WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — A few days at the U.S. Military Academy can change the Knicks only so much. Notorious night owl J.R. Smith isn’t going to start waking up at dawn like a cadet.
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Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks believes that Russell Westbrook is the “best point guard in basketball” — and Westbrook for the first time, refused to argue with his coach assessment.
“I believe Russell is the best point guard in basketball,” Brooks said, unprompted. “That’s happened over time. I’ve seen Russell every practice, every game, every film session, and he’s really put a lot of time into being the best point guard in basketball.”
Westbrook just so happens to be in competition within one of the deepest positions in all of sports. Other worthy top point guards include Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Tony Parker and John Wall, among others. Westbrook for his part believes he’s the top dog out the group.
“I do,” he said. “I’m very honored to hear him say that, but that’s how I feel. I mean, I don’t know what to tell you.” “I’ve felt that since I got in the league,” Westbrook said. “I mean, that’s my mi
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The Chicago Bulls have depth at every position, especially the point guard spot. Perhaps one of the league’s five best players when healthy, Derrick Rose is back and ready to shine. Joining him is longtime Bull and fan favorite Kirk Hinrich as well as key newcomer Aaron Brooks.
Can D-Rose stay healthy for a full season? That’s the question every Chicago fan wants to know the answer to. The three-time All-Star sat out the entire 2012-13 campaign after tearing his ACL, and a right meniscus injury forced him to miss all but 10 games a season ago.
If Rose does manage to avoid the injury bug, the Bulls will have a legitimate chance of winning a title in 2015. But, of course, they’ll also need contributions from other players like Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson.
It’s time to break down Chicago’s point guard position. What happened last year, and what should we look for this season?
Last Season’s Performance
Bulls fans hoped Rose would make a triumphant return last season, but that obviously never materialized.
When he actually did play, he didn’t look much like his old self. The 2011 MVP averaged just 15.9 points and 4.3 assists while shooting a miserable 35.4 percent from the field. Those numbers are understandable, though, seeing that he hadn’t played for a year. It takes a while to shake off rust.
If the meniscus injury never occurred, Rose could’ve ended up having a great year. It appeared he was starting to turn the corner, scoring 19 points in three of his final four games. Too bad we were robbed of seeing him play for a whole season.
With Rose on the shelf, Hinrich moved into the starting lineup as his replacement. This was nothing new for the veteran, who filled in for Rose the previous season as well.
Hinrich averaged 9.3 points and 3.9 assists on 39.3 percent shooting overall (35.1 percent from three-point land).
Offensively, he was simply brutal at times. His one-point, 0-of-10 shooting performance versus the Milwaukee Bucks is a perfect example. The sad part is that he logged nearly 40 minutes during that contest.
Yet Hinrich’s tough-nosed, gritty defense as well as his leadership skills made him a respectable starter.
Backing up “Captain Kirk” was D.J. Augustin, who the Bulls signed in December. The University of Texas product went from being cut by the Toronto Raptors to emerging as one of Chicago’s top players.
He contributed 14.9 points and five assists per game while shooting a nice 41.1 percent from long distance. That’s not bad at all for a guy who sat on the end of the Raptors’ bench earlier in the season.
Augustin rejuvenated his career during his lone season as a Bull. In a way, he resembled a shorter version of Rose due to his scoring ability, quickness and clever ball-handling.
While Noah was clearly the team’s MVP, Augustin had a lot to do with Chicago’s successful season.
Overall Grade: B-
Augustin left Chicago during the summer, signing a two-year deal with the Detroit Pistons. That’s a shame because he and Rose could’ve formed quite a duo this year.
The Bulls were able to re-sign Hinrich, though. It wasn’t a surprising move since he fits perfectly in coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system. This will be Hinrich’s 10th season with the club.
Free agent Brooks was signed to replace Augustin. Like Augustin, the fellow 6-footer is a solid scorer who doesn’t play elite defense.
Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley pointed out that the Bulls can hide his weaknesses: ”For Brooks, he’s headed to a team built to mask his weaknesses and maximize his strengths. Coach Tom Thibodeau may not seem like the best teacher for Brooks and his lightning-quick trigger, but history shows the defensive guru has enjoyed plenty of success with undersized scoring guards.”
