The Cleveland Cavaliers have clearly been the big winners this offseason, but they are not finished building the best roster possible.
With the additions of LeBron James and Kevin Love, this is clearly one of the best teams in the NBA. However, this squad has its sights on a title, and anything less will be a disappointment. As a result, the Cavaliers have to keep making any move that could take them a step closer to a championship.
One potential move on the table is a trade for Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov. Alexander Chernykh of Sports.ru first reported a potential move earlier this month based on an interview head coach David Blatt gave to Russia News Agency ITAR-TASS:
James Herbert of CBS Sports breaks down both the pros and cons of such a deal:
Of course the Cavs would want Mozgov. He’s 7-foot-1 and skilled, coming off by far the best season of his career. It would be tricky to work out a deal, though. Mozgov is making $4.65 million this coming season and he has a $4.95 million team option the year after that. The Nuggets don’t really have any reason to dump him for a package of say, Brendan Haywood and Cleveland’s several unguaranteed contracts.
The Cavaliers do have a few non-guaranteed contracts, which came in a trade with the Utah Jazz earlier in the offseason. Windhorst explained that John Lucas III, Malcolm Thomas and Erik Murphy all could be headed out as part of any Mozgov deal.
While Cleveland will have to sweeten the package in order to complete a deal, it makes sense for the team to want this to happen.
Blatt coached Mozgov with the Russian national team and is familiar with what he can do on the court. The big center also recently finished his best year in the NBA, averaging 9.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks 21.6 minutes per game. He played in all 82 games after failing to top 45 in any of his first three years in the league.
Throughout his career, the Russian center has proven to be a quality defender who can keep other big men from backing him down in the post. He is a quality rim protector when given the chance and can also rebound with the best in the league.
Most importantly, he would be a good fit with the Cavaliers, as CBS Sports’ Chris Towers argued after hearing the rumors:
As much talent as Cleveland added this summer, the team is still relatively weak in the low post. Love is a below-average defender, which will leave Anderson Varejao even more exposed. The team will need someone else capable of coming in to play center without losing much.
Additionally, the fact that Varejao is averaging just 36.5 games played over the past four seasons should force the team to add a safety net.
This is where Mozgov could be perfect. He would be solid either off the bench or as a starter in a limited offensive role. He knows exactly what he contributes to a team and would certainly not overstep his boundaries as the star players light up the scoreboard.
At this point, the only question is whether the Nuggets would be willing to make a deal. However, first-round pick Jusuf Nurkic is a similar player who can quickly fill the spot Mozgov would leave behind. With JaVale McGee still on the roster, the team will be fine making this type of move.
This makes a move possible, which means the Cavaliers have to keep working to somehow complete the deal.
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Training camp will usher in both new and familiar faces for the Los Angeles Lakers, including Byron Scott who starts a fresh chapter with a team that he won three championships with a generation ago.
As head coach, Scott will have plenty on his plate, including the task of choosing his starting players.
The newest sideline leader won’t have it all sorted out for months to come. But that never stopped the tradition of predictions. And while there will be different rotations and changes along the way, the following lineup offers a realistic best-case scenario for the season on the whole.
Point guard: Jeremy Lin
One of the arguments that can be made for starting Steve Nash is that it’s easier on his 40-year-old body to play at the beginning of the game and the start of the second half, when he’s loosened up.
But, there’s a larger argument about what’s best for the team. Nash could certainly start with Jeremy Lin playing major minutes off the bench. But the vagaries of age and chronic injuries are what they are. Nash simply can’t be counted on at this late stage in his career.
This needs to be Lin’s year to shine. The Lakers have a real opportunity to see if he can be a successful starter, not only now, but for the future. Forget that brief but incandescent moment in the spotlight with the New York Knicks or the challenges of a shifting role with the Houston Rockets.
As the Lakers’ new guard said at his introductory press conference, per Lakers.com; “Now, my goal is I’m not trying to be a player from the past. I’m trying to make history again.”
Lin is as smart as they come, is a fierce competitor and has good size at 6’3” for the position. He’ll willingly soak up knowledge from the master, and then take his spot.
Shooting guard: Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant turned 36 on August 23. He is exactly 10 years older than Lin to the day. Bryant has also played in 1,028 more games than his new teammate and has scored 29,127 more points. And that doesn’t include playoffs. The future Hall of Famer is also coming off two serious injuries.
Everyone’s waiting to see what Bryant’s game will look like when he finally returns to action. But of all the players on the roster, he is the only one who has a starting position carved in stone.
On Bryant’s birthday, Darius Soriano for Forum Blue and Gold wrote about the longtime Lakers star:
At its essence, basketball is a game of leverage and angles. The best players exploit physical and mental advantages to get to specific spots on the floor where the odds of success greatly outweigh the alternative. The amount of hours put in to achieve this mastery of body and mind to outplay an opponent is often what separates those who are considered very good in their era versus being considered very good for any era.
Kobe Bryant, whatever you think of him, has built his career on the idea that hard work and learning from his defeats and failures will get him where he wants to be.
And that is as succinct an explanation as any as to why a particular player should start for a team. You can also toss in an insatiable desire to win and the sweetest combination of jab steps and pump fakes in basketball.
Small forward: Wesley Johnson
This year’s roster doesn’t have a lot of defensive stoppers on it. But Scott will be making stops a priority nonetheless. As he recently said to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com:
You’re going to have to play a lot of help the helper to keep the ball from getting into the paint. That’s a lot of rotations, a lot of help, a lot of stunt and recover, where the guy with the ball sees one-and-a-half or two defenders every single time. You want to clog up the paint as much as possible and make the opponent take contested jump shots.
