Extra Pass: Cleveland Cavaliers built playoff-caliber team, but that won’t mean enough

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are a playoff-caliber team that is extremely unlikely to make the playoffs.

With a 114-104 win Wednesday, the Cavaliers extended Oklahoma City Thunder’s losing streak to a season-high three games. Unlike the previous two teams to defeat the Thunder, the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland is fancied by nobody as a title contender.

Really, the Cavaliers are a longshot to even make the postseason. But maybe we should stop considering Cleveland such a pushover.

The Cavaliers have gone 12-13 since acquiring Luol Deng, definitely the winning percentage of a playoff team in this year’s Eastern Conference. But their 11-23 start ties them down like Kyrie Irving’s contract keeps him in Cleveland.

They just can’t go anywhere.

At 23-36, the Cavaliers are four games out of playoff position. That might not seem like an impossible deficit – and it’s not. But at this stage of the season, it’s further out than most people realize.

The eighth-place Hawks are on pace to win 37 games. To best that – Atlanta has already clinched the tiebreaker over Cleveland – the Cavaliers would need to finish 14-9.

Cleveland hasn’t started a 23-game stretch with a record of 14-9 since LeBron played for the team.

It’s a shame the Cavaliers waited so long to trade for Deng and then Spencer Hawes, because they’re starting to get intriguing – by the standards of this Eastern Conference, at least.

Since Hawes joined the Cavaliers, their most used lineup has been Kyrie Irving-Jarrett Jack-Luol Deng-Tristan-Thompson-Hawes. Despite going 1-3 in their four games with Hawes, that lineup has really excelled:

  • Offensive rating: 112.8
  • Defensive rating: 102.8
  • Net rating: +10.0

By comparison, Cleveland second-most-used lineup in that span has featured Zeller in place of Hawes, and the results have been dismal:

  • Offensive rating: 85.6
  • Defensive rating: 115.6
  • Net rating: -30.0

To be fair, the lineup with Zeller has largely been positive over the full season (105.6/98.7/+6.9). The point isn’t that Hawes is the answer. Hawes is a different type of player – more skilled, more finesse – who helps the Cavaliers match up against a wider array of opponents.

This is what a playoff team, the team Dan Gilbert wanted all along, looks like. He, and his organization, just took too long to build it.

Before beating Oklahoma City, the Cavaliers lost three straight – two to the Raptors and one to the Wizards. The Raptors (trading Rudy Gay) and Wizards (trading for Marcin Gortat) will almost definitely make the playoffs, because they made their big moves sooner. Not only have those two teams won more because they’d had their improved rosters a longer portion of the season, they’ve developed chemistry for longer.

Cleveland is still finding its way, learning how its pieces fit together best. Already, the results are promising. By the end of the season, I’m really interested to see how good these Cavaliers can be.

But it’s almost definitely too late for them to translate that success into a playoff berth. Merely playing like a postseason team, when you start 11-23, is not enough.

After the season, Deng and Hawes will become free agents. Cleveland will be back at square one – likely not content with building the Eastern Conference’s best playoff team that wasn’t.

Sixers will talk contract extension for Joel Embiid this summer, want to lock him up

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Could Joel Embiid be Philadelphia’s Stephen Curry?

No, I don’t mean taking 30-foot bombs that demoralize opponents (although, no doubt Embiid is game for trying it). I mean in having a contract extension off his rookie deal for less than the max, a value contract that allows the Sixers the cap room to secure a title contender around him.

After three seasons in the NBA, Joel Embiid is eligible for a contract extension this summer (one that would be negotiated now but not kick in until the 2018-19 season). Teams lock up their stars at this point, and Embiid is that — he was dominant in the 31 games he played. But it’s 31 games in three seasons, how much do the Sixers want to pay here?

Sixers owner Joshua Harris said extending Embiid is a priority for the team this summer, speaking at a press conference, via the Courier Times.

“Look, I’d just say we want Joel to be on the team for a long time,” Harris said. “We want us all to grow old together. That’s the way I would put it.”

A max contract for Embiid would be five years at about $130 million, an average annual salary of $26 million. Because of his injury history, would he be willing to sign five years at $100 million, maybe with an opt-out after four? That extra cap space may not sound like a lot, it’s not a Curry-level savings, but it would help the Sixers’ team building.

If the two sides can’t reach a deal by Oct. 31 (the deadline), Embiid will play out this season then be a restricted free agent next season. If he stays healthy, he will get a max deal from another team that the Sixers would just match (the Sixers and Embiid could also reach a deal).

The Sixers are not about to let Embiid go, they have their young core they believe they can contend with in a few years. Plus he is a fan favorite. The only question left is cost.

Josh Jackson’s first pitch is… just a bit outside

Associated Press
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Josh Jackson is not going Bo Jackson on us and playing baseball in the offseason.

The highly-rated forward out of Kansas who was the No. 4 pick of the Phoenix Suns was invited to throw out the first pitch before Friday night’s Diamondbacks game.

To quote Bob Uecker, he was just a bit outside. He tried the corner and missed.

Lonzo Ball was able to make his first pitch, ergo, he will turn out to be a much better NBA player. Obviously, these skills correlate.

Report: Re-signing Nerlens Noel Mavericks’ top off-season priority

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This is a Mark Cuban owned team, you don’t think the Mavericks are going to make a serious run at a free agent come July 1? Pelicans’ point guard Jrue Holiday has long been known to be a target, but there will be others.

But keeping their new core together, including restricted free agent Nerlens Noel, is the top priority, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Rumors like this are out there in part from Dallas to hope to chill the market for Noel. While he could be a defensive force who provides some scoring around the rim, with Noel’s injury history they may be able to get him at less than max money — because if he’s at the max the Mavericks are flirting with the luxury tax (and Cuban isn’t going to want to pay the tax for a borderline playoff team at best).

What Dallas fears is what Brooklyn did last season to Allen Crabbe in Portland and Tyler Johnson in Miami — some team to come in with a max or near-max offer sheet that drives up the price. Dallas will match, they will keep the young core together, it just gets more expensive.

Next season in Dallas will be a deserved big farewell to Dirk Nowitzki. He will be the focus, but behind him Dallas will try to be building for the future. They made the trade deadline move to make sure Noel is a part of that, the only question now is how much it costs them.

Magic Johnson on drafting Lonzo Ball: “what I needed was a leader”

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Nobody, not even his critics with the Lakers, question that D'Angelo Russell had talent. What they questioned from the start was his work ethic and maturity. I was told by sources with the team he often was the last one to team meetings, often one of the first out of the gym, and the whole Nick Young thing spoke to the maturity question. Byron Scott took a lot of heat as Lakers’ coach for benching him, and Scott’s communication skills were lacking, but he had reasons. Russell also just 21 and maybe he finds his way, but the Lakers weren’t willing to wait anymore.

Which is why the Lakers were willing to move him to Brooklyn in the Brook Lopez trade, and why the Lakers went after Lonzo Ball in the draft, Magic Johnson said, via Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

Is Lonzo Ball a leader? Only time will tell, he has the potential.

Will players want to play with him? Yes, if the passing skills he showed in college transfer to the NBA. If guys know they will get the rock if they run/cut, then they will do just that. It’s some simple B. F. Skinner stuff here — if players are rewarded they will keep doing it. Get them the rock in transition and they will get out there every time.

Ball has flaws in his game, there are certainly questions about his defense, and how that awkward shot translates remains to be seen (it goes in but his time to get it off will decrease at the NBA level)? Will he be a scoring threat in the half-court? He’s got work to do. But answer those questions and the Lakers may have the key piece to help anchor a franchise he’s been looking for.