This is true. Backup point guards like Nate Robinson and Augustin have flourished under Thibs in the past. Brooks may be the next guy to do so.
What to Expect
Rose will be the Bulls’ starting point guard in 2014-15. Well, he will be unless Hinrich or Brooks miraculously wins the job during training camp. And we know that’s not happening.
Can he return to the MVP player he was a few years back? If he can avoid the injured list, anything is possible.
Rose didn’t look very MVP-like at this summer’s FIBA World Cup. He struggled mightily when it came to shooting the ball. Yet Bulls vice president John Paxson doesn’t seem too worried, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.
I know that everyone is paying attention to his numbers. I’m certainly not. I’ve liked the way he’s moved on the floor, his explosiveness. You see at times where he just turns on the jets and explodes. Those are the things I focus on.
Here’s Rose showcasing his explosiveness by dunking on Finland:
Look for him to have a healthy All-Star campaign.
Hinrich will head back to the bench and serve as Rose’s primary backup. He’ll likely see a little time at the shooting guard spot as well. Expect the usual Hinrich-type season, meaning he’ll remain a quality role player.
Brooks, an insurance policy for both Rose and Hinrich, is the team’s third-string point guard. We may see him on the floor with Rose at times in a “small-ball” lineup.
But he shouldn’t expect a lot of playing time since Thibodeau doesn’t normally use a deep rotation.
All stats are from Basketball-Reference.com.
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Irving’s abilities are well-documented. After three years in the league and a recent breakout at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, we’ve got a good idea of what Irving brings to the table.
While that’s nice and all, who’s going to provide him with some relief during games or—heaven forbid—if Irving continues to miss games with injury issues?
Jarrett Jack is gone but will hardly be missed. Dion Waiters can run the point at times but will receive most of his minutes at shooting guard.
Here’s how the Cavaliers’ point guard position stacks up heading into the new season.
Last Season’s Results
Like he’s been doing for the past three years, Irving started at point guard for the Cavaliers.
While many expected him to take the next step, Irving actually saw a drop in many of his offensive categories. His scoring, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and PER all took a hit.
A possible explanation? Playing in a Mike Brown isolation-heavy offense.
Brown often employed the “get the ball to Kyrie and let him make a play” play. Unfortunately, this often resulted in a tightly-contested jumper or double-teamed “I just need to get a shot up before the clock runs out” type of heave.
Despite shooting better than 39 percent on three-pointers during his first two seasons, Irving dropped to just 35.8 percent last year.
Make any assumption you want. His shot mechanics didn’t really change, but the offense was definitely not as player friendly as it was under Byron Scott.
The good news for Irving going into last season was that, for the first time, he would have a reliable veteran behind him.
Jarrett Jack was inked to a four-year, $25 million contract that seemed like a good deal at the time. Jack was coming off a fantastic season with the Golden State Warriors, helping guide them to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. His leadership was praised, as was his work with young guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Surely he would do more of the same with Irving and Waiters, right?
Well, somewhere on the trip from Oakland to Cleveland Jack must have lost a step. His scoring fell from 12.9 points on 45.2 percent shooting to 9.5 on 41 percent.
Yes, one could also blame this on Brown’s offense, but what about Jack’s sudden change in playing style?
Instead of working to get his teammates involved and mentor the younger players, Jack often looked to get his own shots. His assist percentage of 22.7 was the lowest since Jack’s 2008-09 campaign with the Indiana Pacers.
New GM David Griffin was quick to erase the previous regime’s mistake and shipped Jack off to the Brooklyn Nets this summer in a cap-space-clearing move.
If there was a bright spot to the point guard position, it was the play of undrafted rookie Matthew Dellavedova.
While his season statistics of 4.7 points and 2.6 assists seems rather insignificant, one can’t put a value on Dellavedova based on numbers alone.
When the Cavs needed a defensive boost or just a new breath of energy, Dellavedova came through.
