Shaq's injury not so bad for the Cavs

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In rolling past the Celtics in the second half last night, the Cavs unveiled something that has become a favorite of many a hardcore basketball fan this season: the small-ball lineup. The fact that LeBron James defies the very concept of position gives Cleveland incredible flexibility in assembling their on-court rotations, and the added versatility of Antawn Jamison gives them more options than ever before.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s not such a bad thing that Shaquille O’Neal might miss a few games with injury.

The terrific Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer argues against the idea (to an extent), claiming that “it is a not a way to play all the time…It is more effective when used
to throw off opponents, especially when they are not prepared for it.” I couldn’t agree more with the latter; teams will almost certainly struggle against the small-ball look if they’re prepared for a more conventional Cavalier lineup. But I don’t think that means it can’t be effective on a full-time basis, especially when, as Windhorst concedes, Anderson Varejao is one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in basketball.

That’s a huge advantage to have, and while having a giant of a center that can get some easy buckets down low is quite the advantage as well, a stretch of small-ball could actually allow the Cavs to improve on their fourth-ranked offense (in points per 100 possessions) without any drop-off in their seventh-ranked defense. There’s no need to worry about whether or not O’Neal will show on the pick and get back to his man in time, because Varejao’s already been there and back.

Rebounding is certainly a concern, but if the frontcourt consists of LeBron James, Antawn Jamison, and Anderson Varejao — two forwards that rebound pretty well relative to their position and a center that’s top-20 in rebounding rate — I don’t think the sacrifice on the boards would be particularly significant. And as an added bonus, the low-maintenance Varejao would be logging major minutes alongside Jamison, allowing Antawn not only the playing time necessary to get acclimated to the new sets and his teammates, but also the touches.

The problem comes in relying too heavily on J.J. Hickson, Jawad Williams, and Darnell Jackson. None of the above is particularly accomplished as a defender or rebounder, and though each brings something to the table (be it energy, shooting, etc.), playing those three for extended minutes could poke some holes in Cleveland’s plan. The real victim of Shaq’s injury is Cleveland’s depth; these three role players could find themselves in more prominent roles over the next few weeks, and though Hickson has been effective this year, that’s not necessarily a great thing for the team.

Not having Shaq in the mix does hurt in terms of establishing consistency heading into the playoffs, but supposing O’Neal’s thumb didn’t just fall off in the middle of the night, small-ball can be a short term fix. And it can be a brutally effective one, if Mike Brown isn’t afraid to let his imagination run wild.  

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.