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NBA Sunday: Learn From Lance Stephenson

Paul Millsap bet on himself and won. Lance Stephenson, a cautionary tale for all players, hasn’t been as lucky.

Moke Hamilton

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After being selected with the No. 47 overall pick of the 2006 NBA Draft, Paul Millsap slowly but surely carved out a niche for himself with the Utah Jazz. He spent a few years playing behind Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer before eventually emerging as a starter in the wake of Boozer’s 2010 departure.

In July 2013, after proving he was an impact player at the NBA level, Millsap agreed to what many believed was a below-market contract with the Atlanta Hawks: $19 million over two years. After playing out those two seasons, Millsap re-signed with the Hawks in July 2015 on a three-year deal worth $60 million.

It was a rare instance when a player “betting on himself” and opting for a shorter-term contract for less money paid off in the end. Not every player is as fortunate.

Just ask Lance Stephenson.

* * * * * *

Like Millsap, Stephenson was a second-round pick who found success in the NBA. Playing under Frank Vogel in Indianapolis, Stephenson had some freedom to utilize his gifts on the floor but, somehow, remained disciplined enough on both ends to not be a detriment to his team.

After experiencing some success with the Pacers, Stephenson sought a new contract and opted to bypass the five-year, $44 million offer that the Pacers made to retain him in July 2014. Instead, Stephenson chose to sign with the Charlotte Hornets on a three-year deal worth $27 million. It was a rare occurrence where a non-superstar opted for a shorter-term contract, believing it to be in his best long-term financial interest. He thought he’d thrive in Charlotte, then the market when his individual stock and the NBA’s salary cap were significantly higher.

LanceStephensonInside1Clearly, this was a grave mistake, especially considering that the third year of the contract was a team option.

Since packing his bags for Charlotte, Stephenson has been traded twice. First, the Hornets sent him to the L.A. Clippers in exchange for Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes. Eight months later, the Clippers sent him to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Jeff Green.

After a somewhat uneventful tenure in Memphis, the Grizzlies declined that third-year option on Stephenson’s contract. After the first week in August, he remains a free agent whose options appear to be extremely limited.

Not every free agent winds up being as productive and as fortunate as Paul Millsap, so Stephenson should serve as a cautionary tale to every player who considers leaving guaranteed money on the table.

Other cautionary tales include J.R. Smith, Josh Smith and Ty Lawson. In their own right, each player has had personality or disciplinary issues in the past. J.R. Smith was obviously a key contributor on the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 championship team, but the fact that he remains unsigned by the team after the first week in August may not bode positively for his future there and it certainly doesn’t bode well for his marketability or bargaining power.

Since leaving the Atlanta Hawks for the Detroit Pistons back in July 2013, Josh Smith has been descending dramatically. His minutes and productivity have decreased and he is no longer viewed as a player who makes a positive difference on the court. Things were so bad with Smith in Detroit that Stan Van Gundy opted to waive him and pay out the remaining $26 million owed to him under the terms of his contract to get him off the roster. The Pistons have been a much better team since that move, and the stench has remained with Smith.

Ty Lawson, unlike the J.R. and Josh Smith, had more than just personality and personnel issues in the NBA. Lawson, quite notably, was arrested multiple times. His two latest arrests occurred in 2015 and, over the years, Lawson has had numerous issues with driving under the influence. Where he is similar to Stephenson, however, was his willingness to bet on himself. He was desperately needing a change of scenery from the Denver Nuggets and gave up guaranteed money to make that move happen. Lawson had agreed to a four-year, $44 million extension with the Nuggets in October 2012, but as a condition of the July 2015 trade that sent Lawson to the Houston Rockets, he agreed to waive the $13 million guaranteed salary that he was entitled to for the 2016-17 season under the terms of the extension he signed with the Nuggets. The Rockets subsequently waived Lawson and that $13 million is money that he’ll likely never recoup.

Each of the aforementioned players have had success at various points while in the NBA, but it has not been easy for any of the four to find work lately. In today’s NBA, after seeing the San Antonio Spurs reign, the prevailing belief across league circles is that building a winning team and an elite franchise starts with high-character players and a strong culture.

While every player deserves a second chance (and most do get second chances), recurring disciplinary issues or episodes can be fatal to a career. Or, at least, hurt a player’s wallet and end their days of being a powerful earner.

The bright side for a player like Stephenson is that the NBA’s salary cap is expected to continue to rise. Over the course of the next year, the NBA and the Players Association will have more conversations related to the league’s collective bargaining agreement. If a new agreement is ratified, the cap calculations and mechanics may change. However, if the current system remains substantially similar to any new system that may be implemented, there will be opportunities in abundance.

