free agency situations on the horizon, so stay tuned.

In case you missed it…

The latest Basketball Insiders Podcast covers a lot of this and more, so if you missed out, take a listen.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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Boston’s Young Trio Rises to the Occasion

The Boston Celtics accelerated their youth movement to compete in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA playoffs, writes Mike Yaffe.

Mike Yaffe

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With a stifling 92-87 victory in game five of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics are one victory away from advancing to the second round. In that contest, they held the Milwaukee Bucks to 36.8 percent shooting from the field and out-rebounded them by a substantial 50-37 margin.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

The Celtics entered the campaign with veteran acquisitions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward expected to lead them to the conference finals and beyond. After Hayward’s gruesome injury in the season opener, Irving proved that he was more than capable of being productive outside of LeBron James’ shadow. But then Irving himself was sent to IR with a knee issue, and the team ultimately settled into the playoff bracket as a two-seed behind the Toronto Raptors.

Due to his extended absence, Hayward had already become an afterthought as the team seemed to be dominant enough with Kyrie running the point. But without (arguably) their two best players, a potential upset was in the making for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Instead, the Celtics have a 3-2 series lead, with the home team winning each time. And if that trend continues, Game 7 would be played at the friendly confines of TD Garden and Boston would advance to play the Philadelphia Sixers, who have already eliminated the Miami HEAT themselves.

The upper echelon of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs has been comprised of teams that have been primarily built through either the draft (Golden State, Philadelphia) or via free agency and trades (Houston, Cleveland), but the Celtics have discovered through attrition that they have been well-stocked via both channels.

Here’s a look at the three rising stars who have stepped up their game for the Boston Celtics, both down the stretch and in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs:

Terry Rozier

Rozier was taken 16th in the 2015 NBA Draft. In similar fashion to mid-round picks Kelly Oubre Jr. (Washington Wizards) and Delon Wright (Toronto Raptors), the former Louisville Cardinal was expected to provide organizational depth behind a backcourt rotation that already included Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart.

Buried on the roster, Rozier started zero games his first two seasons and averaged just 1.8 PPG as a rookie, which marginally improved to 5.5 PPG as an NBA sophomore.

After the Celtics traded Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, Rozier was given the opportunity to earn additional minutes since Kyrie Irving was taking IT’s spot in the starting lineup. He rewarded Boston’s confidence by averaging 10.1 PPG in 64 games as a reserve this season, which was well above his previous contributions. But when thrust into a starting role, Rozier’s potential was unleashed, as his scoring rose to 15.1 PPG in 16 such games while adding 5.1 assists per contest (up from 2.3 per game off the bench).

In the opening playoff series, Rozier has continued to improve upon his regular season numbers, averaging 16.1 PPG and 6.6 APG to date. While it probably helped his cause that he’s been facing a Bucks team that was bottom-third in the regular season in both field goal and three-point percentages allowed, his confidence may also have been buoyed by an ongoing feud with veteran Eric Bledsoe.

Jaylen Brown

As one of the spoils from the blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets that unloaded the contracts of aging vets Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics selected Brown with the number three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. As a one-and-done player at Cal, he averaged 14.6 PPG as a freshman and was viewed as a potential franchise cornerstone that could help the team rebuild.

To their dismay, Brown’s rookie numbers (6.6 PPG) weren’t much better than what Rozier produced that season, and the pundits were left to wonder whether the freshman phenom would ever live up to his draft status.

Like Rozier, Brown’s promise came to fruition this season, as he averaged 14.5 PPG in 70 starts in a swingman-like role; his defensive rating of 100.3 was among the league’s best as well.  In the playoffs he too has stepped up his play, thanks to a 30-point outburst in game two and 21.8 PPG overall in this series.

The return of Marcus Smart for game five provided a nice boost, but the Celtics would not be ahead in this series without Brown’s stellar play on both ends of the court.

