Is This DeMarcus Cousins’ Last Chance to Prove He’s a Franchise Player?

If this ends up being the year DeMarcus Cousins finally seizes the opportunity laid out in front of him—if he becomes the leader so many of us want—know this: he laid groundwork with Team USA.

Cousins underwent nothing less than a full redemption at the FIBA World Cup in Spain. Never assured of actually making the team in the first place, Cousins rapidly became the best reserve big man on the roster.

He never embarrassed himself or his country, never hurt his team by complaining, never loafed or whined or scowled. Even when presented with a chance to justify the skeptics—a chance very few level-headed players could have resisted—Cousins didn’t bite.

Instead, he went about his international business, completing the tournament with averages of 9.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 70.2 percent shooting in 13.9 minutes per game. Quietly, Cousins was one of Team USA’s very best contributors.

And then, not so quietly, he assured the U.S. of a gold medal by stepping up in the final:

All in all, Cousins had himself a nice little tournament—if you consider a potentially career-altering, reputation-rehabilitating run to be a “nice little tournament.”

 

Will It Translate?

The Sacramento Kings won’t be satisfied with 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds from Cousins this season, which is fine because Boogie has never had an issue producing big numbers. He posted a career year in 2013-14 with averages of 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds. 2.9 assists and 49.6 percent shooting.

What the Kings really want is for Cousins to bring his new demeanor back from Spain.

All the positive reinforcement he’s been getting of late makes that a possibility, as Cousins has recently gone from being a frustrating talent with a victim’s mentality to a surprisingly beloved object of national pride.

Separately, patriotism and redemption stories are powerful things. What we’re seeing with Cousins right now proves that, together, they’re transformative.

Despite that, it’ll be harder for Big Cuz to maintain his poise and maturity in Sacramento. The opportunities for frustration will be frequent, as the Kings don’t figure to threaten the playoffs. Simply returning to an environment that had so much to do with negatively influencing Cousins’ personality could pull him back toward his old ways.

The Kings have been a model of dysfunction over the past decade, featuring seven head coaches in the past eight seasons, zero playoff appearances and no track record of player development. Anyone criticizing Cousins’ lack of development in any way has to acknowledge that he’s spent his entire NBA career in a culture of inconsistency and instability.

Consider this, too: For all the growth Cousins showed with Team USA, he never had to be a leader. Not even close, really.

He was a very good player on a very good team already loaded with veterans, stars and tone-setters. Not to mention head coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose gravitas negated the need for an on-court alpha.

 

Leadership Vacancy

Cousins won’t enjoy any such luck with the Kings, where head coach Mike Malone has just last year’s 54-loss campaign on his coaching resume, and Rudy Gay occupies a default leadership role because of his veteran status.

Neither of those two are ideal leaders, and neither has really earned such a distinction to this point. That means Cousins—if he’s ready—has a golden opportunity in front of him.

We have to be careful about overstating what Cousins proved with Team USA, though. He showed he could function as a terrific role player, that he could go about fulfilling his duties as part of a team without bringing attitude or distraction into the equation.

He didn’t show he could be an unquestioned franchise figurehead.

The Kings’ flimsy power structure is screaming out for somebody to take control, and in a perfect world, the team’s best player would be that somebody. Rest assured, the organization wants nothing more than for Cousins to step to the fore and assert himself as an on-court captain and off-court commodity.

Remember, the Kings are going to market Cousins like crazy—no matter what.

“We want to create a global brand here, a global franchise, and I said, ‘I’d like nothing better than a billion Indians to know who DeMarcus Cousins is,’” Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said in a press conference before last season, per The Associated Press.

Ideally, Cousins will be someone the Kings someday won’t have to work so hard to market. He’ll be someone fans want to support.

Maybe he already is.

He’s easily the organization’s most recognizable player, easily its most talented and still its most promising. Sacramento desperately needs Cousins to mature into the man who dominates on the court and sets the tone off of it.

It’s just hard to know if that will ever be possible. We learned plenty about Cousins in Spain—most of which, unfortunately, doesn’t mean as much as it might seem for his NBA career. It’s unquestionably a good thing that Cousins suppressed the antics that have hurt his reputation, and we can certainly view that as a sign of hope for his overall progress as a player and person.

We just can’t be sure he’s ready to be the centerpiece around which a good NBA team can be built until he proves it in Sacramento.

 

The Power of Urgency

Is it too late for Cousins to be a legitimate franchise player? Maybe.

But it’s a little crazy to say that about someone who just turned 24.

