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Cleveland Cavaliers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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The Cleveland Cavaliers ended their city’s 52-year championship drought in remarkable fashion, overcoming a 3-1 deficit against the star-studded Golden State Warriors to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.

LeBron James was incredible in the NBA Finals, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting 49.4 percent from field and 37.1 percent from three-point range. James led all Finals players in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks – becoming the first player in NBA history to do that in any playoff series. He also made a number of signature plays that will show up in highlight reels for years, such as this insanely clutch chase-down block against Andre Iguodala.

Kyrie Irving was also excellent against the Warriors, averaging 27.1 points, 3.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals while shooting 46.8 percent from the field, 40.5 percent from three-point range and 93.9 percent from the free throw line. He also turned over the ball just 2.6 times per game despite being asked to create on offense quite a bit. Irving outperformed unanimous league MVP Stephen Curry, who averaged 22.6 points, 3.7 assists and 4.3 turnovers and shot just 40.3 percent from the field in the series. Irving also came up huge down the stretch, hitting a crucial three over Curry in the final minute of Game 7.

Now, Cleveland brings back largely the same roster in an attempt to defend their title. The Warriors won the offseason by adding Kevin Durant, but the Cavaliers are hoping they have enough to take down Golden State should we see the two juggernauts face off for a third straight time in the NBA Finals.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

FIVE GUYS THINK

“The champ is here!” The Cavaliers pulled off the unbelievable by surviving a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Finals and rallying to win the title with three consecutive clutch victories. What makes Cleveland’s triumph even more impressive is the fact the Golden State Warriors had just pulled off a historic NBA regular season and were being led by the first unanimous MVP in league history. The unfathomable Finals win proved All-Star forward LeBron James is still the best player on the planet despite getting deeper into his 30s. Expect more of the same this season, as the Cavaliers should be competing for another title next June for the third straight season.

1st Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

As long as LeBron James is still reasonably healthy and employed by the Cavaliers, they’re going to be the best team in the Eastern Conference, regardless of whatever else is going on. The fact that in this case, “whatever else is going on” includes having Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and arguably the league’s best offensive rebounder in Tristan Thompson around him means the Cavs have as good a shot at toppling the Golden State Warriors this year as anyone. We’ll have to see if the defending champs are able to re-sign J.R. Smith, but it’s not like there’s a market for the guy outside of Cleveland. Assuming he’s back, the Cavs look primed for another big year, but that might mean scaling back LeBron’s regular season minutes a bit. This season is the Cavs’ victory lap, which they earned, but they’re going to have to work even harder if they want to earn a second straight title.

1st Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

There’s the Cavaliers, and there’s everyone else in the Eastern Conference. So long as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are alive and kicking, the Cavaliers will be head and shoulders above every other contender in East. Instead of asking yourselves who will win the Central Division, ask yourself which team will earn the right to challenge the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals? Also, ask yourself what kind of accomplishment would it be for LeBron James to compete in seven consecutive NBA Finals? Barring an unforeseen injury, that’s obviously where this is all headed, no?

1st Place – Central Division

– Moke Hamilton

As I’ve stated in some of our other team previews, I think there’s a large gap between the Cavaliers and every other team in the Eastern Conference. Teams like the Celtics and Raptors are very talented, but I’d be surprised to see any team other than Cleveland representing the East in the NBA Finals this year. The Cavs are ridiculously talented and, even though they weren’t very active this offseason, that’s probably for the best because chemistry and continuity are important in the NBA. Ty Lue will continue to get better as a head coach as he gains experience and this group will only improve as they become more and more familiar with each other. Many NBA fans don’t want to hear this, but I’m predicting round three of Cavaliers versus Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals.

1st Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Cavaliers pulled off an incredible comeback in the NBA Finals last season. LeBron James was incredible and Kyrie Irving came up clutch when his team needed him most. The Cavaliers are bringing back roughly the same roster as last season and have a direct path to returning to the Finals this season. There are other Eastern Conference teams such as the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics who could make things interesting, but the Cavaliers are the clear favorites at this point. However, assuming the Cavaliers return to the Finals, they will likely have to face the Golden State Warriors, who added Kevin Durant this offseason. The Cavaliers will have to maximize their talent, hope that James, Irving and Love are healthy and find a way to slow down perhaps the most talented team on paper in in NBA history. Beating Golden State last season was tough enough, but doing so again with Durant now wearing a Warriors uniform will be the toughest challenge in James’ career.