At the small forward position, Wesley Johnson has the athleticism and defensive ability to not only be a one-on-one defender, but to switch and cover for teammates. During his four-year NBA career, the former No. 4 draft pick for the Minnesota Timberwolves has been largely defined by not living up to high expectations. It was a bit of a surprise when the Lakers decided to bring him back this season, but his new coach sees the opportunity for improvement, as per the same Trudell interview:
I think Wesley has not played to his potential at all. He’s shown signs, but 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.
Power forward: Julius Randle
Carlos Boozer wasn’t a bad pickup this summer for $3.25 million—that being the amount the Lakers paid through the amnesty bidding process. The perennial starter may be past his prime, but he can still score the ball and pull down boards. However, he isn’t the frontcourt star of the future in Los Angeles.
The Lakers’ firmament does hold such a place for Julius Randle, though. This year’s No. 7 draft pick is a left-handed scorer who can crush it in the paint or use solid ball-handling skills to create options from mid-range—a dribble-drive to the basket or a pass to the open man. Randle’s a strong all-around rebounder with a penchant for cleaning the glass on the offensive end—generating extra possessions for his team and putback attempts for himself.
The freshman out of Kentucky also has a bigger wingspan than many assumed—measuring 7’0″ at the Chicago NBA Draft Combine, which, in relation to his 6’7.75” without shoes, is not bad at all. He’s not a finished product by any means, but there’s an obvious level of intensity present. Can he become a more complete two-way player?
As Scott said about the rookie, per the Trudell interview, “I see a young man that’s raw, but he has great feet and great quickness for his size, and he’s strong as a bull. You can tell that he wants to get better.”
Randall may not be the starter at the beginning of the season, but it won’t be long before he claims that spot.
Center: Jordan Hill
Apart from Bryant, the easiest starter to predict is Jordan Hill at the center position. That is, unless somebody thinks it’s going to be Robert Sacre?
Hill has what’s known as a very high motor. He can be counted on for relatively short bursts of intensity and hard-nosed play in the painted area. However, during his five years in the league, the former No. 8 draft pick by the New York Knicks has never been given big minutes or a consistent role.
One of the obvious problems has been inconsistent development under his NBA coaches. He averaged just 10.5 minutes through 24 games in Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball system with the New York Knicks before being traded to the Houston Rockets. Hill played for Rick Adelman, followed by Kevin McHale in Houston, before being sent to the Lakers. After coming back from a knee injury, the 6’10” big man appeared in seven regular-season games plus the playoffs under Mike Brown.
And when Brown got fired after coaching just five games the following fall, Hill found himself unexpectedly tethered to D’Antoni once again. The combo power forward/center subsequently appeared in only 29 games that season due to a hip injury.
The 2013-14 campaign was Hill’s best yet in the NBA, despite an ill-defined role. He averaged 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game. But he could go from starter one night to garbage time the next.
Chances for redemption come in unforeseen ways in the NBA. D’Antoni resigned, Pau Gasol joined the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers decided to re-sign Hill to a two-year $18 million deal. And then they hired Scott—the kind of coach who appreciates hard-charging defensive-minded frontcourt players.
As Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding reported in July: “Scott puts a premium on defense and rebounding, and he believes Hill was underutilized as a Laker because of D’Antoni. Bear in mind how fantastic a newly acquired Hill was for Mike Brown in the Lakers’ two-round 2012 playoff run.”
In looking at a starting group of Lin, Bryant, Johnson, Randle and Hill, one thing becomes clear—it’s a superstar toward the end of his career, surrounded by four young players who present incomplete pictures. One is a rookie, and the other three have yet to find their true place in the basketball universe.
What if this season is different? What if Bryant and Scott, with eight championship rings between them, can get these guys to fully buy in? And what if the Lakers become the team that could, when everyone else said they couldn’t?
It is not an unreasonable proposition for this season’s starters.
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Miami Heat fans have had a terrible few months.
First came the 4-1 bludgeoning at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals—slamming the door on a historic three-peat bid. Then, once the team’s shot at near-term glory was smothered, Miami’s long-range hopes were extinguished as well. LeBron James went home and took the Heat’s title hopes with him.
If they’re not, Miami fans should be angry about this.
There are a lot of qualifiers here, of course. Anger about the vicissitudes of a professional basketball team, to most right-thinking people, seems misplaced.
But sports are important to people. The outcomes of these contests affect us. That’s why you’re reading this and I’m writing it. And that’s enough to make them meaningful. Excuse the tautology, but sports matter because they matter.
Rooting for a championship-caliber team is an exhilarating experience. And pulling for a team that actually wins a championship (or two) is even more gratifying. But, oddly, as tremendous as that sort of vicarious accomplishment is, it’s even worse to be stripped of it.
Human beings have all manner of peculiar psychological quirks. One of the strangest is the way we respond to loss. Turns out, as much as people love winning, we despise losing even more. This notion, “loss aversion,” was coined by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
Prospect theory simply observes that we are about twice as upset to lose something as we would be happy to gain the same thing. If you misplace a $20 bill, you’ll be twice as pissed at yourself as you would be glad to find a twenty on the sidewalk. Experiments show that this is a universal human tendency.
It’s pretty easy to grasp the implications loss aversion has vis-a-vis the mood of the Heat faithful. What they had was amazing. And losing it was, and will be, even worse.
So there’s going to be anger. And it will be directed at something. But what?
It probably won’t be James himself. He delivered the city two titles, four Finals appearances and the best run in franchise history. And he did in in a maximally entertaining way—dominating, at times, on both ends of the floor, leading fast breaks with locomotive force and generally and unequivocally being the best basketball player on God’s green earth.