* * * * * *

With a $94 million salary cap taking effect for the 2016-17 season and each team being required to spend about $85 million on payroll, scores of players have easily found rich deals. Aside from Mike Conley’s record-setting five-year, $153 million contract, other players such as Timofey Mozgov ($16 million), Ian Mahinmi ($16 million), Bismack Biyombo ($18 million), Chandler Parsons ($23 million) and Harrison Barnes ($23 million) have each found lucrative paydays.

Next summer, the most conservative cap estimates have the additional cap increase brought forth by the influx on new television money at $8 million. In other words, in July 2017, there will be more money available and higher dollar amounts given out. For a player like Stephenson (as well as J.R. Smith, Josh Smith and Ty Lawson), the availability of that money could signify another opportunity to cash in and resume what seemed to once be very promising, very lucrative careers.

However, in the interim, each players has to prove that they can stay out of trouble and contribute to a winning environment. Heading overseas is an option and so is taking a one-year contract with the hopes of cashing in next summer. One thing that recent history has shown us, however, is that once a player accepts a minimum contract, it is difficult for him to “unbrand” himself as being a “minimum” player. It was that exact fear that prevented Steve Nash from taking far below his market value in the sign-and-trade deal that was eventually agreed to by him involving the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers back in July 2012.

Back then, Nash seemed to know what many of today’s players don’t fully understand: tomorrow is promised to no one. Interestingly enough, the Nash acquisition was a disaster for the Lakers. They surrendered four draft picks in exchange for Nash (first-round selections in 2013 and 2015 and second-round selections in 2013 and 2014) and agreed to pay him $27 million over three years. During his time there, Nash would appear in only 65 games due to injuries and didn’t come anywhere close to producing like he did with the Suns.

On a personal level, Nash won. Those years had to be frustrating, but he has a lot of money to show for them. And if there is one thing all other players should learn from Lance Stephenson, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith and Ty Lawson still searching for jobs after the first week in August, the first would be to keep your nose clean and the second would be to take the money and run when faced with the opportunity.

As the Atlanta Hawks waived goodbye to Al Horford and Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap has suddenly emerged as one of the elder statesmen in Mike Budenholzer’s lineup. He bet on himself years ago, and he won.

But make no mistake, that isn’t the norm for non-superstars in today’s NBA.

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NBA PM: Utah Jazz 2017-18 Season Preview

Can the depth of the Jazz keep them in contention in a very tough Western Conference? We take a look.

Basketball Insiders

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It’s not often that a mid-tier playoff team loses its top two nightly scorers in free agency and still retains a puncher’s chance at the playoffs, especially not in the West, but the Utah Jazz could be one such team. Gordon Hayward and George Hill both went elsewhere this summer, but with arguably the game’s top defender in Rudy Gobert still in town and a smart offseason following those departures, Utah should still be squarely in the playoff picture out West.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Utah’s worst nightmare became a reality this summer when franchise player Gordon Hayward opted to join his old college coach Brad Stevens in Boston.

Along with losing Hayward, George Hill also opted to move on from the Jazz, leaving a core that had surprised many in the NBA last season and looked poised to rattle the cages of the Western Conference’s powerhouses this year a shell of what it once was.

However, despite the losses, Utah did manage to make a deal for Ricky Rubio to assume their point guard duties. Donovan Mitchell also showed an impressive skillset in Summer League play, suggesting maybe that he could become a cornerstone in the next Jazz core.

Unfortunately, the loss of Hayward and Hill, coupled with the heightened intensity of the West may be too much for the Jazz to overcome and could leave them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture this season.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

It’s hard to imagine the Utah Jazz getting better in the wake of losing George Hill and Gordon Hayward, but they still managed to come away from this offseason looking like a team that plans on being a pain in the rear end to every other team in the toughest division in basketball. Ricky Rubio has joined the crew, for example, and rookie Donovan Mitchell looked in Summer League like one of the steals of the lottery. There still is everything to love about Rudy Gobert, but the real question for Utah’s potential success this season is how much better Rodney Hood can be in an expanded role. Like it or not, he’s sort of the new Gordon Hayward, and those are big shoes to fill.