Jayson Tatum

The aforementioned Nets deal continued its lopsided return for the Celtics, as they had the top overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft. But instead of taking Markelle Fultz (the consensus top player at the time), they traded down with the Philadelphia Sixers and opted for Tatum at number three instead.

While Fultz was expected to be a can’t-miss prospect, the Celts’ selection of Tatum was also called into question with the likes of De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson still available.

As we now know, Fultz is finally showing signs of life after spending his rookie season dealing with a shoulder injury and correcting a shooting flaw. While both Jackson and Fox have had their moments for their respective lottery-bound teams, it’s debatable whether either of them would’ve had a similar impact to what Tatum has done.

Without Gordon Hayward, Tatum’s development timeline was shifted into overdrive, and unlike his aforementioned teammates, he didn’t have an opportunity to watch from the bench. Thrust into the first five, the former Blue Devil produced 13.9 PPG in 80 starts and finished eighth overall in three-point percentage (.434).

As important as his offensive production has been, the Celtics may have profited even more from Tatum’s prowess on defense. He finished the regular season fourth overall in Defensive Win Shares thanks to a 100.3 defensive rating (tied with Brown). His ability was on display in game five, as the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo was limited to only 16 points, which was well below his season average of 26.9 PPG.

The Boston Celtics entered the 2017-2018 season with a “win now” roster that was comprised of proven veterans. But with Al Horford as the last man standing from that group, the team has ridden their draft-day trifecta of Rozier, Brown and Tatum to the precipice of a first-round series win. Time will tell if the team is capable of advancing much further, but they are poised for a bright future regardless of how it plays out in the short-term.

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NBA Daily: The Comfortability of Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert talks to Basketball Insiders about filling in at point guard, turning the proverbial corner and getting more comfortable with his game.

Ben Nadeau

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If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Brooklyn Nets, it probably involves Caris LeVert.

After finding his niche as a do-it-all rotation player, LeVert upped his averages in points (12.1), assists (4.2) and three-point accuracy (34.7 percent) during his second NBA season. Although those outer-layer statistics may not scream budding star quite yet, his growth and flexibility were key to a Nets team once again decimated by injuries.

When Jeremy Lin suffered a season-ending ruptured patella tendon during the season opener, the guard situation became understandably shaky. But then the newly acquired D’Angelo Russell went down for two months in November and things almost became untenable. If not for the efforts of LeVert as the backup point guard (and the vastly improved play of Spencer Dinwiddie), things could’ve been a whole lot worse for the Nets in 2017-18.

But according to LeVert, his development as a ball-handler was just the next, albeit necessary, step in his career.

“It’s been important, especially this year with injuries to Jeremy and D’Angelo,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like Spencer and myself had to definitely step up a lot this year and were asked to do a lot. But that was just something the team needed from me.”

Referring to his new-found prowess in such simple terms might be a slight understatement on LeVert’s development this season. Beyond his immense, quick chemistry with rookie center Jarrett Allen, LeVert has been a major bench catalyst all year. Often thriving under the sophomore’s playmaking hand, Brooklyn’s bench tallied a healthy 43.9 points per game, a benchmark only beat out by the Sacramento Kings (44.4). While his role as a point guard came about somewhat as an emergency, it’s clearly a position the Nets like him in.

Although he started 16 fewer games than he did in his rookie season, coming off the bench offered LeVert plenty of offensive freedom and the opportunity to feast on weaker opposition. On most nights, the 23-year-old didn’t disappoint. Some the Nets’ best individual lines all season came via LeVert, but few were better than his dominant play during a narrow one-point victory in Miami. On the road, LeVert torched the HEAT for 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in just over 34 minutes. This season, the Nets were 7-1 when LeVert registered eight or more assists and even topped out with a career-best 11 dimes.

As both a playmaker and a scorer, LeVert has shown serious signs of promise — or, more simply, put the ball in his hands and good things happen. But compare this LeVert to that raw first-year version and he’s convinced it all comes down to comfortability.

