NBA Season Preview: The Cleveland Cavaliers

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for bscott.jpgLast season: 61-21, best record in the NBA, but an early exit in the second round of the playoffs after they ran into a deeper and more defensive-minded Boston team. Unless you’re from Cleveland, in which case LeBron quit. Obviously.

Head Coach: Byron Scott takes over the helm of a rebuilding project, looking to bring an up-tempo offense that really would have been handy with last year’s roster.

Key Departures: LeBron James and… does the rest of it matter? Does anyone care Shaq left? Big Z will be missed on an emotional level, but not on the court.

Key Additions: Ramon Sessions, a $14.5 million trade exception. Not much to write home about.

Best case scenario: Prove that this team was more than just LeBron by being respectable. (There are Clevelanders who have dreams of the playoffs, ignoring the realities of the new East or the needs of this team to rebuild.)

For that to happen: Scott’s system is going to have to get the Cavs role players to be just as efficient while having to take on more of the offense (and getting a lot more attention from defenses). The players on the Cavaliers roster may struggle to create their own shots. That makes the running offense a good option to get some easy buckets

The three-headed guard situation of Mo Williams, Sessions and Daniel Gibson will have to come together. Williams does not fear shooting but now he will be one of the few guys on this team capable of creating his own offense whenever he wants. He is going to have to both shoot and set up guys efficiently. Sessions is going to need to be the pure point guard, and when Gibson is in he is going to have to keep knocking down more than 40 percent of his threes.

JJ Hickson will start at the four and needs to emerge — he shot 80.9 percent in transition last season, so you know he has to like the new system. Hickson is just a better shooter on the move and when he can crash the offensive glass, and that’s what should happen now. Last season during he playoffs LeBron and every sane person at home was wondering why he was not getting more run — now he needs to prove he deserves it.

Antawn Jamison will be 34 by the end of the season but he will likely be the team’s leading scorer, and over the seasons his scoring efficiency has not dropped. However, he shot a little less last year and now he has to step back into the primary role, which will be hard.

The key to this team running — and playing good enough defense to run — may be Anderson Varejao being the energy and spark plug guy night after night. He has to defend the rim. He played that role before, but it is more crucial now.

More likely the Cavaliers will: Struggle as these guys find it hard to be as efficient in their new roles.

If you want to run, that starts on defense. You need the stops and turnovers to really make it work. Scott knows this as coach, but does he have the players to execute it? Last season the Cavaliers were seventh in the leuage in defense, and they had a premier perimeter defender in LeBron and bigger guys guarding the rim.

Jamison will have good nights ad some flubs. Same with Williams. This is a Cavaliers team that could struggle now on the boards — we shall see — but they will need to work hard there on both

Prediction: 32 wins. The Cavaliers will not be last year’s Nets.

But now is not the time to prove that you actually had a good team around LeBron, now is time to rip this thing to the core and start a rebuilding process. There are good young pieces like Hickson to start with. There is a massive trade exemption which likely will not land the Cavaliers a star but more likely will e broken up to take on some ugly mid-sized contracts that will expire. For that the Cavs will want draft picks and young players. Start from the ground up again. Rebuild. This year the wins don’t matter.

Frustrated Kyrie Irving on another ring: “And I want more. I’m going to go take it.”

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Since the All-Star break, the Cleveland Cavaliers have not looked like a championship team. They have been in a malaise going 8-10 with the second-worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. The Cavs like a team that is just waiting for the games to have meaning again in the playoffs. It makes one tempted to say this will come back to bite them in the postseason, but which team in the East is going to beat them?

The Cavaliers players are frustrated with their play of late, too.  Kyrie Irving vented about it after practice, as reported by Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“Obviously it was just a frustrating game and there have been a few frustrating games for all of us,” Irving said. “Just getting back to what we do, having fun with one another and being truthful with one another — we’ll be good…

And then Irving said: “You can’t rely on just thinking that one championship is enough. It’s natural for human beings to just get comfortable. To rely on just having won a championship. But if you a (competitor) you want two, you want three, you want four. And if you dedicate yourself more like you say you do, then you want more. And I want more. I’m going to go take it.”

Injuries have had key players, most recently Kevin Love and J.R. Smith out of the rotation of late, and working them back in has not gone smoothly. Still, this is the same core from the team that won the title last season, it shouldn’t be that difficult to get back into a groove.