5th place — Northwest Division

— Joel Brigham

The Utah Jazz lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill from last season’s squad. To be sure, these are two big losses for Utah. However, the team added Ricky Rubio and have a few candidates to step in and fill the void left by Hayward. The team is still surprisingly deep but injuries have plagued Utah in recent seasons. With some better luck with health and some internal improvement from players like Rodney Hood and Dante Exum, Utah could still be a dangerous team in the Western Conference. Defense will be the foundation of this team’s success, especially with the additions of Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha. However, we can’t pretend like the loss of Hill and Hayward in particular isn’t a big deal. How Utah responds to these departures will say a lot about the character and resiliency of this young, talented squad.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

Even after managing the loss of their two highest nightly scorers last season reasonably well, the 2017 offseason counts as a gut punch for the Jazz. Both Gordon Hayward and George Hill chose elsewhere to play their ball moving forward, gutting a core that some predicted was capable of making a conference finals appearance. The Jazz did well in their stead, trading for Ricky Rubio and making some smart signings in Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh – they should once again be one of the deepest teams in the NBA. Rookie Donovan Mitchell impressed at summer league and could be ready to contribute right away off the bench, and guys like Dante Exum and Alec Burks are eager to prove their worth in vital seasons.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

I don’t think I have much of a choice but to pick the Jazz to finish as one of the two lower seeds out in the Northwest. The Thunder and the Timberwolves have each improved immensely this offseason, while I simply think that the Blazers are more talented than their .500 record last season suggests, especially with the addition of Jusuf Nurkic.

I will say this: I grossly underestimated these guys last season and didn’t expect them to escape the first round against the Clippers. I was wrong then and could certainly be wrong now, but I simply don’t think they’ll be as good. In the end, whether the Jazz can replicate last season’s success will depend in large part on whether rookie Donovan Mitchell (who lit up the summer league) and Rodney Hood are as good as everything thinks they are. Hood will be carrying a lot of weight, but if Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha can each stay healthy, I’m pretty sure these guys still make the playoffs.

4th place — Northwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Rodney Hood

The argument could be made for Rudy Gobert here after a thoroughly excellent and underrated offensive year last year, but as the Stifle Tower takes the cake in our next section easily, we’ll leave him for a moment. Hood, on the other hand, badly needs the kind of breakout year Gobert had last year. He’s shown the skills to be a primary NBA scorer since he entered the league as a rookie, but his issues have always been about consistency – both in his play and his health.

Now he needs to put it together for a full season, and he needs to do so without a guy like Gordon Hayward often next to him on the wing. Hood has proven capable as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and as a spot-up shooter, so he should work well in lineups with Ricky Rubio. How he fares this year could go a long way to defining Utah’s season.

Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert

Not much needs to be said here. Coming off a second-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting and consistently ranking near the top of the league in every reliable defensive metric, Gobert is one of the league’s most complete and terrifying defenders. He’s the best rim protector in the league, and has worked hard the last couple years at adding enough mobility to his game to survive in the movement-heavy modern game. He could be in for an even bigger year defensively after Utah’s summer additions, particularly Ricky Rubio – one of the first elite-level point guard defenders Gobert will have had the chance to play with.

Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio

Speaking of Rubio, the Jazz will look to him to fill the void filled by Hill – and when it comes to a playmaking role, to add to it. Rubio actually averaged double Hill’s per-minute assist total last year, and while some of this speaks to their respective roles, Utah will be hoping he can bring the kind of primary playmaking they’ve been without for quite a while. His pick-and-roll prowess should improve the quality of looks for bigs like Gobert, a tantalizing thought given that Gobert already led the entire league in True Shooting percentage last year. Rubio should also open up Utah’s running game a bit in transition.

Top Clutch Player: Joe Johnson

Despite the presence of Hayward and Hill on the roster, Iso Joe was far and away Utah’s most reliable clutch option last season – and one of the most consistent in the entire league. He posted an outrageous 53-62-100 shooting line in the final five minutes of games with the score within five points, per NBA.com. For those unfamiliar with shooting lines, that means 53 percent from the field, 62 percent from three, and 100 percent from the free-throw line.

Johnson was one of Utah’s only guys capable of creating his own look consistently, a role that will only grow with Hayward no longer in the picture. His presence in crunch time lineups means at least one other well-known name is likely on the bench, but how can coach Quin Snyder leave him off the court in these moments after last year?

The Unheralded Player: Derrick Favors

Lost in a successful year and a crazy offseason was Favors, who as recently as 18 months ago was considered by many to be Utah’s best player on a team that still featured Hayward and Gobert. Favors just couldn’t get healthy last year, with a series of maladies keeping him either off the court or well below 100 percent. He’s spent the offseason working his tail off, though, plus honing a three-point shot that should keep him on the floor if spacing gets cramped with guys like Rubio and Gobert on the floor. He’s in a vital contract year, one where he has to prove he’s both healthy and skilled enough to continue making a big impact. If he’s good physically, don’t be shocked to see his name in the Most Improved conversation come midseason.