Cleveland had a plus-4.3 net rating per 100 possessions with Delly on the court compared to minus-6.9 with him off, via 82games.com. He gladly moved the ball, found open guys and knocked down three-pointers when needed.
Here’s where the Cavs point guards ranked collectively in seven key categories, via Hoopsstats.com:
Cleveland remained pretty average across the board, finishing the highest in scoring and ball-handling thanks to Irving and Dellavedova. Jack’s poor shooting numbers and failure to pass efficiently helped prevent the Cavs from finishing in the top third of the league in those categories.
While Jack was moved this offseason, Irving and Dellavedova return.
To Be Decided
Some new faces will join the point guard rotation for training camp. Whether or not they make it farther than that remains to be seen.
Joining Irving and Dellavedova for camp will be veterans John Lucas III, A.J. Price and undrafted rookie Chris Crawford.
Lucas III, 31, has played in six NBA seasons for the Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz. He came to the Cavaliers via a trade for forward Carrick Felix this summer. His $1.6 million contract for the 2014-15 season is completed non-guaranteed, per Spotrac.com, making Lucas III a prime trade or cut candidate.
Price’s signing was first reported by Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
The Cavs will bring veteran point guard A.J. Price to training camp. He played in only 28 games for Minnesota last season, and saw little action. The 6-foot-2 Price has played in 235 NBA games, averaging 5.9 points and shooting .381 from the field for his career.
Collecting most of his pro experience as the Washington Wizards‘ starting point guard to begin the 2012-13 season (while John Wall rehabbed from a knee injury), Price may be the most likely to make the Cavs’ final roster. He’s 27 and has filled in admirably at times in the league.
Crawford will join the Cavs after failing to hear his named called on draft night.
After four years at Memphis, he’s a long shot to make the team but has some intangibles that could earn a spot in the D-League. At 6’4″, Crawford has terrific defensive potential as a point guard. His shot mechanics definitely need some work, even after a strong showing with the Houston Rockets’ summer league team.
With 20 players invited to camp, the Cavs will need to cut five before the season officially starts.
Unfortunately, this position appears to be a prime candidate for cuts. Don’t be surprised if Cleveland releases two (or three) of these three point guards, as they certainly won’t want five floor generals on the roster.
This Year’s Rotation
Obviously, a healthy dose of Irving will be needed.
After taking a step back last season under Brown, Irving needs to raise his game to the next level.
Excuses can no longer be made about coaches or surrounding talent. Irving won’t have to lead by himself anymore, but shouldn’t step out of the spotlight completely, either.
An ideal stat line for Irving would be somewhere around 18 points, eight assists and a three-point percentage back around 39 percent or higher. While Irving will no longer have to score 20-plus points a game with LeBron James and Kevin Love around, his assist total should rise significantly.
With his new superstar teammates drawing their share of attention, Irving should find himself with plenty of open looks. Expect his field-goal and three-point percentages to rebound quite nicely.
Irving logged 35.2 minutes a game last season, which should be right on par for what’s expected of him this year.
Dellavedova has also earned regular playing time. Cleveland needs his defense, especially with Irving’s struggles on that end of the floor. Dellavedova has already begun to establish a reputation as a pest on defense, as noted by Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal:
Offensively, Dellavedova should carry over the same responsibilities he shouldered a season ago. Move the ball, set guys up and knock down the open three. With all the talent on the roster, at no point should Dellavedova be higher than the fourth scoring option on the court for the Cavaliers.
The Cavs should give him at least 10 minutes a night, even more when they need a spark.
As for the three fighting for a roster spot? It’s tough to tell right now. Lucas III has the most experience, Crawford the most raw talent and Price falls somewhere in between.
Honestly, with Irving, James, Waiters and Dellavedova as ball-handlers, it doesn’t matter which one, if any, make the team. None will see regular minutes with the Cavs, barring any major health issues.
After signing a five-year, $90 million max extension this summer, the pressure is on Irving to earn his pay.
With a new coach, offensive system and upgraded roster, the Cavaliers point guards should enjoy a prosperous 2014-15 season.
Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report since 2010. Connect with him on Twitter for more basketball news and conversation.