Even the way James handled his exit from South Beach was difficult to fault. His essay in Sports Illustrated was thoughtful and measured. While he was clearly happy to be heading back to Cleveland, he lauded the Heat organization and his time in Miami:
I went to Miami because of D-Wade and CB. We made sacrifices to keep UD. I loved becoming a big bro to Rio. I believed we could do something magical if we came together. And that’s exactly what we did! The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys. I’ve talked to some of them and will talk to others. Nothing will ever change what we accomplished. We are brothers for life. I also want to thank Micky Arison and Pat Riley for giving me an amazing four years.
He’s a hard guy not to like.
But the Cleveland Cavaliers? They’re a piece of cake to despise. They’re an aggressively, almost singularly dumb organization that’s in a position to contend next season and for the foreseeable future merely because the best player in the world happened to be born in northeastern Ohio and they got obscenely lucky, for consecutive years, on lottery night.
They did absolutely nothing to earn the success they’re almost certainly about to enjoy.
This is an organization that woke up on third base and thought it hit a triple. The entirety of the NBA would be forgiven if it handled the ascent of the 2014-15 Cavs with disdain.
So when LeBron James and his shiny new team come to AmericanAirlines Arena on Christmas Day, Heat fans have permission to boo with abandon. Permission or no, that’s certainly what they’ll do.
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The only thing standing between Dion Waiters and the 2014-15 Sixth Man of the Year Award might be Waiters himself.
That could be a bigger hurdle to clear than it might seem. He entered 46 of his 70 games as a reserve last season and sounds ready to put his second-team days behind him.
“I want to start and I believe that I should at the 2,” he told Comcast SportsNet’s Chris Haynes in July.
In terms of talent, Waiters has quite a compelling argument to make. Strong, athletic and bulldog-tough, he has a deeper bag of offensive tricks than both the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ incumbent off-guards and the ring-chasing vets who followed LeBron James’ lead to Northeast Ohio.
Just 22 years old and showing clear signs of improvement—last season, he set personal bests in points per game (15.9), field-goal percentage (43.3), three-point percentage (36.8) and rebounds per game (2.8)—Waiters certainly looks like one of Cleveland’s five best players.
But despite his obvious talent and even more apparent disinterest in reprising his reserve role, he hasn’t officially grabbed a place in coach David Blatt‘s opening lineup.
The first-year Cavs coach recently held a Q&A session with the help of Basketball Insiders’ David Pick during which he was asked about Waiters’ role on this team. Blatt left all options on the table, neither offering up a starting spot nor banishing the third-year guard to the bench:
Dion is a lot of things to this team. I’ve never seen any particular importance to the emphasis of starting or not, I see an emphasis on playing and helping the team win. That’s not to say he will or won’t start, that’s not the point. I think his and every player’s motto and desire needs to be to help the team win. That’s what’s important.
Blatt is absolutely correct.
Starting does not always serve as a reflection of skill. If teams always handed out those jobs to their five most talented players, then the list of the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award winners would look dramatically different.
Oftentimes, starting and reserve roles are handed out based on play style. History has shown that quick-strike scoring guards, or players like Waiters, are often best utilized off the pine.
While that might not be what he wants to hear, it’s a concern that could be mitigated by the fact that the best of these players typically see action when it really matters: at the end of games.
It’s hard to say how much of Waiters’ NBA experience he can carry over into this season. He was the No. 2 option on a 33-win team in 2013-14. His 26.9 usage percentage was easily the second-highest among Cleveland’s regulars.
Now, Waiters will be fighting with players like Shawn Marion, Tristan Thompson and Mike Miller—perhaps even Ray Allen, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports—to be the fourth wheel on a team FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver projects for 65 victories.
Waiters packs a mean scoring punch, but he isn’t close to the levels of James (27.1 points per game last season), Kevin Love (26.1 PPG) and Kyrie Irving (20.8 PPG).
The 2014-15 campaign will be one of change for every remaining Cavalier, but Waiters may need to adapt more than most. NBA.com indicates he scored more points per game on pull-up jumpers (4.6) than catch-and-shoot field goals (3.9) last season, and he knows his isolation scoring won’t be needed nearly as much this time around.
“I have to make adjustments,” Waiters told ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. “I have to find ways to impact the game without having the ball. I’m planning to go watch tape to see what D-Wade did when he played with LeBron. I need to learn how to be effective out there with him.”
That is part of the challenge Waiters, along with the rest of the roster, will face going forward.
Despite employing three perennial All-Stars, the Cavs need to ensure that their whole is somehow greater than the sum of their individual parts.
Waiters is right. He needs to learn how to effectively share the floor with James. However, that’s only part of the equation.
The starting squad could be historically powerful at the offensive end whether Waiters is out there or not. Where his individual offensive gifts could really come in handy is on the same second team he anchored last season.
He has to balance both roles—alpha dog with the reserves, efficient support piece with the headliners—and that juggling act could be easier to manage if gets himself going off the bench before settling back into a complementary role.
Waiters’ assignment list will change over the course of a game, and Cleveland needs him to ace every test thrown his way.
“When he’s playing with James, Irving and Love, he has to capitalize as a shooter,” noted Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman. “When he’s playing with Matthew Dellavedova, Mike Miller and Tristan Thompson, he has to tap into that dangerous one-on-one game of his to generate offense on his own.”
The more time he logs with the bench mob, the better Waiters’ numbers will be. He can light the lamp in an instant if he signs off on the unique opportunity presented to him.
A substitute spot would allow him to continue doing what he does best, while also helping him take advantage of the weapons around him in spurts.