Best New Addition: Thabo Sefolosha

We could give this one to Rubio, Jonas Jerebko or even first round draft pick Donovan Mitchell, but Sefolosha gets the nod. He’s a versatile, talented wing defender who will fit right into Snyder’s schemes and provide a big upgrade at the point of attack defensively. Sefolosha has become a capable mid-30s three-point shooter, a fact that makes him a good candidate for small-ball lineups where he, Johnson or Joe Ingles plays the power forward position (these could be some of Utah’s best lineups, as they were last year). He’ll be a primary cog in some of Utah’s most versatile lineups.

– Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

1. Joe Ingles

Ingles didn’t show up for any of our sections above, but there’s a good reason for that: His best talent is likely his versatility. Jingles did a bit of everything last year: He was one of the league’s top spot-up three-point specialists (he shot 46 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, per SportVU data – in the league’s top 10); he ran pick-and-roll sets patiently and efficiently; he was perhaps Utah’s top perimeter defender, a trump card Snyder loved to use in unorthodox situations, including against point guards; he led the team in steals on the year. After signing a deserved extension in the offseason, Ingles will be counted on to continue all this while also providing his unique brand of leadership in a locker room that needs it.

2. Quin Snyder

Entering his fourth season at the helm in Utah, Snyder has consistently shown an ability to get the most out of his rosters. He’ll have another challenge this year after Utah’s offseason departures, but if anyone is up to it, it’s this guy. His defenses are consistently among the most disciplined in the league, and his offensive sets make lemonade even when there are limited lemons available. It will be fascinating to see how much, if at all, his offense changes with guys like Hayward and Hill gone and Rubio now in town.

3. Donovan Mitchell

Utah’s summer sensation was Mitchell, who was selected 13th in the 2017 Draft after a draft day trade and then lit it up at summer league. Mitchell should step right into the NBA as a plus defender, with a fantastic 6-foot-10 wingspan that sneakily makes him more than capable of checking bigger wings – he completely shut down Celtics draftee Jayson Tatum in Jazz Summer League despite giving up nearly half a foot in height. He’s a strong, energetic presence sure to endear himself to the Jazz fanbase, and already has a fantastic potential future as a shooter. If he can refine some of his decision-making and shot selection as a ball-handler over the next few years, he could be a borderline star. For now, he should fit in as a great two-way option who adds some more versatility in Utah.

4. Dante Exum

It’s put up or shut up time for Exum in Utah as he enters his fourth season, and last under his rookie contract. The Aussie has had a tumultuous developmental curve since entering the league, but after finally having a full offseason to train with Jazz coaches and get his game to a new level, the Jazz are expecting big things. Exum has the profile to play both guard spots with elite defensive chops, and he showcased an improved handle and jumper at summer league. He’ll likely enter the season without a rookie extension in place, meaning how much he can make in restricted free agency may depend on what he can show this year.

5. The Depth

Despite their offseason losses, the Jazz are once again positioned to be one of the deepest teams in the league. Guys like Sefolosha, Exum, Mitchell, Jerebko, Alec Burks, and even Raul Neto all have either played quality minutes in the NBA or shown the legitimate potential to do so, and each of these names should be coming off Utah’s bench. The Jazz will hope for better injury luck than they’ve had in recent seasons, of course, but they’re reasonably well-positioned to deal with any losses (besides Gobert) should they arise.

– Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Jazz dropped under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap to sign players like Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko, after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency to the Boston Celtics. The team used most of their Room Exception on Ekpe Udoh, leaving just $1.1 million to spend. All three signings have non-guaranteed salary for the 2018-19 season. Prior to July, Utah acquired Ricky Rubio via trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, they’re at $109.7 million in payroll with 15 guaranteed contracts (along with non-guaranteed Raul Neto and Naz Long, both of whom have long odds of making the roster). Before the start of the season, both Dante Exum and Rodney Hood are eligible for extensions. Next summer, the Jazz can get to roughly $27 million in space, assuming they cut their non-guaranteed players and let both Exum and Hood walk as free agents.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Defense and depth are the two primary strengths for this team. They’re heavy favorites to finish with a top-five defense as long as Gobert is healthy, and as we noted above, they can withstand just about any other injury for at least a short period. They’re also a stronger shooting team than people might realize – in Ingles, Hood, Johnson, Burks and likely Mitchell, they’ve got five strong spot-up shooters, at least a couple of whom should be on the floor at all times. Coaching is another strength for the Jazz, with Snyder growing more comfortable in his role each year.

– Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Gobert is a star whether people prefer to call him that or not, but Hayward’s departure did rob the Jazz of their go-to offensive option. Utah is definitely weaker when it comes to high-level creation, even with the additions they made over the offseason. They’ve traditionally been a very bad team in offensive transition as well – how much that changes this year, and whether Snyder chooses to emphasize it more, could have a large effect on where they finish the year offensively.

– Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can depth, coaching and defense offset Utah’s big summer losses and keep them in the playoff picture?

The Jazz lost nearly 40 points a night from last season when Hayward and Hill bolted town. They did a lot of great things after that point, but it’s fair to question where that production will come from and whether the additions are enough to offset it. The defense should still be excellent, but it can afford zero slippage if this is going to be a playoff team. Can Rubio and Gobert plus a healthy Favors and Hood propel Utah to something close to a league-average offense to supplement it, or will they fall closer to the bottom-10 range? This is what will ultimately define their season, and could determine whether they make the playoffs in a loaded West middle. There are a ton of variables at play in Utah this season. It’ll be fascinating to see how they play out.

-Ben Dowsett

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Cleveland Cavaliers 2017-18 Season Preview

Despite three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers open the season with a lot of new faces. What will it mean for their quest for another title?

Basketball Insiders

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The defending Eastern Conference Champions and NBA Finals runner-ups are looking to return to the big stage in what could theoretically be LeBron James’ final season with the organization. Changes over the summer have tinkered with the roster quite a bit to make the team deeper and more versatile. With multiple assets at their disposal and a team ready for a run at another title, the Cavaliers are arguably in a better position than they were before.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

When the final buzzer sounded to end the 2017 NBA Finals, I can’t imagine LeBron James thought his starting point guard this season would be Isaiah Thomas instead of Kyrie Irving.

In fact, I don’t think anyone could have imagined that. However, here we are.

The new look Cavs will still be their familiar selves when it comes to dominating the Eastern Conference, because they still have the best player on the planet. Throw in Thomas, Jae Crowder, and now even that tantalizing Brooklyn Nets pick, and for the first time in the James Era, Cleveland may be in a decent position should James decided to take his talents elsewhere once again.

But, for this season at least, the Cavs are still the cream of the crop in the East.

1st place — Central Division

— Dennis Chambers

So, what happens if Isaiah Thomas ends up hardly playing this season? We all know that LeBron James is good enough to will any garbage dump of a roster to the playoffs, and the Cavaliers are pretty far from garbage dump status. Kevin Love is still there, after all. So are J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert. They also added Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon to shore up that backcourt while Thomas heals, and nobody doubts that Jae Crowder will be an asset. I’m just not sure they’re the East’s best team without Kyrie Irving or Isaiah Thomas. Boston and Washington are going to nag at them all season long, making the Eastern Conference more wide open than it ever has been.

1st Place – Central Division

– -Joel Brigham

Nothing like a quiet offseason, right?

There never seems to be a shortage of drama in The Land, and the summer of 2017 was no exception. Kyrie Irving is gone, replaced with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a vital Nets 2018 pick. Thomas’ hip is a huge question mark, with no clear answers emerging about when – or if – he might be 100 percent. Loud rumors are swirling about LeBron James’ future in Cleveland once again. Meanwhile, the Warriors only got better over the summer. Most of the big questions in Cleveland won’t be answered until spring, but they’ll be a fascinating group to watch all year long. One thing to watch from the start: How does youngster Cedi Osman perform on the wing in his rookie season?

1st Place – Central Division

— Ben Dowsett

Kryie Irving is now a Boston Celtic and Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose now man the point guard position for Cleveland. Thomas’ hip injury is problematic and it’s not clear when, or if, he will ever make a full recovery. Rose has been inconsistent in recent seasons and is always a risk to miss time with injuries. However, Cleveland added Jae Crowder in the deal, which should be a big boost for the Cavaliers on both ends of the court. Crowder is a solid three-point shooter and a versatile defender. Crowder can plug effectively into small ball lineups and take on tough defensive assignments, which should help preserve LeBron throughout the season. The Cavaliers will miss Irving, but if Thomas can overcome his hip injury and Crowder maintains his usual level of play, Cleveland will likely be as dangerous as last season, if not more so.

1st Place – Central Division

— Jesse Blancarte

With Kyrie Irving’s talents having been sent to Boston, the Cavaliers enter the 2017-18 season as potentially assisting their own demise. The squad has won the Eastern Conference three years in a row, and although most would expect them to make it four, the Celtics will likely have something to say about that.

Until then, though, there probably won’t be much drama in the Eastern Conference.

Despite everything that has transpired over this offseason, the Cavs are probably entering the season as a team that has been weakened without Irving, but one that may be better equipped for long-term success. While that will depend upon the extent to which Isaiah Thomas is able to replicate Irving’s production, most of the new faces brought in to Cleveland—Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green—address an area of weakness for the team.

Even if this does end up being LeBron James’ final season in Ohio, there’s no doubt he’s walking away with another division title, if not a lot more.

