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Three questions the Cleveland Cavaliers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 51-31, won the Eastern Conference out of the second seed, lost to Warriors in NBA Finals.

I know what you did last summer: It was a busy summer of roster changes, something you don’t usually see from a team that has been to three straight Finals. Kyrie Irving didn’t want to be the guy left behind if LeBron James bolts the team next summer, so he pushed for a trade. New GM Koby Altman struck a deal that sent Irving to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn first-round pick in the upcoming draft. In the past week, the Cavaliers signed Dwyane Wade as a free agent (after his buyout from Chicago). Gone from the Cavaliers are Deron Williams and James Jones, but the team added depth with the trade and the additions of free agents Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Jose Calderon.

THREE QUESTIONS THE CAVALIERS MUST ANSWER

1) When does Isaiah Thomas get back on the court? And how well can he move? The trade with Boston was a perfect combination for Cleveland of keeping an eye on the future (the Brooklyn pick) and still winning now in LeBron’s prime by getting All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas — if Thomas is healthy. Which he is not right now. The hip injury that ended his playoff run early still has him sidelined.

When will he return? On media day the Cavaliers were honest and said January. About halfway through the NBA season. Which creates a challenge for those first 40 games or so (see the next question) but is not insurmountable because the Cavaliers have one LeBron James.

The bigger question: How good will Isaiah Thomas be when he does return? I fear we saw peak Thomas last season, when he was an All-NBA player and fifth in MVP voting. How well with Thomas move when he returns, how explosive will he be? Can he be anything like the spark plug point guard we have come to know? His game is based on that athleticism and crafty moves, if those are limited so is he. It matters to Cleveland as they try to integrate him into the offense for the playoffs — if they get 90 percent of that Thomas it is a big boost for the Cavs, but if it’s 70 percent things get tougher. How he bounces back also matters to Thomas, who is a free agent after this season and needs to show he is healthy to get paid anywhere near what he wants.

2) Cleveland has a lot of talent, but does it fit together? On paper, the Cavaliers are deeper this season — Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose at the point, J.R. Smith, Dwyane Wade, and Kyle Korver at the two, Jeff Green behind LeBron on the wing, Jae Crowder adding to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson up front. There’s a reason I — and many others — are still picking the Cavaliers to come out of the East.

But when you start to put rotations together, things get harder, because all the talent doesn’t fit together well, especially for the first half of the season when Thomas is out. For example, can the Cavaliers really play Rose and Wade together with LeBron? Neither Rose nor Wade are good off the ball, they need the rock in their hands to create to do damage, but neither of them is near the creator or floor general LeBron is. Do the Cavs take the ball out of LeBron’s hands in this scenario? Remember, this is not the Wade from LeBron’s first couple seasons in Miami, this is a guy on the decline who can still create but is limited in other ways. Plus, both Rose and Wade (and Thomas when he returns) are limited defensively.

I like what Tyronn Lue is doing to start games: Rose, J.R. Smith, LeBron, Jae Crowder, and Kevin Love. That is a switchable and passable defensive lineup that will have great floor spacing on offense. Rose can create a little, but most of that should still fall to LeBron. It gets better when Thomas is back and Rose can go to the second unit with Wade — those two can do the shot creating and scoring with that group against other benches, and Tristan Thompson can handle the defense and dirty work with that unit. (Credit Thompson for taking his move to the second unit, which most would see as a demotion, as an opportunity.)

Cleveland has the talent to beat 28 other teams in a seven-game series, but the questions of fit come back to haunt them against their biggest foe. If the Cavs are still playing in June.

3) Does the “is LeBron staying?” saga weigh on the team? Probably not. Or at least not much. This is a team of veterans who know how to shut out the noise from the outside.

However, every move this team and LeBron make all season will be viewed through the prism of “what does this say about LeBron’s future?” And if for whatever reason this team gets off to a relatively slow start and things start to go sideways, that pressure will ramp up. If that losing starts to creep into the locker room — J.R. Smith and Crowder get into it again, Thompson gets frustrated with his bench role, or a million other things — then it becomes a problem. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s possible. This could be LeBron’s final season in Cleveland, and that certainly can become an issue.

Report: Utah’s Rudy Gobert out month with knee sprain, bone bruise

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The basketball gods have not been kind to Rudy Gobert this season.

He missed 11 games earlier in the season with a bone bruise on his knee, and now he’s going to miss another month for much the same reason — teammate Derrick Favors fell into Gobert’s knee in the opening minutes in Boston Friday night and injured the same knee. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Jazz went 7-4 without Gobert the first time he was out, but did it with a changed game. Utah’s defense fell off, as expected when the man second in Defensive Player of the Year voting the season before is out. However, Favors moved over to center and provided more offensive options that opened up the floor for the Jazz, and also rookie Donovan Michell broke out as a playmaker and scorer. Utah had a top 10 offense in the games Gobert missed earlier in the season. (Favors left the Celtics game Friday with a “left eye laceration” according to the team but is expected to try to play Saturday.)

The Jazz are 14-15 on the season, sitting in the ninth seed and in the midst of a tight playoff race for the final slots in the West.

Lorenzen Wright’s ex-wife arrested, charged in former player’s murder

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A couple of weeks ago, the Shelby County District Attorney announced that a man, Billy Turner, had been indicted on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of former NBA player Lorenzen Wright.