1st Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

LeBron James could obviously be listed here as well, and he actually led Cleveland in scoring last year with 25.3 points per game. However, James will get plenty of love throughout this preview and Irving deserves credit for his impressive offensive contributions. Irving is the better shooter and ball-handler of the two players, and he excels at creating his own shot.

During the postseason, Irving showed why he is such a terrific offensive weapon for Cleveland when he averaged 25.2 points and hit 44 percent of his three-point attempts. And, as previously mentioned, his 27.1 points per game during the NBA Finals were absolutely huge for the Cavs. The one-two punch of James and Irving is incredibly hard to stop, especially since the two players complement each other so well. Perhaps the scariest thing about Irving is that he’s still just 24 years old, so his best basketball is very likely still ahead of him.

Top Defensive Player: LeBron James

James’ defense may not be as dominant as it was several years ago (when he made five straight All-Defensive First Teams), but he’s still very, very good. We’ve seen that he can flip a switch and become a defensive monster when needed. Anyone who can average 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks during the NBA Finals and lead all players in rebounds, blocks and steals is a freak of nature. James makes his presence felt all over the court on defense and continues to be a match-up nightmare with his size, strength, speed and skills.

Last season, James ranked first among all NBA players in Real Plus-Minus (9.79), 11th in Defensive Plus-Minus (3.30) and 12th in Defensive Win Shares. Also, during the postseason, James averaged three deflections per game, which ranked seventh among all players. It is worth noting that James will turn 32 years old in December (with a lot of miles on his odometer), so who knows how long he can continue to be an elite defender? But for now, he gets the nod in this category.

Top Playmaker: LeBron James

James is a terrific point forward who is at his best when he’s running the offense and facilitating for his teammates. His court vision and basketball IQ are incredible, and good things typically happen when the ball is in his hands. Not only did James lead the Cavaliers in assists per game (6.8) last year, he ranked eighth in the NBA. James also finished 11th among all players in assist percentage (36 percent), and he was the only non-guard to finish in the top 20. There’s no question that James is one of the best playmakers in the league and that isn’t going to change anytime soon, especially since he’s surrounded by talented scorers.

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

Again, Irving and James are both clutch and deserve to be mentioned here. James’ chase-down block was a jaw-dropping play and we’ve seen him take over in many late-game situations. However, Irving gets the top billing here because of that amazing three-pointer over Steph Curry in the final minute of Game 7 and the fact that he hit the exact same shot late in Team USA’s August victory over Australia in Rio. No moment is too big for the 24-year-old Irving, and he has proven that time and time again.

The Unheralded Player: Channing Frye

Acquiring Frye from the Orlando Magic last year was a very underrated move, and the stretch-four ended up helping Cleveland on and off the court. He gave the Cavs some more frontcourt depth and spaced the floor with his shooting. He hit 37.7 percent of his three-point attempts during the regular season, and then hit a ridiculous 56.5 percent of his threes during the playoffs. Also, Frye is a terrific glue guy. In talking to people in and around the organization, he brought the team together after landing in Cleveland. He’s very inclusive and loves to bond with all of his teammates, so he was responsible for getting rid of some of the cliques that had developed behind the scenes. Suddenly, the whole team was hanging out and enjoying each other’s company, which helped them on the floor. Not to mention, Frye is a consummate pro who works extremely hard, brings a smile to work every day and exudes optimism. On a star-studded team like the Cavs, he doesn’t get much attention, but there’s no question that he was an integral part of this group’s success. Oh, and he’s on a great contract that will pay him $7,806,971 this year and $7,420,912 next year.

Top New Addition: Mike Dunleavy Jr.