1st place — Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LeBron James

Pointing out the obvious, the four-time MVP led the Cavaliers to their third straight championship appearance by breezing right by the East. Due to constant nagging injuries to key pieces during the season, James once again had to bear the responsibility of leading the wine and gold.

He didn’t disappoint. In his 14th year as a pro, LeBron averaged a team-high 37.8 minutes per game over a 74-game span and put up some ridiculous numbers in the process. As he’s gotten older, the 32-year-old superstar has evolved into deadly shooter beyond the arc in addition to his elite scoring ability driving to the hole. With his former right-hand man off to literal greener pastures in Boston, there should be plenty of motivation for James to continue his tear and prove that there won’t be a drop-off in his game anytime soon.

Top Defensive Player: Jae Crowder

Is there any question who takes the cake here? For a number of years now, Cleveland has desperately lacked a true wing to offer a threat on both sides of the floor. Crowder fits that bill to a tee.

Ranking 20th in ESPN’s real plus-minus system, he was an essential part of Brad Stevens’ best defensive units. In his final season with Boston, the versatile forward led the team in net rating. While Crowder was on the floor, the Celtics were 7.8 points better per 100 possessions. When he sat, that number was -3.9, which is a whopping difference of 11.7 points per 100 possessions just by whether Crowder was on the court or not. The Cavaliers have never had anybody with that kind of impact defensively at forward or any position, for that matter. His arrival might be the most important return from the Kyrie Irving trade considering the depth and impact he will provide.

Top Playmaker: LeBron James

Let’s be real—LeBron has to be in at least two categories at the top of the list. Putting it simply, the man makes everyone around him look great on the floor. His presence influences all of his teammates and it shows on the hardwood.

As the best player in the world, he has a beautiful basketball mind that allows him to make split-second decisions in an instant. James also has the physical attributes and skills to execute those thoughts going through his head. That’s a deadly combination to possess. Whether it’s scoring in isolation, feeding his guys, grabbing rebounds, playing the passing lanes, or sprinting the length of the floor for a chase-down block, LeBron is as versatile as they can possibly come.

Top Clutch Player: Isaiah Thomas

Losing Irving is a punch to the gut, but replacing him with Thomas actually gives Cleveland a slight improvement when the lights get brighter. Most NBA enthusiasts can recall a ridiculous stretch in the wintertime when the All-Star point guard was all of a sudden dubbed, “King of the Fourth.”

In crunch time, he was on a mission. The 5-foot-9 scoring assassin averaged 9.8 of his career-high 28.9 points per game in the final quarter and was relentless in getting to the free throw line, where he shot 89.3 percent. Thomas has no fear when the palms get sweaty and, once healthy, should provide some memorable moments again down the stretch.

The Unheralded Player: Channing Frye

Sample sizes matter, but statistically speaking, Frye was the only one to put forth a true shooting percentage (61.2) on par with James regarding playing the same amount of games. Always a reliable sharpshooter from deep, Frye was once again a key factor for Tyronn Lue’s second unit.

His defensive reputation must’ve played a factor in his lack of playing time deep into the playoffs and against Golden State. It certainly couldn’t have been his offensive output because he led the Cavaliers with a 51.3 three-point percentage in the postseason. Frye stepped in and started 15 games last year when the team needed him as well. The willingness of the veteran big to do his job while being a vital presence in the locker room is a testament to his professionalism.

Best New Addition: Brooklyn’s unprotected first round draft pick in 2018

There were plenty of moves over the offseason that helped Cleveland within the realm of the game itself, but if there has been a true improvement for the organization, it’s establishing a direction for the future.

Everybody is aware of the headlines and speculation regarding what LeBron will do after this season is over. The validity of these reports is unknown, but it’s clear as day that owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman are preparing for life without their franchise darling. Acquiring a surefire top-six pick to bring in young talent in next summer’s NBA Draft is a good way to ensure a potential rebuild starts off on the right foot. And should James commit to staying, there will be a lot of value attached to such an asset for a possible big move to keep the Cavaliers a contender. Either way, it was a job well done by the front office to be proactive in case the worst scenario happens.

— Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Kevin Love

It’s amazing how little love (no pun intended) a consistent double-double player like Love gets from people. He’s coming off a great season with the organization and seems extremely comfortable with his teammates, on and off the court. Entering his fourth year with Cleveland, it’s now apparent he’ll be even more involved as a focal point of the offense with new personnel. Lue has told reporters he expects Love to have potentially his best campaign since joining the Cavaliers. The team is going to run a lot of sets through the 29-year-old big man. As far as how much time at center he’ll see with Tristan Thompson holding it down, that’s up in the air. But if Crowder has enough synergy with LeBron, we might get a glimpse of Love at the five in the starting unit eventually.

