Despite missing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Cleveland Cavaliers came within two wins of winning the 2015 NBA championship. That, certainly, is a testament to the greatness of LeBron James—the man who has appeared in five consecutive NBA Finals. Despite making it to the Finals six times, James has walked away with the Larry O’Brien trophy just twice. As the Cavaliers enter the 2015-16 season as the hands-down favorite to win the Eastern Conference, the world will watch to see if James can deliver the elusive championship to the fans of Cleveland.
Basketball Insiders previews the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2015-16 season.
The 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers will go down in history as a “what-if” unit. What if Kyrie Irving wasn’t hurt during Game 1 of the NBA Finals? What if Kevin Love wasn’t knocked out of the playoffs in the first round? What if LeBron James had one more teammate able to help him out offensively in the NBA Finals versus the high-powered Golden State Warriors? The good news for Cleveland is that the crew is back for another run and head into the training as the runaway favorites to emerge out of the Eastern Conference.
1st Place – Central Division
The Cavaliers are poised to return to the top of the Eastern Conference standings this season. Coming off an NBA Finals run, the LeBron James-led Cavs now have a season of playing together under their belts. The same goes for David Blatt, who completed his first campaign as an NBA head coach. The Cavs will be getting three key members back from injuries at points during the season: Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving. Even if they miss some time, the Cavs have enough talent to get by during the regular season while they recover. It is important for the team to have them healthy in the playoffs, not in the early months. Tristan Thompson’s contract situation will be a major storyline for the Cavaliers until it is resolved. The key will be for the players to not be distracted by it. The roster is constructed with veterans who have been to the top before and know what it takes to get back. Expect the Cavs to jump out atop the conference early in the season and hold on to that number one seed.
1st Place – Central Division
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere and haven’t realized: I can be long-winded. Fortunately, even for me, there are some things that can be stated succinctly. The Cavaliers are the cream of the crop in the East. Rather than calling LeBron James “the best player on the planet,” we should refer to him as an “all-time great,” because he is. And if you have that guy, along with this supporting cast, the only drama that awaits is whether the rest of his troops can defy attrition the way he has.
1st Place — Central Division
As the Tristan Thompson contract stalemate looms, the Cavaliers still enter the season as the favorites to win the East, mostly because they did so this past summer without the services of Kevin Love who, coincidentally, plays the same position as Thompson. Regardless of how that works out, LeBron James is still healthy and dominant, and has two star teammates in Love and Kyrie Irving. Those three, with a year of experience together, make this team a dangerous one. The bench is still thin and kind of geriatric, but that doesn’t matter. As long as the Cavs can pace themselves through the regular season, they’ll be nasty in the postseason.
1st Place – Central Division
The Cavaliers were obviously one of the top teams in the NBA last year and I expect them to be even better this season. In year two, their star-studded core will have a season of experience together, which should help them a lot from a chemistry standpoint. That first year is always tough for super-teams since they’re getting acclimated, but they typically click in the second season. David Blatt will also have a year of NBA coaching experience under his belt, and his players should be more comfortable with him and his system. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love form one of the best trios in the NBA, and the Cavs did a great job re-signing Love this summer since there was no guarantee he’d be back. I also liked the addition of Mo Williams, who gives Cleveland a very good veteran point guard who can provide scoring off the bench or step in for Irving when he’s injured (as he will be to start the season). The Williams addition also means the Cavs will rely less on Matthew Dellavedova, which is good since he’s a scrappy player but not someone you want playing a huge role. I like this Cavaliers team a lot and I think a second straight trip to the NBA Finals is inevitable, barring major injuries.
