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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.

Lakers sign Tyler Ennis to minimum contract

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Jut before the trade deadline, the Lakers took a flier on Tyler Ennis, who had struggled in two-plus seasons with the Suns, Bucks and Rockets.

The former No. 18 pick finally looked like an NBA player in Los Angeles, so he’s returning.

Lakers release:

The Los Angeles Lakers have signed guard Tyler Ennis, it was announced today by General Manager Rob Pelinka.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

This is fantastic value for the Lakers. Ennis is probably worth a minimum salary, and if he is, they have him for two years at that price. If not, they can drop him for no cost next summer, when their cap room will be at a premium. This is the type of bet smart teams make, which bodes well for the Magic Johnson regime.

Ennis’ productivity in Los Angeles might not be sustainable. He shot well above his career marks on 3-pointers and free throws in a small sample. But he looked more comfortable on the court, showing some of the savvy he was expected to bring from Syracuse. He’s also just 22, and point guards tend to develop later than other positions.

The Lakers still have their room exception, which they could use on another point guard. So, it’s uncertain whether Ennis will back up Lonzo Ball or fall to third string. I’m not sure any remaining free-agent point guards – Ty Lawson, Deron Williams, Brandon Jennings, Ramon Sessions – will command more than the minimum or playing time over Ennis, though.

Adam Silver: Mark Cuban’s tanking comments ‘not what you want to hear as commissioner’

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Mavericks owner Mark Cuban repeatedly used the word tanking to describe his team’s plan during last season. After the season, he put it even more bluntly: “Once we were eliminated from the playoffs, we did everything we could to lose games.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver at today’s Board of Governors press conference:

Yes, it’s not what you want to hear as commissioner. I will say that Mark has a long track record of being provocative, and it was something that we spoke to him directly about. I think he acknowledged it was a poor choice of words. When we looked at what was actually happening on the floor, which is most important to me, there was no indication whatsoever that his players were intentionally losing games. And so we were satisfied with that, and again, and we moved on.

Silver denies tanking occurs by defining it in its most narrow scope – players on the court actively trying to lose. That doesn’t happen, not so directly at least. So, it’s easy for Silver to brush off Dallas waiving its starting point guard, Deron Williams, as an issue unrelated to tanking.

I take a much broader view, defining “tanking” as any decision a team makes that is at least partially driven by a desire to improve draft position by losing more. In that sense, the Mavericks were definitely tanking – as many teams do annually. Cuban was exceptional – though not unique – by admitting it.

Is this strategy problematic? I think it’s bad for the product when teams prefer to lose. I also think it’s good for the product when bad teams at least receive the hope that comes with a high draft pick. Ideally, Silver struggles with the issue of tanking more privately than he does publicly, where he just glosses over it.

Silver is right that Cuban was exaggerating for attention. If the Mavericks were doing everything they could to lose, they would have gone worse than 2-5 after being eliminated from the playoff race. (Cuban’s initial tanking comments came more than a month before official elimination.)

But Cuban’s underlying point – even if Silver found reason to convince himself everything was fine – is also correct: It became beneficial for the Mavericks to lose, so they did.

David Griffin to leave Cavaliers as GM; Chauncey Billups reportedly could be replacement

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David Griffin helped put a team around LeBron James that brought Cleveland its first title in 54 years. He pulled off the Kevin Love trade. He got J.R. Smith in town. He kept Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson with the Cavaliers. This year he pulled off moves to land Kyle Korver and Deron Williams to add depth. He’s done everything you could ask of a GM of a contender — he was the GM for three years, they went to three Finals, won a ring, and the team won 65 percent of its games.

Griffin was also underpaid by industry standards. He reportedly made less than $2 million a year, while GMs of other contenders make at least $4 million, usually more like $5 million. He was due a healthy raise.

Instead, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert decided to not pay that bill (and screw Griffin over in the process, we’ll get to that).

Griffin will be his own free agent July 1. Brian Windhorst of ESPN broke the news, Adrian Wojnarowski added details. Then Gilbert himself released a statement saying the two sides “mutually decided not to extend” his contract. Riiight.

Marc Stein of ESPN had another interesting note.

Gilbert is notoriously difficult to deal with, and around the league, people were always impressed with how Griffin dealt with him.

All this in front of a crucial off-season for the Cavaliers as they try to change their roster so they can compete with the Warriors, doing so without much in terms of cap space or tradeable assets (stuff spent already in the Cavs’ win-now mode). All with the threat of LeBron James leaving the team in 2018 looming over it.

