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.

Fake Klay Thompson almost steals show in Golden State

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Klay Thompson was everywhere Tuesday night for the Warriors.

He had 16 points, knocked down four threes, and had six boards. He was also chillin’ in the stands enjoying the game.

Well, that was “fake” Klay Thompson in the seats — fully decked out in a Golden State uniform and sitting almost right behind the team bench at Oracle — but the cameras loved him.

Heck, “fake Klay” even had a take on real Klay’s first-half performance.

I wonder if I can get fake Klay to sign my toaster?

76ers’ Markelle Fultz to make NBA debut close to home in Washington

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Markelle Fultz gets to start the next chapter of his career in a familiar setting.

The No. 1 pick in the draft will make his NBA debut for the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at the Washington Wizards, about a half-hour from home. Fultz grew up in nearby Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in Prince George’s County and played at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and will have many friends, family members and former coaches in attendance.

“Being able to have his first game in his backyard, I’m so happy for him,” said Keith Williams, Fultz’s AAU coach, trainer and mentor. “It’s perfect. It couldn’t have worked out better.”

Not wanting to throw Fultz “into the fire,” Sixers coach Brett Brown is easing the 19-year-old in by bringing him off the bench after missing portions of the preseason with shoulder and knee injuries. Fultz will be just the third top pick since 2003 to be active and not start his season opener, joining Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani.

Fultz said he’s OK with the decision to come off the bench and considers opening in Washington “almost the best thing that could happen” to him. Expectations are high on the University of Washington product, so starting in his backyard is a substantial positive for Fultz, who was cut from his high school team as a sophomore and came back to become a blue chip prospect.

“The world’s going to spin pretty quickly here,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “Sometimes things are going to seem like they’re a blur to him. Him being able to get started on that journey here in front of a lot of people that supported him and looked up to him I think is a great thing.”

Fultz will face 2010 top pick John Wall, and Williams hopes Fultz doesn’t feel too many jitters in his first pro game. Because Brown said Fultz “didn’t play” enough in the preseason, perhaps getting to come off the bench eases some of the pressure.

“At the end of the day, I want to do whatever I got to do to help my team win, so if that’s coming off the bench, I’m fine with that,” Fultz said. “Just contribute in any ways I can.”

Fultz is joining a young Philadelphia team featuring Joel Embiid and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, who will also be making his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Fultz is expected to share the ball-handling duties with Simmons, and there’s plenty of intrigue about how he’ll handle the jump.

“I know he’s a strong, athletic point guard that brings a lot of toughness to the game,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I like what I’ve seen so far, regardless of limited playing time. But he has great size. He has great size, and you can’t teach that. He’s a strong point guard that’s going to have a bright future.”

Williams thinks Fultz, if given opportunities, could average 18 to 20 points a game as a rookie. After seeing Fultz think the game beyond his age, Jones has high expectations for him.

“He’s capable of being one of the best guards in the NBA,” Jones said. “Every year he’s going to get better and better and better. I know that’s his goal, and I’ve learned through the years to never bet against him. I know that he wants to be the best player he possibly can be, and with each passing month of this season, his rookie year, he’s going to push himself to that.”

 

LeBron James on boos Kyrie Irving faced: “It was nothing”

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LeBron James knows about being booed by Cleveland fans — there was more venom thrown his way upon his return to Cleveland after bolting for Miami than Jack Tatum at a Steelers’ or Patriots’ fans bar.

He heard the boos rained down upon Kyrie Irving, upon return to Cleveland after forcing his way off the Cavaliers, and LeBron shrugged. Here is a video of his comments.

“That was nothing. What do you want me to say? I’ve experienced big boos before. That was like a pat on the back. It could never… I love our fans to death. That was nothing.”

To be fair to Cavaliers fans, the gruesome Gordon Hayward injury sucked the air out of the building and made booing someone for changing teams seem petty. The energy in the building was understandably never the same after that.

But even before the injury, this wasn’t the same level of hatred that had been reserved for LeBron before in Cleveland. In part because LeBron handled his exit poorly (not that Irving was smooth, but there were no television shows to broadcast the decision) and LeBron was the native son seen as deserting his family. It was different.

Kyrie Irving had 22 points but, with LeBron guarding him, missed a three-pointer to tie the game, and the Cavaliers won 102-99.

NBA Three Things to Know: Gordon Hayward goes down, Warriors stumble

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, like a good Star Wars movie (so not “Phantom Menace”). Every morning we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. That starts with a wild opening night.

