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Three Things We Learned Wednesday: LeBron says Cavs lack toughness, or are they bored?

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The NCAA Tournament gets back underway Thursday, but the NBA ball just keeps rolling along. Here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) LeBron James says Cavaliers lack toughness. Is there trouble or are they just bored with the regular season?
Here is the unquestioned fact: The Denver Nuggets trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, 126-113. There are a number of factors in this, starting with Denver is playing better than people think — the Nuggets are the fifth best team in the NBA since the All-Star break, outscoring teams by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. Jamal Murray is emerging as the ball handling guard of the future for this team, Gary Harris is a sniper, and they have solid veterans such as Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler. But at the heart of it all is Nikola Jokic, who is for real. Watch what he does to LeBron James here.

Yes, Cleveland had to go play at altitude in the middle of a long road trip. Still…

What is going on with the Cavaliers?

Opponents have outscored them by 0.9 points per 100 since the All-Star break, and the Cavs are playing terrible defense (second worst in the NBA since the break). Asked in Denver after the loss what is wrong with the Cavs, LeBron said the team lacked toughness, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said… “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”

“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”

LeBron is clearly challenging his team to get serious on both ends and to start getting in playoff mode.

To me, the Cavaliers look bored. As in the real season starts in a couple of weeks with the playoffs, and they feel they can flip the switch then, but right now the regular season feels like a tedious slog. That’s what it looked like in Denver. Before that, I watched the Cavaliers in person against the Lakers Sunday, and LeBron James played well enough all game, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were getting theirs, but the team lacked any urgency, and it showed on defense. The tanking Lakers hung around. Then, LeBron seemed to say “screw this” and for a five-minute span took charge of the game, looking every bit the best player on the planet, the rest of the Cavaliers quickly fell in line, Cleveland took control of the game, and they coasted from there to the win.

That was against the Lakers, the worst team in the NBA since the All-Star break and a team playing youth everywhere. Denver is legit right now, they are playing well, and the Cavs couldn’t just flip the switch on Wednesday. Jokic and Mason Plumlee led the way as the Nuggets scored 70 points in the paint.

It’s still hard to picture any team in the East beating Cleveland. However, they have not spent the regular season building good habits to fall back on when the eventual challenge comes in the playoffs. There’s been a lot of comparisons to the 2000-01 Lakers, a defending championship team that battled injuries and didn’t impress in the regular season, looked bored on defense, then flipped the switch in the playoffs and went 16-1 on the way to the title. Maybe. But teams that flip the switch are the exception, not the rule.

The bored Cavaliers are playing a dangerous game, but will it haunt them before June? Can any team in the East make them pay?

2) The Knicks have no answer for Rudy Gobert, Jazz thump Knicks. Rudy Gobert is a defensive powerhouse of a big man, the best rim protector in the game and a man on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year. That was a problem for the Knicks on Wednesday night. A bigger problem — they couldn’t stop him on offense around the rim. Gobert at 35 points on 13-of-14 shooting, with 11 offensive rebounds. The Knicks went small for stretches (with Kristaps Porzingis, but he isn’t strong enough to handle Gobert), other times Willy Hernangomez tried but could not slow Gobert, and the French big man feasted. Check out Gobert’s shot chart.

Or, just watch what he did to the Knicks.

The Knicks started hot in this game behind vintage Derrick Rose for a quarter, but they can’t sustain that kind of play against a quality team. Utah is a quality team (I think they can beat the Clippers in the first round), and the foundation of that is in the middle.

3) Russell Westbrook notches 35th triple-double with perfect shooting, Thunder attack the rim and get the win. Let us formally acknowledge that Russell Westbrook is very, very good at basketball. He had 18 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field. That would be the first perfect shooting triple-double in NBA history. How’s that for adding to the MVP resume.

As for the game, the Thunder attacked the paint and the Sixers had no answers. OKC won 122–97, scoring 76 points while knocking down just four 3-pointers.

Report: Dante Cunningham re-signing with Pelicans

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An intriguing battle emerged late in free agency over Dante Cunningham.

The Pelicans and Timberwolves were desperate at small forward, and Cunningham rare contributor at the position still available. New Orleans even traded a second-rounder and cash to dump Quincy Pondexter and get far enough below the hard cap to take advantage of Cunningham’s Bird Rights.

That’ll pay off.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

It’s not the $3,106,500 Cunningham opted out of, but a $2.3 million salary beats his minimum ($2,106,470), which is all Minnesota could’ve offered.

