Cleveland Cavalier's nuclear option: The sign-and-trade

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James_interview.jpgCleveland officials will not even discuss it. It is a thought they have banished from their minds, as if even allowing it to creep in seems to make it a little bit more possible. They don’t want admit the worst, nobody ever does.

But the reality is they could lose LeBron James this summer. Smart money still says he stays in Cleveland, but nobody knows for sure. He could be gone. And if he is going, then a hard question falls to Danny Ferry and the Cavaliers staff:

Would they do a sign-and-trade for LeBron James?

Probably not. Brian Windhorst — the best source for Cavaliers insight — said it simply and clearly:

“…that’s the last thing the Cavaliers want to do. They don’t want to assist LeBron in packing his bags out of here.”

For those unfamiliar a sign-and-trade, it is when the team a player is leaving signs him to a new contract than instantly trades the player and the contract to another team. Both sides have reasons to play this game. For the player it is money, because under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement the team that owns the rights to a player can sign him for one more year (six instead of five) with higher raises. (The goal was to give top players an incentive to stay with one team.) For the team in means getting something back for a player that was going to leave anyway.

For a max-contract player like LeBron a sign-and-trade means almost $30 million over the six years of the deal. That’s a lot of scratch, and LeBron may want six years on his deal under this CBA because the new one about to be negotiated likely will     have lower maximum deals and fewer years permitted.

A sign-and-trade is almost expected in the case of Chris Bosh, but he is far more likely to leave Toronto than James is Cleveland. The thing is it takes two sides to cooperate on a sign and trade — teams have to agree to the deal.

James would have to force the issue on to the Cavaliers — they are not going to help him out the door, as Windhorst said. James will have to say “I’m gone anyway, you can get something or nothing for me.”

And even then, Cleveland could say no. They may not act logically, they are the dumpee. Anyone who has felt spurned in a passionate relationship knows the feeling — you do stupid things out of anger and frustration. You don’t think with your head, you don’t think about the future. The Cavaliers could be that way with LeBron.

If they do agree to listen to sign-and-trade offers you know the New York Knicks will jump in, because they will jump in all things LeBron. Then there are the Chicago Bulls — already rumored to be a preferred destination by James — who could make an offer. They could put up Luol Deng and some other smaller parts (Hinrich?) to balance out the salaries. A sign and trade would preserve the Bulls cap space to bring in someone like Bosh to pair alongside James and Derrick Rose and vault the Bulls to contention.

But the Cavaliers likely would resist sending James to any team in the East. Are they really going to okay making a rival in the Midwest an instant contender? If a sign-and-trade were to happen it likely would send LeBron West.

There are teams in the West that would love to dance. Mark Cuban was tampering yesterday but his team would be in a good spot, able to offer cap space with the non-guaranteed contract Erick Dampier and some talented players. There are other teams, like the Los Angeles Lakers, who could offer Andrew Bynum and parts to pair LeBron with Kobe Bryant so they could just destroy the world for a couple years. Other teams will bid as well.

But the Cavaliers don’t even want to think about it. That is where it stands now, and likely always will.

NBA playoffs mired in worst pre-Finals competitive-game drought ever

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Exciting games. Clutch plays. Close finishes.

Remember those?

The NBA playoffs have hit a lull. It has been 11 days since the last game decided by fewer than 10 points.

Longer competitive-game droughts have occurred – though not many, and never before the NBA Finals. The most common route for going so long without a competitive game is decisive victories to end the conference finals, a lengthy break before the Finals then decisive victories to start the Finals.

But we’re not to the Finals yet.

In this case, every second-round series ended in five or fewer games – culminating with the Celtics’ 114-112 win over the 76ers on May 9, the last single-digit game. Three league-wide off days followed. The Celtics routed the Cavaliers twice in Boston, and the Warriors and Rockets traded lopsided wins in Houston. Two more league-wide off days, Cleveland winning by 30 Saturday, Golden State winning by 41 last night, and we’re at 11 straight days without a competitive game.

Here are the longest-ever streaks of days between single-digit playoff games before the conference finals ended:

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Both conference finals are as close as possible, 2-1 (favoring the Warriors and Celtics). But the individual games just haven’t matched the tightness.

Why is this happening?

The peculiar overlapping three off days for each conference finals certainly factored.

Maybe the Warriors and Cavaliers – who’ve met in the last three NBA Finals – are that much better than the rest of their conferences when locked in. Maybe the Warriors and Cavaliers know that, leaving them prone to bad losses the teams know they can rally from. Maybe the Celtics are just that good at home and that bad on the road. Maybe it’s just a random occurrence.

No matter the reason, the result is certain: We’ve gone a long time without seeing a competitive game.

Hopefully, Cleveland and Boston change that tonight.

Andre Iguodala doubtful for Warriors-Rockets Game 4

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Andre Iguodala hurt his knee during the fourth quarter of the Warriors’ win over the Rockets last night. Golden State coach Steve Kerr brushed off concern about the injury and praised his starting small forward in these Western Conference finals.