1st Place – Central Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: LeBron James
LeBron James is not only the best offensive player on the Cavaliers, he is the single driving force behind everything that the team does and hopes to accomplish. It seems like such a long time ago that James was renowned as being a poor shooter. Although most teams still play off of him and go behind screens in hopes that he will settle for a jump shot, that is more the result of a play on the percentages than it is a belief that he cannot score efficiently from the outside. Last season, James shot a respectable 35 percent three-point range, and also converted about 38 percent of his midrange shots. Those percentages are a bit lower than in his Miami HEAT days, but they are still above average. Even as he approaches the ripe age of 31 years old, there is no more explosive force in the league than James. He may not be perfect, but with his still-improving post game and his ability to finish in the paint, he is one of the most dominant forces in the league and certainly the top offensive player on his team.
Top Defensive Player: Anderson Varejao
Yes, one could certainly argue that LeBron James is the top defensive player on the Cavaliers, but aside from him, it is Anderson Varejao who is the vital defensive cog. While both Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are plus-defenders, Varejao is far more nimble and adept at playing out on the perimeter than either. With his speed and agility, a fully healthy Varejao provides substantial resistance to opposing offenses, as there is almost no advantage in putting him in pick-and-roll situations. He is one of the strongest rebounders in the game, as evidenced by the 12.6 rebounds per-36 minutes that he hauled in over the course of the last four seasons. What is most appropriate to wonder about Varejao is whether he will actually be able to continue to be as impactful as he has been to this point. He managed to play just 26 games last season after rupturing his Achilles tendon in December, and overall, has missed 238 of a possible 410 games over the past five years. Staying healthy has been his biggest issue.
Top Playmaker: LeBron James
That LeBron James has seemingly done so much with so little is a testament to his ability to make plays not only for himself but also for his teammates. Long before he brought the 2014-15 Cavaliers to within two games of winning the title, James helped to lead the HEAT to victories, despite enduring long stretches that saw him play without Chris Bosh and/or Dwyane Wade. And long, long before that, he led an underwhelming cast of running mates in Cleveland to a franchise-record 66 wins back in 2009. The following year, the Cavs won 61 games in a season in which James averaged a career-best 8.6 assists per game. With all that he is required to do on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, James has an impressive 6.9 assist-per-game average over the course of his career, and although Kyrie Irving is officially listed as the point guard in Cleveland, at this point, he can only dream of being the playmaker that James currently is.
Top Clutch Player: LeBron James
When one thinks of clutch LeBron James moments, his buzzer-beater that defeated the Chicago Bulls in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series last spring may come to mind, but one could certainly argue that James was at his finest during the waning moments of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Although Ray Allen will always be remembered for hitting one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history, it is James who single-handedly kept the HEAT around long enough for Allen to even have the opportunity to make that difference. Any player who comes up huge in the Finals has our respect, as the stakes will never be higher. Once upon a time, James was thought to lack the courage and fearlessness required of a top clutch performer. Today, the same argument cannot be made, and without reciting his long list of game-winning and game-clinching shots, anyone would be hard-pressed to argue against this assertion.
The Unheralded Player: Tristan Thompson
Tristan Thompson is just one of many young Canadians making an impact in the NBA today. He has dominated the post-July headlines across the NBA, as it was recently reported that Thompson and the Cavs are at an impasse as it relates to his next contract. Thompson is reportedly looking for a five-year maximum offer from the Cavs that would pay him $94 million total, while the Cavs have refused to offer more than $80 million. While it is arguable that Thompson is not worth that type of investment, the fact of the matter is that he is an incredibly gifted athlete. Thompson’s unique blend of athleticism, power and agility enables him to stay in front of smaller offensive players, yet still battle bigger players at the rim. The staff in Cleveland loves his motor and work ethic and at just 24 years old, Thompson’s ceiling is nowhere in sight. What will get him to the next level is becoming a more versatile offensive player. He is not a threat from the perimeter and still seems to lack the overall poise, patience and balance of a dominant low-post threat. Still, limited as he may be, Thompson has proven that he can be a meaningful player on a winning team and he has shown that he can fit in with LeBron James and the other shot-happy Cavaliers. He fits in quite nicely, but may be overlooked since he doesn’t make the highlight plays in Cleveland – opting instead to do the important dirty work.