For an expert slasher and explosive transition weapon, he can gain so much from Love’s generational gift for outlet passing and James’ otherworldly court vision. But those chances may come few and far between, which might leave Waiters fighting for—or worse, forcing—shots.
As Bleacher Report’s Greg Swartz explained, Waiters’ game is built for the sixth-man role:
Waiters is a strong isolation player with a quick first step. His body is muscular enough to absorb contact on the way to the basket and finish in and around traffic.
As a reserve, this is a tremendous quality to have, especially when less skilled offensive players are on the court and scoring is at a premium.
Add James, Irving and Love to the mix, and suddenly Waiters’ isolation offense is largely a wasted weapon.
Carefully blended between both lineups, though, it’s a potentially potent gift that should be painted in a different light than ever before.
He could be an expert support scorer, not a ball-stopper with troubling defensive deficiencies. By accepting a team-friendly role, particularly one that isn’t on the top of his wish list, he might be seen as a strong chemistry guy and not the one who has seemed to beef with Irving these last few seasons.
The media loves telling a redemption story, especially in the context of a potential championship run.
Award voters also prefer celebrating someone from a winning team, and judging by historical voting trends, they really like high-scoring reserves.
With the stats, team success and tale of personal triumph all bolstering his campaign, Waiters should hold the pole position in the 2014-15 Sixth Man of the Year Award race. He will as soon as he allows himself to be officially nominated for it.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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The case of Derrick Rose is already both a cautionary tale and a lesson in hope for an athlete. While news from coaches at USA Basketball camp shows nothing but good vibes (even as Rose misses game time), his two lost seasons make the optimism a precipitate of just that—lost seasons. We have no idea what to expect of Rose: before the set of injuries, he shared the most crucial characteristics of all truly great NBA stars. An MVP and conference finalist by the age of 22, Rose possessed shades of a Jordan-like mean streak with a certain, veiled humility that contrasted the allure-seeking vanity of LeBron James at the time. Rose wasn’t anything close to Jordan on the court, of course, but he had precious room—and time—to improve. Fast forward two years later. After ripping apart both his ACLs, Rose seems to have an on–off switch when playing. It was very easy to see how free he used to be on an NBA court: his speed and dribbling ability would allow him to run fastbreaks alone. His re…
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Back in 2012 when Jeremy Lin was blazing his path to notoriety, another point guard—arguably our generation’s most iconic—took notice.
“It’s amazing. He’s a great story,” said Steve Nash at the time, per Jared Zwerling (then writing for ESPNNewYork.com). “It’s a great story for the league. I think it’s phenomenal that it happened in the media capital of the world in a desperate team with a desperate fanbase. It’s just a beautiful thing to see somebody come out of nowhere to most people and shine the way he has.”
With Lin readying to debut his talents in another media mecca, it’s worth recalling Nash also mused that, “I think every team can use a point guard like him.”
Apparently the Los Angeles Lakers agreed.
Now Lin joins Nash in what should be a formidable floor-general platoon, at least if it remains at full health.
Now here comes the hard part.
While new Lakers head coach Byron Scott may be reluctant to separate the legendary Nash from his starting job, there’s a strong case that Lin deserves the nod this season. This isn’t about who deserves to start. Nor is it about managing egos.
It’s about what’s best for the team.
Nash remains a one-of-a-kind leader regardless of where he’s situated in the rotation. Indeed, his presence could have a transformative effect on Lin himself—and Lin knows it, telling reporters, “I can’t wait. I remember when he was in Phoenix and was 20 and 10 every night. I can’t wait to learn from him.”
But wisdom and know-how aren’t reasons Nash should start.
Lakers Nation’s Ryan Ward wrote in July, “Moving forward, the consensus appears to be that Lin will be the starter with Nash likely set to come off the bench and rookie Jordan Clarkson being third on the depth chart.”
The reasons for such an approach are many.
At minimum, Los Angeles should keep a close watch on Nash’s minutes—perhaps even occasionally sitting the 40-year-old in back-to-back situations. Though that’s conceivably doable in the event Nash starts, there’s a risk Nash’s uneven availability could impact the starting lineup’s chemistry.
In the interest of building and sustaining rhythm, you’d like to see the Lakers deploy a consistent starting lineup as much as possible. With Nash’s playing time (and health) jeopardizing that, Lin becomes a more reliable starting option.
After a season in which he played just 15 games, it’s probably unwise to rest too many hopes on Nash.
There’s also a chance Lin could blossom in a way we haven’t seen since his New York days.
This is a fresh start for him, potentially a departure from a Houston Rockets experiment in which he started just 33 games during his second season with the team. While making the most of his new opportunity ultimately depends on Lin, the Lakers would do well to increase his confidence.
Lin is still young in basketball years.
Lin told Basketball Insider’s Alex Kennedy in July:
I definitely don’t think I’m close to my prime yet. I’m 25 years old and I think because of the way things have happened, people always think I’m older or I’ve been around longer than I really have. I’ve played two full seasons in the NBA – two full seasons and those 25 games in New York. I guess people have been very quick to write me off just because they saw how it started and then they saw what I was like in Houston, but I have to just keep reminding myself it’s a marathon.
Kennedy added, “As he continues to expand his game, he’ll have two Hall of Fame guards alongside him in the backcourt, which should do wonders for his development. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant have been injured in recent years, but Lin is hoping to pick their brains and learn as much as he can from his legendary teammates.”
In short, there’s reason to believe that Lin can rise to the challenge a starting role presents.
