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What the Cavs should do if the lockout ends

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It wasn’t the best year for the Cavaliers. After finishing with the best regular-season record in the NBA for the second consecutive season in 09-10, the Cavaliers had the longest losing streak in NBA history and finished with the league’s second-worst record in 2010-11. In between the two seasons, Decisions were made.

The Cavs’ 2010-11 season was an abomination, but there’s now a light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to mid-season trade that sent Mo Williams to Los Angeles and forced the Cavs to eat the remainder of Baron Davis’ contract, the Cavs got the Clippers’ 1st-round pick, which turned into the #1 overall pick and Duke guard Kyrie Irving. The Cavs took Texas forward Tristan Thompson with the #4 pick, who they hope will become a Ben Wallace clone. Here’s what the Cavs can do to bounce back from last season:

1. Find an offensive identity:

The Cavs were bad at everything last season, but their offense was slightly more pathetic than their defense, so we’ll start there. The Cavaliers found out the hard way that Mo Williams is a lot worse at scoring when LeBron James isn’t setting him up with wide-open threes, and Ramon Sessions spent most of his time dribbling the air out of the basketball and recklessly driving to the rim for much of the season. Antawn Jamison got his usual empty stats by firing up long jumpers or twisting shots in the paint whenever he got the opportunity to, but he was neither an efficient scorer or willing passer. The team didn’t pass the ball well, they had no way of getting to the rim, and they were never able to score effectively in transition.

The team got noticeably better offensively when Baron Davis took over — for all the crap Baron takes, he is a true point guard and offensive leader, and he helped the Cavs end the season on a (relatively) high note. (Also, Baron made his threes at a stunningly high clip after being traded last season.) With Davis staying, #1 overall pick Kyrie Irving playing lead guard as well (I think they can co-exist on the court for stretches — Irving is more of a scorer, and Baron is really a passer at heart), and Anderson Varejao coming back to give them a player who can actually finish a pick-and-roll, the Cavs have a chance to build a real, live offense next season. Those help prevent record-long losing streaks.

2. Get Varejao and Thompson working together

Varejao was the Cavaliers’ best player before he got hurt last season. He doesn’t put up big numbers, but he moves relentlessly without the ball, is one of the best defensive power forwards in the league, and actually did a great job when asked to play out of position and guard centers last season. He was also stunningly competent making jumpers and drives from the high post, which may or not continue next season.

For reasons that are, frankly, beyond my comprehension, the Cavaliers chose Texas forward Tristan Thompson with the #4 pick instead of Lithuanian 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas, who seems very similar to Thompson, except that he is four inches taller, won’t be playing next season, and appears to be better at basketball than Thompson. In any case, the Cavaliers took Thompson and Varejao is one of their few untouchable players, so one hopes that the Cavaliers have some sort of plan in place for how a Thompson/Varejao frontcourt pairing is going to work on both ends of the floor. Both players are power forwards defensively who are capable of playing decent defense at the center position, and both are true centers offensively.

We’ll see if Byron Scott can make this work — if he can, it’ll provide a much-needed boost to a defense that was absolutely pathetic last season. If nothing else, maybe Thompson and Varejao’s blue-collar playstyle can encourage some of their teammates to start taking pride in the way they defend.

3. Be Patient.

It’s not going to happen overnight for the Cavs, even after the two top-5 picks. Cavalier fans are going to have to be patient. More importantly, the management is going to have to be patient. Look at the Sonics/Thunder, who drafted their franchise player, were very bad for a season, drafted another semi-franchise player, were very bad for another season, and then got another top-3 pick to build around. Once the Thunder made a few good trades and signings to stock their roster with quality role players, they instantly became a contender without needing to spend big money or pull off a blockbuster trade.

Likewise, the Bulls patiently built around Derrick Rose by bringing in a defensive wizard, a rotation filled with quality role players, and didn’t make a big-ticket free agency signing until they were sure they were ready to start contending. (And, to be honest, the Boozer signing hasn’t done nearly as much for the Bulls as the team’s defensive schemes or “bench mob” has.)

The Cavs want to get back to respectability, but they shouldn’t mortgage their future in order to chase a possible run at a 7th or 8th seed. They should bide their time, wait for the right draft prospects, no-brainer trades, and low-cost players to come along, and slowly but surely begin their run back to respectability. If the Cavs can stay patient and not try to force anything, they might return to being the Cavaliers and stop being The Team That Lost LeBron sooner than most people think.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

Rajon Rondo is hilarious (photo)

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Is Rajon Rondo stubborn? Yes.

Is he petty? Yes.

Is he harsh? Yes.

But the Bulls point guard is also hilarious in his own way.

 

Sean Highkin of The Athletic:

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek: “We can use some more defensive players”

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For all the flipping between the triangle and a more modern offense, despite ball stopping by Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks offense is 17th in the NBA for the season. Not good, but the middle of the pack, right around Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis — all playoff teams (or potential ones in Miami’s case).

The reason the Knicks season ends in seven games is their defense — 25th in the NBA. Put the triangle in (and get players who fit the system) or don’t, but that’s not the end of the court where the Knicks need to improve. And while system matters on defense, the fact of the matter the Knicks roster is loaded with poor and/or indifferent individual defenders.

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek emphasized all this speaking to ESPN’s Ian Begley.

“I think if you look at our defense this year, we can use some more defensive players,” Hornacek said. “[Management] will look at that. [General manager] Steve [Mills] and [president] Phil [Jackson] and those guys will look at whatever can help us out. We know we need some help there.”

Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Now comes the time for action.

The Knicks are going to have a Top 10 draft pick (currently sixth) plus max-player money in free agency. Also, they are looking to move Anthony this summer (he has a no-trade clause so he will have to agree to it). All of which is to say they have a chance to reshape this roster into one that will have more of a defensive focus. Or any defensive focus for that matter.

It will be interesting to see if the Knicks target more defensive minded free agents this summer, ones who might fit the triangle offense such as Thabo Sefolosha, or to a lesser extent Tony Allen. It’s going to be a fascinating summer in New York.

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