Cleveland is acting like a team that thinks it can flip the switch.

Maybe they can, but there are some powerful teams out West who seemed to have flipped theirs long ago.

 

Rumor: Bulls ready to move on from Jimmy Butler this summer

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Predicting what the Chicago Bulls front office will do this summer is a game of roulette — the ball can land anywhere and it wouldn’t be a surprise. Is Dwyane Wade coming back? Is Nikola Mirotic part of the future? Fred Hoiberg? What kind of team are the Bulls trying to build, anyway?

Then there is the biggest one: Is Jimmy Butler still part of the long-term plan? Or is he going to be moved to facilitate a rebuilding process?

Last summer when the Bulls had the chance to trade him, they kept Butler to build around him… then made some interesting choices in trying to do that. They didn’t get enough shooting, players didn’t fit well, and others didn’t develop, and the Bulls are struggling to even make the postseason.

So what do the Bulls do this summer? One exec told Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer that the Bulls were going to move Butler.

Paul George and Jimmy Butler were involved in trade rumors at the deadline, and all indications are that those conversations will resume this offseason. One front-office source told me recently that Butler is “as good as gone,” while George sounds like a player who wants out.”

Paul George wanting to contend (or if not, be in Los Angeles) is not news, but whether the Pacers decide to be serious about trading him this summer depends on a number of factors that we’re not going to get into here. This article is about Butler.

Do the Bulls want to trade Butler? Some in the front office do, some don’t. There were reports the Bulls wanted an All-Star level player for him so the team did not take a step back, but nobody was giving that up. Everyone in Chicago from ownership through management is not on the same page, which helps explain some of the stop-gap team building moves by the team. Chicago needs to decide if it wants to go for the full rebuild, which is what happens if they trade Butler. The playoffs are out of the questions for a few years if they do, but that’s not a bad thing if they draft well and commit to the plan. However, there is a sense that ownership thinks “this is Chicago, we don’t rebuild.”

All of which is to say, if the Bulls trade Butler it’s not a huge surprise. If they keep him, it’s not a huge surprise. But other teams — hello Boston — may be prepping for him to come back on the trade market around the draft.

PBT Podcast: Future of Isaiah Thomas, Ricky Rubio, also award talk with Dan Feldman

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We asked for your questions on Twitter and Facebook, and you gave myself and Dan Feldman got some fascinating discussion points:

If the Celtics land a top two pick, what does that mean for the future of Isaiah Thomas in Boston?

Is Ricky Rubio‘s run of strong play mean he remains the point guard of the future in Minnesota?

How good is Devin Booker?

We discuss all of that plus the NBA end of season awards that we are still looking at and trying to make up our minds about.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Rumor: Dell Demps out, Joe Dumars in with Pelicans?

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Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry is on shaky ground.

What about New Orleans general manager Dell Demps?

A long-swirling rumor is getting renewed.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

A few league sources peg the New Orleans Pelicans as a team that is going to make sweeping changes once their season ends in eight games.

The Pelicans have long been rumored to be the next stop for former Piston’s executive Joe Dumars, who is a Shreveport, Louisiana native and has close ties to the ownership and leadership of the Pelicans and Saints organization.

League sources said recently that Dumars has been active in the NBA front office circles, scouting players and reconnecting to the process.

Demps has done a lousy job building a supporting cast around Davis. Part of the reason trading for the risky DeMarcus Cousins made so much sense: The Pelicans were so underwhelming, they wouldn’t be much worse off if Cousins destroyed their culture and/or bolted in 2018 free agency.

But it’s not too late to salvage Davis’ tenure in New Orleans. He’s locked up for three more seasons, and Cousins is an extremely talented No. 2.

Is Dumars the right man to bring it all together?

He masterfully built the Pistons into the 2004 NBA champions. He also played an integral role in the team’s downfall.

Another factor: There appears to be a mutual respect between Cousins and Dumars, who coveted the big man since he was coming out of Kentucky. That could help the Pelicans re-sign Cousins in 2018.

Dumars’ success should get him general-manager job interviews, but his more-recent failings demand tough questions. I’m unconvinced the Pelicans are scrutinizing Dumars enough, and they’d probably benefit from a more-thorough search.

But Dumars might be a fine hire. Dumping Demps would at least be step in the right direction.