After starting 82 games for the Rockets in 2012-13, Lin averaged a respectable 13.4 points and 6.1 assists per contest. It may not have lived up to the 20.9 points and 8.4 assists he tallied with New York in February 2012, but it demonstrated that Lin can produce on a full-time basis.
Under the right tutelage—something he lacked in Houston—that full-time production could improve.
There’s also something to be said for what Nash could do with the second unit.
The Lakers already have one ball-dominating playmaker in the starting lineup. Rather than asking Nash to compete with Bryant for touches, why not make him orchestrator-in-chief of the bench? It would ensure the veteran more touches, and it just might translate into better performances from other reserves.
Nash has a way of bringing out the best in his teammates. Perhaps he’d have a force-multiplying effect on L.A.’s depth, making the most of guys like rookie Julius Randle and potential sixth man Nick Young.
Moving Nash to the bench could very well be a win-win scenario for him and Lin alike.
Some aren’t especially high on Los Angeles’ resources at the point guard spot.
CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore recently wrote, “At point guard you’ve got an inconsistent player who’s had minor but considerable injury issues the past two seasons in Lin, Nash who is barely able to get on the floor, and a second-round pick [Jordan Clarkson] who’s probably more of a shooting guard.”
After a 27-55 2013-14 campaign in which all that could go wrong did, the pessimism is understandable. General manager Mitch Kupchak improved the roster to the best of his ability, and recovery from injuries will make a significant difference.
But things could go south. Fast.
Lin registers as one of the principal reasons to hope otherwise. His pedigree doesn’t rival Nash or Bryant’s but the Lakers’ fortunes are no less dependent on his contributions this season.
Contributions he could very well make as a starter.
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Eddie House, known for his hair trigger jumper and his occasional obscene gesture, didn’t make it to the end of the Miami Heat’s Big Three era, getting the thumb prior to season two. Still, the veteran guard’s quote from Miami’s 2010 training camp, an utterance that many didn’t find endearing, qualifies as among the most enduring. It spoke to the climate of LeBron James‘ first season in Miami, and the players’ quite correct sense that everyone north of Monroe, Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties was against them.
“I think, you know what, honestly, I don’t give a (expletive) about nobody else on the outside,” House told me while I was working for The Palm Beach Post. “It doesn’t matter about anybody out there. I don’t care what their expectations are. We have our expectations and our goals. We are going to achieve them.That’s the bottom line…. So, at the end of the day, middle fingers to all the haters.”
It is impossible to envision anyone on the current Cleveland Cavaliers roster saying something similar this October, and none of their players have House’s reputation as a provocateur. Rather, if the early reaction to the Cavaliers’ offseason moves is any indication, they will have no criticism to counter. So far, outside of spurned South Florida, there is universal celebration not only of James’ decision to return to his Ohio roots, but of the ways in which the Cavaliers have quickly constructed the complementary roster.
This comes as quite a contrast to what the Heat encountered, when the organization was declared by many as undeserving (though Miami won just nine fewer total games in 2008-09 and ’09-10 than Cleveland has in its last four bumbling seasons); when its new star trio was accused of plotting events well in advance (though James’ omission of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett in his July Sports Illustrated letter seemed an early indicator of their eventual inclusion in a swap for Kevin Love); when Heat veterans such as House, Mike Miller, Juwan Howard, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Bibby were ridiculed for ring-chasing rather than praised for their financial sacrifice (so far, Miller, Miami-area product James Jones and Shawn Marion have joined James in a city that typically attracts fewer free agents, with Ray Allen possibly next).
Oh, and when the entire notion of an NBA “Big Three” was characterized as so inequitable and unfair that it became the basis of the battle for the next collective bargaining agreement, a battle that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert fully joined, if not led. Gilbert now is on the other side, boasting a Big Three of James, Love and Kyrie Irving that, at the start of the ’14-15 season, will be a collective 77 years old, four years younger than James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were at the start of the ’10-11 season.
All of these double standards are enough to make Heat fans double over in anger. But they should know by now that there’s no point protesting. And they should know not to expect anyone to burden the Cavaliers with the same expectations that Jeff Van Gundy placed on the freshly-formed James/Wade/Bosh Heat.
Here is how the former NBA coach and current ESPN/ABC analyst assessed the Heat prior to the ’10-11 season, in an interview with the Miami Herald:
They will break the single-season win record [of 72]. And I think they have a legit shot at the Lakers’ 33-game [winning] streak [in 1971-72], as well. And only the Lakers have even a remote shot at beating them in a playoff series. They will never lose two games in a row this year…. They have put together a much better roster than anybody could ever have expected. There is now no good way to defend them. They are unguardable. They are indefensible. They are just too good and have added so much shooting and are so versatile that they will score at will.
Many naturally took Van Gundy’s comments as the opposite of the “hating” that so irked House and other Heat players. After all, Van Gundy wasn’t denigrating the Heat’s abilities, but exaggerating them. But some in the Heat organization heard them differently, as raising the stakes to unreasonable levels, especially in light of the stars’ limited time playing together, and the patchwork nature of the supporting cast. If Van Gundy, however unintentionally, was setting the team up to fail, he wasn’t the only one doing so. Media overhype built upon the public’s initial outrage, creating a championship-or-flop dichotomy that positioned the Heat for mockery.
Will the Cavaliers face the same?
If they start 9-8?
If they flop in the NBA Finals, the way the Heat did against the less star-studded Dallas Mavericks?