Best New Addition: Mo Williams
Because this past summer was marked by the Cavaliers deciding to re-sign their own players, Mo Williams almost wins this label by default. However, over the course of last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Hornets, Williams was very effective. With the Wolves, he scored a career-high 52 points. Then, after being dealt to the Hornets, he remained productive. Although he was not able to help the Hornets qualify for the playoffs, Williams gave them 17.2 points per game and looked pretty good during various spurts. Now, he returns to Cleveland having unfinished with LeBron James. At this point, Williams’ ball handling is still respectable, but it is his off-the-dribble shooting ability that will continue to help him find minutes at the NBA level. Last season, he converted 34 percent of his three-point shots, and this season, with open looks created by playing off of both James and Kyrie Irving, that number may increase. Williams also provides the Cavs with another ball handler who can score when given the opportunity, certainly solidifying the point guard rotation that proved incredibly weak when Irving went down over the course of the 2014-15 season.
Who We Like
Kyrie Irving: Despite a lack of post-high-school basketball experience, Kyrie Irving entered the NBA with high expectations that we have seen crush some of his predecessors. Despite the pressure, he has hit the ground running and, like Damian Lillard, has already become one of the top point guards in the game. Best of all, he is just 23 years old and is already a three-time All-Star, averaging 21 points per game over the course of his young career. The 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals that Irving racked up in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals before his postseason ended showed the type of all-around, dominant performance he is capable of having on a daily basis. This season, we will be watching intently to see if he can continue to thrive and progress, despite somewhat being in LeBron James’ shadow.
Iman Shumpert: Iman Shumpert fell out of favor with New York Knicks fans and management after his attitude and demeanor deteriorated. As a rookie, Shumpert opened eyes across the league as he quickly earned a reputation for being a top-flight defender and explosive athlete. It certainly seems as though the trade to the Cavs rejuvenated Shumpert and helped him refocus on being a pesky on-ball defender. It seems that is the skill and talent that will help him remain in the league for many years to come. He needs to continue to work on his shooting, though, as his field goal percentage dipped to just 36 percent during the course of last year’s playoffs. Still, Shumpert filled a major void for the Cavs last season, and with championship expectations and a brief taste of success, we believe that Shumpert can re-tap some of the potential that had him among the NBA’s most talked about rookies back in 2011.
Kevin Love: After trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, it would have been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Love to have taken his talents elsewhere this past summer. Fortunately, for the Cavaliers, that didn’t happen. Although Love seemed to have issues fitting in with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving last season, his re-signing in Cleveland is an obvious indicator that the trio is intent on making their partnership work. In theory, Love’s skills in the low-post and proficiency from behind the arc should fit seamlessly with the diverse skill set that James possesses and many continue to believe that it is merely a matter of time before the two figure out how to work together more proficiently. Now that James knows that Love is all in, expect whatever tension that existed between the two before to dissipate and for them to be fully focused on winning.
Sharing the ball is a strength for the Cavs. Despite having three of the most offensively gifted players in the NBA, the Cavaliers were 10th in the league in assists per game last season with 22.1 a night. With increased chemistry and familiarity, that could easily rise this year. Another advantage for Cleveland is their experience. Their roster features many players with postseason and championship experience. Also, losing to Golden State in last year’s Finals may ultimately be good for some of the younger players on the roster – as a learning experience and team-building opportunity. Sometimes, suffering heartbreak in the Finals can draw a team closer and allow them to dig deeper in trying moments. The experience of coming up short against the Warriors is one that the Cavaliers are, no doubt, thinking about quite often. But with proven leadership and a talented core, the experience of reaching the 2015 NBA Finals should be a positive for this team as they attempt to join the 2014 Spurs, 2012 HEAT and 2009 Lakers as teams that won the championship after losing the Finals the previous year.
