NBA Playoffs Cavs Celtics Game 6: LeBron-Less Preview

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It’s foolish to pretend that the storylines surrounding this game won’t center around LeBron. Between the legacy, the attitude, the failure, the elbow, and everything else, LeBron being on the brink of massive failure is too intriguing not to focus on. It’s also foolish to think that LeBron’s performance in game six won’t be the single biggest factor in the game. LeBron’s had two great performances in this series, and the Cavaliers won both of those games. He’s had three lackluster performances, and the Cavaliers lost all three of those games. If the Cavs want to stay alive tonight, their franchise player needs to step up. There’s no getting around that. 

But just for fun, let’s take a look at some of the things that the Cavaliers need to do to avoid elimination that have nothing to do with LeBron. Without further ado:
1. Rebounding
The Cavaliers were the #1 team in rebound rate over the course of the regular season. The Celtics were 25th in rebound rate over the course of the regular season. Apparently nobody informed these teams of their respective rebounding prowess before this series, as the Celtics have been absolutely destroying the Cavaliers on the glass. The Cavs have not been getting the rebounds they should be getting, and it’s been killing them. Shaq has been invisible on the glass. Jamison has let rebounds slip through his fingers. Rajon Rondo is beating the Cavaliers to each and every long rebound. In game four, the beginning of the end for the Cavaliers came when Ray Allen banged in two consecutive threes off of offensive rebounds at the beginning of the third quarter. The Cavaliers have to rebound better. 
2. Turnovers
Again, this was supposed to be Boston’s problem. Cleveland wasn’t great with turnovers in the regular season, but Boston was much worse — the Celtics were 27th in turnover rate during the regular season. However, it’s been the Cavaliers coughing the ball up left and right during this series. The Cavaliers had 17 turnovers in both game four and game five, with each of their starters turning the ball over at least twice. In game five, the Celtics outscored the Cavaliers 24-6 on points off of turnovers. The Cavaliers look sloppy offensively, and they’re far too content to take the ball right into the teeth of the Boston defense without knowing what they’ll do if they get cut off. Boston has been absolutely murdering the Cavaliers with extra possessions, and the Cavs need to put a stop to that.
3. Frontcourt matchup problems
One thing that hasn’t really been talked about yet: A big reason the Cavs traded for Shaq is so they could have somebody capable of defending Dwight Howard. One reason the Cavaliers traded for Jamison at the deadline is so they could have somebody to match up with Rashard Lewis. Thanks to both of those moves, the Cavs should be able to defend the Magic much better than they did last season. The only problem is that they’re a game away from being eliminated before they play the Magic. 
Shaq has been doing a good enough job on Kendrick Perkins, but the Celtics barely involve him on offense anyways. When they do use Perkins on offense, it’s generally as a screener, and Shaq has trouble on that pick-and-roll. Meanwhile, KG has been absolutely destroying Antawn Jamison. He hasn’t been having great scoring nights, but he has a mismatch every time the Celtics feed him in the post against Jamison. The Cavs have to give help, and good things end up happening for the Celtics even when KG doesn’t get the basket. There’s no easy fix to this problem for the Cavaliers, but it may be in their interest to mix things up a bit in game six. 
4. Mo Williams 
In this series, Mo Williams has enjoyed one great quarter and 19 bad ones. That’s not going to get the job done. He can’t find his shot, he can’t lose Rondo on the perimeter and initiate the offense, and he’s forcing plays. Also, he’s getting murdered on defense. Other than that, though, he’s been great. He needs to give the Cavs something in game six. 
5. Ray Allen
When the Celtics have Ray Allen going along with Rondo and Garnett, the Cavs have no chance of stopping them. Allen can catch and shoot off that pin-down, find the roll man if he gets trapped, or make a basket going to the rim if they force him to put the ball on the floor. Sometimes he forces that beautiful jumper, and even his jumper won’t go in every time if the Cavs do a good job of contesting it. The Cavs have to pray he’s not feeling it in game six, because if he drills a couple of those threes and gets the Garden crowd into it, it could be over. 
Those are the big things the Cavs need to go their way in game six. Well, that and LeBron. We’ll see what happens. 

John Wall calls J.J. Barea ‘little midget’, Barea says Wizards teammates dislike Wall

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J.J. Barea got hit with a technical foul for jawing with John Wall during the Mavericks’ win over the Wizards yesterday.

The trash talk only intensified after the game.

Wall, via Chase Hughes of NBC Sports Washington:

“It was cool. It was funny. It was just a little midget trying to get mad. So, I paid him no mind.”

Barea, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“Now I have somebody in the NBA that I don’t like,” Barea said. “That’s my first. I don’t like him at all now. But I don’t think his teammates like him, either. So it’s nothing new for him.”

Barea is short, listed at 6-foot.

Do Wall’s teammates dislike him? A lot of that perception stems from his relationship with Bradley Beal, and it seems their biggest troubles are behind them. But the chemistry in Washington isn’t quite right. The latest evidence:

The Wizards got outscored by a whopping 20 points while diminutive J.J. Barea was on the court last night.

And that’s how you burn the burners.

LeBron James congratulates himself, ‘Young King,’ on reaching 30,000 points later tonight

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The Cavaliers have lost nine of 12. Prominent Cleveland players are raising concerns about the roster. Rumors are swirling about coach Tyronn Lue getting fired. The locker room is in disarray. Some Cavs are even pointing the finger at LeBron James himself.

And this is what LeBron posts to Instagram hours before tonight’s Cavaliers-Spurs game:

Wanna be one of the first to Congratulate you on this accomplishment/achievement tonight that you’ll reach! Only a handful has reach/seen it too and while I know it’s never been a goal of yours from the beginning try(please try) to take a moment for yourself on how you’ve done it! The House you’re about to be apart of has only 6 seats in it(as of now) but 1 more will be added and you should be very proud and honored to be invited inside. There’s so many people to thank who has help this even become possible(so thank them all) and when u finally get your moment(alone) to yourself smile, look up to the higher skies and say THANK YOU! So with that said, Congrats again Young King 🤴🏾! 1 Love! #striveforgreatness🚀 #thekidfromakron👑

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

LeBron is just seven points from 30,000. The only players to score so much in their careers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki.

It’ll be a nice milestone for LeBron, but he darn well better score those seven points tonight. Not getting there tonight would be the simplest way to make this even more insufferable.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr., Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. to compete in dunk contest

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. already looked like he was competing in the dunk contest.

Apparently, he’ll put those skills to use in the real thing.

And so will Aaron Gordon (Magic), Victor Oladipo (Pacers) and Larry Nance Jr. (Lakers).

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Oliver Maroney of Uproxx:

The number of contestants in the dunk contest has varied, but it’s been four the last few years. So, this might be the entire field – and it’d be a strong one.

Gordon narrowly lost to Zach LaVine in an epic dunk contest a couple years ago. Oladipo brings star power, as he’ll probably play in the actual All-Star game. Nance has the pedigree, and I bet he involves his dad – who won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984 – in a dunk. Smith is the young up-and-comer with the first platform to prove himself nationally.

I can’t wait.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.