Three Things To Watch: Toronto Raptors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

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It’s a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, but with a different feel. This is deeper Raptors’ team that matches up a little better with Cleveland. These Cavs aren’t as fearsome as a year ago. Will all of that even matter? Let’s break it down with three things to watch.

1. Can the Raptors stop LeBron James from winning this series?
This is THE question of the series. The only one that really matters. In the two points below I will lay out the ways the Raptors may be able to exploit the Cavaliers’ flaws, but none of that matters if LeBron takes over games (and lifts up his teammates enough to get Cleveland wins in the process). Just ask the Pacers. Indiana had its moments and made every game close against Cleveland, but LeBron averaged 32.8 points, 9 assists, and 9.8 rebounds per game and won his team the series. LeBron has been the single best player in the postseason so far.

LeBron as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, 2-on-2 with shooters spacing the floor, is going to be very difficult for the Raptors to stop. Toronto went out and got P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka at the deadline specifically thinking of Cleveland and LeBron. Tucker will get the bulk of time on LeBron, as will DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson, and Ibaka will get switched onto him as well from guarding Kevin Love and Channing Frye (both of whom were a real problem for the Raptors when they faced each other last playoffs). The challenge with Toronto playing Tucker a lot is the Cavs don’t really have to cover him on offense, allowing easier help.

LeBron isn’t going to be stopped, but the Raptors need to slow him and force the other Cavaliers to beat them if they are going to have a chance in this series.

2. Will the Cavaliers care about defense at all? There seemed to be a sense among some fans that Cleveland “flipped the switch” and played better defense against the Pacers in sweeping the first round. No, they didn’t. For one thing, the Cavs’ sweep was by a total of 16 points, they did not dominate the series. Certainly the Cavs played better defense for stretches — a quarter here, a quarter there — but in the first round they gave up 111 points per 100 possessions to Indiana. That’s Lakers regular season defense level bad. Play disinterested defense this series and the Cavaliers will lose.

With the rest between series the Cavaliers need to have sharpened up their pick-and-roll defense — a weakness all season — because the Raptors are one of the better pick-and-roll teams in the league and they are going to go at the Cavs’ defense hard. As the series goes on Cleveland will get better at forcing the ball out of the hands of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and force other Raptors to beat them — Norman Powell and Delon Wright will need to have their moments. However, the guy that could have a big series because the Cavaliers can’t match up well with him is Jonas Valanciunas — if he breaks out this series it’s good news for the Raptors (but him against the Cavs bench will not work well).

3. Which team’s star plus bench lineup wins the day? During the regular season, Raptors coach Dwane Casey would start the second and fourth quarter with a Kyle Lowry plus the bench unit, and it outscored opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions. He tried a variation of that in the first round against Milwaukee (with Valanciunas off the bench) but it was basically neutral.

In the regular season, Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue would start the second and fourth quarter with a LeBron James plus the bench unit, and it outscored opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions. That lineup saw less action in the first round sweep of the Pacers, but was plus 18.1 per 100 in the couple of games it was used.

Both coaches are going to try this again. Whichever one has better success will have a big leg up for their team in this series.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 6. Toronto is better than a year ago, Cleveland is worse than a year ago, but it doesn’t change the outcome of this series. Still, if any team in the East is going to knock off the Cavs, the Raptors have the best shot.

Kristaps Porzingis on Knicks: “This is where I want to stay… this is where I want to win”

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There were multiple, connected reasons it was time for the Knicks to move on from the Phil Jackson era — a triangle of reasons, really — but this one should have been at the top of the list:

He was alienating Krisptaps Porzingis.

We don’t know yet if Porzingis can be a franchise NBA player, however, he shows the potential to do it. He could become a top five NBA player you can build a contender around. You endear yourselves to those kinds of players, not get into power struggles that lead to said player blowing off end-of-year meetings and being guided out the door.

With Jackson gone, Porzingis has more motivation to stay a Knick and be the guy that turns the franchise’s fortunes around. KP was running a youth hoops camp in his native Latvia and was taking questions from the children when one kid got in a question the New York media would have loved to ask: Are you going to abandon New York? Here is Porzingis’ answer, translated and obtained by the New York Post.

“I feel that it is the best place to win. And if you win in New York, you are king. For the last two years, I have had so many positive emotions here that this is where I want to stay and that this is where I want to win.”

The Knicks have their cornerstone big. Now they need a guy on the outside (Kyrie Irving will get mentioned, but he is not the only answer), they need to get and develop young players to go with their stars. It’s the next phase for the Knicks.

But if they can keep Porzingis happy, they can lock him up to a max rookie extension after next year and have that piece in place. Then it’s up to Steve Mills and Scott Perry to put the pieces around him.

Report: LeBron James won’t waive his no-trade clause

AP Photo/Ron Schwane
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They Cavaliers have had a frustratingly lousy offseason.

They ousted trusted general manager David Griffin. Since, they’ve watched Golden State load up while their roster stagnates, as stars like Paul George and Jimmy Butler have landed elsewhere. Now, Kyrie Irving is requesting a trade and reportedly blaming LeBron James for that leaking.

LeBron has practically thrown up his hands and left ownership and management to figure out everything.

But LeBron – with rumors swirling about him leaving in 2018 free agency – won’t take an earlier exit.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

LeBron James will not waive his no-trade clause for any teams at any point during the 2017-18 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Cleveland essentially has two options with Irving:

1. Trade him for better, older players

2. Trade him for worse, younger players

No. 2 becomes much more palatable if the Cavs can also flip LeBron (and Kevin Love) and launch into a full rebuild. But as long as LeBron is around, it’s hard not to contend for a title.

