The sweat literally on his brow, DeMarcus Cousins didn’t even have time to wipe his face before he received news that seemingly took him by surprise.
“Oh really?” He asked.
The disappointment clearly visible on his face, in an instant, and much to his surprise, Cousins had learned that he had played his final game as a member of the Sacramento Kings. And just like that, in the aftermath of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, he was a member of the New Orleans Pelicans.
The All-Star had recently been assured by the Kings that they wouldn’t trade him, and they did so despite the fact that anyone who saw Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant leave their respective teams for nothing knew that it would be in the best interest of the franchise to do exactly that.
As LaMarcus Aldridge had done with the Portland Trailblazers about 18 months prior, out of fear of alienating their fans or scorching the earth upon which they would have to walk, a superstar simply has to say the right things.
One can only wonder whether or not Larry Bird has been paying attention. Because like it or not, the time has come for the Pacers to trade Paul George.
* * * * * *
The spry 20-year-old sat on the bench, waiting for his opportunity to make a difference.
He saw Tyler Hansbrough play minutes that could have been earmarked for him and saw Josh McRoberts, Brandon Rush and Mike Dunleavy run and gun with Darren Collison and Danny Granger.
Nobody knew back in 2010 that the rookie George would one day emerge as LeBron James’ only peer in the Eastern Conference. Nobody knew that, before Kawhi Leonard, it was he who would appear destined to become the next big thing. Indeed, nobody knew that George would recover so smoothly from what appeared to be a career-altering injury that it would become a mere footnote.
Now, right before his eyes, George has seen his Indiana Pacers go from being a team that challenges James for a right to play in the NBA Finals to one vainly hoping to avoid being swept by him in the first round. The Pacers have taken a few steps backward and seem to be behind scores of teams in the Eastern Conference in the “Who’s Next?” pecking order that is filing as James and his supposed demise inch closer.
Interestingly enough, here and now, the Pacers sit exactly where the Utah Jazz once sat with Deron Williams, and exactly where the Kings recently found themselves with Cousins.
In the end, after Cousins had been alerted of the trade, the pieces of substance he fetched in return for the Kings seemed underwhelming. The most gifted center in the entire league returned Buddy Hield and a protected first round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Sure, Langston Galloway and Tyreke Evans are each serviceable players, but neither would move the needle for the franchise with a playoff drought dating back to 2006.
Had the Kings been a tad bit more proactive and preemptive, they could have received much more. One can only wonder how closely Larry Bird and his Pacers have been watching.
This summer, should the Pacers decide to move on from George, what kind of return could they receive for him? Ask that question again after sifting through the numerous instances in which Magic Johnson, the recently installed president of basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers, has let it be known that George will be the apple of his eye the moment the he decides to test the market (George is under contract for the 2017-18 season and has a contract option to become a free agent prior to the 2018-19 season—an option he’s almost certain to exercise).
Magic and Bird have been competing against each other for decades. In some ways, it’s fitting for them to now be competing as executives, especially for Bird’s franchise player.
As has been the case in the past, though, it appears that Magic is destined to emerge the victor. One way or another.
For George, what reason is there to stay?
* * * * * *
Neither London nor Seattle can compete. Many consider rainfall to be a blessing. That being the case, in the aftermath of the NBA’s exploding cap, executives and general managers should be revered as messiahs.
With the NBA’s 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which will take effect on July 1, the rich will get richer. In the April 16 NBA Sunday column, we discussed the Designated Player Exception—a mechanism in the 2017 CBA that will allow an incumbent team like the Pacers to astronomically outbid contenders for one of their qualifying free agents. In short, the exception works like this: if a player accomplishes certain accolades, he will become eligible for a higher cumulative salary under the terms of his subsequent Bird contract. The mechanism became a part of the 2017 CBA as a result of the league wanting to further swing the financial pendulum in favor of an incumbent team wishing to re-sign their franchise player.
In other words, based on both Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant leaving more guaranteed money on the table by opting to take their talents to Houston and Oakland, we have seen that a superstar isn’t afraid of walking away from a few dollars.
Obviously, $30 million isn’t enough to make today’s NBA superstar flinch. That can be recouped. But what about $80 million? With George becoming the first to test the theory, we’re about the find out.
