ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

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Last season: Kyrie Irving became the youngest All-Star since LeBron James, but the Cavaliers were decidedly awful throughout the year, finishing 24-58. Only the Bobcats were worse both offensively and defensively, Injuries took a major toll (more on that below), but the season never looked promising at any point, regardless.

On the bright side, Dion Waiters made the All-Rookie first team and Tyler Zeller the second team. It was the second-straight season Cleveland received such honors with Irving (first team) and Tristan Thompson (second team) doing it the year before. Plus, per recent custom, the Cavaliers made a big splash during the playoffs by winning the lottery.

Signature highlight from last season: Maybe, someday, Irving’s best game-winners won’t come against the Bobcats and Raptors. But this one would have been awesome against any team.

Key player changes: With the No. 1 pick and gobs of cap space, the Cavaliers were primed for a huge offseason, and they certainly took advantage of their position. Cleveland drafted Anthony Bennett (No. 1) and Sergey Karasev (No. 19) and signed Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark.

Rotation-types Omri Casspi, Marreese Speights, Shaun Livingston and Wayne Ellington left in free agency. The incoming players are better than that group, but it’s worth pointing out the Cavaliers lost at least a little talent.

The Cavaliers also hired Mike Brown, whom they fired just three years ago. This is the NBA’s coaching circle at its best.

Keys to the Cavaliers’ season:

1) Who stays healthy? Kyrie Irving missed 23 games last season, Andrew Bynum 82, Anderson Varejao 57, Dion Waiters 21 and Earl Clark 23. Even Anthony Bennett missed pre-draft workouts with a shoulder injury. If they stay completely healthy – an unreasonable standard for any team, but we’re talking in hypotheticals – the Cavaliers should easily make the playoffs. Whether they reach the postseason in reality could very well come down to just how severe of injuries their injury-plagued players suffer this season.

2) Can Mike Brown make them good defensively? The Cavaliers went from No. 7 to No. 29 in defensive rating after firing Brown. Obviously, losing LeBron James had something to do with the drop, but Cleveland is hopeful Brown can instill sound defensive principles in ways Byron Scott never could.

To review how the Cavaliers fared before, during and after Brown defensively (the Brown years in wine and other years in gold):

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It should probably give Cavaliers pause that their defense regressed in Brown’s first season compared to the year prior.

3) Just how good are Cleveland’s young players? Kyrie Irving is somewhere between a superstar and very good starter. Dion Waiters is somewhere between an above-average starter at his position and a gunner whose team would be better if he accepted a reduced role. Tristan Thompson is somewhere between the hustle starter every team needs and a player who’s overmatched unless a backup. Andrew Bynum is somewhere between the NBA’s best center and a complete zero in terms of impact. Anthony Bennett is somewhere between Larry Johnson and Michael Olowokandi.

All those players are young enough to have a wide range of future outlooks, and where they fall on the spectrum will determine not only Cleveland’s season, but its future.

Why you should watch the Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving alone is worth the price of admission, an offensive star at the position where a player can have the greatest offensive impact. If defense and rebounding is more your style, Anderson Varejao is a madman (in a good way). I’m curious to see why Anthony Bennett shot up Cleveland’s draft board, too.

Most of all, Andrew Bynum’s hair.

Prediction: 41-41. Simply because of injuries, Cleveland has one of the higher variances in preseason projections. I think most prognosticators have a firm grasp of what this team could be, but it’s nearly impossible to predict injuries. The Cavaliers seem to be competing with the Wizards, Pistons, Hawks and Raptors for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spots. Cleveland certainly has the talent to make it, but how much time that talent spends on the court is a different question entirely.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: I’ve never seen injury like Kawhi Leonard’s

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Gregg Popovich is a basketball lifer.

He’s the NBA’s most experienced active head coach. Before that, he was the Spurs’ general manager. Before that, he was an NBA assistant. Before that, he was a college head coach and assistant. Before that, he was a college player. Before that, he was a youth player.

The San Antonio coach has seen everything.

Except the right quadriceps tendinopathy suffered by Kawhi Leonard, whom Popovich said more than a week would return “sooner rather than later.” Yet, Leonard still hasn’t played this season.

Popovich, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

“Never, never,” Popovich said when asked whether he has seen such a condition hampering one of his players. “What’s really strange is that [point guard] Tony [Parker] has the same injury, but even worse. They had to go operate on his quad tendon and put it back together or whatever they did to it. So to have two guys, that’s pretty incredible. I had never seen it before those guys.”

“I keep saying sooner rather than later,” Popovich said jokingly. “It’s kind of like being a politician. It’s all baloney, doesn’t mean anything.”

The 26-year-old Leonard is one of the NBA’s biggest on-court stars. He might be the league’s best defender, and he has built himself into an offensive force. The Spurs (11-7) have fared fine without him so far, but they’ll need him to accomplish their main goals – this year and beyond.

Hopefully, Leonard’s health is better than it sounds here, because Popovich’s answer sure isn’t encouraging.

Tim Hardaway Jr. calls fallen ref safe rather than defend shot (video)

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The Knicks went on a 28-0 run.

They earned the right to showboat late in their win over the Raptors last night.

Tim Hardaway Jr. called a ref, who slipped on the baseline, safe rather than contest Serge Ibaka‘s 3-pointer. Perfection!

Luc Mbah a Moute sets modern record at +57 in Rockets’ win over Nuggets

AP Foto/Eric Christian Smith
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Luc Mbah a Moute is a quietly good player.

He’s an effective and versatile defender. Offensively, he shoots 3-pointers well enough to score efficiently and spread the floor. Most of all, the 31-year-old just understands how to play and plays within himself. His teams tend to perform better when he’s on the floor.

That’s an understatement for Wednesday night.

In a 125-95 win, the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by a whopping 57 points in Mbah a Moute’s 26 minutes. That’s the best single-game plus-minus in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to the 2000-01 season. It tops Joe Smith’s +52 in a 2001 Timberwolves win over the Bulls, a 53-point game that also produced a +50 for Wally Szczerbiak and +48 for Terrell Brandon.

Mbah a Moute’s traditional stat line was impressive, though not overly so: 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. He played well, contributing to winning in all the small ways he often does, and the Rockets happened to play excellently around him.

Now, Mbah a Moute tops the leaderboard in single-game plus-minus since 2000-01:

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Did Russell Westbrook get mad at Steven Adams for not taking potential triple-double-clinching shot? (video)

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Russell Westbrook chases triple-doubles.

That hardly makes him unique. He’s just close enough to the feat more often than other players, so he chases them more often.

But he still chases them.

Late in the Thunder’s 108-91 win over the Warriors last night, Westbrook was heading toward his final line of 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. His teammates shot off his passes on three of Oklahoma City’s final four possessions before he took a seat (including one assist). The exception came when he passed to Steven Adams, who passed rather than shoot – clearly upsetting Westbrook.

Was Westbrook mad because he missed his chance at a triple-double? Maybe.

Was Westbrook mad because Adams passed as the shot clock neared expiration? Maybe.

It could be both!

Watch Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry on Golden State’s bench. They clearly found something funny.