But if they trade Irving for immediate help and LeBron leaves next summer, the Cavaliers could be left with a ghastly roster. That might be the risk they’re forced to take now.

It’s hard to believe the Cavs would trade beloved LeBron, even if he didn’t hold veto power. It would turn owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman into Cleveland villains, co-conspirators in LeBron leaving again. If Gilbert and Altman dare LeBron to leave in free agency, LeBron would have to own the decision himself.

Still, if LeBron and Irving would return incredible hauls of younger players and draft picks – I can’t even imagine what LeBron would draw in a trade – Gilbert and Altman should at least consider it. It just doesn’t seem the Cavs will have that option.

Report: Kyrie Irving believes LeBron James leaked trade request

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Kyrie Irving reportedly requested a trade from the Cavaliers, noting his desire to leave Cleveland was based on parting ways with LeBron James.

That all remained under wraps for a couple weeks.

Why did it become public now?

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN:

According to my sources, they believe LeBron James had everything to do with news getting out that Kyrie Irving wants to be traded, because Kyrie Irving and his representation and others met with the Cavaliers a couple weeks ago, and not a word got out until recently. They believe that LeBron James got word of it and was put off by it and leaked it. I’m not going to accuse LeBron of such a thing. I don’t know that to be true at all. But I know that’s what Kyrie Irving believes.

To reemphasize, Smith is not reporting that LeBron leaked Irving’s trade request, just that Irving believes LeBron did. That alone speaks to their disconnect.

Why would LeBron leak it?

Just speculating, but maybe to ruin Irving’s chance at a smooth exit. Irving is trying to bail on LeBron, and LeBron might take that personally. Leaking the trade request would be in character for LeBron as a passive-aggressive response.

But the trade request becoming public also hinders Irving’s trade value – which hurts LeBron’s team. However, people don’t always act logically when they’re upset. And maybe the Cavs won’t be LeBron’s team long enough for it to matter.

Again, though, nobody is reporting LeBron actually leaked it. Irving’s reported accusation means enough in itself.

Cavaliers really lamenting non-trade for Paul George

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The Cavaliers were reportedly close to trading for Paul George before the Pacers sent him to the Thunder.

Just how close?

Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

a text message from Indiana Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard undid an agreement on a blockbuster deal for George the Cavs were just starting to celebrate, a moment that now lives in infamy within the organization.

On draft night, as the Chicago Bulls were finalizing a deal with the Wolves to move Butler, the Cavs were feverishly trying to assemble a three-team trade with the Pacers. The Denver Nuggets had a strong desire to acquire Kevin Love and became a legitimate trade partner with Indiana. The Nuggets were willing to include wing Gary Harris and the No. 13 pick in that night’s draft to get Love, and the Cavs would reroute the assets to Indy for George, sources said.

But they couldn’t complete the deal. Indiana was working on another option with the Portland Trail Blazers, sources said, as they were offering a package with three first-round picks for George. Eventually, everyone moved on and the Nuggets traded the No. 13 pick to Utah in a package for Trey Lyles.

On the afternoon of June 30, the sides thought they had a deal. On a conference call between the teams, everyone tentatively agreed. George to the Cavs, Love to the Nuggets, Harris and other pieces to the Pacers, sources said.

Plans were put in place for a call to be arranged between George and Gilbert, an important step before the trade would become final, sources said. The front office began making other plans to complement George as free agency was about to begin.

But then Pritchard, who had been on the conference call when the deal was tentatively agreed to, sent the message that his team was backing out, sources said. There was no deal.

The teams tried to save it, but shortly thereafter, news broke that George was being traded to Oklahoma City.

I’m always skeptical of reports that a trade that never happened was close. Just because one team – or two teams in a three-team trade – thought the deal was close doesn’t mean the other team was actually close.

Heck, just because one team thought the trade was agreed upon doesn’t even mean the other team actually agreed.  According to this report, Pritchard “tentatively agreed.” What does that mean? The Cavaliers and Nuggets might think that was purely a procedural delay. Pritchard might have considered it contingent on other factors. A simple misunderstanding could easily be painted as something more nefarious – one team backing out of an agreed-upon trade.

But there are a lot of details here, lending credence to the notion a deal was actually close. So, let’s break down each team’s involvement:

The Trail Blazers entered the draft with three first-rounders – Nos. 15, 20 and 26. But they lacked cap room for George, so they would have had to send salary to Indiana. With Portland’s numerous bad contracts, maybe that offer wasn’t as good for the Pacers as it appears here.

The Nuggets wound up signing a star power forward (Paul Millsap) without losing Gary Harris, so they came out ahead by not completing this deal. Given how much of free agency is decided before July 1, did Denver really not know it’d land Millsap or just prefer Love that much?

The Pacers probably missed out. I’d prefer Harris (younger, cheaper and arguably better) to Victor Oladipo, and I’d prefer the No. 13 pick to Domantas Sabonis.

And then there are the Cavs, who have been thrown into disarray since this trade fell through. Would Kyrie Irving still have requested a trade with George in Cleveland? The Cavaliers would have had a better chance of winning a title, but Irving would have been further overshadowed – a key component of  his trade request. Would LeBron have been more likely to re-sign next summer? There was so much on the line.

Whether or not Pritchard actually agreed then backed out, it’s easy to see how the Cavs are having a hard time letting this one go.