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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.

Spencer Davies

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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.

Leaders Lead

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.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Get Familiar With the Phoenix Suns

Drew Maresca discusses the Suns’ roster, why they’ve flown under the radar for much of the season and why fans should expect even more from Phoenix.

Drew Maresca

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What in the world is going on in Phoenix?

Unless you’ve deliberately followed the Suns this season, it’s understandable if you’ve missed their incredibly hot start. They’re not mentioned by the national media (e.g., ESPN) nearly as often the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers — but they should be.

And it’s not as is you can easily do your own research, either. Unless you’re an NBA League Pass subscriber, you’ve had limited opportunities to watch what’s going on in Phoenix. The Suns were scheduled to appear in only the tenth-most nationally televised games through the first half of the season, behind the Lakers, Nets, Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami HEAT (and tied with the Philadelphia 76ers).

But at a certain point, numbers are just too powerful to continue to overlook – and that point was months ago for the Suns. And while they still haven’t even really received the credit they deserve, it’s coming.

After a loss against the Clippers on Thursday night, Phoenix is 36-15, good for the second-best record in the entire league. They’ve won eight of their last 10 games and boast the fifth-best defensive rating (109.4) and seventh-best offensive rating (116.3) – which works out to the third-best net rating in the NBA (+6.6).

The Suns – and pretty much every NBA team – have a long way to go before cementing their playoff seeding. According to Tankathon, the Suns have the eighth-hardest remaining schedule, with games against the Jazz, Nets, 76ers, Clippers, Lakers and Bucks – but that’s less alarming when you look closely at the Suns’ results thus far.

The Suns are 18-7 against teams with .500 records or better. They’re also 7-5 against teams with .600 records or better and 3-2 against the ultra-elite (Jazz, Nets, Clippers, Bucks, 76ers).

Ultimately, the NBA is about winning – not expectations – so the Suns still have every opportunity to accomplish what they’d hoped to prior to the season. They play smart and are well-stocked with star power. Opponents probably won’t overlook them, but fans may. And it’s the fans who could miss out.

But how did Phoenix turn the corner so quickly? They went from a 19-63 team in 2018-19 to the league’s second-best team just two seasons later.

Adding Chris Paul helps. But it’s also understandable that adding Paul means being overlooked – he’s been overlooked for most of the recent past, written off as great but not great enough.

Upon closer inspection, Paul’s resume is jaw-dropping. Most recently, he led the seriously under-manned 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder team to the fifth-seed in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. He was also responsible for catapulting the Houston Rockets into serious contention mode; at their pinnacle in 2017-18, the Rockets were up 3-2 against the champion-to-be Golden State Warriors before Paul strained his hamstring and missed games six and seven, both of which Houston dropped.

Paul, who will turn 36 this May, is still a magician on the court. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 8.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. He’s also played in all but one of the Suns’ games. But what’s most impressive about Paul is that his net effect is far greater than any stats can communicate.

Ironically, in giving Paul his flowers, we inherently overlook Booker, the team’s leader in points (26.0) and minutes played (34.2). Objectively, Booker should be in the MVP discussion, but he plays in Phoenix and alongside Paul – so individual accolades will have to wait.

But the Suns’ success is about more than just the backcourt. There’s also the first-overall pick from the 2018 NBA Draft, Deandre Ayton, who’s averaging a double-double, again, while shooting career-bests from the field (62.8%) and the free-throw line (76.7%). There’s also Mikal Bridges – who is quietly outperforming guys taken ahead of him in the 2018 draft, scoring 13.3 points per game on 41.5% shooting from deep – and Jae Crowder.

And then there’s the other guys, who were recently overlooked or disregarded by other teams – Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric and Cameron Payne.

Johnson was the 11th overall pick in 2019. But because of his advanced age relative to other lottery picks – Johnson was 23 on draft night – and the fact that he wasn’t projected as a lottery pick, the Suns and Johnson were ridiculed.

But Johnson hit the ground running, averaging 8.8 points while shooting 39% on three-point attempts in his rookie season. And he’s gained momentum in his Sophomore campaign, scoring 9.8 points per game while maintaining his shooting from deep (38.7%) and increasing his two-point shooting percentage from 52.6% to 56.6%.

Saric is a versatile big who’s been aided by the game’s move to pace-and-space. Drafted in 2014, Saric remained in Europe until the 2016-17 season. He’s been effective at every stop he’s made, but (surprisingly) didn’t latch on in Philadelphia or Minnesota. He’s averaging 9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 35% on three-point attempts. And given the league’s move to mobile bigs, Saric is a valuable role player and complements the more physical play of Ayton beautifully.