The current Cavaliers, unlike the villainous ’10-11 Heat, are the darlings of the NBA’s myth-making media establishment. Charles Barkley, who referred to the Heat team that season as “a whiny bunch” that plays for the “worst fans,” openly rooted for James to return to Cleveland and has celebrated the choice since. While the analytics site fivethirtyeight.com did project the Cavaliers at roughly 65 wins if they acquired Love, you don’t read or hear national NBA pundits writing or shouting that if they don’t win that many in their first go-round, the Cavaliers’ experiment will be a failure. Instead, some have preached patience, taking a cue from James’ homecoming essay, published before the Love acquisition, in which he wrote the following:
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go.
James knows full well how difficult it is, because of the struggles of the ’10-11 season, when he and Wade often appeared as if they were taking turns rather than enhancing each other, when his young coach (Erik Spoelstra) hadn’t yet conceived his compatible “pace and space” offense, when the burden on the Heat’s backs was often too much to bear.
But no one gave him the benefit of the doubt then. If people do now, it may be because they like him better (as a selfless two-time champion) or they like his jersey better (representing blue collar Cleveland), or because they like this story better (coming home to support a community), but it won’t be because that ’10-11 roster was better and deserved less slack.
Consider the 11 players that James featured on a pair of Instagram posts Saturday, following the official announcement of the Love trade. If you ranked them one through 11, you could seriously argue that the 2010-11 team had an edge in only one spot, that of the top guard, where a then prime-level Dwyane Wade was clearly superior to the current incarnation of Kyrie Irving.
Well, James, is a better player and leader than he was then, more effective in the post, more intelligent about his shot selection, more aware of how to get the most out of every teammate. And the top forward, Kevin Love, has a statistical edge—albeit not as dramatic as some argue—over what Chris Bosh was producing in Toronto.
But look at the rest.
Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem were supposed to fill out the Heat’s Big Five lineup, before each suffered significant injuries; Miller, when he played, did so with one or two injured thumbs and Haslem missed nearly the entire regular season. Miller is healthier now, coming off a season in which he played all 82 games and shot extraordinarily well, and yet he’s not projected to fill as big a role as he was in ’10-11. Haslem was coming off a season in which he averaged 9.9 points and 8.1 rebounds, whereas Cleveland holdover Tristan Thompson averaged 11.7 points and 9.2 rebounds in ’13-14, and is seven years younger than Haslem was then.
Mario Chalmers was actually fourth on the Heat in minutes in ’10-11, even though he wasn’t often a starter. But Cleveland can counter with Dion Waiters, who, even with maturity issues at age 22, has more upside as a former fourth overall pick.
James Jones was fifth on the Heat in minutes in ’10-11, just 30 behind Chalmers. He’s virtually the same player now, but won’t receive half of that floor time for Cleveland this season, even if Ray Allen doesn’t sign. Joel Anthony, part of the Heat’s center by committee, had the sixth-most minutes; Anderson Varejao, should he stay healthy, can do everything Anthony did, plus rebound, catch and finish.
Spoelstra also gave considerable run to the limited Carlos Arroyo, who played just 15 more games in the NBA after his mid-season release; to House, Erick Dampier, Jamaal Magloire and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who combined to play just 49 more games after that season; to broken-down Mike Bibby, who shot 28.1 percent in the playoffs; to Juwan Howard, known as “17″ because of the grueling seasons he’d played.
That was the Heat squad many observers dropped on a Ducati on a steep, swerving mountain trail, demanding it ride full throttle from the start to championship conclusion. It would seem odd if those same observers secure the Cavaliers’ training wheels to allow for slow and safe pedaling around a quiet cul-de-sac. Not when Shawn Marion is still more effective than much of the aforementioned Miami roster filler, to say nothing of what youngsters Matthew Dellavedova or Joe Harris, or veterans Brendan Haywood and John Lucas III may provide. Or, for that matter, what Allen might, if he joins.
Will Van Gundy project 77 wins, to account for Cleveland’s superior roster? Will the Cavaliers be judged as harshly as the Heat were, if they only win, say, 58 games and finish second to Chicago in the East, as the Heat did? Or will the Cavaliers benefit from what the Heat taught us—that it isn’t easy to put a team together on the fly and soar to a title?
All of this brings to mind something that Bosh said, that same October 2010 day that House pointedly told the “haters” how he felt.
“Quite honestly, I don’t think we can ever win enough games,” Bosh admitted. “The critics will never be silenced. There’s always going to be something to pick on throughout our careers as long as we’re going to be together.”
That was true for Bosh, Wade and James, from beginning to end.
Will Kevin Love someday say the same?
At this stage, that would qualify as a surprise, because it will mean the Cavaliers had been held to the same standards.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.
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Through the tumult of the New York Knicks’ disappointing 2013-14 season, it was easy to see past the sequoia-thick silver lining of Carmelo Anthony authoring arguably the best season of his 12-year NBA career.
That was hardly consolation for Anthony himself, who very nearly wound up bolting for the more championship-ready Chicago Bulls, before finally agreeing to terms on a fresh, five-year, $124 million deal to stay in New York.
Despite a slew of mostly lateral moves, the Knicks are by no means seen as a conference powerhouse heading into the 2014-15 slate. Still, Phil Jackson has managed to improve his team on the fringes, while the addition of Jose Calderon alone gives Anthony the pure point-guard playmaker he’s never had.
So should Knicks fans expect an encore performance from their franchise cornerstone?
One thing we can count on is a drastic change in offensive philosophy, from the isolation-heavy sets that defined the Mike Woodson era to Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher’s triangle-inspired system.
Indeed, Jackson spoke to precisely this point during a July press conference, relayed here by ESPN New York’s Fred Katz:
If we’re still going to sit and rely on Carmelo to do everything and put that load on him, that’s not going to happen. Sometimes it means buying into the system and giving yourself into a process.