2. Koby Altman

When the franchise announced it was parting ways with then-general manager David Griffin, there were a lot of question marks about what in the world the Cavaliers were going to do. After a drawn-out process, they found somebody in-house to help clean things up. Altman has done yeoman’s work in making this Cavaliers team better in free agency under difficult constraints. Through one-year veteran minimum deals, he was able to bring in three respectable players that are proven at this level. The rookie executive also completed a blockbuster deal that changed the direction of the organization and kept it a contender in the same breath. If this summer is an indication of what’s to come with Altman in charge, things are looking up for Cleveland if they need to make more moves.

3. J.R. Smith

Earlier this summer, Basketball Insiders ran a series of sleepers throughout each division. Smith was number one on the docket for the Central. Due to injuries and missing training camp over contract discussions, last season was a bit of an anomaly for the fan favorite. Until the playoffs, he never really got into the groove everyone had been used to seeing. Going into this year, Smith has a clean bill of health and is ready to get back to his usual self. Expect him to let it fly more often when he touches the ball.

4. Cedi Osman

The 22-year-old Turkish sensation is the crown jewel of the Cavaliers’ draft in 2015. Based on potential alone, he’s already one of the more exciting pieces of the future. Recently in the EuroBasket tournament, he made waves as one of the more athletic and aggressive wings in the field of FIBA talent. Osman is a highly touted, raw talent who is expected to be a versatile, two-way wing with size and thrives in the open floor. Nobody’s really sure about how much playing time he’ll see in his rookie year, but he’s definitely somebody to keep an eye on.

5. Jeff Green

Before Crowder came into the picture, it was assumed Green would be the one backing up James at the small forward position. Now that there’s a little more depth at forward, it should allow all three men to flourish in their roles. Green may not have had the best time in Orlando, but he never was really a good fit there. As a part of a championship-caliber squad, Green can provide a boost off the bench as a solid defender and a veteran that can space the floor. He’ll help in transition, too.

— Spencer Davies

SALARY CAP 101

The Cavaliers are deep into the luxury tax with at least $135.6 million invested in 17 players. Edy Tavares is non-guaranteed but $456,529 of Kay Felder’s $1.3 million is locked in. As a repeat-tax offender, Cleveland is looking at in the neighborhood of $50 million in penalties. While the Cavs have $2.6 million of their Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception left, along with multiple trade exceptions ($5.8 million the largest), the additional tax burden may inhibit further spending. The franchise is clearly in win-now mode but for how long, given LeBron James can opt out his contract after the season?

Without James, even if Iman Shumpert opts out of his $11 million deal next summer, the Cavs won’t have any significant spending power under the projected salary cap of $102 million. Additionally, Isaiah Thomas will be looking for a sizable raise as an unrestricted free agent next July.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Cavaliers are one big collection of players that thrive from the three-point line and in fast break situations. Lue is a huge proponent of playing with pace and puts more of an emphasis on the offensive side of the floor. They take and make efficient shots at a high clip. The acquisitions made over the summer have really bolstered the depth of the team as well, and it should allow starters to get a breather without worrying about falling into a hole. There’s a ton of rotational combinations possible now, which should serve well in dealing with different matchups.

— Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

Point guard is a huge question mark at this point and we’ll get to that next. Other than that, Cleveland needs to improve defensively as a unit. The new additions should help, but ranking in the bottom 10 of the NBA in defensive rating won’t cut it trying to dethrone the Warriors. A below league-average free throw percentage of 74.8 won’t get the job done, either.

— Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Derrick Rose fill the void of Isaiah Thomas until he’s healthy?

The concerns surrounding the short and long-term health of Thomas are very real. During the introductory press conference, reporters were hammering away at Altman and the player himself about a timetable for a return to the court. The truth is, the Cavaliers are going to take their time to ensure he’s 100 percent before joining the team, whenever that may be.

Until then, it’s on Rose to be the starting point guard. There has been a lot of chatter about how he won’t be able get the job done and numbers don’t tell the real story about his true value. Critics can have their opinions about him, and adjusting to a new system will likely take getting used to. But consider this—has he ever experienced being teammates with a player the caliber of LeBron James? The answer is no. We’ve known for almost his entire career that “The King” makes players around him better, so who says can’t he do the same for Rose? Playing with championship-caliber teammates on a team that has won a title can do wonders for a career.

Lue certainly understands the former MVP’s finishing abilities underneath and success in the mid-range pull-up game should help open things up in certain sets. The one-on-one defense leaves a lot to be desired because of those knee injuries, but as far as him being a stopgap starting point guard goes, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about for the Cavaliers. All you have to do is ask Thomas.