And then there’s Payne, who was best known as a former Russell Westbrook hype man. But the book is being re-written on Payne given what he’s done in Phoenix so far.

Payne cemented a spot on the Suns with his performance last season, averaging 10.9 points on better-than-50% shooting from deep in eight games in the bubble. And while the addition of Chris Paul has translated to fewer minutes for Payne, he’s still producing. He’s scoring 6.8 points in 16.8 minutes per game on 40.2% shooting on three-point attempts, but the more he plays, the greater the effect; Payne is averaging 13.4 points per game when he plays at least 20 minutes – which includes games against Dallas, Portland and Miami.

The Suns get a whole lot out of their roster, including younger guys like Bridges and Ayton. That’s a testament to the second-year head coach, Monty Williams. So while the path here could be misinterpreted as involving shortcuts, it’s actually followed a deliberate plan that’s been executed to perfection by the team’s front office.

Phoenix may have arrived sooner than expected, but Paul doesn’t lose much – which is probably rubbing off on Booker and others – so betting against him (and the Suns) was always a fool’s errand. And regardless of outcomes, one thing’s for sure – people will learn about the Suns this season. And they won’t be written off anytime soon.

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G-League

NBA PM: Jeremy Lin, Activist and Basketball Player

Racism in the United States continues to rise as the fight for equality continues. In the NBA, Jeremy Lin has stepped up and used his voice in support of the movement to end Asian hate.

Dylan Thayer

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a strong movement for social justice and human rights in America. Recently, the headlines have involved racist remarks and attacks on people of Asian ethnicities across the United States.

In the NBA, various teams and players have come out to voice their support for the movement to stop Asian hate such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and an Asian-American himself, Jeremy Lin. The basketball world has done an excellent job with social justice reform and human rights issues by highlighting them on the players’ uniforms, banners and signs throughout their arenas, while also letting the players express their thoughts on racism without backing down.

“As a part of our ongoing commitment to promote racial equality and social justice,” the NBA’s recent statement read, “We stand with the Asian community against any acts of hate and racism.”

Within the past few weeks, there was a mass shooting in Atlanta at a massage parlor that left six Asian women dead. The shooting occurred on Mar. 16 and has been highly publicized as a hate crime. This act of racism put the Asian hate movement in the spotlight once again, but, sadly, hate crimes towards Asians related to the coronavirus pandemic are not new.

Lin – always willing to stand up for what’s right, no matter the cost – used his platform as to speak out and highlight the hate seen against Asian-Americans.

“We have to keep standing up, speaking out, rallying together and fighting for change. We cannot lose hope!” 

Lin, who has now played for the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, has a large platform as an Asian American basketball player. Today, the point guard for the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors has been a vocal leader of the movement to end Asian hate. But as one of three Asian basketball players in the NBA system, he serves as a role model for young Asians everywhere. For every three-pointer he hit this year in the G League, he donated to organizations for youth empowerment or human rights work, per CBS News

Of course, during a G League game, Lin was called ‘coronavirus’ by another player – which led to him speaking out against Asian hate but did not name anybody as he did not want to contribute to more hate.

“What good does it do in this situation for someone to be torn down?” Lin said in a lengthy Twitter note posted in late February.

Listen to the voices that are teaching us how to be anti-racist towards ALL people.”

Experiencing recent hate while enduring numerous other instances of racism towards him, Lin is a powerful voice and a leader in the Asian American community. 

As a player, Lin has had an up-and-down career while playing overseas in China – all following an NBA Finals win in which he played just one minute for the Toronto Raptors. Back in America and the G League where he famously got his start, Lin has tried to prove that he’s ready and able to contribute to an NBA team once more.

Appearing in nine games for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Lin posted averages of 19 points and 6.4 assists per game, plus a field goal percentage of 50.5 percent, a 42.6 percent three-point percentage and 87.9 from the free throw line.

Without a doubt, Lin still has a lot of good basketball left in the tank, but why hasn’t he been called up to the NBA? The Golden State Warriors are already in the luxury tax and the team’s other guards have performed particularly well. An unfortunate circumstance for him to be in, but Lin is one injury away from a call-up and a contract if the situation arises. 

This season may not be the one where Lin makes his return to the NBA, but that isn’t going to stop him from trying. It was clear following his short G League stint that he can still play in the NBA and deserves to still be on a roster. Even if he is not in a large role, he can be an instant threat off the bench at any moment with his offensive IQ creating shots for himself and opening up the floor for others. 