The Cavaliers weren’t really active this offseason, choosing instead to re-sign their own free agents and prioritize continuity over marquee moves. The team did add 38-year-old big man Chris Andersen, who will provide interior defense, and 5’9 rookie point guard Kay Felder, who could eventually emerge as a spark off of the bench. However, Dunleavy Jr. will likely make the biggest impact this upcoming season with his ability to space the floor and make the right basketball play more times than not. Dunleavy Jr. was a full-time starter for the Chicago Bulls over the last two years, but now he’ll be a quality reserve for Cleveland. Last year, he averaged 7.2 points and hit 39.4 percent of his three-point attempts. He battled some injuries over the last two years, but Cleveland hopes he can stay healthy and contribute in a more limited role. Cleveland’s roster is full of savvy veterans, and the 36-year-old Dunleavy Jr. is another.

– Alex Kennedy

WHO WE LIKE

Ty Lue

There have been plenty of jokes about how LeBron James is the head coach of the Cavaliers, and that always bothers me. Lue did a fantastic job as the team’s sideline general and deserves credit for his hard work. Lue was an upgrade over former head coach David Blatt because he held his stars accountable, utilized his players better and motivated the group. When Lue took over, there was plenty of drama behind the scenes and he had a ton of pressure on him since he would’ve been blamed had things gone wrong. However, he did a fantastic job and helped lead Cleveland to the title. When his team was down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, he kept them believing and made adjustments to climb out of that hole (which was unprecedented). As he continues to gain experience on the sideline, Lue will only get better as a head coach and I believe Cleveland is in very good hands with him at the helm. Yes, it’s always easier as a head coach when you have studs like James and Irving on your side, but let’s not take away from Lue’s success. It’s also worth noting that coaching so many stars means one must manage egos and get their players to sacrifice, which Lue also did in Cleveland.

David Griffin

Like Lue, Griffin doesn’t get enough love for the job that he’s done as general manager of the Cavs. James obviously played a role in recruiting and attracts players to Cleveland, but Griffin has done a very good job of assembling this team as well. When he took over the job, he was expecting this to be a rebuilding effort. Then, when James joined the Cavs, he had to shift into win-now mode and did a terrific job transitioning to that approach. He has acquired pieces like Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, Mo Williams, Channing Frye and Mike Dunleavly Jr. to give this squad an impressive supporting cast that works well together. He also did a great job of re-signing his own free agents – from Irving to James to Love to Tristan Thompson (and Smith is likely next, at some point). People on Twitter like to joke about LeBron running this organization from top to bottom, but Lue and Griffin are very good at what they do and shouldn’t be overlooked.

J.R. Smith

It may seem strange to have Smith listed here, since he’s currently an unrestricted free agent. However, the general consensus is that the veteran shooting guard will be back with Cleveland next season. The two sides continue to discuss a deal, and it seems like only a matter of time until Smith is back with the team. Smith is listed here because he played some of the best basketball of his career with the Cavs last year. He averaged 12.4 points as the team’s starting shooting guard and shot 40 percent from the three-point line. He also drastically improved as a defender, which was very important for Cleveland on the perimeter. In the playoffs, Smith averaged 11.5 points and shot 43 percent from three. He became an important part of Cleveland’s supporting cast and it’s hard to imagine the Cavs letting him go, especially since they’d have a very difficult time replacing his production given their cap situation.

– Alex Kennedy

SALARY CAP 101

The Cavaliers did not dip below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, instead using a portion of their Mid-Level Exception to re-sign Richard Jefferson, without triggering a hard cap at $117.3 million.  Instead, the Cavaliers are free to spend, albeit with a potentially hefty luxury tax bill to come.  The team currently has 12 guaranteed players, with a spot open for the yet-to-be-re-signed J.R. Smith.  The presumption is that Smith and the Cavaliers eventually agree to terms, but that has yet to happen and training camp is here.

