Luol Deng, Kevin Durant

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.

Joel Embiid was dunking, blocking, leading Sixers past Bucks (VIDEOS)

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Joel Embiid is making his case to be in the All-Star Game in more places than Twitter.

He made it on the court Monday with a dominant second half — 18 points on six shots — to lead the Sixers to a 113-104 win over the Bucks. The Sixers are 5-2 in 2017, and this gives them a couple of quality wins.

Embiid was both throwing it down with authority — as you can see above — and he was racking up blocked shots as well. He was also showing Jabari Parker you need to go strong to the rim against him, or you get sent home without lunch.

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Carmelo Anthony says he hasn’t spoken to Jackson, wants to remain a Knick

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks during a stop in play against the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden on January 12, 2017 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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When Phil Jackson (sometimes through his surrogates) starts working his mind games, things are not often clear. However, out of the whole “trade Carmelo Anthony saga” circa 2017 (there have been 2014, 2015, and 2016 versions), two things should be clear:

1. Carmelo Anthony isn’t looking to leave the Knicks.

2. He would rather talk to management and end this rather than have a back-and-forth with the press as conduits.

Anthony reiterated as much Monday at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks had a heartbreaking loss to the Hawks (where New York got hosed on the last call, but Anthony missed a bunny or the game winner). Via Al Iannazzone of Newsday and Ian Begley of ESPN.

Carmelo Anthony was asked about how “much” he wants to remain a Knick and about his loyalty to the franchise: “I think I’ve proven that. I don’t have to speak on that. I think I’ve proven that over the years day in and day out.” Anthony says he’s shown that by being a professional every day in his approach and handling the duties of being the public face of the franchise every day. He’s handled that well, in my opinion.

Anthony chose New York (and a few more wheelbarrows full of cash) over his other free agency options, and he didn’t do that looking to bail. He wants to win in New York.

It’s fair to question if Anthony can win in New York with the direction the Knicks are headed. It’s fair to suggest Anthony should be moved and this team rebuilt around Kristaps Porzingis, but then that should have happened last summer. Instead, the Knicks brought in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Also, because Anthony has a no-trade clause and doesn’t actually want to be traded, the Knicks would need to put together a nearly impossibly perfect deal — with a contender in a major market willing to pay ‘Melo’s massive salary — for a trade to get done.

Anthony and the Knicks are frustrated. Monday’s loss to the Hawks isn’t going to help that.

Jackson and Anthony should sit down and talk it out. I’d say that’s what happens in a well-run organization, but in a well-run organization it would have already happened. Will it happen in New York? This is the Knicks, they pretty much live in “the upside down” so who knows.

Report: Heat say Hassan Whiteside not available in trade

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, right, and Los Angeles Clippers forward Wesley Johnson reach for a rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, in Los Angeles. The Clippers won 98-86. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Hassan Whiteside is the Heat’s franchise player.

But Miami is also 11-30, and Heat president Pat Riley has acknowledged a need to rebuild.

Where does that leave Whiteside with a potential trade?

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

This is likely based on the Heat’s understanding of the trade market. If another team offered a favorable return for Whiteside, I bet Miami would trade him in an instant. The Heat just haven’t gotten – and seemingly don’t expect – a suitable offer.

Whiteside gives Miami a starting point. It will be more difficult to build through free agency with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement giving greater incentive for stars to stay with their current teams, but what choice do the Heat have but to try? They can still offer a state without income tax, warm weather, nightlife, a winning history and – if they keep Whiteside – a star teammate.

Goran Dragic is the Miami player more likely to be traded.

Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony miss on Knicks’ controversial final possession against Hawks (video)

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Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony scored the Knicks’ last eight points, but on New York’s final possession, the Hawks found a way to stop them:

A lot of contact and a little luck.

Paul Millsap blocked/hacked Rose on the guard’s drive, but the referees swallowed their whistles. Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek was rightly irate afterward, and the NBA’s two-minute report is now highly anticipated.

The ball still trickled to Anthony, who missed his point-blank follow-up without any similar excuse. Joakim Noah even got a tip attempt, though that had little chance.

After those three misses on New York’s final possession, Dennis Schroder‘s 3-pointer stood as the game-winner in Atlanta’s 108-107 victory: