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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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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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