One of the things about the offensive system is you can’t try to score every time you catch the ball. You have to participate and you also have to have guys who are strong enough to know that there’s a whole offense to run.
Yet, while Anthony’s reputation as a shameless gunner has become something of a basketball gospel, his career assist mark—3.1 per game, to go along with a wholly respectable 15.8 percent assist rate—imparts some hope that a change of schematic scenery could do wonders for the All-Star forward’s all-around game.
Assuming, of course, that Anthony sees vessels worthy of his trust around him. That, in the end, might be Jackson and Fisher’s biggest test.
The good news: Even Anthony admitted, during an interview with Raul Alzaga of PrimeraHora.com, that this season could be another somewhat painful prelude to bigger and better things. He said it would take time to be a championship team, and that’s not a realistic expectation for this season, although he’s very much invested in the process (translation h/t to Brett Pollakoff of Pro Basketball Talk).
For Jackson, that process involves outfitting the Knicks with more triangle-conducive pieces. Calderon, whom New York acquired in a predraft trade that sent Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks, being the opening salvo to that strategic symphony.
In Calderon, Anthony will have the ideal triangle complement: a player who, for all his defensive shortcomings, possesses both the poise and playmaking ability to keep the offense humming harmoniously along. And the 41 percent career three-point rate doesn’t hurt, either. Pablo Prigioni, meanwhile, gives the Knicks an equally triangle-friendly backup.
As for the rest of the roster, question marks abound. For all their offensive skills, Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire don’t exactly fit the mold of the playmaking triangle center. Ditto Samuel Dalembert and Cole Aldrich, two centers likely to round out the team’s post depth.
And while New York’s wings could prove a strength—J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. all being capable shooters, albeit with varying degrees of pass-aversion—how Fisher manages those minutes looms large in terms of the team’s on-court chemistry.
Still, taken as a whole and considering the offensive makeover afoot, Anthony has to feel far better about his team’s prospects now than he did even a few short months ago.
Conceptually, the triangle—by virtue of its built-in dynamism—will allow Melo to both operate as a playmaker from the elbow, while affording him ample open looks from the wings (although he was considerably more efficient from the left than the right last season, per Vorped).
All the while, baseline cutters (Shumpert and Hardaway could be dangerous in this regard) and spot-up shooters (the aforementioned wings, as well as Calderon, Prigioni and perhaps even rookie Cleanthony Early) should spare Anthony the burden of relying too heavily on his role as basketball bully.
Writing at Bleacher Report, Sean Hojnacki emphasized that, for Anthony, thriving in the triangle is less about reinventing himself than it is about readjusting his approach:
There will be an adjustment period, to be sure. A whole host of new players have joined the team, chief among them the new starters in center Samuel Dalembert (who has not averaged more than 22.2 minutes per game in any of the last three seasons) and point guard Jose Calderon, both of whom will be 33 years old when the season begins.
The triangle will benefit greatly from Calderon’s three-point shooting (44.9 percent, 191 threes made) in addition to Pablo Prigioni’s marksmanship (46.4 percent from downtown last season), which placed both of them in the top five among all three-point shooters for 2013-14.
However, the jewel in the crown will be Melo’s play in the pinch post. It will be up to Anthony to become the prototypical scorer from that floor position, where he is uniquely capable of thriving.
Even if Anthony’s scoring goes down, his efficiency and assist rate could be poised for career clips. On the flip side, reducing Melo’s raw shot attempts mean fans should expect his rebounding (he registered a career high 8.1 per game a season ago, 1.9 of them on the offensive glass) to take a bit of a hit.
Defensively, it’s likely Anthony will remain what he’s always been: mostly passable, with dashes of lock-down aggressiveness and flagrant nonchalance sprinkled in.
Being the all-world talent Melo is, the statistics will take care of themselves. More important from Jackson and Fisher’s perspective is whether their hardwood warhorse can become the leader New York needs, not only for this team this season, but through the rebuild to come as well.
Judging by his well-publicized recent weight loss—part of the goal of which, a source told the New York Post‘s Marc Berman, was to “be a facilitator in the triangle”—Anthony seems committed to assuring that’s not a faith placed in vain.
With the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers looking like the lone sure things in a still-inferior Eastern Conference, the Knicks are one of many teams whose fortunes could veer in wildly different directions.
For New York, much hinges on Fisher’s ability to make his team’s triangle transition as seamlessly as possible, along with the players’ willingness to both buy into the system and pay out something resembling their potential worth.
With so many X-factors in play, next season guarantees to be a complicated calculus for the Knicks. Good thing, then, that they can still count on one of the game’s steadiest and most spectacular constants.
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Coach K has tough decisions ahead in paring his roster down to 12.
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It’s natural to view Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan as a somewhat dispensable third wheel to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. When you play with two of the best talents in the league, that will happen.
It might even be easy to think that because Jordan isn’t particularly skilled, he could be replaced rather easily.
That’s a dangerous line of thinking, though.
Over the course of last season, Jordan proved that he’s critical to the Clippers’ title hopes as the team’s lone defensive anchor. Once he was finally trusted with consistent minutes and given a clear role, Jordan blossomed throughout the season and became the type of player people always thought he could be.
Here’s what Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told Chris Palmer about Jordan for Bleacher Report:
‘Very few players are willing to accept a specific role like his,’ says Rivers. ‘But early on he realized this defensive and rebounding thing is not bad.’
‘DJ gives us cohesion,’ says Rivers. ‘He helps create an environment that puts everyone at ease. He’s really good at that, and it’s why our guys get along so well.’
