NBA Playoffs, Cavs v. Celtics Game 6: Shaq identifies the elephant in the room, but that doesn't make it disappear

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rondo cavs layup.pngLeBron James blew it big time on Tuesday, and tonight will be his chance to redeem himself. That wasn’t the only storyline from Game 5 though, as the Cavs struggled in just about every way possible to keep pace with an awfully impressive Celtics team. The problem with James’ particularly woeful performance was that in the scramble to figure out what went wrong with LeBron, some of the other poor aspects of the Cavaliers’ play went unscrutinized.

Could LeBron have played better in such a significant game? Of course. But as J.E. Skeets of the Basketball Jones wisely put it, James could have played a great game and still lost to Boston. The Celtics were just too effective against a revered Cavaliers defense. That includes LeBron, who looked as passive and disinterested on the defensive end as he did on the offensive end, but it extends to each and every Cav that hit the floor in Game 5.

Shaquille O’Neal, to his credit, seems to understand that although LeBron’s performance certainly didn’t help Cleveland’s cause on Tuesday, the Cavs’ bigger problems are on the defensive end. From Ken Berger of CBS Sports:

Though much of the focus has been on LeBron’s 3-for-14 shooting night
— his third sub-par offensive performance in the series — Shaq
remained focused on the aspect of the game that has put the Cavs in the
hole they’re in.

“Our problem is not offense,” Shaq said. “Our
problem is, you can’t let guys get historical triple-doubles and you
can’t let five guys get into double figures. So our problem is not
offense…”

I wouldn’t say Shaq is completely right. O’Neal may have played pretty well offensively in Game 5 (21 points on 11 shots), but the team as a whole performed well below the norm. Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison combined for 18 points on 7-of-18 shooting with five turnovers, which isn’t quite what the Cavs need on one of LeBron’s off-nights, even if no one but James is to blame for his own performance. As a result, the Cavs scored at a rate of 95.7 points per 100 possessions in Game 5, a far cry from their 108.8 mark in the regular season.

The more pressing issues, as Shaq notes, are on the defensive end. The previously strong Cavs defense has broken down against not only match-up problems like Rajon Rondo, but even the aging and limited Kevin Garnett. KG isn’t supposed to be the scorer that he was five years ago, but with Antawn Jamison failing to provide any defensive pressure on Garnett, he’s averaging 18.2 points per game on 50.6% shooting in this series.

Limiting Garnett could be as simple as matching him up with Anderson Varejao rather than Jamison, which would be an offensive concession but a defensive boon. However, Mike Brown and his staff will have to be pretty creative in their
defensive adjustments for Game 6. The Cavs’ guards — be it Anthony Parker, Delonte West, or the defense-less Mo Williams — have all failed to hamper Rondo’s ability to get into the lane. The impact of that isn’t just Rondo’s 20.6 points per game in this series, but also his 11.8 assists, as Rajon’s penetration is opening up all kinds of opportunities for his teammates.

It’s one thing to acknowledge the problem, and another to solve it. Garnett’s offense may not be that difficult to counter, but the Cavaliers are going to have a rough Game 6 if they can’t at least make Rondo’s job difficult. LeBron will have to show up for Cleveland to stay alive, but so will the Cavs’ defense.   

Report: 76ers trade No. 39 pick to Lakers

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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The 76ers have too many 2018 draft picks – Nos. 10, 26, 38, 39, 56 and 60.

Philadelphia already has 11 players under contract for next season. Plus, the 76ers have the space to add premier players. There just isn’t room for everyone on the roster.

So, Philadelphia unloaded one of those selections.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This is good return for the 76ers, who everyone knew had to trade a draft pick. The rebuilding Bulls could easily land a higher second-round pick than No. 39 next year.

Why do the Lakers want an extra second-rounder this year? Second-round picks don’t count against the cap until signed, and they can always slightly sweeten a trade offer. They’re helpful for a team with big plans and little wiggle room.

Kyle O’Quinn opts out of Knicks contract

AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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The Knicks have the No. 8 pick, and tomorrow’s draft will be the most important part of their offseason.

Will they also have cap space to add talent in free agency? That hinges on Enes Kanter‘s player option.

If Kanter opts out, New York will have even more room to operate thanks to Kyle O'Quinn declining his $4,256,250 player option.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Knicks expected this for a while, and they’re probably not disappointed. Steve Mills and Scott Perry want to put their stamp on the franchise. O’Quinn is a leftover from the Phil Jackson era and a reminder of the recent tumult in New York.

O’Quinn’s combination of block percentage (6.1) and defensive-rebounding percentage (27.8) was unmatched last season. He just really struck a nice balance between contesting shots and remaining in position on the glass. He’s also a smooth mid-range shooter with an improved ability to distribute.

How much is that player worth?

It’ll be a tight market, especially for bigs. For his sake, I hope the 28-year-old O’Quinn already has assurances from other teams. He might get a similar salary or, more likely, a larger overall guarantee on a multi-year deal. But it’s also possible he comes out behind by testing free agency.