What’s more, we now know Cousins can shape up when presented with a last chance. Another bad camp or emotional outburst and Boogie’s shot at ever being part of Team USA would have disappeared forever this past summer. He’d sabotaged his chances in each of his two previous tries and knew perfect behavior (and excellent play) were necessary to make the most of his final shot.

Cousins delivered when he absolutely had to.

So if you want to say this season marks Cousins’ last chance to prove he’s capable of taking that next step, maybe that’s a good thing. Urgency has motivated Boogie in the past.

The Kings have to be hoping it happens again.

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Joakim Noah Bounces 1st Pitch at White Sox Game, Throws Strike on 2nd Chance

Most people don’t get two shots at the “first” pitch, so it pays off to be a professional athlete.

Chicago Bulls star Joakim Noah received the honor of throwing out the first pitch before the Oakland A’s-Chicago White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field on Thursday.

The 6’11″ center warmed up before the game.

However, when he took the mound, he needed more than one shot to get the ball over the plate.

Somewhere out there, 50 Cent is probably wishing he got a second chance earlier this year.

[Chicago White Sox]

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Wesley Johnson Gets 1 Last Chance to Prove Himself

The tantalizing promise that accompanies draft-lottery picks will often earn them extra redemptive opportunities when greatness fails to materialize. But as successive disappointing seasons pass, those chances become increasingly tenuous, and certainly, more warily observed.

Wesley Johnson finds himself at yet another crossroads as a new season approaches. This will likely be his last best chance to prove himself in the Association.

Selected as the No. 4 pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2010, the swingman out of Iowa State and Syracuse has shown flashes of promise offset by a tendency to blend into the woodwork. After two seasons in Minnesota, one with the Phoenix Suns and one with the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson just doesn’t seem to have progressed all that much.

His 9.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in 62 starts out of 79 appearances in purple and gold weren’t that distinguishable from his rookie campaign when he averaged nine points and three boards, with 63 starts out of 79 games.

There was one rather noticeable difference last season, however. Coach Mike D’Antoni often used the combo small forward/shooting guard as an undersized power forward. At 6’7” and 215 pounds, Johnson was a sapling amongst the league’s taller and sturdier frontcourt trees.

As relayed by Eric Pincus for the Los Angeles Times last season D’Antoni explained his reasoning thusly:

What coaches have to coach Shawn Marion? That was the experience I had and I told Wesley and that’s a lofty goal, no doubt about it, because Shawn is obviously one of the better players in the league – - but (Johnson) has a lot of those qualities. He can do that. He can disrupt at the four.

That experiment didn’t do much to solidify Johnson’s standing with the Lakers. After the season ended, the chronic underachiever found himself unemployed once again, without any apparent suitors. After management failed to land any top-tier small forwards, however, they tossed Johnson another minimum-salary life buoy.

This season, Johnson will be back at his natural small forward position and seems to have some initial support. As new coach Byron Scott said, per Mike Trudell for Lakers.com: “I think the kid is so talented, I’m really hoping it can be a break out year for him. Now obviously, he has to come to camp and win that spot, and that’s on him.”

The enthusiasm works both ways. Asked his thoughts on Scott by Dave Miller for TWC SportsNet, Johnson replied; “Actually, I’m excited about it. I think he’ll bring that defensive identity that we need.”

Johnson has also been working out regularly with Kobe Bryant—a notoriously tough taskmaster.

It is easy to assume that Bryant’s mentor relationship with Johnson comes from being teammates last season. But, that is far from the truth. Johnson first met the player he had long idolized, during predraft workouts in Los Angeles in the spring of 2010.

According to Jonah Barlow for the Timberwolves’ NBA.com website, the eventual lottery pick continued to seek out Bryant, and a teacher/student journey began with workout sessions that summer:

Bryant explained his role as Obi-Wan Kobe with the young Wolves Jedi apprentice during the Lakers’ final trip to Target Center this season, ‘He’s extremely talented. He has the length, he has the athletic ability and the willingness to learn and improve, and when I see that, I mean you can’t help but want to try and help them be better basketball players. Now I just have to get him in some Nikes…it would be fun.’

As it turns out, Bryant’s protege wound up endorsing Adidas, but kicks are hardly the point. Despite personal mentoring, athleticism and promise, Johnson never became the superstar that many expected. In fact, his reputation has continued to drift toward that of a draft bust.

But Bryant has not given up. Four years after their first meeting, he continues working with Johnson, trying to help him become a more complete basketball player.

And, in fact, the 27-year-old possesses certain tangible skills that could suit Scott’s combination of Princeton offense and traditional help defense.