That’s a great rate on someone who might be the Pelicans’ starting small forward, considering Solomon Hill‘s injury. Even if he plays behind Tony Allen on a team that starts small on the perimeter, Cunningham will reduce the time New Orleans must rely on also-rans.

Cunningham is probably better at power forward, but he can defend either position. He also has become a good enough 3-point shooter to credibly play small forward.

For the Pelicans, he’s a huge upgrade at a bargain price.

Kevin Durant cops to tweets, calls elements of them ‘childish’ and ‘idiotic’

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Kevin Durant – tweeting in the third person, suggesting he forget to switch to a secret Twitter account – said he left the Thunder because he didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan and that Oklahoma City’s surrounding cast around himself and Russell Westbrook was lacking. Durant also appeared to have a second Instagram account he has used to insult critics.

Durant at TechCrunch:

Durant:

I do have other another Instagram account, but that’s just for my friends and family. So, I wouldn’t say I was using that to clap back at anybody.

But I use Twitter to engage with the fans. I think it’s a great way to engage with basketball fans.

But I happened to take it a little too far, and that’s what happens sometimes when I get into these basketball debates. Or what I really love is just to play basketball. I went a little too far.

And I don’t regret clapping back at anybody or talking to my fans on Twitter. I do regret using my former coach’s name and the former organization that I played for. That was childish. That was idiotic. All those type of words. I regret doing that, and I apologize to him for doing that.

But I don’t think I’ll ever stop engaging with my fans. I think they really enjoy it, and I think it’s a good way to connect us all. But I will scale back a little bit right now and just focus on playing basketball. So, I want to move on from that. It was tough to deal with yesterday. I was really upset with myself. But definitely want to move on and keep playing basketball. But I still want to interact with my fans, as well.

Durant can defend himself all he wants on social media. Fans, even those who detest him, do enjoy the interaction.

But an anonymous-looking account defending Durant provides no joy to those fans. They don’t – or at least didn’t – know they were interacting with the famous basketball star. This is something else entirely.

And it sure looks like Durant used his secret Instagram account to clap back at fans. Via SB Nation:

Durant denying that really makes it hard to accept this as him coming clean.

Mostly, Durant just opened himself to numerous follow-up questions:

Did he really dislike the Thunder organization? Did he really dislike playing for Donovan? If yes to either question, why? If no to either question, why say that? How does lying serve the fans he’s claiming he wants to engage?

Dwight Howard changes story, blames Magic front office for bringing up firing Stan Van Gundy

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While sipping from a can of Pepsi, Stan Van Gundy calmly explained to the assembled media that Magic management told him Dwight Howard wanted the coach fired. Then, an unsuspecting Howard walked up and put his arm around Van Gundy. Van Gundy slinked away, leaving Howard to answer questions.

That 2012 press conference was an all-time great NBA moment.

Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:

To hear Howard tell it, he has been the victim of more subtle misunderstandings than Larry David. The excruciatingly awkward press conference, when Stan Van Gundy confirmed that Howard was lobbying the Magic front office to fire him, only for an unsuspecting Howard to join Van Gundy and deny what the coach claimed? “That previous summer, the front office asked me about Stan, and I told them I thought he was losing his voice with the team. But they were the ones who said they should start looking for other coaches.”

Howard already admitted in 2014 he told the Magic he thought Van Gundy should have been fired after the 2011 playoffs. Howard even griped that Orlando didn’t listen to him!

I get that Howard is (again) trying to rehabilitate his image, but he has to do a better job of keeping his story straight.

Bulls hire Doug Collins as senior advisor

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Doug Collins burns out. Burns out his players, burns out himself. That was his reputation through 11 seasons coaching the Bulls, Pistons, Wizards and 76ers.

When Collins left Philadelphia in 2013, he declared he was done coaching. There was just too much pressure, he said.

Perhaps, Collins has found a role that better suits him.

Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:

In a surprise announcement, the Chicago Bulls have brought former coach Doug Collins back into the fold, naming him a senior advisor to Executive Vice President John Paxson.

Even among NBA personnel, Collins was a basketball expert in his time. Whether he has kept up in a rapidly evolving league is an open question.

It won’t hurt having his voice in the room. It might hurt if the Bulls lean too heavily on it.

Hopefully, everyone entered this arrangement for the right reasons. Paxson played for Collins in Chicago. Collins’ son – Chris Collins – coaches nearby Northwestern. An overreliance on comfort won’t yield positive results. The Bulls need forward-thinkers, not just familiar faces. Successful executives put in a lot of work and aren’t just hanging around to be close with family.

This hire probably won’t move the needle much, but there’s certainly a chance it could – in either direction.