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NBA Sunday: Cavaliers Quest For Repeat

Despite Kevin Durant’s move to the Warriors, the odds of the Cavaliers repeating may be higher than you’d think.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in disbelief. With tears in his eyes and the weight of the world off his shoulders, now, a three-time champion, the all-time great had never experienced this type of glee.

“Cleveland… This is for you!” LeBron James said.

It took the squandering of two 3-1 series leads and quite a few injuries for this dream to come to fruition, but at this moment in time, James had somehow further ascended. With the championship delivered to the City of Cleveland, he was now universally revered as a Top 10 player in NBA history.

Now, the question that everyone has about him and his Cavaliers is whether they can repeat.

And the easy answer is yes, they can.

* * * * * *

As Billy Hunter and David Stern sat across the table from one another, the message that Stern delivered from the league’s owners was clear. As a class, the league’s owners were sick and tired of the stark contrast between the contenders and pretenders. At best, four or five teams enter a season with any hope of winning a championship, and the system of haves and have nots saw the rise of a few perennial powers.

That line of thinking caused the league to play 16 fewer games during the 2011-12 season, but the truth is that it was all in vain. Sure, the league’s owners secured a larger share of the league’s basketball-related income, but in a league where the major talents still seem to be concentrated across four or five teams, little has been done to address the want for greater competitive balance. At the very least, that’s true as it relates to the cream of the crop.

So entering the 2016-17 season, aside from the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors were the only two other teams that Las Vegas seemed to think had a good shot at winning the championship this season. How Vegas didn’t consider the Clippers to be a solid contender is a question for another day, but one thing that we know for sure, is that Doc Rivers has his team motivated.

[RELATED: CHRIS PAUL’S QUIET MOTIVATION]

But despite what the other fringe contenders have done—the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies among them—the road to the championship still appears to go through Oakland and Cleveland. The gross majority of NBA pundits are predicting a third-consecutive matchup between LeBron James and Steph Curry, and in the early goings of the season, those seem like fairly safe bets.

Just as they did last season, though, the Cavaliers have quietly hummed along, coasting to a few victories out in the Eastern Conference. With health perhaps the biggest obstacle standing between them and a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals (and an unprecedented seventh straight for James), the pertinent question has become whether the Cavs would have a real opportunity to again surprise the Western Conference and walk away with all the marbles.

Again, the answer is yes, they can.

* * * * * *

As LeBron James became the youngest player in NBA history to score 27,000 points, the argument was made in this space that his greatness has become so regular that it is now taken for granted. Despite the many gifts that James has, though, his best gift always has and always will be his selflessness.

Over the years, we have seen quite a few players—perhaps due to their own insecurity—have trouble with passing the mantle. Immediately, Patrick Ewing and Kobe Bryant come to mind. In New York, many years ago, as Ewing’s knees and health deteriorated, many within the organization cited his desire to remain the team’s alpha male on the court as contributing to his famous fall out with the organization. In Los Angeles, we just spent an entire season watching Kobe Bryant bask in the spotlight that probably should have been shared with some of the younger talents that the Lakers had at their disposal.

Whether you agree with those characterizations or not, though, the important thing to realize about this year’s Cavaliers team is this: James is stepping aside and allowing Kyrie Irving to become the prominent offensive weapon for the team, much in the same manner that Dwyane Wade did for James back in Miami.

Through the early goings of the season, entering play on November 27, James is averaging a career-low 17.1 shot attempts per game. The 23.5 points per game he is averaging is the lowest output since the 20.9 points per game he averaged as a rookie.

KyrieIrvingInsideOnly1Meanwhile, Irving—who has long been regarded as a shoot-first point guard—is averaging 19.1 shots attempts per game. James is willingly stepping aside for Irving, and we are all witnesses. Irving’s 19.1 shots attempts per game, along with the 23.8 points per game he is averaging entering play on November 27 both represent career highs for the young point guard. And what’s most interesting about the dynamic between the two is that while James’ scoring and shot attempts are decreasing, he is seemingly working harder to help his team secure wins.

Interestingly enough, James—who has long been regarded as one of the finest all-around players the league has seen—is averaging 8.2 rebounds and 9.5 assists per contest. Again, both are career highs and are each substantially higher than the 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game he has averaged over the course of his 13-year career.

Obviously, what the Cavaliers are able to achieve this season begins and ends with James, but in his true fashion, he is quietly and humbly stepping aside to allow Irving to reach his true potential, and that’s indicated in the numbers. The want to win at all costs—even if it means regressing in the realm of scoring—is the greatest asset that the almost 32-year-old James can bring to a Cavaliers team that has a rising stud whose true potential is still unrealized.

* * * * * *

With the clock ticking and the game tied, Kyrie Irving stared Stephen Curry in the eyes, knowing that it was only him that stood in the way of Irving’s glory. With less than a minute remaining in the winner-take-all Game 7 for the ages, Irving rose majestically after getting Curry off-balance with a stutter-step. The rest is history.

As the Cavaliers trod on toward their opportunity to repeat as champions, the most obvious question is whether the Warriors will have an opportunity to avenge their shortfall.

Kevin Durant has bet the farm that they will.

In acquiring Durant, the Warriors were forced to sacrifice many of the players that made their team what it was. Those casualties have been replaced by pieces that are older, less athletic and more worn. Through the early goings, the returns for the Warriors have been excellent. The team enters play on November 27 with an 11-game win streak and will probably have more than one double-digit win streak this season. But ask yourself another question: what exactly have the Warriors done to address the issues that plagued them over the course of the 2016 NBA Finals?

Have the Warriors addressed the team’s seeming inability to stop LeBron James or Kyrie Irving when it counts most? Has the team done anything to address the lack of strength and intimidation that it lost once Andrew Bogut went down? Has the team been able to find a piece who could replicate the sheer energy, will and desire of Tristan Thompson to mix it up underneath in the waning moments of a hard-fought game?

The answer in each instance could reasonably be answered with a no, and that’s a concern for a dethroned champion whose flaws were uncovered in the most heartbreaking fashion.

By adding Durant, the Warriors have helped an already impressive offensive juggernaut become all the more impressive. On the other side of the ball, however, they remain vulnerable. Through the early going of the season, Steve Kerr’s team ranks 10th in defensive efficiency compared to fifth last season, while the club is averaging 44.1 rebounds per game—down from the 46.2 they averaged last season.

In effect, by adding Durant, the Warriors have doubled-down on the belief that if and when they need to, they can simply outshoot and outscore the opposition. It may be a good bet, but if there is one thing we learned from last season’s Finals, it’s that there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

With the Cavaliers boasting a battle-tested and unified core, a player in Irving who has proven that he can rise to the occasion and an unselfish superstar in James who is proving—before our very eyes—that he is willing to step aside and share the glory with his teammates, the Cavaliers remain a dangerous team that has shown the true grit and courage of a champion.

With their learned experience, we may be ignoring them again.

And in the end, just as we were last season, don’t be surprised if we all end up as witnesses, yet again.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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