As the Cleveland Cavaliers await the winner of the Western Conference Finals and learn whether they will begin the 2016 NBA Finals on the road or at home, LeBron James, not surprisingly, has reentered the national conversation. In defeating the Toronto Raptors, James, has done something that this league hasn’t seen since 1966—he is heading to the Finals for a sixth consecutive year.
Regardless as to who their opponent may be, many people are already predicting the demise of the Cavaliers, with a select few looking at the prospect a 2-5 record in the NBA Finals as some sort of indictment against LeBron James’ individual greatness.
And while it is true that both James and the City of Cleveland have something major at stake in the 2016 NBA Finals, it is probably Kevin Love whose legacy will be most impacted.
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Ask Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant—being at the top of the game inevitably causes you to become polarizing. In that regard, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that many view James’ lack of success in the Finals as some sort of blemish on his record. They will go as far as to completely overlook the fact that Jordan needed Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman to win his championships while Kobe Bryant needed Shaquille O’Neal, Glen Rice, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum to win his.
James, for some reason, took the “easy way out” after it became obvious that the Cavaliers lacked the brainpower in the front office to get him a team actually capable of winning the entire thing. James “needing” Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win a pair of championships, for some reason, makes him less worthy than the likes of Jordan and Bryant.
And now, what most of the detractors will say, is that James—sensing that the Miami HEAT’s time had come and gone—decided to return to Cleveland merely because the prospect of teaming with their young nucleus gave him a better opportunity to collect a few more rings.
Winning the 2016 NBA Finals will enhance James’ legacy, certainly, but losing it should not allow anyone—even for a second—to try to convince themselves that James is not one of the top 10 NBA players in history.
Love, on the other hand? That’s a completely different story.
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Since being drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies with the fifth overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, Love’s true potential as a building block on the NBA level has been unclear. The Grizzlies ultimately decided that they would be better off trading Love to the Minnesota Timberwolves for O.J. Mayo, and to this point, Love has clearly had the superior career.
By his third year in the league, Love had been mentioned as being one of the top power forwards in the game, putting together an impressive junior year: 20.2 points, 15.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game on about 47 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent shooting from beyond the three-point line. Before long, even as Love became a more prolific scorer, people began to question whether his numbers were hollow. Despite being considered one of the best power forwards in the league, Love was never able to help the Timberwolves even qualify for the playoffs, much less contend.
When Love was finally traded to the Cavaliers for a package featuring Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, he left behind a reputation as being a malcontent, a player whose defensive deficiencies would always preclude his winning a championship and one who became increasingly polarizing.
It seems so long ago that the Warriors had to heavily weigh whether or not to trade Klay Thompson and David Lee for Love—a move that seems outrageous to even ponder today, especially after Thompson’s brilliant Game 6 performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Back in 2014, though, as it became clear that the Cavaliers were in fact making the move to form a triumvirate of James, Love and Kyrie Irving, Grantland ran a comprehensive piece discussing Love and the way in which he is viewed.
The gist of it was this: at the time, there were more than a few reasons to consider Love to be a “superstar,” but for each one of them, there was a very, very interesting rebuttal. The truth, then, was probably somewhere in the middle. Love, while certainly a useful player, was looked at by many as a player who had some talents, but one whose shortcomings essentially canceled out the positives that he brought to the table.
In other words, Love may be one of the few players in the league even capable of recording a 30-point, 30-rebound game, but what good are those stats if they can only come against woeful teams like the New York Knicks?
Since then, Love has slowly but surely become one of the more talked about players in the NBA. Kobe Bryant famously opined that the Cavaliers were making the same mistake in dealing Wiggins for Love that the Charlotte Hornets did back in 1996 when they agreed to trade Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac.
What’s amazing is, at this point, not much has changed. What has Love proven in the two years that he has worn a Cavaliers jersey?
Right now, the answer is “not much.”
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Over my years of covering the National Basketball Association, Chris Bosh has become one of my favorite people. I constantly chastise and call out many of today’s basketball observers for not being able to see past their own noses and view the bigger picture. Bosh is one of the most talented power forwards that this league has seen in quite some time and had proven that during his years with the Toronto Raptors. Then, suddenly, Bosh relocated to Miami, completely changed his game, became an unbelievably effective defender and, at the request of his coach, subjugated his personal want for touches and scoring opportunities for the betterment of the team.
Often, it almost seems as though we watch the game of basketball through some jilted prism where numbers are the only thing that determines one’s worth.
For Bosh, his true value to the Miami HEAT with LeBron James was with his ability to impact basketball games on multiple levels. Because of who James is as a player, he was and perhaps is most effective playing on the basketball. He has a rare combination of size, strength and athleticism that makes him a matchup nightmare for just about everyone. Those that are quick enough to stay in front of James usually lack the girth required to provide any resistance, while those that possess the girth simply can’t stay in front of him.
Early on, that was the quandary that Bosh was faced with. Having developed primarily as a post-scorer, Bosh needed to find a way to co-exist with James and he did so beautifully. His immediately reverting to a primary scoring option for the HEAT after James’ departure proved that the scoring talent hadn’t gone anywhere, it was just strategically suppressed.
The harmony in the HEAT locker room and their brilliant four-year run, to me, was further evidence of Bosh truly “getting it” as a professional basketball player, his conscientiousness and ability to impact a game on multiple levels.
Now, as the 2016 NBA Finals are set to tip off, Love hasn’t really proven anything. Across the league, he is still viewed as someone who doesn’t deserve the moniker of being a “superstar” and he is still a player, unlike James, who is trying to prove his worth.
What makes Love’s situation in Cleveland ever more interesting is the fact that he was traded for Wiggins. Until he retires, Love with be connected with Wiggins in a way that he will be unable to escape the comparisons to the neophyte who may be on the cusp of superstardom, especially as Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns form the nucleus of what should be a formidable core in Minneapolis.
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Agreed, Kevin Love wasn’t the player whose high school games were televised nationally and he doesn’t have a “chosen one” tattoo. He never signed up to wear Michael Jordan’s number and he never called himself the “greatest player in the world” in a press conference.
But still, without any rings of his own, without any First All-NBA Team selections and without being universally regarded as a superstar, there are still just as many questions about Kevin Love as there were when he was acquired by the Cavaliers two years ago.
After sustaining a dislocated shoulder in the first round of last year’s playoffs, finally, the opportunity for redemption has arrived.
Finally, Love will have the opportunity to answer some questions.
And finally, if the city of Cleveland is fortunate, he will prove to have been a worthy investment.
NBA Daily: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role
Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.
It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.
Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.
Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.
Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.
“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”
The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.
His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.
“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”
Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.
In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.
“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”
Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.
“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”
The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”
With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.
By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.
For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.
A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.
6. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)
Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.
This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.
Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.
Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.
Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.
The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.
In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.
After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.
Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.
Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.
Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.
Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.
At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.
The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.
Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.
As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.
After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.
No big deal.
That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.
Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.
Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.
The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.
James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.
Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.
What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.
On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.
LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.
NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?
The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?
At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work
The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?
Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.
All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:
Not Enough Touches
The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.
That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.
It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.
That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.
Russ Has To Be Russ
When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.
The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.
Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.
Where’d Offense Go?
The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.
Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.
It’s Not A Selfish Problem
The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.
Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.
But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.
All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.
It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.
That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.
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