On the scoring end, Johnson’s off-ball ability to slash to the basket as well as catch-and-shoot from the perimeter, should be a natural Princeton fit. Additionally, his shot-blocking ability as well as the quickness to help seal gaps, could provide cover for Carlos Boozer and even 36-year-old Bryant himself.

Maybe this could finally be a role that suits Johnson best—an effective sidekick helper to an aging alpha dog legend. It will be one last chance for a former prodigy as he enters his fifth NBA season.

Wesley Johnson will probably never be an All-Star, but he could still fill a useful role for the Lakers.

 

 

 

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Is Dion Waiters’ Best Chance at Stardom Through a Trade?

So much of becoming an NBA star has to do with timing—not only when and where you’re playing, but whom you’re playing with, as well.

Would Michael Jordan have authored such a peerless career had he landed with the Portland Trail Blazers? What if the New York Knicks had stashed Larry Bird instead of the Boston Celtics?

Extreme examples though these might be, the question remains: How many would-be stars—by dint of circumstance rather than talent—were relegated to the dustbins of basketball history?

Suffice it to say it’s a logic spinning through the mind of Dion Waiters, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ mercurial third-year guard who in two short months has gone from possible second star in the making to fourth fiddle at best.

With LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving now set as the team’s unquestioned cornerstones, Cleveland faces a confounding dilemma with Waiters: Hope that he grows into a productive complementary piece, or trade him now—while his upside’s still high—in hopes of reeling in players more conducive to its win-now ethos.

To his credit, Waiters is approaching the Cavs’ impending pressure cooker with palpable aplomb, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Sielski, “When I get the opportunity to get the ball, I’ve got to destroy my opponent. The rest of the floor is going to be so wide open that, once I get by him, the rest of it should be easy.”

To be sure, confidence has never been a scarce commodity for the former No. 4 overall pick. Even if the bombast doesn’t exactly jive with the facts.

Case in point: Waiters’ recent remarks suggesting Love—with whom he’s regularly trained in Los Angeles during the offseason—appreciated the 6’4” guard’s passing skills.

“He likes my game,” Waiters said. “He thinks I’m underrated. One of the things about K-Love, he knows I pass the ball.”

This despite finishing 193rd in total passes a season ago, per Pro Basketball Talk’s Dan Feldman.

Few superstars achieve that status without boasting something of an outsized ego, and Waiters is—in this regard, anyway—no exception. Just how high his actual ceiling in terms of production is, however, remains an open question.

But let’s keep in mind that Waiters does boast a statistical resume not very far afield from one of his position’s living legends:

Enticing though the numbers are, it’s worth remembering Dwyane Wade authored his during his rookie season. Waiters, meanwhile, tallied his in his second year.

Just before the start of the 2013-14 season, Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney dug into the question of whether or not Waiters had what it took to become the league’s next great shooting guard. And while the analysis itself is slightly outdated, the caveats it posits are ones that, with James and Love in the fray, stand to come frighteningly true:

Not only was Waiters gradually more effective around the basket as a result of diversifying his driving game, but he also took significantly fewer off-the-dribble three-point attempts as his rookie season progressed. His awareness of open teammates and rotating defenders is still fairly low, but for Waiters to pass up some of those quick, contested threes represents a sound development toward a rich evolution.

His grasp of the game will undoubtedly improve along similar lines, but what remains to be seen is if Waiters can truly compromise his style while retaining his conviction. It’s that give and take — between balance and audacity — that will define these early stages of his career, and could come to shape his NBA course.

Suffice it to say, Waiters isn’t going to be logging increases in shots or points any time soon—at least not with these Cavs. What he most likely will do, though, is become much more efficient at both ends of the floor.

That would certainly be a coup for Cleveland, which, despite its sudden status as bona fide Finals favorites, still needs steady production from the fringes.

At the same time, there are bound to be plenty of suitors who see in Waiters’ upside reason enough to roll the dice on a trade—particularly given the league’s glaring dearth of All-Star-caliber shooting guards.

The issue from Cleveland’s perspective is one of financial flexibility: With $68 million already committed and possibly more veteran signings on the way (Ray Allen in particular has been mentioned as a viable candidate, per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports), the Cavs simply can’t afford to take back more than the $4 million Waiters stands to earn this season.

That significantly limits the range of return assets Cleveland could fetch.

While certainly unlikely, the Cavs could simply decline Waiters’ $5.2 million option for the 2014-15 season—especially if Waiters somehow proves himself a poor fit in head coach David Blatt’s rotation.

At that point, Waiters could sign with whomever he pleased. Whether or not that outcome would be better for his growth and development, however, is debatable at best.

At 22 years old, Waiters is nothing if not a work in progress, a sentiment LeBron himself acknowledged in his announcement letter for Sports Illustrated, citing the former Syracuse product by name as one whose game James intended to “elevate” in the months and years to come.

