NBA Playoffs: Why the Cavaliers can win it all (as if you didn't know)

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for nba_james1_250.jpgThe Cavaliers have the league’s best record for the second year in a row. Their best player is likely about to win his second MVP award in a row. They’ve made major changes to their team specifically designed to avoid another disappointing playoff exit. If they win, they become the first Cleveland team to win a major pro sports title since 1964. If they lose, there may well be no next year. No pressure or anything.

Here’s why the Cleveland Cavaliers might just pull it off this year:

1. LeBron James

He’s 16 (big) wins away from his official coronation as the league’s best player and the best player of his generation. He’s four losses away from a summer of ridicule and a possible location change. It’s impossible to confidently say that he’s the league’s best player until he gets some jewelry. What can be said is that LeBron, for the second straight regular season, was significantly better than any other player in the league.
No player imposes his will on the game the way that LeBron does. He’s a dominant force on offense, and can seemingly get to the rim and finish any time he feels like it. His combination of scoring and passing ability is off the charts; he shattered the record for assists per game by a forward this season while scoring almost 30 points a game. He’s the best player in the league on the fast break. He’s not automatic with his jumper, but he’s improved his ability to hurt teams with deep jumpers. He’s a great rebounder for his position. He’s capable of playing lockdown man-to-man defense late in games and getting shocking blocks and steals coming from the weak side. No team relied more on one player than the Cavaliers did this season, and no team had a better record. As long as LeBron James suits up for the Cavaliers, they have a great chance of beating any of their opponents.
2. Versatility

It’s no secret that the Cavaliers have modeled their franchise using the Spurs as a blueprint. Like the championship Spurs team, the Cavaliers have the personnel to match up with any team in the league and beat them at their own game, something they weren’t capable of doing last season. They have both the biggest and tallest player in the league on their roster, and managed to be successful without either of them in the lineup. The Cavs have the size to matchup with the hulking front lines of Orlando and Los Angeles, and they have enough sweet-shooting forwards and perimeter players capable of cross-matching to play an uptempo game with any team that wants to run with them. If the Cavaliers can figure out the best way to fit their pieces together in a given series, they have the talent to play any style and play it very well.
3. Defense
The Cavaliers weren’t as dominant defensively this season as they were in years past, finishing only seventh in defensive efficiency. However, they have historically played much better defense in the playoffs than they have in the regular season, when their effort increases and LeBron James starts playing much harder on that end of the floor. They will be getting Shaq back for the playoffs, who did a great job defending the paint in the regular season. Anderson Varejao has proven himself to be one of the league’s best defenders at the power forward spot. Anthony Parker and Delonte West give opposing shooting guards hell for the full 48 minutes. The Cavaliers have always been a defense-first team under Mike Brown — don’t expect them to forget that during the most important postseason run in franchise history. 
4. Three-Point Shooting
If you have LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal controlling the paint on offense, who do you want to put around them? Three-point shooters. Well, the Cavaliers have those. Mo Williams and Anthony Parker are snipers from beyond the arc, and Delonte West, Antawn Jamison, and even Jamario Moon are all capable of hitting threes if they’re left open. Throw in the occasional three-point barrage from LeBron, and the Cavaliers finished the season with the second-best three-point percentage in the league, trailing only the Suns in that category. The Cavs are a classic “pick your poison” team on offense — they finish at the rim better than any other team in the league, and will gladly knock down the open three if the defense collapses.
5. Depth

JJ Hickson, Leon Powe, Daniel Gibson, Jawad Williams, and Jamario Moon have all proven themselves to be solid NBA players. It’s entirely possible that none of them could see significant minutes for the Cavs in this year’s playoffs. That’s how deep the Cavs are. 

6. Rebounding 

It’s not the sexiest team about the team, but the Cavs lead the NBA in rebound rate this season. Nobody on the team is averaging gaudy rebound totals, but almost all of their players rebound exceptionally well for their position. Because of this, the Cavs control the boards. It can’t be overstated just how important winning the possession battle is in the playoffs, and the Cavs have a leg up in that regard.
7. Chemistry

The Cavs have assembled a team with great chemistry on the court (every player is comfortable being in LeBron’s shadow, and they all compliment his strengths very well), as well as off of it. It’s always easy to have fun when you’re winning a lot, but the Cavs seem to have a lot of faith in each other, which could end up coming in handy for them. 
8. Hunger

The Cavaliers know what this playoff run means to them. Shaq, Zydrunas, and Jamison aren’t getting any younger. They’ve had the best regular-season record in the league for two years in a row. Cleveland is aching for a championship. LeBron’s future with the team could be on the line. The Lakers have last year. The Celtics have 2008. The Magic have the future. For the Cavaliers, this is the year. Now they just have to go out there and actually do it. 

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

Michael Jordan NASCAR
Brian Lawdermilk - Pool/Getty Images for NASCAR
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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri

Dwight Howard is talking a lot of trash

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The Lakers put Dwight Howard on final warning BEFORE even signing him.

And for most of the season, Howard kept a low profile.

But he has been breaking out of his shell in the bubble. Related to basketball, too.

Howard has played excellent defense on Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference finals. The day after Game 1, Howard told Jamal Murray about it.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Nuggets were wrapping up their practice, which took place not far from the Lakers’, with Murray about to begin his media session in the convention center hallway. Howard, as it so happened, walked by right then and the banter restarted.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said to Howard, with both men smiling.

“What?” Howard said.

“Don’t do that, fam,” Murray said again.

“Where’s Joker at?” Howard replied. “Where’s his room?”

As was the case in the series opener, there was no answer.

Then, Howard (and JaVale McGee) pointed out Jokic’s defensive deficiencies against Anthony Davis in Game 2.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Once the Lakers’ bench saw it was Jokic tasked with guarding Davis, it brought the noise with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard screaming, “Thanksgiving, steak dinner, appetizers, filet mignon and potatoes, a glass of champagne!”

Davis, who faced up Jokic and maneuvered his way around the big man for a bucket in the paint. McGee shouted, “Told you it was a feast out there!”

Howard didn’t let up after Davis’ game-winner.

Amick:

As the Lakers mobbed Davis on the court after his shot, big man Dwight Howard broke off from the group and decided to taunt the Nuggets as they exited the basketball stage. If you somehow haven’t noticed, Howard is leaning hard into this tough-guy approach.

“Go home!” he yelled over and over while laughing, jumping, pumping his fist and getting closer to the Nuggets’ side of the floor with every second. “Go home!”

A small group of Nuggets staffers, including one of Jokic’s biggest supporters in assistant strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, did not take kindly to the mocking that had taken place all game long and returned to the court to shout back. The two sides exchanged words, and eventually retreated to their corners that came with conflicting emotions.

This works because Howard is playing well – in his role.

Howard was slow to recognize he’s no longer a superstar. Yet, he still has the energy for being the center of attention. That used to mean doing things like posting up too much,

Now, Howard is focused on defending, screening and sometimes finishing at the rim while playing all-out in limited minutes. It’s what the Lakers need and what Howard can provide at age 34.

If he wants to talk trash along the way, more power to him. It’s a lot of fun.

But there’s also a fine line between the endearing villain and loathed jerk. Outside Denver, Howard appears to be the former. For now.