If Smith signs for $10 million for the coming season, and the Cavaliers keep two minimum-salaried players, the team would be looking at nearly $25 million in luxury taxes.  At $15 million, Smith would push Cleveland’s tax bill to about $40 million.  With Smith, the Cavaliers have two available roster spots for DeAndre Liggins, Jordan McRae, Cory Jefferson, Markel Brown and Eric Moreland.  Looking ahead to next season, the Cavaliers do not project to have any space under a $102 million salary cap.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Cleveland’s star power is their biggest strength, as some teams just don’t have the talent to match-up against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and company. There will be nights when a rebuilding team simply won’t have a chance against the Cavs because they just aren’t ready to seriously compete with a juggernaut that can dominate on both ends of the court. On offense and defense, Cleveland is effective and efficient. Last season, the Cavs had the NBA’s fourth-best offense (scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions) and 10th-best defense (allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions). They also ranked third in rebound rate (52 percent) and third in effective field goal percentage (52.4 percent). In addition to stars, Cleveland has an experienced supporting cast of veterans who fill their roles perfectly and know what it takes to win (especially now that all of last year’s players now have a title on their resume).

– Alex Kennedy

WEAKNESSES

A number of Cleveland’s players are somewhat injury prone, including key cogs Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Injuries and general decline are also a concern because the team has a ton of veterans. Eight of the Cavaliers’ players are at least 31 years old – and some are significantly older such as Chris Andersen (38), Mike Dunleavy Jr. (36), Richard Jefferson (36), James Jones (35), Channing Frye (33) and Mo Williams (33) among others. Head coach Ty Lue is around the same age as a number of players; he’s just one year and two months older than Andersen, for example. One other weakness is the wear and tear on this team. Not only are they defending champions, many of these players have been to the NBA Finals for several years straight, which can run guys down. Managing minutes will be very important, especially since Cleveland can likely coast through the regular season and still win the East if all goes as expected.

– Alex Kennedy

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Cavaliers repeat as champions?

When you have a payroll that may be as high as $116,494,181, it’s championship or bust. Winning back-to-back titles is extremely difficult, but it’s even tougher when the team you just beat in the Finals adds an MVP-caliber player who makes them one of the scariest teams on paper in NBA history. Cleveland has shot to repeat as champs, but it certainly won’t be easy. Still, that’s the only goal for the Cavs entering this season. The curse has been lifted, and now Cleveland wants to add to their trophy case.

– Alex Kennedy

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NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?

Do the Philadelphia 76ers have the roster necessary to compete for a title? Basketball Insiders’ Quinn Davis goes in-depth on one of the league’s most polarizing teams.

Quinn Davis

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Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.

The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?

Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.

Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.

Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.

A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.

But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.

All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.

That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.

The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.

Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.

Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.

It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.

Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.

If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.

While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.

The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.

In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.

If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.

Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.

Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.

The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.

And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.

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Point-Counter Point: Biggest Surprise In The NBA So Far?

While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?

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From time to time there are things that surface in the NBA landscape that requires a little debate, we call that Point – Counter Point. We have asked two our of writers to dive into the biggest surprises in the NBA so far this season.

While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?

Ariel Pacheo and Chad Smith look at both sides of the equation.


No one could have predicted Julius Randle’s hot start after coming off a rough 2019-20 season. However, now that it’s here, there’s reason to believe it’s built to last. He’s averaging a career-highs across the board and almost none of it is unsustainable.

While his production is up, the way he is playing is what is more significant than the numbers.

Randle has always had the ability to set teammates up, but he is now making a concerted effort to get teammates involved. He’s finding shooters in the corner and setting up his frontcourt counterparts for dunks. His usage percentage is currently at 27.2, just 0.1 higher than last season, but his assist percentage is at 38.2%, which is 17.3% higher than last season. This shows that Randle has the ball in his hands the same amount as last season, but is creating for others at a much higher rate.

His playmaking has been his best skill and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue. Randle’s decision-making is much-improved. It seems as if he has a better understanding of how defenses want to play against him and he’s using it to his advantage to pick apart defenses.

Randle’s scoring may take a small hit, as his mid-range shooting numbers are unsustainable. He’s shooting 57.4% from mid-range, so that should drop some. However, if the Knicks were to play Randle in more lineups with shooting in them, he could turn those mid-range jumpers into drives to the basket. He is attempting the most free-throws per game of his career at 6.8 a game. He’s also converting them at a career-high 78.1%. There’s reason to believe he can sustain this, as he has been aggressive driving to the rim and drawing fouls all season.