It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating: health is going to be the major concern for the Cavs during the 2015-16 season. As we saw their hopes for a championship thwarted, we were collectively served a stark reminder that having all the talent in the world at your disposal won’t help you win if it isn’t on the court. All eyes will be on Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao to stay healthy this season given their injury histories.
The team’s big men rotation and rebounding are also weaknesses. Last season, the Cavaliers ranked a mediocre 18th in the league in rebounds, with just 43 boards per game. Because of the team’s lack of reliable big men last season, coach David Blatt opted to play smaller lineups and often depended on players who were undersized to help out with rebounding the basketball. If Varejao can remain healthy this season, he will go a long way toward helping to cure these ailments, but as it stands, the Cavaliers did not address the apparent need for another dependable big man. In the end, that could end up haunting them.
The Burning Question
Can the Cavaliers win the 2016 NBA Finals?
In a word, the answer here would be “YES!” Had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love each been 100 percent healthy for the entire postseason last year, the Cavs may very well be entering the 2015-16 season as the defending NBA champions. With those two stars returning and Anderson Varejao (hopefully) becoming a difference maker on the floor once again and the addition of Mo Williams, the Cavs should be able to fix some of the weaknesses that were exposed last season. When you have one of the best players in history on your roster and one of the best young point guards in the NBA playing as his second option, you do not need very much to be a good team. That the Cavs have an awesome supporting cast to play off of their three superstars makes them the clear-cut favorite in the Eastern Conference and should give them a legitimate opportunity to defeat any team that survives the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. If the Cavs earn home-court advantage in the Finals and if they can remain relatively healthy as a unit, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them win it all. Those are big ifs, but this team appears to be on the cusp of greatness.
Aamir Simms Readying Himself for His Opportunity
Clemson’s Aamir Simms is a versatile big man built for the modern NBA. Drew Maresca spoke with Simms about the draft process, Clemson’s success last season and how he thinks he fits in the league.
Clemson has produced some very good NBA players – including Elden Campbell, Dale Davis and Horace Grant – but not too many of late. The most recent Clemson Tiger who was selected in the NBA Draft was Jason Blossomgame in 2017. Before that, K.J McDaniels in 2014, Trevor Booker in 2010 and Will Soloman in 2001. Aamir Simms hopes to be the first in a while – and he hopes to stick in the league.
Statistically, Simms has everything you’d want in a prospect. He’s a 6’8” big who can defend multiple positions and shoot it from deep. He averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 2020-21, shooting 40 percent on three-point attempts and 82.5 percent from the free throw line.
Simms was also named to the second-team All-ACC this season, after being named to the third-team All-ACC last season.
But the NBA Draft is a crapshoot with hundreds of players competing for just 60 spots. Complicating matters is the fact that Simms was a four-year player – and age is not an asset in the NBA Draft.
But Simms proved a lot in his time at Clemson, and he feels that his ability and willingness to do whatever a team needs is an asset.
“My original position was the four,” Simms recently told Basketball Insiders. “But I’m comfortable playing small ball five (too). And later in my career, I want to work toward playing some three, too, like Jeff Green.”
Green, who played a major role in the Brooklyn Nets’ success this season, is among the players who inspire Simms. He obviously values what LeBron James and Kevin Durant do, but he sees the utility of players like Green, and he understands that mimicking players like this will be key in his success.
“Being a versatile four like Jae Crowder (would be ideal), Simms said. “Being able to defend guys his size. Having the mid-range and the face-up like Al Horford or Paul Milsap. The craftiness and versatility of Tobias Harris. And especially Jeff Green. He does a good job of shooting the ball, playing the post, guarding one through five.”
“And that’s something I’m excited to showcase in this combine, in workouts and even through summer league.”
Achieving that success requires serious skill and versatility, but Simms believes he’s already on his way. If you’re thinking “but there isn’t evidence that he can do that,” you’re not wrong. But it’s not uncommon for players to sacrifice their own success for the greater good of a college program – and that’s exactly what Simms did.