All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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October 1 is fast approaching, and with it comes the merciful conclusion of the messy, drawn-out non-negotiation between the Phoenix Suns and Eric Bledsoe.
Though recent reports gave off the appearance of change on the offseason’s stubbornest enduring stalemate, we quickly learned nothing was afoot.
To recap, ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst reported the Minnesota Timberwolves were making a “final push” to grab Bledsoe in a sign-and-trade deal with the Suns. According to Windhorst, the Wolves offered Bledsoe a four-year, $63 million max contract.
Of course, the Wolves are over the cap, making it impossible for them to make such an offer unless it was part of a sign-and-trade deal. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports promptly reported the Suns had no interest in such an exchange.
James Herbert of CBS Sports explained the possible motivation behind this latest round of news-cycle fodder:
So, why were we even talking about Bledsoe potentially going to the Wolves? Perhaps Flip Saunders’ front office wants to be seen as aggressive in trying to improve the team. Perhaps Bledsoe‘s agent, Rich Paul, wants to establish that his client is a max player. Regardless of how this got out there, it would be a shock for anything to come out of it.
Turns out the appearance of progress—when generated by teams and agents with agendas—isn’t the same as actual progress.
As it stands now, Bledsoe is in a position where no team with the ability to sign him to the max deal he wants has the financial ability to do so. His best offer to date was the four-year, $48 million pact the Suns shoved across the table months ago—a deal he quickly declined.
Tensions remain as frayed now as they were when Bledsoe told Kyle Burger of WVTM-TV in July: “I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using a restricted free agent against me. But I understand that.”
As Bledsoe‘s stated understanding indicates, this isn’t a situation where one side is trying to take advantage of the other. What’s happening here is the direct result of the rules governing restricted free agency.
The Suns have no reason to move off their number. They already offered Bledsoe a contract and would be crazy to bid against themselves at this late juncture.
And Bledsoe has no incentive to sign his $3.73 million qualifying offer before the Oct. 1 deadline, because doing so would eliminate whatever slim chance still exists of another team working out a trade to extricate him from the desert. Or perhaps Bledsoe hopes the Suns, concerned about the scars of this summer’s impasse, will ship him out for pennies on the dollar just to preserve team harmony going forward.
Of course, the Suns’ lack of interest in the Wolves deal indicates that’s not a likely resolution, either.
Ultimately, the Suns retain all of the power in this situation because, according to Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ, Bledsoe has just two options available to him right now: He can sign the qualifying offer…or not. And if he doesn’t sign that offer by Oct. 1, Coon explains how Bledsoe would end up right back in the restricted free-agency situation he’s stuck in now:
If he doesn’t sign a qualifying offer, a contract, or an offer sheet for one year, his prior team can submit a new qualifying offer (or maximum qualifying offer), and the player becomes a restricted free agent again the following offseason.
Knowing Bledsoe‘s limited options, it’s pretty clear how this situation is going to shake out.
E-Bled wants a long deal at max salary, and he can’t get one of those right now.
He can get one, in theory, if he signs the qualifying offer and plays out the 2014-15 season in Phoenix before hitting unrestricted free agency next summer—which, in addition to being his only move, would also have the benefit of putting Bledsoe on the market after the NBA‘s salary cap potentially increases next summer, per Grantland’s Zach Lowe.
Nearing the End
Despite the absence of malice, this summer has caused real damage to the Bledsoe-Suns relationship—damage that feels particularly unsatisfying because there’s really no bad guy to blame.
Bledsoe and his camp have one value they think is fair, and the Suns have another. The fact that they don’t agree isn’t a sign of one side trying to get over on the other; it’s just a difference of opinion.
If you’re the Suns, you definitely want to see if Bledsoe can survive a full season as a starter without injury—something he’s never done.
If you’re Bledsoe, you want to lock in the max because your numbers, when healthy, indicate you’re worth it. And you might also want that long-term cash because deep in the recesses of your otherwise hyper-confident psyche, you’re also a little worried about how your body will hold up.
Of course, if Bledsoe were really so concerned about his health, he probably would have snatched up that $48 million right away.