1) Celtics season turned upside down with traumatic Gordon Hayward injury. Just 5:15 into his first game as a Celtic, Gordon Hayward suffered as gruesome an injury as you will see on the basketball court — he landed awkwardly on an alley-oop attempt and his ankle was caught under him, ultimately twisting sideways in a way the foot was not meant to do. He suffered a dislocated ankle and a fractured tibia and was instantly flown back to Boston for more evaluation and eventual surgery on the foot.

There is no timeline yet on his recovery, and while some reports out of Boston suggested a sixth-month window that could have him back for the playoffs, that seems optimistic. We don’t know what the doctors will decide, but the Celtics and their Big Kahuna Danny Ainge have always thought long term, about contending not this season but in future ones, and they are not going to rush Hayward back for this postseason. I wish him the best in his recovery, but I’d be surprised to see him this year.

With Hawyard down, the Celtics fought back in the second half Tuesday to make it a game against the Cavaliers, ultimately falling 102-99 (LeBron James had 29 points, 16 rebounds, 9 assists). What we saw in that game was likely what we will see a lot more of this season, a Celtics team that plays a lot like last season’s Celtics just with Kyrie Irving in the Isaiah Thomas role. Irving is going to have a heavy scoring load (22 points in this one) plus be the primary shot creator for others. He doesn’t have a good secondary playmaking option now. Irving’s teammates stepped up in this one, starting with Jaylen Brown who led the Celtics with 25 points.

Celtics’ rookie Jayson Tatum had 14 (he got the start with Marcus Smart still injured). Marcus Smart stepped up some off the bench but was 0-of-4 from three, and as a team the Celtics were 8-of-32 from three (25 percent). This team is still going to take a lot of threes for Brad Stevens, but they are going to make a lot fewer of them now (the nights those shots fall they will be dangerous, the nights they don’t they can lose to anyone). Bottom line: Kyrie Irving can create shots but will the other players knock those shots down consistently? I had this team as a low 50s win squad, this injury probably drops now by five games (at least). They will miss Hayward on both ends of the court.

2) Draymond Green leaves game and Warriors stumble without him, falling to Rockets. Golden State was already without Andre Iguodala, who sat the opener out with back issues, then in the third quarter and with the Warriors consistently holding a lead Draymond Green tweaked his knee coming down on a shot. He was diagnosed with a knee strain, and while it’s not serious — he was not on crutches after the game and is not going to miss much time — he did not return in the fourth quarter of this game.

Without him the Rockets surged — they outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth, they made plays down the stretch, and ultimately beat the Warriors 122-121. James Harden had 27 points and 10 assists, and he was making plays down the stretch, but the Rockets got a strong fourth quarter from Eric Gordon and Luc Mbah a Moute as well, each scoring seven points. The Rockets could not get stops, but they could score with the Warriors and that’s what they did.

The Warriors still almost won thanks to a Kevin Durant game-winner, except it was correctly waived off after review.

Of note for the Rockets, Chris Paul sat the final 4:30 of the game, he has been battling knee issues and wasn’t himself. Don’t be shocked if Mike D’Antoni gives him more time off.

For the Warriors, they got blown out by 29 last season on opening night (San Antonio), they are not going to read much into this loss (nor should they, but 82-0 is dead). What this does show is how much Green means to the team, he’s not their best player but may be their most important. It also shows how, once again, the teams that come back from the NBA’s annual excursion to China take a while to get their legs fully under them again.

3) The Bulls can’t even wait until the regular season to have things go very, very wrong. This was already going to ba a long season for Bulls fans. Yes, Chicago made a good move by ultimately committing to a plan and going all-in on a rebuild, but that doesn’t make the process pretty. The Bulls were going to lose a lot of games and probably be the worst team in the NBA. But they couldn’t wait until Thursday when the season starts for things to go wrong.

Bobby Portis sucker punched Nikola Mirotic, dropping the just re-signed player to the floor with a broken upper jaw and a concussion. According to multiple reports, this started out as a battle for position under the glass during a scrimmage, and that turned into a shoving match — nothing uncommon here so far, those happen all the time on teams. But after the players were separated Portis threw the cheap-shot punch and changed the start of the Bulls season. There are some reports Mirotic lunged at Portis before the punch and this was not a cheap shot, it depends on who you talk to. Not that it matters. The Bulls will likely treat it as one.

Mirotic will be out “weeks” I’ve been told. Portis might have been in line for the starting spot with Mirotic out but not now, he will be punished by the team, likely with a lengthy suspension. This will mean even more minutes for rookie Lauri Markkanen in Chicago.