“My perimeter defense is something I am really ready to showcase,” Simms said. “At school, I was an undersized five, so I didn’t switch much for the sake of the team,’ Simms said.
But he can – and he knows it.
Clemson’s entire roster had only three players taller than Simms. Two of the three were Freshmen and the other – Jonathan Baehre – started just 10 games. Clearly, Clemson coach Brad Brownell had a vision for his team, which included Simms as an undersized center. And considering their entry into the NCAA tournament after the media predicted they finish 10th in the ACC in a pre-season poll, it’s fair to say it worked.
“I think there’s a lot of things that teams look at (in the draft process): winners, individual growth, changes in your stats, and consistency,” Simms said. “I think I’ve shown all those areas throughout this season.”
“Just the way I led my team, (along) with other guys on the team, I got us back to the tournament – because people didn’t really expect us to. We got ranked pretty highly. My shooting and numbers improved, especially my field goal percentage. I was a little streaky with rebounds, but I think I showed improvements in areas that would progress me in the prospect rankings.”
With Simms, shooting will initiate interest. As mentioned above, Simms shot better than 40 percent on three-point over the past two seasons – but he wasn’t a knock-down shooter early in his Clemson career.
As a Freshmen, Simms shot a pedestrian 32.6 percent on three-point attempts. But credit Simms for identifying the problem and working to fix it
“The reason why I shot so low as a freshman was that my form was coming across the left side of my face, so when I released the ball I couldn’t see as much,” Simms explained. “From the middle of my freshmen year to Senior year, I worked with (assistant) coach Smith before he went to Florida State, as well as (assistant) coach Dean and (director of player development) Terrell Mcintyre.”
“And those guys helped me improve my form and stick with it. And then, it was just spending my summers getting up hundreds of shots – 500 every morning and 500 every night to get that muscle memory down.”
But there’s more to Simms game than just shooting, and that’s what he hopes to prove throughout the draft process – beginning on Sunday, June 20 at the G-League Elite camp.
The G League Elite camp is an opportunity for 40 players to showcase their abilities in front of NBA and G League scouts, as well as coaches and front-office executives. The camp will consist of five-on-five scrimmages, as well as strength and agility drills. Top performers will earn an invite to the 2021 NBA Draft combine, meaning the camp can catapult players into very real consideration by NBA clubs. And Simms understands the opportunity at hand.
“Getting invited to the combine (is the goal),” Simms said. “That’s where the best of the best goes. I belong, but I’m fortunate to get the invite because there are other good guys who didn’t get an invite.”
This season, Simms faced off against at least two lottery prospects in Scottie Barnes (Florida State) and Jalen Johnson (Duke). Both will probably be used as measuring sticks of Simms’ potential; but considering defensive schemes, all matchups aren’t equal.
Simms underperformed against Florida State, scoring just 5 points on one-for-three shooting. But Florida State eliminates post opportunities and is known for its swarming defense.
“Florida State gets up in you, (they) switch one through five. They sit on you and take you out from catching the ball deep in the post,” Simms said. “I understood I wasn’t going to be as involved as I wanted entering it.”
But regardless of how you view Simms’ performance against Florida State, he demonstrated a big heart in coming back and playing well against Duke just one week later. While Clemson lost by 26 points, Simms performed well in a head-to-head matchup with another high-profile forward, scoring 19 points on seven-for-thirteen shooting.
“I have shown since my junior year that your ranking doesn’t matter,” Simms explained. “You play lottery picks a few times every year. That one was more of a bounce back after Florida State. That’s another one where we weren’t together, but the individual performance was what it was. It was in a losing effort so I didn’t focus on it, but it shows that I can play with anyone. I don’t care if you’re top 10 in the draft or wherever. I always feel I perform at a high level against highly projected players, and that was an opportunity to remind people who I am.”
Having to prove oneself self after four seasons at a big-time program would probably bother a lot of prospects, but it doesn’t bother Simms. On the contrary, Simms uses it as motivation.