For every justification on one side of this scenario, there’s an equally compelling one on the other. Hence the status quo that has persisted for nearly three months.
We’re closing in on the conclusion of this summertime saga between Bledsoe and the Suns, though it’s misleading to call it “the point of no return.”
Because Oct. 1 will be precisely the point at which Bledsoe will have no choice but to come back.
Let it never be said the NBA and its restricted free-agency rules lack a sense of irony.
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Much like starting quarterbacks or shortstops in New York, point guards in The Big Apple receive boatloads of attention.
Williams was a superstar with the Utah Jazz when the Nets acquired him, but he’s failed to bring that same caliber of game to Brooklyn.
Last year, Williams battled through ankle pain and missed 18 games. Luckily for Brooklyn, though, a resurrected Shaun Livingston was there to help carry the point guard load.
After suffering one of the NBA’s all-time grisliest injuries back in 2007, the 29-year-old Livingston finally dug his feet in with Brooklyn. The veteran guard had bounced around the league since his injury, but the Nets gave him his first meaningful role since he returned to the game.
Williams and Livingston shared point guard duties last season and combined to give the Nets 22.6 points, 9.3 assists and 5.8 boards a night.
The Golden State Warriors lured Livingston away from Brooklyn this summer, but general manager Billy King drafted Markel Brown out of Oklahoma State and also made a deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jarrett Jack.
D-Will, now 30 years old, underwent surgery on both ankles and is expected to enter training camp with his health bar near 100 percent.
Brooklyn will rely heavily on Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, Mason Plumlee and Bojan Bogdanovic to carry the team offensively, but reliable point guard play will help determine how far Brooklyn’s 2014-15 journey will go.
Grading Last Year’s PG Performance
It’s difficult to give Brooklyn a concrete point guard grade for last year. D-Will was either hurt or hobbled while the serviceable Livingston, who does all the little things, didn’t really fill up the stat sheet.
The Nets made the best of the situation under former coach Jason Kidd. Lopez went down with a broken foot 17 games into the year, robbing the Nets of arguably their best offensive talent. Kidd then implemented a small-ball lineup that featured Williams and Livingston in the backcourt with Johnson at the 3, Paul Pierce at power forward and Kevin Garnett or Plumlee at center.
The lineup meshed well, and Brooklyn bounced back from a 10-21 start to finish the year 44-38. The team also upended the division champion Toronto Raptors in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Williams, whose 14.3 scoring average was his lowest since his rookie year, admitted that his confidence was shaken last season.
Here’s what D-Will told Tim Bontemps of the New York Post in February:
“It’s not my highest,” he said with a sheepish smile. “It’s been tough … just being in and out of the lineups, missing two weeks here and there.
“I feel like I get my legs back, get my legs in shape, and then I go out again. Then I’ve got to just do it all over again. It’s just been a struggle.”
Brooklyn desperately needed No. 8 to be a star at various points throughout last season, especially with Pierce and Garnett noticeably declining and Lopez sidelined.
If the calm and collected Livingston were an NFL player, he’d be Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs—a reserved game manager who helps his team win without loud stats. Last season, the Nets could’ve use some more big games from the veteran, who scored 20 or more points just four times in 76 games.
D-Will’s average of 2.2 turnovers per night was the second-lowest rate of his 10-year career, and he also shot a respectable 45 percent from the field. Livingston stepped in and paced Brooklyn with 54 starts, giving the team a solid Plan B when D-Will was injured or struggling.
All in all, Williams and Livingston weren’t bad. They just weren‘t great.
The New Blood
With a new, traditionalist coach in Lionel Hollins at the helm this season, it’s unlikely that we’ll see another dual-point guard starting lineup.
“He’s a point guard. He’s our point guard,” Hollins said of Williams, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post. ” … He’s going to be the primary ball-handler.”
The 30-year-old Jack is coming off of what may be the worst season of his career. After giving the Golden State Warriors an electrifying 12.9 points and 5.6 assists in 2012-13, Jack managed to put up 9.5 points and 4.1 dimes for the Cleveland Cavaliers last season.
However, the journeyman point guard is ready to help out the Nets in any way possible, whether that means starting or relieving D-Will off the bench.