In essence, whether or not George will qualify as a “designated player” hinges on whether or not he makes an All-NBA team this season. He faces stiff competition from the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward. George may not qualify, especially since his Pacers barely snuck into the playoffs.
If he doesn’t qualify, the Pacers would still be able to outbid the Lakers for George when the time comes. But again, Howard and Durant have already shown us that the fifth guaranteed year and bigger raises won’t necessarily be enough to keep a free agent home if his heart is truly abroad.
Should George qualify, which doesn’t appear very likely, the Pacers (or whichever team holds his Bird rights, if he’s traded) would be able to offer George a five-year contract that, in total, would exceed $200 million. Other teams wouldn’t be able to offer much more than about $130 million over four years.
The common thought from most would be that the Pacers should sit back and wait and see how the voting shakes out and, if George improbably steals an All-NBA spot from one of the six aforementioned forwards, hold onto him and hold steadfast to the belief that he wouldn’t turn down the extra $75 million.
While possibly true, the truth for the Pacers would be somewhere in the middle. The franchise should hope that George does qualify, and then trade him, anyway. Remember, the NBA is a two-way street.
If Magic Johnson is as hot for George as he has led the public to believe, the prospect of the Pacers being able to offer George such a higher sum would probably make Johnson more desperate to trade for him than attempt to win his services via free agency. Obviously, signing George as a free agent would make the Lakers a stronger team, as they wouldn’t be required to part with any of the members of their young core in receiving him. However, the ability to avoid the bidding war on a 27-year-old player who has already proven capable of shouldering the burden for a franchise would be enticing to Magic. That George is a native of Los Angeles would only bolster the credibility and support that he would have with Lakers fans from day one.
In other words, the Pacers find themselves in an interesting situation. If George fails to qualify for an All-NBA team, they wouldn’t be able to offer him substantially more than any other team, lessening the probability of re-signing him when the time comes. If he does qualify, in theory, it would bolster their ability to re-sign him since they could offer him the highest sum. However, it would increase the potential return they could get by trading him. Magic, as well as any other rival executive that was interested in his services, would be willing to part with more assets out of a desire to avoid being outbid via free agency.
It is the epitome of irony. The mechanism that would allow the Pacers to pay George far more than any competitor is the same mechanism that would allow them to maximize the return that he could fetch. You’ve gotta love the NBA.
With things taking a turn for the worst in Indiana and George entering what will likely be the final year of his contract, it’s simply time for Larry Bird to bite the bullet and trade his franchise player as soon as he can. The longer he waits, the less leverage he has. Between now and then, Bird should hope that George qualifies as a designated player, because interestingly enough, doing so would maximize the return he would net.
* * * * * *
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the Pacers were riding high atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference and had many convinced of their ability to topple the mighty Miami HEAT. Just a few short years later, Frank Vogel is coaching in Orlando, David West is chasing a championship ring in Oakland and Roy Hibbert is playing for his third team since being traded by the Pacers back in 2015.
Two things are promised in the NBA: change and history repeating itself. The Pacers have already seen the changes that go hand-in-hand with running a franchise. Now, with George, as the Rockets saw with Howard and the Kings with Cousins, history is indeed giving us a rerun.
The wise man learns from his own mistakes, but the wiser man learns from the mistakes of others.
By the time next season begins, we will have learned whether Larry Bird is as smart as we have all been led to believe.
NBA Daily: Andrew Wiggins Clicking in Ryan Saunders’ System
We’ve seen a different Andrew Wiggins this season, one more aggressive and confident than ever before. Douglas Farmer examines what has enabled those changes and what it could mean for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
As the calendar flipped from 2018 to 2019, Andrew Wiggins had dismissed Minnesota Timberwolves fans with profanity.
As he closed out the year with just five of 12 free throws made, in a three-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Minnesota and Target Center faithful reigned boos down on the former top pick. As far as Wiggins was concerned, the boos revealed those fans’ true character.