Randle is having the best rebounding year of his career, as he’s been attacking the defensive glass. The added benefit of Randle’s defensive rebounding is he’s able to bring the ball up and immediately attack. He’s also been a lot more active on the defensive end this season. He’s had good one-on-one moments on the defensive end against guys like Domantas Sabonis and Kevin Durant.

Another reason to expect Randle’s play to continue is that the Knicks need him to be this good to have a chance to win games. They will continue to look to Randle to be the focus of their offense every single night. Randle is not only the team’s best playmaker, he’s one of the only few reliable ones on the roster. The ball will continue to be in his hands and he has consistently made good decisions up until this point.

Randle’s always had the talent to be a nightly triple-double threat, but it’s starting to come together for him. He’s giving full effort on both ends, all while being third in the league in minutes. Other than his rookie year when he broke his leg, Randle has proven to be durable. Even if his production drops off some, his effort and newfound style of play are what’s making Randle have this hot start. He’s playing at an All-Star level, and that should continue.

-Ariel Pacheo


There is a new sheriff in town, and his name is Tom Thibodeau. After a long stint in Chicago where he earned Coach of the Year honors and guiding the lifeless Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, Thibodeau has made his way to the Big Apple. Skeptics were not sold on the hire when it happened, but perhaps he is making believers out of them with the help of Julius Randle.

It is no secret that Thibodeau’s calling card has always been defense. He has the Knicks playing aggressive on that end of the floor. Another skill that he possesses is the ability to put his players in a position that will maximize their talents. To that end, Thibodeau has made a world of difference. However, another common theme in his coaching style is eventually wearing his players out. While that is not his intention, he has done it with his best players at every stop along the way.

This is where some of these improved numbers come into play for Randle. Entering this season Julius was averaging 29.4 minutes per game. So far this season, he is playing 38 minutes per game. That is the 2nd highest in the entire league – trailing only his teammate RJ Barrett.

All of that being said, the individual numbers are very impressive. Averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists is nothing to sneeze at, even in this small sample size. The assist numbers, in particular, are quite astounding when you consider he has never had a season in which he averaged more than 3.6 per game. Part of the reason for this is that he is passing out of double teams, instead of trying to force up a shot.

Randle was the only bright spot in the Battle in the Big Apple on Wednesday night. Still, it felt like an empty calories game for the big man as he repeatedly fired away mid-range jumpers. It was New York’s fourth consecutive loss as they fell to the undermanned Nets, who were without several bodies due to the James Harden trade just hours before tipoff.

Unfortunately for Knicks fans, this same story has been played out before with Thibodeau and Joakim Noah in Chicago. His two All-Star seasons were filled with career-high numbers, but it didn’t necessarily translate to success in the playoffs. Right now Randle leads his team in points, rebounds, and assists. The only other players that are currently doing that are Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.

Finding open shooters on the perimeter has worked early on, but New York’s shooting has come back down to earth in the past week. They now rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of three-point shooting, and Randle himself figures to follow suit. After shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc last year, Randle was shooting at a 38 percent clip to open the season. A ten percent jump just doesn’t happen overnight. The seven-year pro is a career 29 percent shooter from distance. He is taking the same amount of shots as last season and averaging nearly four more points per game.

Even if the shooting numbers come down a bit, it doesn’t put New York back in the basement. The ball movement and effort on defense are the catalysts for the Knicks, not their scoring – in which they rank 29th at the time of this writing. Looking at Randle specifically, he is actually averaging more passes per minute than Steph Curry.

Randle is the main reason why this team has displayed a pulse for the first time in two decades. He was the 7th overall pick for good reason but the Knicks don’t necessarily need the talented lefty to be the star of the show. They need him to share the stage and allow the spotlight to showcase others.

Should he stay the course, Randle will undoubtedly be in line for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. If he regresses like I believe he will, he can still play a vital role in changing the culture and the perception of one of the league’s most popular franchises. The 26-year old has been a pleasant surprise this season, in what will surely be another roller coaster ride for Knicks fans.

– Chad Smith

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NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?

Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?

Ariel Pacheco

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The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East? 

The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.

The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis. 

Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills. 

Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line —  in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.

RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.

But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.

The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games. 

There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.

Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games. 

That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.

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