“I am just thankful to be in the position I am because a lot of guys work for it and don’t get the opportunity,” Simms said. “It can be frustrating to be asked to prove yourself over and over, but the majority of great guys in the game have to do that at some point, too, so that’s fine.”
“I (already) have a chip on my shoulder,” Simms continued. “I come from the worst situations you can imagine, so being asked to keep showing my game and my progression is easy. Being able to put the ball in the basket and play hard isn’t something I stress over.”
“I’ve been through way darker times,” Simms continued. “Playing basketball is fun. I’ll have to show it over and over, but at least I’m doing what I love. Passion takes care of all of that. My faith pushes me through, God pushes me through. So if they ask me to do it 100 times, I’ll do it 101. I belong in the league. I believe I’m NBA-ready. If they want me to do it this week and another week after that, I’m ready.”
Simms is focused on getting the right opportunity with the right team. He’s spoken to his friends in the NBA including Mamadi Diakite (Milwaukee Bucks) and Nic Claxton (Brooklyn Nets), both of whom speak about the mental toll of going from being “the guy” to getting DNPs. But they’re not bitter. They emphasize the importance of getting into a good situation with a patient team and how it enables players to build confidence away from the pressure of the NBA game.
Still, you never know when your number will be called and rookies have to be perpetually ready. They also have to understand a team’s needs and the system that’s run. But Simms isn’t worried about that aspect. As the 2021 “Skip” Prosser Award winner, emblematic of the top scholar-athlete in men’s college basketball, he’s always been one to hit the books – and he intends on approaching an NBA opportunity the same way.
“If I am lucky enough to get drafted, I am going to spend that time starting the first night to get a feel for the team,” Simms said. “Learn the roster, who’s the primary and secondary guys and seeing where I fit.”
“No matter what, one thing you can do is rebound and defend. So that’s something I am going to do from the jump, (as well as) doing what coach asks of me. I’ve always been very coachable.”
Getting drafted is obviously the goal. But Simms understands that there is an opportunity beyond the draft. And conversely, he knows that getting drafted doesn’t guarantee success.
“Too many guys get caught up with their name being called, and that can land them in a bad situation,” Simms said. “It takes a lot of maturity to understand that it’s OK if you’re not drafted. A lot of guys who aren’t drafted or are taken late second-round are standing out (currently). Look around the league, guys come from the G League or overseas… if you can get over the idea of getting drafted and just focus on getting your foot in the door, that’s most important. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Simms has spent at least the last four years preparing himself for this moment – now it’s time to prove that he belongs. His mix of athleticism, size and skill will get him noticed, but his patience and cerebral approach are real differentiators. Even if Simms’ name isn’t called on July 29th at the draft, this writer believes he’ll find his way onto an NBA roster for the 2021-22 season, one way or another.
Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers
From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.
It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.
Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games.
Neil Olshey: “This first-round loss was not a product of the roster.”
— Sean Highkin (@highkin) June 7, 2021
He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.
“For anyone (prospective coaches) to advance in the process they’re going to have to prove they can do that (improve defensively) without a ton of roster changes.” -Olshey
— Danny Marang (@DannyMarang) June 7, 2021
To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.
There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.
However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.
Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.
As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.
The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”
As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.
Now What? – Golden State Warriors
The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.
For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.
Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.
The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.
Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.
Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.
A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.
Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.
Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.
Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.
Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.
One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.
Steve Kerr said it was the rebounding that cost the Warriors tonight:
"This is the modern NBA. Guys don't box out. It's just the way it is. Players let guys come in from the weak side. It's a disease that's rampant in the NBA."
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) April 30, 2021
Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.
Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.
The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.
The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.
Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.
Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.
Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.
While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.
Watch this Klay Thompson defense against Kyrie Irving. Sheesh pic.twitter.com/1ZmRU1VLAu
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) March 27, 2020
One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.
The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.
Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.
A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.