But, just 11 games into the 2019-20 season, those same fans have showered Wiggins with praise on a semi-regular basis. When he went for 40 points in an overtime victory against the Golden State Warriors on Friday, Wiggins’ postgame interview was interrupted by their cheers, a moment he openly relished. Wednesday’s blowout of the San Antonio Spurs was more of the same, capped off with a standing ovation.
Wiggins’ unexpected development this season, particularly in the last five games, is certainly fraught with the “small sample size” qualifier and concerns of sustainability. In fact, that binary change from the crowd may be the most surprising part of it all.
But, so far, Wiggins has looked like a truly transformed player and, over the last five games, has reversed course to become a crowd favorite, a clutch player and a decent distributor. Even Timberwolves’ head coach Ryan Saunders couldn’t have seen such a drastic change coming so quickly.
To start the season, Wiggins missed his first 13 attempts from beyond the arc, including six to start Minnesota’s home opener against the Miami HEAT. If the boos hadn’t come, it was only because the Timberwolves had stayed close to Miami in spite of Wiggins.
Then he hit a 3 off a cross-court pass from Robert Covington.
And, with that, the floodgates broke open. In the next few minutes, Wiggins hit another three shots from deep to put the HEAT away, the second game he closed for Minnesota despite an otherwise rough shooting night.
“I’m glad he stuck to the shot values,” Saunders said after the game. “I told him that in the locker room.”
“We’ll continue to say that. He was big. I’d like to hit threes earlier in the game, too, and in the middle, instead of just saving them for the end, but I’ll take them.”
Even with the clutch barrage, Wiggins’ early-season shooting didn’t improve much. Through the Timberwolves’ first six games, he was only 13-of-39 from deep and shooting 43.2 percent from the field, averaging 21.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.
But Wiggins was, at least, still buying into Saunders’ spacing system.
Saunders’ system has worked to Wiggins’ advantage this season in that it has created chances for him to drive to the basket, one of his few strengths in previous seasons. With a big, usually Karl Anthony-Towns, on the perimeter, there is plenty of space available for Wiggins to operate in the paint.
In fact, it’s often Towns setting up Wiggins for such drives.
— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) November 12, 2019
Wiggins had his struggles with the Timberwolves’ new up-tempo style, dump-offs like this while he cuts to the basket was never one of them. Rather, it was the outside aspect that plagued him.
Minnesota’s preseason featured multiple, awkward sequences of elongated stepbacks, trying to turn long 2s into 3s. Once the season commenced, Wiggins’ teammates were creating open looks, but he just simply couldn’t hit them. But, in shooting from deep, even if missing, Wiggins was taking a positive step in his growth.
“It’s tough because it is a complete change in system and philosophy from what he has been used to,” Saunders told Basketball Insiders. “Not to say that he was ever wrong by any means, but it’s how we’re going to do things moving forward.
“He has to break habits, I guess,” Saunders said. “Everybody knows how hard it is to break a habit. He has to break habits. That’s why I do preach patience.”
Wiggins hasn’t completely broken his worst habit, an over-reliance on the mid-range jumper, but he has distinctly cut back on it. Last season, more than 30 percent of Wiggins’ shots came further than 10 feet from the hoop but short of the three-point arc, but he made only 33.6 percent of them.
Through 11 games this season, Wiggins has taken only 20 percent of such shots, while his percentage on them has ticked up to 39.1 percent. He has changed his game, at least to a degree, and it has added some variety to his offense.
Rather than just pulling up from mid-range, Wiggins now more often bodies a defender into the post in transition.
Or he pulls up from deep.
Or he knocks it down out of the corner.
ladies and gentlemen…
🔥🔥🔥 THE HOTTEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE 🔥🔥🔥
— Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 14, 2019
Those are the tenets of Saunders’ offense, and in the last five games, Wiggins has embraced them to the tune of 31.6 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from deep.
“He’s going to have a very good year,” Saunders said. “It’s going to take time for all of it to come together with our emphasis and changing of systems, but he is going to have a good year.”
Saunders said that after Wiggins lifted them over Miami, back when he was still struggling to find consistency in Saunders’ new offensive. But Saunders preached patience. And, while he didn’t anticipate Wiggins exploding just two weeks later, nor that said explosion would come without a true point guard on the active roster — for much of Wiggins’ hot streak, Jeff Teague has been sidelined by illness while Shabazz Napier has been working through a hamstring injury — he believed in him.
