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.
Meanwhile, 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.
NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity
The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?
The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.
“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.
Tyler Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday's game against the Bucks, still with no plans for an MRI on his sprained left ankle sustained Monday in Chicago. He remains with the team, which did not practice Tuesday.
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) January 16, 2018
Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.
“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”
Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.
“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”
Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.
“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”
Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.
“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”
The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.
NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?
Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?
Is It Time To Sell?
Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.
Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!
The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.
Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.
That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.
While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.
The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.
The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.
The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.
The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.
For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.
The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).
That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.
If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.
The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.
It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.
League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.
The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?
It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?
Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.
It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.
At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.
If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.
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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal
Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.
Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.
So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.
You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.
With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.
He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.
But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.
Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.
Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.
These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.
Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.
The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.
Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.
The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.