“I think I can be someone who can kind of relieve Deron at times, you know the ball-handling responsibilities,” Jack told ESPN New York’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “A person that is trying to create opportunities for myself or for my teammates.”
Jack will quickly become a fan favorite in Brooklyn thanks to his explosive scoring ability and undying passion on both ends. Should the Nets make the playoffs, Jack’s experience, and success, will be huge.
Two years ago, Jack averaged an impressive 17.4 points, 4.7 assists and 4.4 boards in 12 postseason games with the Dubs.
Williams, the clear-cut No. 1 option at point guard, will have a solid backup in Jack.
And if you squint and look hard enough, you might be able to see the rest of Brooklyn’s PG depth chart.
Brown, a sensational dunker with more hops than a liquor store, will primarily see minutes at shooting guard.
The 6’3” guard thrived alongside Marcus Smart at OK State, averaging 17.2 points, 2.9 assists and 5.3 rebounds in his senior year. Should Williams go down with an injury—and that’s a legitimate possibility—then Brown could get some playing time at the 1.
Also in the point guard mix are Jorge Gutierrez and Marquis Teague, but they’ll likely be non-factors. If Brooklyn finds itself relying on them for meaningful minutes, something has gone seriously wrong.
Looking Ahead to 2014-15
The Nets are not going to live and die with their point guards. D-Will and Jack will be key players, but it’ll predominantly be Lopez, Johnson, Plumlee and Bogdanovic who will be asked to put points on the board.
In terms of Williams, and Brooklyn’s point guard play in general, B/R’s Zach Buckley put it best.
“For Brooklyn, Williams is one of many pieces needed to make that puzzle fit,” Buckley wrote. “As long as he’s part of the solution and not the problem, the franchise should take what it can get from its fallen star.”
No. 8 is not what he used to be and can’t be expected to put up All-Star numbers. If his ankles get the Mr. Miyagi treatment, and he’s magically transported back into his Jazz days, then that’s great for the Nets.
Brooklyn can’t put all of its eggs in the D-Will basket, though. And in a testament to King, it hasn’t.
Williams will definitely have a serious role—after all, he’s a starting point guard on a team coming off of a playoff berth. But he has a strong, deep team around him.
There are going to be times where Williams will look like his old, elite self. There are going to be nights where Jack is unstoppable, hitting three-pointer after three-pointer and getting Barclays Center rocking.
And then, there are going to be nights—hopefully few of them, for Brooklyn’s sake—where Hollins is going to want to grab someone out of the stands to run the point.
The Nets are, by no means, elite at point guard. But after losing a guy who started more than half the year in the backcourt, the team will be okay heading into 2014-15.
In a perfect world, the Nets will give us other things to talk about—Lopez’s return to prominence, big stat lines from Johnson, Plumlee’s continued growth and Bogdanovic’s impact on the team should all take precedence.
If we’re talking about Brooklyn’s point guard play a few months into the season, it’s likely because that is what’s holding the team back from actualizing its potential.
All stats are accurate courtesy of Basketball Reference.
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Who steps up at point guard for the Dallas Mavericks? The Dallas Mavericks made aggressive moves this offseason. The Mavericks acquired Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton in a trade with the New York Knicks for point guard Jose Calderon, center Samuel Dalembert, reserves Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington, along with 34th and 52 picks in the 2014 NBA draft; Cleanthony Early from Wichita Sate and Thanasis Antetokounmpo from the Delaware 87ers of the NBA D-League. This was a significant trade for both teams, although I believe the Knicks got the better end of that deal. Besides this eight-player trade the Dallas Mavericks pulled off, the Mavericks also went out and signed Chandler Parsons to a three year $46 million contract. Even with these two impactful moves, the Mavericks still acquired Jameer Nelson in free agency, and resigned Devin Harris. Which leads one to ask the question; who will start at point guard for the Dallas Mavericks? The Dallas Mavericks have three quality point guards in Raymond Felton, Devin
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Returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers was, at the time, indicative of the selflessness James didn’t espouse in 2010. He left the title-toting—albeit aging—Miami Heat for the young and adrift Cavaliers.