With time, Wiggins has broken through with 88 fourth-quarter points this season, highlighted by 35 in clutch situations while shooting 13-of-21 from the field and 4-of-8 from deep. He’s delivered the Timberwolves four of their wins, while he has risen to the occasion in multiple late-game situations.
Wiggins has also dished out at least five assists in five straight games, a rarity in seasons past.
It took four coaches, six seasons and countless mid-range jumpers, but Wiggins has been embraced by fans and teammates like never before. But, perhaps all he needed was time, some patience from others and the ball in his hands.
NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Pacific Division
Surprises can be disappointing, but can disappointments be surprising? Basketball Insiders looks at three unexpectedly slow starts within the Pacific Division.
When Basketball Insiders’ writers were tasked with discerning the most unexpected surprises of the early season aughts, the Pacific Division couldn’t hold its own metaphorical tongue. As a result, most of the chosen entries acted instead like a stern parent trying to ground a rule-foregoing child — well, we’re not upset, we’re just surprisingly disappointed, you know?
Two weeks later, it’s no longer a shock as to why the Golden State Warriors remain poor — injuries, shooting their championship banners into space, etc. — or how the Sacramento Kings haven’t made new in-roads toward reclaiming their spot as popular water cooler fodder — but it also makes this piece, an article about disappointments, a bit trickier to navigate.
Still, there are silver linings around every corner and these frustrations may not be so forever — it’s not even time to cut the Thanksgiving turkey, after all. With a little readjustment, health and new contributions, these players and teams can stop disappointing their imaginary parents and get back on the path toward NBA bliss.
The Rejuvenation of Marquese Chriss Was A Grift
During the preseason, Marquese Chriss — noted dunker-at-times — jumped and scored a couple of easy buckets against the Los Angeles Lakers, enough, presumably, for the internet to announce his rearrival. Quick to point fingers, the Phoenix Suns took heat for an inability to train up the athletic prospect, while the Golden State Warriors were praised for finding another diamond in the rough. Hell, even Draymond Green got in on the action.
“He’s been in some pretty tough situations,” Green told Wes Goldberg of The Mercury News. “No one ever blames the situation, though. It’s always the kid. No one ever blames these s—ty franchises. They always want to blame the kid. It’s not always the kid’s fault.
“. . . So I’m happy he’s got another opportunity to show what he can really do. Because he’s a prime example.”
And yet, through 12 games, Chriss has done next-to-nothing. Even with the glut of injuries the Warriors have seen already — particularly so to Kevon Looney and Green — the youngster has failed to leave his mark. With 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds, on a team that’s 2-10, and over just 15 minutes per contest — no such resurrection has been found. Of course, that doesn’t mean Green was wrong about those ready to write off talented athletes at a moment’s notice. It does, however, suggest that Chriss is nowhere near an ascendancy.
Build A Bridge, Get Over It
Last summer, the Phoenix Suns made Mikal Bridges the No. 10 overall pick in hopes of adding a defensive punch that made him a staple at Villanova. Instead, now in the midst of an unexpectedly stellar team start, it’s Bridges’ offense that has held him back. The 23-year-old played all 82 games for the Suns in 2018-19, tallying averages of 8.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists over 29.5 minutes per contest. This time around, however, Bridges has seen his minutes drop by one-third and he remains the franchise’s biggest question mark moving forward.
In short, Bridges has little-to-no range and, frankly, it’s getting worse. As a rookie, just over half (55.6 percent) of Bridges’ shots were three-pointers — a distance that he converted on at a 33.5 percent clip. Through the first 10 games of 2019-20, the former Wildcat has struggled from deep and sits at 20 percent on just 1.5 attempts per game. From 0-to-3 feet, Bridges has seen his shot tendencies jump from 27.7 to 45.2 percent between seasons. Moreover, he’s yet to make a single shot between 10 feet and the three-point line.
