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.

Craig Sager to skip Rio Olympics to fight leukemia

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Legendary TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager talks with Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Sager is on a one game assignment for ESPN. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Craig Sager’s fight with leukemia will prevent the basketball sideline reporter form covering the Rio Olympics for NBC.

NBC said Thursday in a statement that the 65-year-old Sager is preparing for a third bone marrow transplant at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Sager was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2014 and announced in March that he was no longer in remission.

The Rio Games would have been Sager’s fifth Olympics.

Sager has worked for Turner Sports for 34 years. At the ESPY Awards this month, Vice President Joe Biden presented Sager with the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks at Democratic National Convention (VIDEO)

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 06: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks at the South Los Angeles Get Out The Vote Rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Leimert Park Village Plaza on June 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. The presidential hopeful is attending a series of campaign stops on the eve of the California presidential primary election, where polls indicate a close divide between Clinton supporters and those of Democratic rival Senator Bernie Sanders.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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With so much focus in recent weeks being on NBA players speaking out on social issues, it’s worth remembering that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been one of the most vocal athletes in America on these things for decades. The Hall of Fame and all-time leading scorer in NBA history addressed the Democratic National Convention on Thursday evening, urging voters to vote for Hillary Clinton in November, and opened his remarks by introducing himself as Michael Jordan, because “Donald Trump couldn’t tell the difference.”

You can watch the video of his speech below:

Kevin Durant denies report he told Russell Westbrook he was returning to Oklahoma City

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant #35 discuss play during the first half against the Los Angeles ClipperLos Angeles Kingsat Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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In the weeks since Kevin Durant announced he was signing with the Golden State Warriors, we have yet to hear Russell Westbrook speak on his former teammate’s decision. This week, ESPN.com’s Royce Young indicated in a podcast interview that Durant was telling Westbrook and others in the days leading up to his decision that he was coming back to Oklahoma City. He later walked back his report, saying he misspoke. On Thursday, Durant himself told The Vertical‘s Shams Charania that he never said any such thing, or misled Westbrook or anyone else about his intentions.

“It’s false,” Durant told The Vertical on Thursday. “I didn’t say that – words about me telling Russell or Nick that I would stay or leave never came out of my mouth. We met as teammates, but no promises came out of it. In this day and age, I can’t control anything people claim out there. Someone can go out and say something random right now, and people will believe it.

“I never told Russell or Nick [Collison], ‘All right, guys, I’m coming back to the Thunder’ – and then a week later, I decide not to. Never happened. I don’t operate like that. I heard people say that story, but it’s not the truth.”

So that settles that.

Report: Spurs agree to two-year deal with free agent forward David Lee

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 01:  David Lee #42 of the Dallas Mavericks during the first half at American Airlines Center on March 1, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.   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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Lee will have a player option in the second year of his deal, which will be worth the veteran’s minimum.

Lee, 33, considered more lucrative deals elsewhere, but committed to the Spurs’ opportunity to win a championship and play a backup role to LaMarcus Aldridge andPau Gasol.

General manager “R.C [Buford] and coach [Gregg] Popovich put a lot of time and energy to give David a visual of how much they wanted him and would use him,” Bartelstein told The Vertical. “A lot of people talk about taking less money, and not many people do it, so the Spurs get a lot of credit for selling David on joining their organization.”

After winning a championship with the Warriors in 2015, Lee was dealt to Boston last offseason, where he fell out of the rotation quickly. He was bought out midseason and signed with the Mavericks. He was solid in Dallas, but at his age and with almost no defensive ability, he didn’t draw much interest on the market. In San Antonio, he likely won’t have a big role, but he’s a solid veteran scorer in the frontcourt off the bench in limited minutes.