But as Lin works to re-fulfilling his dreams, it hasn’t stopped him from using his platform for good. Throughout his long, bumpy career – full of meteoric rises, brutal injuries and false starts – the veteran point guard has always been a source of kindness and thoughtfulness. And in this day and age, Lin stands to be a powerful voice for progress not only in the NBA, but in the country at large.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Pelicans-Thomas Partnership a Low-Risk, High-Upside Bet for Both

Bobby Krivitsky examines the partnership formed between the New Orleans Pelicans and Isaiah Thomas, a low-risk wager that could pay dividends for both sides.

Bobby Krivitsky

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On Apr. 6, Isaiah Thomas played in his first NBA game in over a year.

Between then and now, Thomas had a hip resurfacing procedure to address the bone-on-bone issue in his hip. The pain was so excruciating that Thomas favored his right side, compromising his balance and overall effectiveness. As a result, he bounced around the league and spent brief stints with four teams in three years before being waived by the Los Angeles Clippers after they acquired him in a deal with the Washington Wizards. Back on the court, the one-time Mr. Irrelevant, who rose to near-MVP status with the Boston Celtics, said as much about his journey.

“It’s like night and day for me,” Thomas told ESPN back in October. “There’s no more pain. I’ve got my full range of motion. For three years, I was trying to play the best players in the world on one leg. I needed help from my kids to put my socks on in the morning.”

Now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Thomas played 25 minutes in his return to the hardwood, scoring 10 points on 13 shots to go along with two assists and two rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks. Though it was far from a gaudy stat line, it was great to see Thomas moving well and looking comfortable attacking off the dribble.

 

“I felt good out there. I was moving; I got to my spots; I just didn’t knock down my shots,” Thomas said after the game. “I’m still going to be a little rusty from not playing for so long, but coach Stan (Van Gundy) was like, ‘be you, go out there and be aggressive, make plays, score the ball, we want you to be you.'”

“That’s all I can do — and I’ll be better tomorrow.”

The next night, in Thomas’ second game with the Pelicans, he registered a stat line of 11 points on 12 shots to go along with three assists and a steal in a 139-111 loss on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. The fact he was able to play on both ends of a back-to-back is an encouraging sign in and of itself. As a one-way guard who the Pelicans brought in on a 10-day contract hoping to get more scoring from their second unit, Thomas reaching double figures in his first two contests of the 2020-21 campaign bodes well for his chances of sticking with New Orleans for the rest of the season.

Before joining the Pelicans, Thomas most recently played for the USA Men’s Basketball AmeriCup Qualifying Team. He started in both of their qualifying games in February, leading the USMB team to wins over the Bahamas and Mexico. In those two contests, the nine-year NBA veteran averaged a team-high 14 points, two rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and logging 21 minutes per contest.

That performance undoubtedly gave David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, the confidence to sign Thomas to a 10-day contract. 

And Thomas just might be the spark they need down the stretch. The Pelicans currently sit 11th in the Western Conference, just two games out of the play-in tournament, a concept first introduced when last season resumed in Orlando. The team’s bench is contributing an average of 32.2 points per game, which ranks 25th league-wide. Perhaps, Thomas, who’s healthier than he’s been in years, provides the scoring boost necessary to help vault them into the postseason.

Of course, Thomas would have to acclimate very quickly for that to happen. New Orleans has just 21 games left this season. Furthermore, teams are working with condensed schedules, making practices a rarity.

The former will challenge Thomas and the Pelicans’ training staff in their ability to keep Thomas’ hip fresh, to maintain his health and the energy he can provide off the bench. The latter is going to make it difficult for Thomas to develop on-court chemistry with his new teammates. Most of that feeling-out process will be happening in high-stakes games with a spot in the postseason on the line.

Another challenge Thomas is facing is that he’s signed to a 10-day contract, meaning he has to immediately prove to the Pelicans that he’s worth keeping for the rest of the regular season. It’s a low-risk gamble for New Orleans and an opportunity Thomas wasn’t going to pass up — it may not work out with the Pelicans, but another team might take a chance on Thomas if he can prove he’s rediscovered the burst that made him so lethal in Boston.

Time will tell how effective this partnership works out for both parties. But, either way, it’s great to see Thomas back in the NBA. And to this point, he’s moving well and once again scoring the ball effectively, which bodes well for his chances of sticking around beyond his current contract.

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