With the Suns’ defensive rating currently in the middle of the pack, they’ve been less inclined to play Bridges. Given Ricky Rubio’s deficiencies as a reliable three-point shooter, forcing Bridges into the lineup gets even harder. Utilizing one offensive weapon without a deep threat is a choice (particularly so when it’s of Rubio’s playmaking variety), but two at once becomes an ignored handicap.
Furthermore, Phoenix has officially become a modern, deep-shooting outfit and only seven other franchises have converted on more three-pointers so far this season. So, if you can’t shoot three-pointers, the Suns may have significantly less room than usual — sorry, Mikal!
Krusing for Kuzma
When the Los Angeles Lakers made their long-awaited splash for Anthony Davis, they only had one major goal in mind: Holding onto Kyle Kuzma.
Kuzma, 24, was untouchable throughout negotiations, and the Lakers often touted him as a potential third star alongside LeBron James and a would-be Davis. Troubled by a preseason ankle ailment, it’s been slow-goings for Kuzma upon his return to the hardwood. Through seven games, the forward has averaged just 13.7 points and 4.1 rebounds on 28 percent from three-point range. Stunningly, Kuzma has notched 0.3 assists to 1.5 turnovers per game too, further spotlighting the difficulty of finding his place as a demoted third option.
Naturally, the third-year up-and-comer will need some time to readjust — both from the injury and his new teammates — but how much?
Luckily, thanks in part to strong contributions from Dwight Howard, Danny Green and others, the Lakers haven’t needed Kuzma to find his footing right away. At 9-2, Los Angeles has exceeded all expectations thus far — but one beast still looms: minutes. Before Wednesday’s game, James and Davis ranked as No. 9 and No. 10 in the league with 35.3 minutes each per game. Given Davis’ extensive injury history and the miles on James’ body that type of allocation is not sustainable — especially not if the Lakers want to come out of the battle-tested Western Conference in May. If Los Angeles wants to rest its two superstars without the frequent worry of falling behind or surrendering leads, that onus falls almost exclusively on a Kuzma-centered glow-up.
The Lakers are championship contenders already, but they won’t reach their highest gear until Kuzma does — so fingers crossed.
Kuzma, Bridges and Chriss all entered the season with heightened expectations — both on a large and small scale — as they appeared key to future successes. Early on, that hasn’t been the case at all. If it’s any consolation, their respective franchises haven’t been floundering without them — or at all — so there’s plenty of breathing room between now and April. Once held as a division with an overabundance of talent is suddenly down to just three viable postseason teams.
While Chriss may be stuck in no man’s land out in Golden State, Kuzma and Bridges have the talent to turn things around — their teams will certainly depend on it.
NBA Daily: Beilein Ball Resonating With Confident Cavaliers
Why are the Cleveland Cavaliers off to a better start than many had anticipated? Spencer Davies takes an in-depth look at a few of the reasons.
After rolling the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden to the tune of a 108-87 final score, it wasn’t the Cleveland Cavaliers who received praise.
Instead, local and national pundits destroyed the defeated franchise that got blown out on its home floor by a “hapless” rebuilding team. Of course, when you play in such a sizable market, haven’t had real success in nearly a decade and put forth an unacceptable effort for your fans, that should be expected.
But maybe, just maybe, the Cavaliers shouldn’t be considered as “directionless” as some may have thought before the season started. Maybe, just maybe, this is a team that has heard the noise and wants to stick it to those who have laughed. And maybe, just maybe, other teams shouldn’t take them so lightly because of that.
At the 10-game mark of the current campaign, Cleveland has a 4-6 record. With a pair of victories at home and on the road, the efforts have stayed consistent and the resilience has remained — regardless of where the games have been played. There’s been a game-to-game progression, with head coach John Beilein taking out small victories from each one.
For an organization reinventing itself with a new coaching staff, this kind of competitive start is welcomed. The question to ask is whether or not it is sustainable to continue at this pace, which if accomplished would result somewhere around a 30-win year.
That is looking ahead, though. Staying in the now, the Cavaliers are oozing with confidence and having fun — and there are many reasons why.
Raise your hand if you thought Tristan Thompson would Cleveland’s top two-way player before the season started. Bueller?