With so many teams beholden to unproven rebuilding plans, cutting Waiters adrift by no means guarantees he’ll land with a franchise committed to nurturing his potential.

Cleveland, on the other hand, offers something nearly impossible to quantify: the experience of playing with and learning from two of the best basketball players—and one of the most renowned, well-respected coaches—anywhere in the world.

Paths to NBA stardom can take any one of a thousand forms, from the immediate impact of a LeBron James to the patience-laden career of Chauncey Billups and just about everything in between.

Being Cleveland’s fourth option might feel to Waiters like yet another gale sent to prevent his ship from sailing. Really, he should be taking the opposite perspective: When you have three ships this powerful in your armada, the rising tide is sure to lift you higher than you ever thought possible.   

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CBB Coaches on Their Last Chance to Reach the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15

In a sport where fans start petitioning for a new head coach after less than three years, the lifespan of a college basketball coach who fails to make the NCAA tournament can rival that of a fruit fly.

The college basketball coaching carousel is a fierce one, claiming 45 head coaches this past offseason alone. By and large, a coach has a very limited time after signing his contract to get his new team to the Big Dance.

For a number of coaches, that grace period ends this season.

It’s do or die time. Get your team to the tournament, or make sure your resume and references are up to date.

All coaches on the following slides have been with their current teams for at least three years without ever leading them to the NCAA tournament.

The coaches are ranked in ascending order of the number of jelly beans I’d be willing to bet that they get fired if they miss the tournament.

 

Statistics on the following slides courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

Begin Slideshow

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Cavs Offer Fans Who Purchased Andrew Wiggins Jerseys Chance to Exchange Them

Just minutes after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers that sent Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota became official, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Cavaliers contacted fans who had purchased a Wiggins jersey and offered them a chance to keep, return or exchange it.

Personally, the thought of getting to keep a jersey of Andrew Wiggins on a team he never played for (imagine if you had a Kobe Bryant Charlotte Hornets jersey!) is too good to pass up.

[TheOriginalAlbi, h/t Darren Rovell]

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Kevin Love’s Arrival Offers LeBron James, Cavs Chance to Redefine Title Style

The biggest asset in building LeBron James‘ presence in Cleveland into a title-contending Cavaliers team might not be the playmaking of the King or Kyrie Irving. That honor might actually be the court vision of the final piece of the Big Three, Kevin Love, who is expected to become an official member of the Cavaliers on Aug. 23.

Love is one of the league’s most gifted outlet passers. And with the speed, ball-handling and finishing abilities of James and Irving, the impact of Love to quickly translate defense into offense isn’t to be underestimated, say a handful of NBA talent evaluators, who analyzed what the NBA’s newest terrifying trio might look like on the court next season with Bleacher Report.

“Some players are rebounding just to get possession of [the ball], but [Love] is rebounding to get it out, which is the difference,” a Northwest Division scout said. “He’s seeing guys as he’s getting that rebound. That’s why he gets [the ball] out so quickly. He’s got a high basketball IQ and he’s physically strong. There are some guys in the NBA who can throw the ball a far distance, but the problem is they don’t see their teammates. He’s aware of people on the court.”

Next season, the Cavaliers could create their own version of the “three-man weave” on breakaways: a Love outlet pass to an Irving dribble attack to a James alley-oop. This kind of sequence could be No. 1 on their opponents’ whiteboard to stop. Athletic up-and-comers Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson will also facilitate and finish, respectively, along with mobile veterans Shawn Marion and Anderson Varejao.

These are the tools new head coach David Blatt, considered by many in basketball as one of the game’s most gifted offensive minds, will likely look to leverage from the start. “He’s totally committed like a Navy SEAL,” said an Atlantic Division scout. Throughout his career, from coaching the Russian national team to Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, he’s successfully played to the strengths of his players without preaching a specific system.

“I’m sure that he’s going to want to create numbers offensively [in transition],” the Northwest scout said. “I’m sure they’re going to be getting up and going, and they’re going to want to play full-court attacking.”

The Cavaliers could also be masters of the secondary fast break, which fuels off of three-pointers in a quick-hitting pick-and-roll. Irving, for one, fed off of these last season. And Love, who’s become one of the NBA’s best-conditioned athletes since coming in heavy from college, figures to be a major threat as a trailing big man, playing off of James or Irving in the two-man game. Love shot 37.6 percent from three-point range last season. Then, add in seasoned sharpshooters Mike Miller, James Jones and potentially Ray Allen, who is still undecided about his future, according to a source.