In one concise, tell-all essay in Sports Illustrated, James liberated himself from the shackles of his past, breathed hope into a tormented fanbase and perhaps most notably relieved Irving from the barbed throne upon which he sat.
Next to James, there would be no individual pressure. Collective expectations would soar—climbing further still after Kevin Love’s arrival—but Irving would no longer be measured against the star he replaced. The days of failed one-man rescue missions were over. Irving was free.
Then James went ahead and said something along the lines of this, per Slam Magazine:
Pressure, in the form of a sky-high ceiling, has found Irving once again. Never mind ceding the strain of success to more established stars; Irving has those words—James’ faith—hanging over his head.
There’s only one thing he can do now: enter the running for best point guard to ensure he doesn’t make an optimistic liar out of James.
A Little More Stephen Curry
Part of Irving’s development into the NBA‘s best point guard entails being, well, less of a point guard.
Weird, but true.
Playing beside James will be a blessing, make no mistake. But his presence is going to take the ball out of Irving’s hands more than the 23-year-old is used to.
Consider the second- and third-highest usage rates—among starters—on the last three Heat teams James piloted:
Note how much higher Irving’s usage rate has traditionally been than Miami’s third fiddle. There’s a real chance Irving experiences a third-option drop while playing alongside James and Love. It could be even steeper if Dion Waiters sneaks into the starting lineup.
Perfecting his off-ball offense—not unlike Stephen Curry—is the best way for Irving to improve his point guard credentials.
Curry buried 52 percent of his spot-up attempts last season, including a 48.9 percent conversion rate from deep, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Irving registered 38 and 33.3 percent clips, respectively. His rates will need to be closer to Curry’s looking ahead.
And that’s going to be an adjustment.
Most of Curry’s shots aren’t standalone opportunities. Only 7.2 percent of his offensive touches came as standstill field-goal attempts last season, which is what happens when you’re the primary ball-handler.
Cleveland’s new primary ball-wielder is James. Because of his—and Love’s—playmaking abilities, more of Irving’s shot attempts should come as an off-ball scorer. This is something that Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry says can, in theory, be a good thing:
In his first three years in the league, Irving managed to convert his shots relatively efficiently despite having to generate many of them from scratch. He has grown accustomed to scoring off the dribble, and he has developed a knack for using his freakish handle to create shooting space.
However, it’s not unreasonable to expect big gains in Irving’s shooting efficiency, for two reasons. First, given the arrival of James and Love, his usage will certainly diminish, and he’ll have to take fewer tough, self-created jumpers than last season. Second, he will have more higher efficiency, catch-and-shoot chances. Open looks are one of the main perks of being in (or on) the King’s court.
Scoring has always come easy to Irving. Receiving more open shots could be a boon for his efficiency and point-totaling averages—as long as he can adapt.
Few of Irving’s made baskets have come off assists over the years. Hardly any of them, in fact:
Operating without the ball isn’t very point guard-y, but it’s required of any floor general who calls James a teammate. And while Irving still needs to be a lethal scorer, he’ll have to get his points in noticeably different ways.
A Little Less Selfish
Terming point guards “true”, “modern” or “hybrid” is overrated.
The position has evolved too much for classic, all-compassing descriptions. Point guards aren’t supposed to just pass anymore. They can score. They can be explosive. They can be both a No. 1 option and the primary catalyst.
But yeah, they still need to pass.
Deferring isn’t something Irving has done especially well through the first three years of his career. Averaging 5.8 assists per game isn’t nothing, but it’s hardly elite.
Of all qualified guards who have a usage rate of 20 or higher since 2011-12, Irving ranks 21st in assists. Put another way, he’s tied with Raymond Felton.
More telling still, Irving ranks 18th in passer rating, a metric created by Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal and Kelly Scaletta that looks at the difference between “teammates’ shooting percentages with the player on the court and the percentage of the player’s passes” to determine how much of an impact the player in question had. Irving’s passer rating last season (16.06) was less than impressive when pitted against most of his peers.