Pistons present themselves as Eastern Conference heavyweights with Dwane Casey

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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DETROIT – Pistons spokesman Mark Barnhill, introducing new coach Dwane Casey, said he tucked his notes for today’s press conference into his jacket pocket. Then, as he pulled them out, he discovered an old Pistons playoff ticket in the same pocket.

“It’s a bit of an omen and a bit of a challenge,” Barnhill said.

The ticket was for the Pistons’ best playoff performance in a decade.

“No pressure,” Casey said.

Actually, really, no pressure.

Detroit lost by only two points in Game 4 of the 2016 first round, getting swept by the Cavaliers in the game Barnhill referred to. The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in the last 10 years and reached the postseason only twice in that span. A two-point loss was their best result.

They’re starving for only moderate success. The 59 wins and second-round loss that got Casey fired by the Raptors? That’d be a dream season in Detroit. Even just making the playoffs next year would be welcomed.

“Our time is now,” Casey said. “…The talent level on the roster is there.”

It better be.

The Pistons are too close to the luxury-tax line to use most of the mid-level exception. They surrendered their first-round pick in the Blake Griffin trade. They’re left with only the No. 42 pick in the second round.

“Whatever player we get, that would be great. But we don’t need another one,” Pistons owner Tom Gores said. “Like, we’re good. That’s why Dwane is here.”

That and $35 million.

The Pistons presented Casey with a favorable contract, a front-office head he knows (more on that later) and a solid roster. Detroit is probably better off trying to win now, because the alternative would be even trickier to pull off. With so many highly paid players stained by losing, the Pistons can’t easily switch paths and rebuild. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are close enough to their primes that the present should be the priority, even if this team maxes at pretty good.

Yet, Detroit’s brass couldn’t help but raise expectations even further.

“We have three very – we have a great roster – but very special players,” Gores said of Griffin, Drummond and Jackson.

That’s an overstatement. Besides, how much noise can Detroit make with the Celtics and 76ers rising the Raptors still hanging around?

“I feel very comfortable that we’ll have a product that will compete with the teams that you just said,” Gores’ advisor, Ed Stefanski, said. “We have to win games, as Tom said. But you don’t usually get to an organization and have three core guys like we have.”

Again, they’re talking about Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson.

Griffin hasn’t made an All-Star team in three years, a drought players rarely escape. Drummond is a borderline All-Star in the East (and a tough fit with Griffin). Jackson has only once even sniffed the All-Star discussion.

Casey also praised those three – and Detroit’s last three first-round picks: Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard. Johnson particularly drew attention from Casey, whose Raptors got swept by LeBron James‘ Cavaliers the last two years and lost the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history to Cleveland the previous year.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, what happened to Toronto in the playoffs? ‘Well, I said, ‘It’s about matchups,'” Casey said. “And Stanley Johnson is the best match up for 23 in Cleveland that there is, physically.”

Maybe Casey, with his strong record of player development, will help Johnson eventually compete at those high levels.

“We’re not developing,” Casey said. “We’re not two or three years away. We want to win right now.”

The Pistons are so confident in their current roster, they haven’t even hired a general manager or equivalent. For now, Stefanski – advisor to the owner with the title of “senior executive” – is running the show. It sounds as if that could continue for a while.

“We could make Ed GM tomorrow,” Gores said. “That’s easy. If you guys want a title, that’s kind of easy.

“That’s not the point. The point is we’re building an organization, not around one person, but around what our vision is.”

Stefanski said, no matter how the front office is assembled, Casey will report to him. And Stefanski will report to Gores.

After giving Stan Van Gundy massive control, the Pistons are dispersing power.

Casey is a good coach, and he’ll help. Stefanski has plenty to prove as a front-office head. Gores is still learning as an owner, a failed experiment (keeping Joe Dumars) and unfulfilling tenure (Van Gundy’s) behind him. The roster is solid, though unexciting, when healthy.

They’re now all in it together, awaiting a chance to deliver. Considering how modest external expectations are, maybe they will.

But as the Pistons overstate their standing, it gets harder to take them seriously.

PBT Extra: Dwight Howard traded to Brooklyn, does anybody win?

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Dwight Howard is on the move. Again. Leaving a wake of unhappy teammates behind him. Again.

The trade can’t be consummated until the NBA free agent moratorium ends on July 6, but a deal has been struck where Charlotte sends Howard to Brooklyn for Timofey Mozgov, two second-round picks, and cash.

I don’t love this trade for the Nets — it’s going to get awkward with Howard being asked to come off the bench behind Jarrett Allen (and he should come off the bench). But it frees up an extra $17 million for the Nets in the summer of 2019 as they start to reshape their roster.

The Hornets get away from the luxury tax with this move but tie up their cap space next year with Mozgov still getting paid off the contract former-Laker-now-Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak gave him years ago. It was a short-term move that isn’t great for the long term. Unless Kemba Walker wanted Howard gone and the Hornets want to re-sign their point guard. A lot of unanswered questions still about this team.