Those are the shooting assets the Cavaliers didn’t have last season, when they ranked in the bottom half in three-point percentage (.356).

Once the Cavaliers settle down in a half-court set, it’s unlikely that Blatt will call for a clear out to initiate the offense, especially with the diverse talent on the roster.

“[We have] versatility at different positions,” Irving said this week after a recent Team USA practice. “There are so many different spots that can be filled, 1 through 5. We have a young core and we have guys coming in that can play the game of basketball and have championship caliber.”

Two Eastern Conference scouts think that Blatt will only have around four offensive sets he uses the most, because he’ll put trust in James and Irving’s playmaking, as well as their experienced teammates, to make reads on their own within the flow of the offense.

“They’re not going to be ball-stopping in David Blatt’s offense, I can tell you that for sure, especially the way that Miami lost last year and LeBron being the intelligent player he is,” the Atlantic Division scout said. “[Blatt] can flat out coach. The ball is going to move, there’s going to be great spacing, that free throw lane area is going to be open and Kevin Love will spread the floor as a stretch-4 and play the 5 in a small lineup with a lot of shooters. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

So who will be options No. 1, 2 and 3? A Southwest Division scout believes James will want to play position-less basketball based on his Finals experience losing to the Mavericks in 2011 and the Spurs this year.

“He’s seen the recipe; we all saw it,” the scout said. “In 2011, [Dallas] picked [Miami] apart by swinging the basketball. The ball kept moving, players kept moving. They demolished them that way, and the Spurs made them look like a junior high team. It was wild, so everybody should take a page out of the Spurs’ playbook.”

But there is still intrigue over how the NBA’s newest Big Three will make sacrifices. That consumed some of the league talk this past week in Las Vegas at Tim Grgurich’s annual coaches camp, where every NBA team’s front office was represented.

“[Irving and Love] are not going to have a problem with LeBron leading the team, but are they going to have problems being a deputy?” an Eastern Conference executive wondered. “If Kyrie is the second leader, how is that going to affect Kevin? Or if Kevin is, how is that going to affect Kyrie? I talked to everybody that was out here—scouts, refs, coaches and GMs—and everybody is curious to see who’s going to submit for the good of the team.”

“I think winning will take care of everything,” the Atlantic scout added. “Kevin Love wants to win. He’s now six years without going to the playoffs. Kyrie, the same thing since he’s been in the league. You’re going to win with LeBron. I think that when you win, that definitely helps things and relationships.”

Regardless of the hierarchy, a Central Division scout noted that opponents can’t game-plan against the Cavaliers thinking that way. What could be stressed from the opposing side is getting the ball out of Irving’s hands quickly, making sure Love is jumped all the time and playing physical with both of them. That approach could carry some bit considering the injury history of both.

Above all, though, preparation against the Cavaliers will come down to their offensive patterns.

“Once they get into the thick of the season, they’re probably going to have three, four sets that they use the most,” the Central scout said. “Then you go on player tendencies—what they do when they catch it on this side of the floor or this area on the floor, and all your players have got to know it.”

It’s a strong possibility that the Cavaliers’ half-court offense will start with multiple pick-and-roll options between James, Irving and Love. The most lethal could be a pick-and-pop with James and Love, in order for Love to further spread the court. As the Southwest scout said, “That’s pretty damn scary. It’s just like, ‘What do you do on defense?’”

The Central scout chimed in: “If LeBron is at the 2 or at the 1, with Kevin at the 3, now teams are in trouble. But If LeBron and Kevin are used as the 3 and 4 in the pick-and-pop, that may be a switch opportunity depending on how big your 3 is, and then it’s going to end up being a lot of post-up games for LeBron or Kevin.”

Last season, James and Love were very effective in the post based on points per play, according to Synergy Sports. Love actually got most of his touches on the block, but he’ll likely see a decrease down there in Blatt’s spread-out, movement-based offense. The Big Three will need to make adjustments—most likely for Love, whose scoring might dip not only because of Blatt’s offense but also because of the facilitator-scorer roles James and Irving are likely to play—and that could mostly come off the ball.

“[Blatt] is a very creative coach (who played in legendary coach Pete Carril’s Princeton offense) and I don’t think he’s going to stick to one thing,” the Central scout said. “He’s going to go with what works and he’s got a million different things he can do. Maybe he’ll get out of Kyrie’s hands initially, have him loop through and have him get it on the second or third catch, and then have him run a ball screen.”

Not only could Irving run off of screens like a 2-guard—he shot nearly 40 percent from mid-range last season—but James could also be an option on the move, spotting up and receiving feeds inside off of curl cuts. With his improved outside jumper, he could also become a bigger three-point shooter in the corner—where he cleverly established himself last season at 55.6 percent—to boost the team’s spacing.

