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Stick a fork in them: The Cleveland Cavaliers

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This is the first in our new ongoing series here at PBT: Stick a fork in them.  As we feel teams are done, toast, dead to the playoffs, we will give them a sendoff and obit. We’re not talking mathematically eliminated, we mean when their playoff chances really give up the ghost. John Krolik starts it with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but your team is coming. Probably sooner than you think.

This should not come as news: The Cleveland Cavaliers are horrible. I mean, really horrible. The team has won one game since November 27th, and that win came in overtime. They have won no games since December 18th. They have lost 20 straight games, are four losses away from tying their own record for consecutive losses, and will have to beat the Heat in Miami today to avoid going winless in January. They are 0-26 in games decided by 10 points or more. No other team has more than 18 double-digit losses, and no other team has failed to win less than two games by a double-digit margin. Not only are they the worst team in the NBA; they are one of the worst teams in basketball history.

Here are a few things you should know about the Cavaliers:

1. They were the worst team in basketball when they were healthy. It’s easy to point to injuries as the root cause of the Cavaliers’ futility, and the loss of starting center Anderson Varejao, as well as various other injuries, have certainly made the team even worse. However, the team lost 16 of the last 17 games that Varejao played in. That’s not a very small sample size, and that is a very bad record. The team’s 7-9 stretch to open the season is often pointed to as evidence that the team was competing when they were healthy and hadn’t been embarrassed at home by the Heat, but those wins came against the Nets, the Wizards, the Bucks, and the Grizzlies.

The team certainly felt the tangible loss of Anderson Varejao and were never quite the same again mentally after getting beaten down at home by the Heat, but the team’s early “success” was more the product of a weak schedule and everybody playing with early-season uncertainty than anything the Cavaliers were doing particularly well.

2. The players who were supposed to thrive in LeBron’s absence have been huge disappointments. Ramon Sessions was supposed to give the team some of the playmaking it lost and help get the team running, but he has spent almost all of his time on the floor making reckless drives to the rim and almost none of it being a facilitator. J.J. Hickson was supposed to have a breakout year, but lost confidence in his perimeter game, has far too many mistakes with the ball in his hands, and is still an atrocious defensive player.

Antawn Jamison is playing the worst defense I have ever seen an NBA forward play, and his offense consists of running to a spot on the floor and firing up a shot as soon as he touches the ball. Mo Williams has improved as a playmaker, but is completely incapable of creating high-percentage shots and plays horrible defense. Varejao is a great defensive player, but could not create offense from the high post. Because of all that, the team has no way of scoring points with any consistency or stopping opponents from scoring at will. That is a bad combination.

3. The team’s short-term rebuilding plan was fatally flawed. The Cavaliers lost Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shaquille O’Neal, and Delonte West along with LeBron. On a pure talent level, those players should have been easily replaceable. All three players missed a lot of games in 2009-10, and none of them played at a particularly high level when they did. In fact, a full season of Jamison, the trade for Sessions, Hickson moving into the starting lineup, and Daniel Gibson’s career year probably should have offset the loss of those three role players on paper. However, the three players the Cavaliers lost were often responsible for guarding the rim and the other team’s best scorer.

Instead of trying to replace their defensive value, Byron Scott and new GM Chris Grant traded for Ramon Sessions, promoted J.J. Hickson, and promised a high-octane team that would utilize its athleticism by pushing the break and running the Princeton offense. However, it quickly became apparent that the Cavaliers lacked the skill to out-score teams, and their off-season maneuvers left them with no player outside of Varejao capable of making a significant defensive impact. The Cavaliers came into the season with an offensive gameplan that their personnel had little chance of executing with success and no defensive gameplan to speak of. The team is now 8-39.

4. Yes, the team was built around LeBron, and many of the players they signed or traded for in his seven years with the team are significantly worse (Williams, Moon), or completely useless (Moon, Jamario) without him feeding them easy shots and covering for their defensive mistakes. However, the bigger issue is that the Cavaliers failed to accumulate any significant talent with the draft picks they had after LeBron. They used their one post-LeBron lottery pick on Luke Jackson, effectively gave away their other post-LeBron lottery pick for a Jiri Welsch rental, and used their biggest chunk of cap space on Larry Hughes. (For a full breakdown of what the Cavs did with their post-LeBron draft picks, click here. Full disclosure: I also wrote that.)

5. Yes, LeBron was that good. Statistically speaking, he added an estimated 30 wins to the Cavaliers last year. I don’t dispute that number: he had one of the best statistical regular seasons ever. He was also the backbone of a top-10 defense, and made players like Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao far, far better offensively than they would have been without him. Losing a player like that, having a fatally flawed rebuilding plan, and suffering injuries to the only decent players remaining on the roster is how a 61-win team becomes one of the worst teams in NBA history over the course of an offseason.