Now his ex-wife Sherra Wright-Robinson, who had seen Wright the night he disappeared and was killed, also has been arrested and charged. From the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

The ex-wife of slain former NBA player Lorenzen Wright has been arrested in California in connection with his death, sources close to the investigation said Friday.

Sherra Wright-Robinson has been charged with conspiracy, first-degree murder and criminal attempt first degree murder, Memphis police Director Michael Rallings said in announcing the charges Saturday.

The attempted murder charge is about a prior attempt to kill Wright, officials confirmed. They said Sherra and Billy Turner previously tried to kill Wright.

Wright was murdered back in 2010, but at the time the case grew cold. That was until police say they got a fresh lead in the case back in June and started to follow the evidence, re-opening the case (which they called “operation rebound”). One of the big breaks was an FBI dive team finding the murder weapon, which had been thrown into a lake in Walnut, Miss. All the new evidence led them to Turner and Wright-Robinson, who allegedly had tried to kill Wright before, but succeeded back in 2010.

At the time of the murder, Wright-Robinson told police in a sworn statement Lorenzen Wright left her home the night of his murder (July 18, 2010) “around 10:30 p.m. carrying a box of drugs.” She said he returned a short time later, got a lot of cash, then left again with the drugs and money after talking to an unidentified person on a burner phone.

That didn’t stop police from at times focusing their investigation on Sherra, but they could not prove their case yet. They can now.

Wright’s decomposing body had been found in suburban Memphis on July 28, 2010, 10 days after the 34-year-old was reported missing. He had called 911 just after midnight on July 19 from an empty field close to a popular golf course in the area. He had multiple gunshots in his body.

Wright had a 13-year NBA career where he played for five NBA teams but played the longest with the Memphis Grizzlies. He averaged 8 points and 6.4 rebounds a game as a center during that time. He retired from the NBA in 2009.

 

Celtics’ Gordon Hayward says he’s open to returning this season

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BOSTON (AP) — Celtics guard Gordon Hayward says he is open to playing this season, but says it will depend on how fast he is able to heal and show progress as he works his way back from a broken left ankle.

Hayward was at TD Garden on Friday for Boston’s matchup with the Utah Jazz, the team he left this past summer in free agency after seven seasons to sign a four-year, $128 million contract with the Celtics. He was injured in Boston’s season opener at Cleveland.

Wednesday marked a milestone in Hayward’s recovery process, when he was able to shed the walking boot he’s been using since his surgery in October. He will continue to wear a protective brace during the rehab process.

He said he doesn’t know how long he will have to wear the brace. But he said he is now allowed to do some shooting and begin working more on mobility.

 

Russell Westbrook triple-double keys OKC in 3OT thriller vs 76ers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Russell Westbrook had 27 points, 17 rebounds and 15 assists, and Oklahoma City and the Philadelphia 76ers went basket-for-basket in a three-overtime thriller before the Thunder pulled out a 119-117 victory on Friday night.

Andre Roberson scored the winner with 10 seconds left for the Thunder. But one of the early contenders for NBA game of the year belonged to Joel Embiid and Westbrook as they drove, blocked and rebounded their way toward one big play after another.

Embiid scored 34 points in 48 minutes with an achy back and rallied the Sixers from a 17-point hole.

Embiid, Philly’s franchise center and social media star, grabbed his lower back when he took a hard foul on a drive to the basket in the fourth quarter. Embiid grimaced during timeouts on the bench and trudged into position a few times.

Embiid sucked it up and carried the Sixers in the fourth and the first overtime. His feed to a charging Ben Simmons on the baseline for a two-handed dunk tied the score at 94-all with 53 seconds left in the quarter. The Sixers closed the fourth on an 11-0 run.

Embiid scored the first bucket of OT and the Sixers led for the first time in the game. The Sixers’ five-point lead with 1:20 left in overtime was wiped out on Paul George‘s 3-pointer and a Westbrook bucket that made it 102-all. The Sixers blew their final possession on an ill-conceived 3 for Dario Saric.

Round 2 was just as fun.

Westbrook and Robert Covington exchanged 3s and George tied it at 109 on a driving layup. Westbrook and Embiid swapped buckets that kept it even and the Sixers had one more chance to win it with 1.2 seconds to go in the second OT.

Embiid and Westbrook combined to score eight straight points in the third overtime, and Embiid even waved goodbye as the crowd went wild when Steve Adams fouled out of the game.

But Embiid seemed gassed at the end and there’s no telling how the heavy workload may affect his availability the rest of the week.

The Sixers were featured on ESPN on Friday as part of Philadelphia All Access, and Sixers’ related content was aired throughout the day on all platforms.

“I’m not a fan,” coach Brett Brown said. “I like living behind closed doors.”

But Brown understood the exposure would help build the brand and serve as a recruiting pitch of sorts to any free agents intrigued about becoming part of The Process. The Sixers put on a show in the fourth until Embiid gave them a scare.

Embiid’s health woes have dogged him since his college career at Kansas and every slip, ache or bump throws Sixers fans into a panic. Embiid has been banged-up lately but he calmly went to the line and made both free throws. He fell again when he tripped over Adams, who earned a foul, and sank two more free throws to make it 78-72.