“During Vegas Summer League, [Blatt] just ran some very nice sets—double-screen options for shooters, after-timeout plays,” the Atlantic scout said. “Another way that I evaluate coaches is if he’s going to run an out-of-bounds play that’s not going to make you chuck a shot, but make you take a good shot. He did that in summer league.”

There could also be some Triangle action between James, Irving and Love, who can all pass, shoot and score out of the mid-post. Overall with the focus on the Big Three, the role players will need to set hard screens, rotate well to maintain floor balance, make smart cuts to the basket and, above all, knock down wide-open shots.

Already a product of scoring without the ball, Love should fit in well alongside Irving and James. Love is a smart cutter and gets strong position quickly in the paint, which helps make him unique as a scorer, explained two scouts.

“His small area of quickness is off the charts,” the Central scout said. “You may be the slowest player from one end to the other, but from me to you away if we’re standing close to each other, he’s the quickest player in the NBA because his brain works at such a high level and his hands are so fast. Obviously that helps his rebounding.”

The Northwest scout added: “He’s a smart player. He understands angles, understands how to get shots off. He’s not fast, but he’s just fast enough to be effective. He’s like a change-up in baseball. He’s very good at the elbow facing the basket. He’s got a great release. He’s also physically strong and he’s able to move people with his hips, with his shoulders. And he’s got tremendous hands.”

On the flip side, Love’s biggest Achilles’ heel, as it is for Irving, is defense.

With Irving, who’s only 22, scouts point to desire and effort being the reasons he hasn’t been committed to making stops. In fact, he admitted this week that he hadn’t been a leader for his team. “I have to be that much better and I’m going to be,” Irving added this week. The Atlantic scout also suggested that Irving’s new $90 million extension offers motivation as well.

As for Love, the Northwest scout said the power forward’s flat-footed style and his lack of lateral quickness has affected him defensively. But the Central scout said he’s noticed strides on that end in Minnesota, even as Love has maintained his focus as a do-it-all offensive player.

“Kevin’s improved there,” the scout said. “A lot of times as you get older, the game slows down to you and you read the game at a higher level. So defensively he’s reading the game at a higher level, he’s understanding body positioning and player tendencies a little bit better. That just goes with his IQ. He’s becoming smarter defensively and he’s figuring out how to use his footwork defensively. That just takes a little time. You don’t see teams isolating Kevin any more.”

Regardless, the Cavaliers will likely not orchestrate their defensive system in the same aggressive manner James’ former team, the Miami Heat, demonstrated guarding pick-and-rolls. Adding Marion, Dallas’ best perimeter stopper last season, was a plus, but according to the Eastern Conference scouts, Cleveland doesn’t have the same defensive speed and versatility as Miami did, nor has Blatt demonstrated as suffocating a defensive approach. 

“I don’t think Cleveland is going to be a consistent blitzing team like Miami. I think they’re going to have a little more variety in their style,” the Atlantic scout said. “Like in Chicago and San Antonio, I think in Cleveland you’re going to see the big man sag off and play just coverage defense, as opposed to blitzing or hedging. It’s a very smart defensive strategy. I think you’re also going to see a mixture of zone defense against out-of-bounds plays. That’s what David Blatt did in the Vegas Summer League.”

New associate head coach Tyronn Lue and new assistant Larry Drew should also help plug a defense that ranked 17th last season in points per 100 possessions. The Atlantic scout called them both “grinders.” Lue made two title runs with the Lakers as a player and later worked for five years on Doc Rivers’ tough-minded staff. And Drew, who was the head coach in Milwaukee last season, “mixed up zones and defended pick-and-rolls well,” according to the scout.

According to a source, the Cavaliers could also sign Chauncey Billups, who’s close with Lue and knows defense well from his Detroit days winning a championship in 2004.

“Chauncey is like a coach on the floor,” the scout said. “He’s going to be either a coach or GM in this league, it’s only a matter of time. He’s a leader and he’s a guy that players totally respect. And he was a pure professional as a player.”

No matter the schemes, the scouts and Irving agreed that Cleveland’s future relies on player camaraderie.

“Guys everywhere on every team are going to be gunning for us, and that’s something you look forward to as a competitor,” Irving said this week. “But the most important thing is just figuring out team chemistry and team roles, and go from there.”

Can the young Cavaliers of last season blend in with many of the older players that James has recruited this summer to get past the fierce competition? Winning should take care of everything. James knows what that’s like, but Irving and Love have yet to taste it.