— Spencer Davies

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NBA

NBA AM: Taxation Without Title Contention

Nine teams are over the luxury tax heading into the 2017-18 season, but how many are title contenders?

Lang Greene

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It’s possible to ball on a budget. We’ve all been there—needing to stretch a few dollars out until the next flow of revenue is deposited into the coffers. There’s no shame in principled spending. But for some, budgets aren’t an issue.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, there are nine teams currently over the luxury tax threshold of $119.3 million. But how many of these teams are truly title contenders? How many of these squads really have 50-win potential? How many of these teams will be enjoying the playoff festivities from their couch come April 2018?

Today we’ll take a look at the top 10 highest team payrolls heading into the season and identify which teams are truly elite.

Franchise Total Salary
Golden State Warriors $138,797,751
Cleveland Cavaliers $137,889,758
Washington Wizards $128,850,208
Oklahoma City Thunder $128,827,539
Portland Trail Blazers $124,484,918
Los Angeles Clippers $123,664,492
Toronto Raptors $120,928,989
Charlotte Hornets $119,763,564
Houston Rockets $119,357,882
Milwaukee Bucks $118,898,623

 

Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Status:
Title Contender
2016-17 finish: NBA champions

The Warriors are roughly $20 million over the luxury tax with a payroll approaching $140 million, but the team is the prohibitive favorite to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season and hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy for the third time in this span.

The band is essentially back together from last year’s championship squad with the addition of sharpshooter Nick Young, veteran wing Omri Casspi and promising rookie Jordan Bell. It appears the only things that can stop this juggernaut is injury or ego.

Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Status:
Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Lost, NBA Finals to Golden State Warriors

Listen, LeBron James is still at the height of his powers, but the Cavaliers enter the campaign with more questions than answers. Will James re-sign with the franchise next summer in free agency? Can Isaiah Thomas replace Kyrie Irving without missing a beat? How long will it take for Thomas to return to full strength after a hip injury suffered at the end of last season? Will the team keep the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first round pick? Is Kevin Love off the trading block? The Cavaliers have the talent to compete at the highest of levels, but the team’s fabric could hanging on by its last thread.

Washington Wizards
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Wizards currently have five players earning over eight figure paydays this season. The center combination of Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi are making a shade less than $30 million combined. With Cleveland and Boston at the top of the Eastern Conference, Washington doesn’t have a clear shot to title contention but they do have a team poised for another playoff run.

Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

Oklahoma City Thunder fans have to be on pins and needles. On one hand, the team features two of the best players in the game in Russell Westbrook and Paul George. On the other, both guys could bolt in free agency next summer – sound familiar? If George and Westbrook mesh, the Thunder have the tools to give teams fits every night, but what’s the long-term outlook for the duo?

Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Blazers have elite talent in the backcourt led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, the supporting cast hasn’t been enough to push this team into the next tier. Defensively, the Blazers struggle to contain consistently and the team often finds itself in shootouts. That’s fine during the regular season, but as the club found out during last year’s playoffs versus Golden State, another gear is needed.

Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Status:
Playoffs are not a guarantee
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Clippers enter the season with plenty of questions. Key rotational players from recent years—Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick—are all in different uniforms. The team will rely heavy on forwards Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari, who have both been injury prone over the years. If one or both of these guys miss significant time, the Clippers could be on the outside looking in of the playoff chase.

Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

Some may brush off the Raptors as a legitimate threat, but one thing the team has going for it is team chemistry. While Cleveland and Boston will need time to incorporate new faces, the Raptors’ core is already familiar with one another. The Raptors have struggled tremendously in the playoffs, but sooner or later may experience the breakthrough.

Charlotte Hornets
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Missed Playoffs

The Hornets finished 10 games below .500 last season but believe the acquisition of former All-Star Dwight Howard will sure up their defense and get them back into the mix. Banking on Howard, now past his prime, is a gamble, but head coach Steve Clifford has worked with the big man before to solid results. Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum are solid talents at the top of the Hornets’ lineup, making a return to the playoffs a possibility this season.

Houston Rockets
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

Can the duo of All-Stars Chris Paul and James Harden work together in the backcourt? This is one of the most intriguing storylines entering the 2017-18 campaign. If the tandem works, the Rockets will compete at the top of the Western Conference.

Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Bucks are an enticing unit. But a lot of the team’s upside depends on the return of forward Jabari Parker from a knee injury. The team has length, youth and plenty of potential, but the unit is likely two to three years (and a couple of pieces) away from making big time noise in the postseason.

Competing that the highest level in the NBA costs, but simply spending a lot of money doesn’t guarantee results. In the case of these nine big spenders, however, their franchises hope it does. Time will tell.

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