Plotted below is the correlation between passer rating and assists per game for players who appeared in a minimum of 20 games and averaged at least five assist opportunities. Certain names have been identified for additional perspective:
Make another note of how strong the relationship between Fromal and Scaletta‘s passer rating and player assist averages is. Make further note of how middling Irving comes off.
Paul, Curry, Rondo and Wall, among others, are situated at the top. Irving is nowhere near them. Those are the players he is competing against, so he actually needs to rival their distribution abilities.
To that end, Fromal says there is hope:
In fact, we also looked at passing impact as a branch-off statistic, multiplying field-goal percentage impact by pace-adjusted assist opportunities in order to derive it and show how much impact a player made on his teammates with his passing. Irving’s score of 94.44 trailed only Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday, Kendall Marshall, Kyle Lowry, Joakim Noah (yes, that Joakim Noah) and Rajon Rondo among all qualified players.
Hope only goes so far. Playing side-by-side with James and Love, and within David Blatt’s movement-heavy offense, Irving’s selflessness must reach all-time highs.
Quality—or lack thereof—of teammates has long been a shield that inoculated Irving against certain types of criticism. Support isn’t a problem anymore. It’s time for change.
Inordinate amounts of time cannot be wasted trying to create space and scoring opportunities for himself. That may have been a necessity last season when Irving was on his own, but that was then.
This is now.
Individual rises take ironclad commitments on both ends of the floor, including defense.
Not once since Irving has entered the league have the Cavaliers finished better than 19th in defensive efficiency. That’s not on the point man alone, but he’s a prominent symptom of their collective disease.
His defensive ignorance was on full display last season during a discussion with the Akron Beacon Journal‘s Jason Lloyd in which he misidentified his issues, citing the ability of opposing guards to score on him within pick-and-rolls.
For the record, that’s not entirely true.
Pick-and-roll ball-handlers dropped just 0.76 points per possessions and shot just 40.3 percent against Irving, according to Synergy. He was readily torched in isolations, where he ranked 192nd in defensive efficiency, and spot-up situations (239th).
Pretty much anytime Irving didn’t have help in front of or behind him, he was a sitting duck, stationary when he need to be mobile, passive when he needed to be aggressive, in one spot when he needed to be somewhere else.
“In short, if he has help, the Cavs are helping,” CBS Sports’ Matt Moore wrote of Irving in January. “If he doesn’t, he gets eaten up. That’s an effort issue.”
Effort cannot be Irving’s downfall. The Cavaliers are already short on rim protectors and can ill afford to have a porous perimeter defense. They need him to be a two-way player.
Take a gander at the disparity between his offensive and defensive scores compared to some of his point guard brethren:
Once again, there’s Irving bottoming out alongside the NBA’s most talented floor generals. He’s not even among the best offensive performers.
Although the unfavorable state of Cleveland matters here, Irving needs to refine his defensive performance—in addition to adjusting offensively—if he’s to have a puncher’s chance at catching peers such as Paul, Curry, Russell Westbrook and many, many others.
Pushing Forward Without Looking Back
Now is not the time for harping or reflection.
These last three years were what they were. Irving spent most of that time on his own, playing for a franchise devoid of direction, stability and surrounding talent, his potential obviously tapered by Cleveland’s years-long slop fest.
All is forgotten now. Or rather, everything has changed.
Accompanied by fellow stars and playing on a real title contender, Irving has the chance to develop in ways he couldn’t before. He has safety nets most cannot even fathom.
Equally important, he has James’ faith, which has thrust him into the “best point guard” discussion with its unmistakable sincerity.
Whether Irving develops enough to prove his mettle and remain part of a conversation reserved exclusively for players like Paul and Curry is up to him.
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What his next course of action is remains unclear.
View full post on USATODAY – NCAA Top Stories
Mustapha Heron, a 5-star point guard in the 2016 class, per 247 Sports, took some time to talk with Bleacher Report about everything from his step-back jumper to his best attribute.
At 6’4″, 200 pounds, the Connecticut native (Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury) has the ability to dominate defenders as a junior.
How do you think Heron will do at the next level with the University of Pittsburgh? Watch the video and let us know.
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