The Clippers could still be a good team without Jordan. Paul and Griffin seemingly guarantee a top-5 offense every single year just on their own. At least on the surface, they might not need Jordan.
But without their big man in the middle, the Clippers would be gutless and maybe a little lifeless. Driving lanes would go uninterrupted, and a dunk or block from Jordan is sometimes worth more than two points, even though technically it’s not.
Here’s Zach Harper at CBS Sports:
After one season under Doc Rivers, Jordan flourished on the defensive end of the floor. In his first five seasons in the NBA, Jordan was capable of blocking shots, but a lot of them seemed empty. He’d provide the highlight, but it didn’t stop the other team from regularly scoring whether Jordan was on the floor or not. In 2013-14, the Clippers gave up a slightly lower percentage in the restricted area when Jordan was on the floor, but they also gave up 3.0 percent fewer shot attempts in the paint with DeAndre patrolling the key.
His athleticism wasn’t just a highlight factory anymore; he was actually a deterrent at the rim and he got better as the season went along. The Clippers with Jordan on the court after the All-Star break protected the restricted area 4.7 percent better than they had with Jordan on the court prior to the break. Jordan was the leading rebounder in the NBA, had the second most blocks total, and the third highest blocks per game in the league.
Jordan’s improved play and perception brings about another set of problems for the Clippers, even though they’re good ones to have. There’s no doubt that as an unrestricted free agent in the 2015 offseason, Jordan is going to attract some buyers.
Centers always seem to get paid at a premium, and Jordan is unique in that he’ll be hitting unrestricted free agency at the same time he’s hitting his prime as a basketball player. Even though he’s incredibly limited as a scorer and free-throw shooter, Jordan is a player who knows what he is and what he’s supposed to do.
His rare combination of size and athleticism would attract teams on its own, but now with a year of production and the backing of a championship-winning coach like Rivers, teams with a need in the middle will undoubtedly look at Jordan as a way to take care of the defensive side of the floor and the glass.
Here’s Michael Pina of Bleacher Report:
At least one of the NBA’s 30 teams (including the Clippers) will most likely lob a maximum contract in his direction. Wondering whether the flawed but effective big man will receive a huge offer is a waste of time. Jordan is a clear-cut starter with playoff experience and Defensive Player of the Year potential. He’ll finish the 2014-15 season with seven years of experience under his belt, and he will still be three years away from his 30th birthday.
Despite heavy odds against him ever making a single All-Star game throughout his entire career (and not being one of the three most valuable players on his own team last season, depending on where you stand with 2014 Sixth Man of the Year winner Jamal Crawford), cap space will be aplenty for several franchises that view him as a significant draw at a decisive position.
He’ll get paid. The more important question worth asking, then, is: Does he deserve it?
There may be some hesitancy when it comes to paying Jordan a max deal, but the Clippers should hope that they have enough in place to convince Jordan to take a little less. That’s where he’s spent his entire career, after all, and it’s a new day with owner Steve Ballmer taking over for Donald Sterling.
You would think that Jordan will want to stay in Los Angeles, anyway. Rivers is the first coach that has really fully trusted him, and by all means he’s a guy players love to play for. Jordan has also maintained a close relationship with Griffin throughout the years, which should certainly be a pull.
While the Clippers should be worried about what the market dictates as Jordan’s price, they shouldn’t be too concerned that Jordan will bolt to a different situation so long as the money is equal. In Paul, Jordan has the league’s best point guard and distributor, and attaching yourself next to Griffin for the future is a pretty strong idea. Also, Los Angeles isn’t exactly a bad place to call home.
If money is the only real incentive to leave, the Clippers should try to lock in on an extension before Jordan gets to the open market. There’s a pretty good chance he only increases his stock even more with another season under Rivers, so now might be the best time for the Clippers to negotiate.
Ultimately, if push comes to shove, the Clippers can either go into the luxury tax or make salary sacrifices elsewhere, like letting go of Jamal Crawford’s partially guaranteed deal or finding a way to dump Jared Dudley or J.J. Redick.
While Jordan is a lock to make more than the $11.4 million he’ll be paid this season going forward, a full max offer may be slightly unrealistic to expect from multiple teams, particularly from ones Jordan would consider leaving the Clippers for.
That’s in large part because the center position could potentially be pretty deep in 2015 free agency. Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler and Omer Asik are all set to become unrestricted free agents barring extensions. Roy Hibbert, Al Jefferson and Brook Lopez all have player options, and Nikola Vucevic is on tap to be restricted.
That’s seven quality starting centers that could be available aside from Jordan, and so the large pool of players could potentially drive the price down a bit. It seems unlikely that Jordan would garner an offer worth $20 million a year if Asik was available for nearly half of that, for example.
Ultimately, the Clippers should be pressing for an extension before the season, even if Jordan likely stands to gain more by waiting to negotiate until free agency.
There should be some natural concern here, but when you have a great player’s coach, the league’s best point guard, one of the league’s richest owners and the benefits of the city of Los Angeles in your corner, you don’t need to be stricken with fear over losing your team’s longest-tenured player. Those days are pretty much gone for the Clippers.
Basically, it’s not about being able to retain Jordan, it’s about the price point and the potential consequences of having a third massive contract.
Is it worth being a luxury tax team for a few years if you’re contending for a title? Is there a replacement for Jordan readily available who will keep the team financially flexible and in the title hunt? Is it worth it to overpay for an asset to maintain steady forward progress?
These are all questions the Clippers will have to answer, but if I had to guess, Jordan won’t want to leave and will be viewed as indispensable by Doc Rivers. There’s too much mutual incentive present for the two sides not to come to an agreement at some point, whether it be this year or next offseason.
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