Once that happens, as the Southwest scout said, “they could the change the way basketball is played in the East.”

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Kevin Love Trade Gives Ricky Rubio Chance to Redefine NBA Career

Kevin Love hasn’t officially escaped the Gopher State, but his move to Cleveland seems far enough along, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, that he could comfortably put down a security deposit on his next home.

With nothing more than a formality—the 30-day waiting period for the ink to dry on top pick Andrew Wiggins’ contract—standing between Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Minnesota Timberwolves are preparing for their new Loveless existence.

It’s hard to give that news a positive spin. The walking double-double fills a stat sheet like few others can (26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists last season), and the Wolves have no one rising through their ranks to replace that production. The win column Love struggled to fill during his six seasons in ‘Sota may get even lighter in the near future.

At the very least, the pressure to perform won’t be nearly as high as it has been in recent years. That’s the silver lining to this story if there is one, and no one should benefit from that more than point guard prodigy Ricky Rubio.

The “prodigy” label feels like an awkward fit for someone who has already spent three seasons in the NBA and 23-plus years on this planet. The fact he was introduced to the basketball world long before his 2011 debut paints him as more of a disappointment than a prospect who hasn’t emptied his upside tank.

Yet it’s hard to say if the real Rubio has ever made it stateside. Sure, the flashy passes and occasionally gaudy assist totals made the trip, but the floor general has never ranked higher than second in command on his roster.

One botched contract negotiation aside, there has never been a question as to the identity of Minnesota’s franchise face.

“Rubio has been following Love’s lead for the last several years,” wrote TrueHoop Network’s Steve McPherson. “No matter David Kahn’s feelings about who is and isn’t a max player on the Wolves, Rubio joined Love’s team, and so his role…was to fall in line behind the veteran leading the team.”

Rubio couldn’t be just another soldier in Love’s army, though. His buzz was far too big for that.

A professional hooper since the age of 14, Rubio needed to be the slick-passing Robin to Love’s Batman; Minnesota’s John Stockton if you will, a guy who made winning plays while Love posted the sexier stats and reaped the rewards those numbers often bring.

In three years together, the partnership never got off the ground.

The Wolves ran up a record of 97-133, each season adding another notch to their now decade-long playoff drought. But the group was more a victim of misfortune than a collection of misfit pieces.

The start of Rubio‘s rookie season was delayed by the NBA lockout, and the end of it was derailed by a torn ACL. He missed 25 games the following year, 39 less than Love, who twice broke his shooting hand.

With Love’s frustration mounting and the clock ticking toward his early termination option, Minnesota’s 2013-14 campaign seemed doomed before it started.

There was tremendous pressure to perform. The Wolves spent their offseason targeting win-now veterans like Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf. It was playoffs or catastrophic, franchise-crippling bust.

Rubio‘s scoring dipped to a career-worst 9.5 points per game. He shot just 38.1 percent from the field, the fourth-lowest mark of any player who logged at least 30 minutes a night.

The Wolves struggled to keep their head above water, which still wouldn’t have been good enough in the overloaded Western Conference. They lost their first 11 games decided by four points or less, and the combination of individual and team struggles weighed heavily on Rubio‘s shoulders.

“I’m going to be honest. I’m not feeling comfortable out there,” Rubio told Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press in January. “I’m not being myself, and the team is noticing.”

He eventually elevated his own game—he averaged 10.7 points on 41.5 percent shooting after the All-Star break, compared to 8.9 on 36.1 before it—but he couldn’t reverse the franchise’s fate. The Wolves finished 40-42, which neither earned them a playoff berth nor satisfied Love.

It’s definitely disappointing, both for Rubio and the Timberwolves as a whole. Love’s production won’t be easily replaced, and a team that has suffered through this amount of losing isn’t exactly warm to the idea of a lengthy rebuild.

Rubio told NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper he doesn’t want Love’s departure to rid this franchise of its expectations to succeed:

Before I came to Minnesota, the season before they won like 17 games. I was a little scared when I went there. I’m coming from Europe, where I was playing in Barcelona. I think we lost six games or seven games in two seasons and every loss was a disaster. I don’t want to go through a process like every win is something special.

It’s hard to imagine the Wolves not taking a step back without Love. They did as well as they could have with a superstar essentially forcing his own exit, but their haul still features only a raw Andrew Wiggins, a protected 2015 first-round pick and the uncomfortably large gap between Anthony Bennett’s ceiling and his basement.

Yet a few extra losses shouldn’t scare Rubio away. Not when his environment is changing to one much more conducive to individual growth.

The win-or-lose-Love days are over. This is Rubio‘s team to lead, potentially at a top-dollar price:

Wiggins is just the latest in a long line of top-tier athletes surrounding Rubio, ideal receivers for such a crafty gunslinger.