Also, LeBron was not down with this move, reportedly. One would think if one wanted to keep LeBron with the franchise he would consult with his star on these kinds of major moves.

We’ll see what Gilbert pays the next GM, but was this really a move about a few million bucks he could cut to save (since the team tax bill will be brutal next year)?

Gilbert did screw over Griffin in this process: Orlando and Atlanta (plus Milwaukee, to a lesser degree) wanted to talk to Griffin about their GM openings. Gilbert would not give teams permission for those teams to contact Griffin about what are two of the better GM spots available. Eventually, those teams couldn’t wait and made their hires. Griffin was stuck. That after Griffin turned down higher-priced offers last summer — as did some of the rest of the front office staff — to be part of what the Cavaliers had.

It was within Gilbert’s rights, but if he knew he wasn’t going to pay the going rate, then be cool to your employees, not a…. jerk. We’ll go with jerk. But Gilbert is who he is.

Looking back on how Brooklyn surrendered all these picks to Boston

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It ended up being one of the worst trades ever in the NBA, certainly the worst in the last couple of decades.

In the summer of 2013, the Nets — at the behest of an ownership group that wanted to win big heading into a new arena in Brooklyn — put together a trade that netted them Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (to go with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez), two Hall of Fame players but guys now on the downside of their career. Both guys lasted two seasons with the Nets.

The cost? Brooklyn surrendered a 2014 first rounder (turned out to be No. 17), a 2016 first rounder (No. 3), the rights to swap picks in 2017 (No. 1), and the Nets 2018 pick (likely to be high lottery again).

How did this happen? How did the Nets give up the motherload? Stephan Bondy at the New York Daily News has a great retrospective piece talking to people, and it wasn’t as simple as “GM Billy King screwed up.” If you read one thing today on hoops, it should be this piece.

The downfall started with an ownership group obsessed with having the best toys right now – they wanted big stars to open their new arena (remember they chased Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, too). The formula included the fact the Nets in 2013 looked like a team on the rise (and LeBron James looked almost vulnerable). There was King not getting enough protections on picks. It led to a level of arrogance in the organization that backfired.

The first deal negotiated with the Celtics was just for Pierce, and the Nets only had to give up one draft pick, Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks. But then Doc Rivers left the Celtics for the Clippers, and Garnett came into focus because there was nothing left for him in Boston. To match salaries, the Nets had to get rid of Gerald Wallace and his ugly contract paying $30 million over the next three years.

Shedding that cost Brooklyn another first-round draft pick, along with the two they were giving up for Garnett and Pierce. For a year in between, the Celtics negotiated the right to swap first-round picks. That turned into the Celtics landing No. 1 overall in 2017, which they’re reportedly close to trading to Philly for even more lottery picks.

“The arrogance in the room was that we were going to roll, we were going to win these next couple of years,” said a former Nets staff member who was in the draft room. “Maybe not the championship, but we were going to win the next couple of years and have sustainable success. We were going to keep signing free agents. We were always going to draft between 20 and 30. So if we’re going to swap with the Celtics, who gives a f—? That definitely was the thought.”

Also forgot in all this, and brought up by Bondy — the move was praised at the time for the most part. The Nets came in second in the annual GM survey at the start of next season for having had the best off-season (they got 25 percent of the vote). It also worked to boost Nets ticket sales in Brooklyn.

Of course, everything went sideways from the start for the Nets. Williams was injured and missed training camp, and more importantly he never really wanted to be in that spotlight as the leader anyway. Coach Jason Kidd squabbled with assistants and banished Lawrence Frank. Garnett missed 30 games. He and Pierce seemed disengaged from the team. Brook Lopez broke his foot just a couple of months into the season. Andrei Kirilenko was not the same. And Bondy reports “Andray Blatche allegedly showed up drunk to practices, according to multiple sources.”

Eventually, Kidd bolted for Milwaukee (after his bid to gain GM power failed) and ownership decided to close its wallet to the big spending.

It all came undone within a couple of years, but the Nets are still paying the price.

New GM Sean Marks is shrewd and made smart plays — like going hard after restricted free agents Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson — even if he came up empty. He made a smart move to bring in Jeremy Lin, who unfortunately was injured much of last season. They are trying to develop Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

But the Nets are years and years away. Mostly because of this one horrible trade.