Referees miss Dion Waiters push off, multiple other calls in final seconds of Thunder’s win over San Antonio

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Manu Ginobili said it perfectly after the game: This one play, this one sequence is not why the Spurs lost Game 2 of their series against the Thunder.

However, I can’t remember a time the referees swallowed their whistles on so many calls in the final seconds of a game.

Oklahoma City was up one with 13.5 seconds left (after Serge Ibaka made a silly foul on LaMarcus Aldridge shooting a three), the Thunder just needed to inbound the ball, get fouled and hit their free throws. But it wasn’t that easy.

First and most notably, Dion Waiters was trying to inbound the ball and pushed off on Manu Ginobili guarding the inbound play. That’s a foul, or a technical depending upon which rule you want to apply. But the Spurs should have had the ball out of bounds, the referees just missed that one and both Chris Webber on the call and the TNT Inside the NBA crew harped on that one. They were right.

The officials admitted as much, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Ken Mauer, lead referee from tonight’s game: “On the floor we did not see a foul on the play. However, upon review we realize and we agree we should have had an offensive foul on the play. It’s a play we’ve never seen before, ever. We should have had an offensive foul on the play.”

The question Thunder fans are asking: Why wasn’t Ginobili called for stepping on the out of bounds line? In the final two minutes that’s a technical (the rule book says it’s a foul if he “crosses or breaks the plane of the boundary line,” Ginobili has a toe on the line). Also Leonard had Russell Westbrook‘s jersey through that entire inbounds play.

Waiters did throw a leaping inbound pass as Ginobili stumbled backwards, and he threw it to Durant — who was held as he went for the ball by Danny Green. That should have been a foul call (although Waiters’ inbound foul would have nullified it if that call had been made).

The Spurs get the ball in a scramble for the rock and end up kicking out to Patty Mills for a corner three (not sure that was the best shot), but he missed. In the rebound scramble there could have been a few calls, but the most obvious was Ibaka hacking Aldridge trying to get a putback. It was another clear foul.

All that obscured some great plays — Ginobili with the no-look, behind the head pass to Mills in the corner, or Steven Adams with an amazing closeout to get a piece of Mills’ shot, to name a couple.

I get it, the referees don’t want to decide the game with their whistle, but when it turns into a rugby scrum there should be calls, and the referees shouldn’t be afraid to make them.

Watch LeBron James make plays when it matters in fourth quarter

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On paper LeBron James didn’t have a great fourth quarter — 2-of-7 shooting, both his buckets right at the rim, and he’d been passive for long stretches of the game.

But when the Cavaliers made a 17-2 run late in the game that earned them the Game 1 win over Atlanta, LeBron was at the heart of it all. He had assists, a key steal, and a powerful and-1 dunk. You can check out LeBron’s impressive play in the last five minutes above.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.

Larry Bird on Frank Vogel’s future with Pacers: “I don’t know what’s going to happen”

MIAMI, FL - MAY 24:  Team President Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers looks on against the Miami Heat during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on May 24, 2014 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Larry Bird wanted the Pacers to play smaller and faster this season. The Pacers started the season doing that, but they weren’t defending consistently and not winning enough (dropping 7-of-11 through one stretch in December), so coach Frank Vogel started to play bigger and slower. It worked well enough for the Pacers to make the playoffs and go seven games deep in the first round against the Raptors.

Team president Larry Bird isn’t happy — he doesn’t like that Vogel changed the team’s style. For that reason, it’s unclear if Vogel — whose contract is up — will be back with the Pacers next season. Here is what Bird told Greg Doyle of the Indianapolis Star.

Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird said Monday he hasn’t decided whether to bring back coach Frank Vogel for a seventh season, telling IndyStar: “It’s no secret — I want us to score more points…

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bird said….

“Frank’s a great guy. He’s going to be fine no matter what happens. If he’s back, he’ll be fine here. If he’s not, he’s not. We’ll see.”

If Vogel were allowed to walk away, a host of other teams would line up to pay him. Houston would be an interesting fit (although that franchise reportedly has its sights set on Jeff Van Gundy).

Here’s the question Bird and team owner Herb Simon need to answer: If not Vogel, who do you have that’s better? Think about the coaches still on the market, who is better than Vogel?

Vogel gets his teams to defend like few other coaches in the league (the Pacers were third in the league in defensive rating this season with a largely overhauled roster), and that is the foundation of any winning team. Force an “offensive coordinator” assistant on Vogel if you want, but to give up one of the better young coaches in the NBA would be a mistake by the Pacers.

And if you want to play smaller and faster, get — and in the case of Solomon Hill try to keep — players who fit that style. Right now the Pacers roster is not constructed to be great that way.