He’s a showman who doesn’t let his dazzling displays tread too deeply into reckless waters. There is nothing wrong with flair when it’s accompanied by function, and he is nothing less than a master mixologist when blending the two.

This should be a fun team to watch and an even more enjoyable one to lead.

For the first time in his career, Rubio should have the chance to do just that. He didn’t exactly hurt for touches last season (only John Wall had more total assists), but he never had complete control of the offense. Of the 22 players to average at least six assists last season, only Kendall Marshall (16.3) had a smaller usage percentage than Rubio (16.4).

Finding offensive chances won’t be an issue going forward. With an intriguing group of complementary pieces around him, numbers should come in equal abundance.

This is a reset button for Rubio and a unique one at that, as Vice Sports’ Ian Levy observed:

Rubio has an opportunity that is rarely afforded to young players who were drafted high and have fallen short. He has three years of experience under his belt, hasn’t had to move cities, and still gets the opportunity to be part of an organization whose status quo and goals for the future are suddenly a perfect match for his own. Make layups, make jumpshots, make his teammates better in an offense which functions effectively, regardless of the score or the time remaining in the game; focus on process until the product arrives.

This is the NBA start that Rubio never had. This is his team now, and one that will move as quickly or slowly as he can handle.

It’s a far different challenge from the one he’s been given to date, but the light at the end of this tunnel should shine brighter than any he’s ever seen.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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Los Angeles Lakers: A chance at the “ultimate” three

Pandemonium has officially hit the NBA with Lebron James’ decision to opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat. The front offices of all 32 NBA teams are driving themselves insane trying to figure out how to lure the King out of South Beach and lead them to an NBA championship. The July 1st free agency period with future Hall of Fame franchise players Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Lebron and the deepest draft in a decade make for an exciting summer.
Realistically, half of the NBA teams are either too cash-strapped, can’t offer a major market, or don’t have the high profile talent to pull off what Pat Riley and the Heat did four years ago. The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the fringe teams that have the ability to offer Lebron the package of money, a major market city with global marketing potential, but lacks the talent (other than Kobe) that will be needed to get Lebron to travel west.  Unfortunately, and it pains me even more to say, the crosstown rival Clippers are in a better position currently

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Report: Clippers Believe They Have ‘Real Chance’ of Signing Paul Pierce

Could Paul Pierce be headed for a reunion with Doc Rivers after a one-year hiatus in Brooklyn? 

According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, the Los Angeles Clippers are now of the belief that they have a shot at signing Pierce following Jason Kidd’s departure: 

All this comes after Stein reported back in May that Pierce would be interested in linking up with the Clippers, although that option came with a caveat regarding Kevin Garnett‘s future at the time: 

If KG decides to play on, those who know him well say Pierce’s incentive to stay in Brooklyn naturally spikes. If Garnett decides it’s time to stop, Pierce is bound to be intrigued even more by the scenario that is said to be on his radar already: Reuniting with Doc Rivers in Clipperland in what would also be a homecoming for the Los Angeles native. 

Following a rather underwhelming inaugural season with the Brooklyn Nets that saw Pierce average a career-worst 13.5 points on 45.1 percent shooting from the field, a change of scenery would make sense for the unrestricted free agent. 

And given the organizational uncertainty that’s enveloped the Nets following Kidd’s transition to the Milwaukee Bucks, finding comfort in Rivers’ system out in his native Los Angeles would seem to be a natural for a veteran searching to maximize his remaining years in the Association. 

Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale relayed a similar sentiment after the Nets were ousted from the playoffs: 

“Going on 37, Pierce, as he showed at times against the Heat, can still play. He won’t want to waste what he has left playing for lottery-bound squads or fringe-playoff clubs.”

It’s also worth noting that the Clippers aren’t alone in their pursuit of Pierce. 

According to Stein, several other noteworthy contenders are putting out feelers as the 36-year-old hits the open market: 

“I still think I have something to give a team,” Pierce said following the Nets’ dismissal from the postseason, according to the New York Post’s Tim Bontemps. In addition, Pierce told reporters that he has a year or two left, “at most,” per Bontemps

If we’re to take Pierce at his word, a move to the Clippers would be the most logical one out there. 

Not only does Pierce have an intimate familiarity with Rivers’ scheme from their days in Boston, but L.A. is looking for immediate help on the wing, according to ESPN L.A.’s Arash Markazi

With a starting role feasibly up for grabs, it would behoove Pierce to try and cap his career with a Larry O’Brien trophy or two, even if it comes at a reduced price. 

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