In all honesty, it wouldn’t have been an implausible prediction; few expected *this* kind of production, however. Beilein is running his offense through Thompson and Kevin Love, his veteran big men, and they’ve bought in. They are at the peak of the team list in passes made and top three in assists.
While Thompson and Love dominate the two-man game on their own, it’s the impact they make on the others that stands out. Of the nine teammates they’ve shared the court with, eight of them have a plus-8.7 net rating or higher, per NBA.com. Jordan Clarkson is the only player with a negative net — and even if that’s the case, his true shooting percentage is a blazing 72.1 percent playing with them.
Each member of the Cavaliers’ championship frontcourt duo brings something different.
Love is more of your stretch-four type that spreads the floor and positions himself on the block. He’s been a little off from distance and turning the ball over more than usual, but his 51.7 percent conversion rate in post-up situations is good for the best in the NBA (min. 40 possessions). Defensively, he’s been outstanding guarding the roll man in pick-and-roll situations. That whole gobbling-up-defensive-rebounds thing is important, too.
Thompson is the middle man who has his back to the basket, hands off and creates for others by using his body like a brick wall — in fact, he is averaging 5.6 screens and 12.3 points created off of those per game, both ranking in the league’s top five. For the majority of his career, he has been a cleanup man on the offensive side and a reliable presence as a defender. Maintaining that reputation, he’s taken his game to new heights thus far.
Over the last two summers, Thompson has put an emphasis on fine-tuning his handle. We’re seeing that work pay off in games. Whether it’s been in isolation situations or even running the break, he’s taken good care of the basketball and made things happen.
As a scorer, the touch on his jump hook is as impressive as anybody’s. And of course, we can’t gloss over the fact that he’s knocked down three triples and recorded the first multi-three game of his career in Philadelphia.
With these two playing at the level they have, the trade chatter will only get louder as the days pass. Why wouldn’t it? Thompson is in a contract year making strides we’ve never seen before, and Love is an All-Star big man who can provide size and spacing — a commodity that’s currently scarce in the market — to a team trying to add that missing piece. It’s completely feasible that Cleveland’s front office hears an offer it can’t refuse and goes that route, too.
Be that as it may, keeping them around might be the smartest play. Nobody likes to be in basketball purgatory, but what some seem to forget about a rebuild is there has to be a voice in the locker room that knows the ins and outs of the league. Going full speed ahead with guys who have little experience and nobody to lean on won’t help them learn. It’s counterproductive to what you’re trying to accomplish — giving valuable minutes to guys who haven’t had much time at this level and showing them hands-on what it takes to win.
The importance of that winning feeling for development cannot be understated. Thompson and Love have stepped up as those vocal leaders who have essentially played the player-coach role in all of this. Beilein knew he would have to count on that as even he makes his transition to the NBA, and they’ve delivered on that promise.
A postgame quote by rookie guard Kevin Porter Jr. after a win in Washington says it all.
“Without them, we wouldn’t win a single game,” Porter said. “They’re our head of the snake and they just keep us all level-headed… They just pave the way for all of us.”
Running With The Young Bull
Ask Collin Sexton how much a year of NBA experience can do for you. At this point last November, there were many — including teammates — piling onto the former Alabama guard for a plethora of reasons. He was taking ill-advised shots, driving into trees without finishing and getting minced by nearly everyone he was tasked with defending. There was pressure to be ready with a mixed roster of leftover glory and young guys on their second or third chances — and he wasn’t quite there.
Fast-forward to now, carrying over momentum from the second half of his rookie season, and Sexton’s play has indicated that a sophomore surge may be in store in lieu of the dreaded common slump. Combine the fact that his work ethic is second to none and Beilein’s staff has put him in a position to succeed, and that’s a recipe for success.
Let’s start with the defensive end, an area Sexton struggled mightily with during his first year. Beilein believes he’s grasping his assignments’ tendencies better, along with the opponents’ different styles of play. Having once gone below screens in pick-and-roll situations frequently before, the Cavaliers are having him rather fight through and go over them now, at times denying handoffs and causing disruption to the ball-handler.