“I don’t know, I would say just how comfortable I’m getting,” LeVert said. “My game hasn’t changed all that much, honestly, I’m still getting more comfortable out on the court. But it’s just getting more playing time, more experience and I feel like I’ll grow more into my game.”

Frankly, the Nets have needed a win in the draft department for years. Outside of Mason Plumlee’s brief two-season cameo, the Nets haven’t drafted and groomed a long-term talent since Brook Lopez way back in 2008. Thankfully, he and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — and joined by the aforementioned Allen this season — seem poised to buck that trend. Hollis-Jefferson, acquired on draft night for Plumlee in 2015, averaged 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds on 47.2 percent from the field in 2017-18, a vast improvement over his first two campaigns. Allen, a 20-year-old hyper-athletic shot blocker, wasn’t let loose until after the new year but showed potential in the pick-and-roll or while catching lobs up above the rim.

Together, the trio, along with Russell, represent the Nets’ best present and future assets. But ask LeVert if brighter things are on the horizon and the 6-foot-7 multi-positional talent is largely uninterested in getting ahead of himself.

“I feel like I got a lot better on both ends of the ball as the season went on,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “Also feel like I learned a couple more positions this year and got comfortable playing them. But I still got a long way to go. You know, it’s only my second year, obviously, but I feel like I definitely made new strides this year.”

The Nets, in a vacuum, can be viewed in almost the same way.

Since LeVert was drafted with the No. 20 overall pick back in 2016, the Nets have racked up a total of just 48 wins. This year alone, 11 franchises equaled or earned more wins than the Nets’ two-year yield. In fact, the only franchise with fewer wins over that period of time were the Phoenix Suns at 45, but they were also recently rewarded with Josh Jackson and currently own a 25 percent chance of taking home the No. 1 pick this summer. All of this is to say that Nets have struggled to hoist themselves out of a pick-less bottomless pit for reasons outside of their control.

Despite the devastating injuries, this resilient Nets squad put together a relatively strong final stretch under head coach Kenny Atkinson. While the second-year head coach spent much of the campaign feeling out what worked and what didn’t, LeVert became a steady presence just about everywhere. Following the All-Star break, the Nets went 6-4 in games in which LeVert surpassed his season average in points, but they were just 1-4 when he went for single-digits.

Needless to say, the Nets often go where LeVert takes them.

But after two back-to-back disappointing campaigns. LeVert says that the Nets’ locker room senses that they’re close to turning the proverbial corner. Still, they know they’ve got a long, long way to go.

“[It felt that way], especially after the All-Star Break and going into the second half of the season,” LeVert said. “But we’re definitely not satisfied — we can’t wait to work hard this offseason and get after it next year.”

Now with two seasons under his belt, the Nets’ front office must be pleased with the steps LeVert has taken — whether that’s effectively running an offense or snaking through the paint for a crafty finish. But for LeVert to join the higher class, he returns to the same word again and again: Comfortability. Between getting familiar with his body and skillset, LeVert knows that a big key is also finding consistency each and every night. However, he’s not worried about who he might play like or how good he might end up being — LeVert is just focused on getting better one day at a time.

“I kinda just take little parts of everybody’s game and try to put it in my own — I don’t really just look at one person,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “As a young player in this league, that’s kinda how it is, a little inconsistent. But like I said, I’m still getting more comfortable with myself and my game.”

Although the Nets are headed into another offseason of uncertainty, they can rest assured knowing that a bigger and better LeVert will likely emerge next fall. It hardly matters if he’s filling in at point guard again or growing into his shoes out on the wing, LeVert will clearly play a large role in sculpting Brooklyn’s malleable future.

LeVert, as always, is up for the challenge.

“I still got a long ways to go, I’m still getting more comfortable, still growing into my body — but I’m ready for a big summer for sure.”

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