“When we’re right, when we’re playing how we are supposed to play, Andre’s right in the middle of it,” Kerr said. “His defense and being smart, making good decisions. Andre is one of the guys who seems to set the tone for that for us.”

The Warriors might have to set that tone without Iguodala in Game 4 Tuesday.

Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

Replacing Iguodala in the lineup won’t be easy. He boosts the Warriors offensively and defensively, and they’re short on wings.

Will Golden State just spread Iguodala’s minutes between Nick Young, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson? Durant and Thompson already play so much. Young is a defensive liability.

Will the Warriors go big more often with Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell and/or David West – shifting Draymond Green from center to power forward and Durant from power forward to small forward? Looney already has a relatively large role in this series, and it’s imperative he plays with full effort whenever on the court. More minutes could harm him. Kerr doesn’t appear to trust Bell, and West might be too slow to keep up with the Rockets.

There’s no good answer here, just different cracks Houston can exploit if Iguodala is out or even just slowed tomorrow.

New Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer: ‘I think I’m in the best place in the league’

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Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly finish fourth in Most Valuable Player voting this year, his age-23 season.

The last coach to take over a team with a player who already accomplished so much at such a young age – Del Harris (a familiar name in Milwaukee), who inherited reigning MVP Moses Malone with the Rockets in 1979. It’s just so rare for jobs coaching such a promising player top come open.

“I think I’m in the best place in the league,” new Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said at his introductory press conference today.

Budenholzer had his pick of Milwaukee and Toronto, another highly successful team, especially for one seeking a new coach. But the Bucks offer Antetokounmpo and more modest expectations.

Milwaukee hasn’t won a playoff series in 17 years. Budenholzer was asked today as much about delivering a division title as an NBA title.

Topping the Cavaliers, Pacers, Pistons and Bulls sounds much easier than surpassing the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics and 76ers in coming years.

Not that Budenholzer, who reached the conference finals with the Hawks, is completely ducking big talk.

“We’re lucky to have a Giannis, who will do anything to win, and a Khris Middleton that will do anything to win,” Budenholzer said. “When you have your best players that are true competitors and that are truly unselfish and care more about the team than they do themselves, those are a couple of big, foundational blocks to winning championships and doing things that are special.”

The Bucks held the press conference at their still-under-construction new arena, the media wearing hard hats and orange vests:

But this isn’t a complete rebuild for Budenholzer.

Milwaukee has made the playoffs the last two seasons, including winning 44 games this year. Antetokounmpo is a superstar. Middleton is a borderline All-Star. Eric Bledsoe is a solid starter. Restricted free agent-to-be Jabari Parker is talented. The rotation is somewhat deep.

The Bucks just underachieved under former coach Jason Kidd (and never capitalized before him for more than a decade for other reasons).

Citing the potential of current players, Budenholzer said Milwaukee could become “elite” defensively. The Bucks are full of long and athletic players, and Budenholzer coached sound defenses in Atlanta. There’s only one reason to doubt him: Milwaukee finished just 17th in points allowed per possession this season.

But that’s a feature of this job, not a bug. The Bucks aren’t stuck with an inevitably bad defenders. They just underperformed. Budenholzer can nudge them ahead – and is positioned to receive outsized credit if he does.

“Working with the entire with the entire roster, with the front office, with ownership,” Budenholzer said, “I can’t wait to take us to the next level in Milwaukee.”

That next level isn’t that high, which is why Budenholzer is right.

Milwaukee is a great place for a coach to be.

Mike D’Antoni: Rockets ‘played soft’

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The Warriors beat the Rockets by 41 last night to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni:

We didn’t switch up into people, we didn’t box off. It’s just one thing led to another. Played soft, actually.

His stars agreed.

James Harden:

He’s right. We weren’t as aggressive as we needed to be. We started off the game pretty solid, and then we let them gain some confidence to end the first quarter. You know, but just defensively they didn’t feel us and it showed tonight.

Chis Paul:

Coach is right. We’ve got to be better. I think, you know, we’ve got to come out more aggressive. We were letting them hit first, you know what I mean? They were running their screens and all that stuff like that. I mean, we know that we’re at our best when we’re in transition and not taking the ball out the net. And tonight we were taking the ball out the net. We had 19 turnovers. That’s uncharacteristic of us. We knew we were going to get a great game from them being back here at home, but we’ve got to be better Game 4.

That’s a harsh assessment – but at least somewhat warranted. The Rockets applied far too little defensive pressure, and they missed shots inside and committed turnovers as if they were rattled.

I don’t think the Rockets are soft. But they looked soft in the face of Golden State’s elite ability.

The Warriors pressure teams into mistakes and then exploit many of them. Play that doesn’t look soft against other opponents suddenly does against Golden State.

Houston can toughen up before Game 4 Tuesday. Acclimating to the Warriors’ high level of play, especially at home, could help. The Rockets are good enough to hang at this level.

But it certainly won’t be easy.