Sexton put on muscle this summer to adhere to said strategy, and he’s gotten results from it. Using NBA.com’s matchup data, he has held his opponents he’s guarded for at least three minutes to 38.7 percent from the field. Among those assignments were All-Star guards Kemba Walker and Bradley Beal, who combined to shoot 2-for-9 from the field. In addition, Knicks rookie RJ Barrett turned it over three times and was held scoreless by the feisty 20-year-old.
Though he’s done well closing out on shooters, he still needs work defending handoffs. Still, the drive and determination of Sexton won’t allow him to back down from any challenge — and that’s the kind of attitude it takes to become a reliable defender in the NBA.
Switching gears to offense, Sexton hasn’t lost an ounce of aggressiveness, he’s just smarter about it. Slowly, but surely, he’s cutting down those overdrives where he puts himself in no man’s land, turns it over and gift wraps points going the other way, occurrences that Beilein refers to as 50/50 plays.
By letting the game come to him, Sexton is understanding the opportunities that are presented by moving without the ball and thriving off his dual-threat game. His 1.58 points per possession average on spot-ups is good for No. 1 in The Association (min. two possessions), so opponents are going to close out hard when he’s taking threes. Using his quickness, he’s a slight pump fake away from zooming into the paint and either finishing or finding a teammate.
Remember those long twos last season? Those are essentially gone. Sexton is much more cognizant of his shot selection and, now that he’s positioned on the elbow, can operate more smoothly within a free-flowing system. It’s definitely worth mentioning his growth on fastbreaks, too, scenarios in which he used to often outrun himself and get into trouble. He’s still the same blur of speed — just more aware of his surroundings.
Sometimes, as the coach has said before, doing less is more.
Cleveland is finding out the type of guard he is — a point guard who scores or a scorer who can be a point guard. What we’re witnessing suggests the latter and, unlike what his critics say, that’s just fine. Beilein has been in Sexton’s ear about being an efficient player, so regardless of his assist count at face value — he’s created the fourth-most points on the team, by the way — the Young Bull has answered the bell.
A Wolf Comes In For Backup
Jordan Clarkson is one of the most dependable scorers in the NBA. Beilein was an instant fan of Clarkson from the onset of training camp. He’s a player who hunts and will be aggressive in everything he does on the floor, which is a “wolf mentality” according to the Cavaliers’ coach.
You wouldn’t think it by the reaction he gets on social media, which seems a little unfair when you dig deeper into what he brings to the table. Clarkson has been a streaky guy for the majority of his career, but the work he’s put in to get better and contribute in multiple facets should be commended.
Did you know Clarkson’s 51 potential assists are the second-most on the team behind Darius Garland? According to Cleaning The Glass, he has a 17.9 assist percentage.
How about his average of 0.396 points per touch leading Cleveland far-and-away, just like his 6.4 points per drive? Everyone needs that guy who can go out and get a bucket — and that’s exactly what Clarkson does.
Yes, he can be a bit overzealous at times and a gambler on the defensive end — and it can hurt — but that’s in the nature of a wolf. He’s made more good decisions than bad, rarely turns the ball over and paces a second unit that desperately needs a boost in the offense department.
With the bench, Matthew Dellavedova needs to be better. Larry Nance Jr. has improved as a shooter, yet needs to take the defensive challenge more consistently. Porter is figuring out his niche. All of this probably goes smoother if John Henson or Ante Zizic reenter the mix to stop everybody from playing up a position.
While Garland has shown flashes of brilliance, he is still finding his footing as Sexton had to last year, and Cedi Osman has to be more reliable on both ends.
There’s no question that there’s work to be done. Being in the close games that they’ve been in, executing in crucial situations has to be a focus.
But Cleveland is jelling as well as it ever has as one cohesive, structured group. The old sports cliche is you win as a team and lose as a team, but that saying couldn’t be truer in this case.
Touches are about equal all-around. The ball is moving. There hasn’t been a game yet where the outcome has been decided before the fourth quarter, a normal staple of rebuilding organizations that take bumps and bruises.
Are 10 games enough of a sample size to determine what’ll happen in the next 72? Probably not.
Is it fair to say it gives a glimpse of what the team’s identity could look like down the road? Most definitely.
Beilein Ball is only in its beginning stages.
Cleveland is eager to find out what the next step looks like.