NBA Season Preview: The Cleveland Cavaliers

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for bscott.jpgLast season: 61-21, best record in the NBA, but an early exit in the second round of the playoffs after they ran into a deeper and more defensive-minded Boston team. Unless you’re from Cleveland, in which case LeBron quit. Obviously.

Head Coach: Byron Scott takes over the helm of a rebuilding project, looking to bring an up-tempo offense that really would have been handy with last year’s roster.

Key Departures: LeBron James and… does the rest of it matter? Does anyone care Shaq left? Big Z will be missed on an emotional level, but not on the court.

Key Additions: Ramon Sessions, a $14.5 million trade exception. Not much to write home about.

Best case scenario: Prove that this team was more than just LeBron by being respectable. (There are Clevelanders who have dreams of the playoffs, ignoring the realities of the new East or the needs of this team to rebuild.)

For that to happen: Scott’s system is going to have to get the Cavs role players to be just as efficient while having to take on more of the offense (and getting a lot more attention from defenses). The players on the Cavaliers roster may struggle to create their own shots. That makes the running offense a good option to get some easy buckets

The three-headed guard situation of Mo Williams, Sessions and Daniel Gibson will have to come together. Williams does not fear shooting but now he will be one of the few guys on this team capable of creating his own offense whenever he wants. He is going to have to both shoot and set up guys efficiently. Sessions is going to need to be the pure point guard, and when Gibson is in he is going to have to keep knocking down more than 40 percent of his threes.

JJ Hickson will start at the four and needs to emerge — he shot 80.9 percent in transition last season, so you know he has to like the new system. Hickson is just a better shooter on the move and when he can crash the offensive glass, and that’s what should happen now. Last season during he playoffs LeBron and every sane person at home was wondering why he was not getting more run — now he needs to prove he deserves it.

Antawn Jamison will be 34 by the end of the season but he will likely be the team’s leading scorer, and over the seasons his scoring efficiency has not dropped. However, he shot a little less last year and now he has to step back into the primary role, which will be hard.

The key to this team running — and playing good enough defense to run — may be Anderson Varejao being the energy and spark plug guy night after night. He has to defend the rim. He played that role before, but it is more crucial now.

More likely the Cavaliers will: Struggle as these guys find it hard to be as efficient in their new roles.

If you want to run, that starts on defense. You need the stops and turnovers to really make it work. Scott knows this as coach, but does he have the players to execute it? Last season the Cavaliers were seventh in the leuage in defense, and they had a premier perimeter defender in LeBron and bigger guys guarding the rim.

Jamison will have good nights ad some flubs. Same with Williams. This is a Cavaliers team that could struggle now on the boards — we shall see — but they will need to work hard there on both

Prediction: 32 wins. The Cavaliers will not be last year’s Nets.

But now is not the time to prove that you actually had a good team around LeBron, now is time to rip this thing to the core and start a rebuilding process. There are good young pieces like Hickson to start with. There is a massive trade exemption which likely will not land the Cavaliers a star but more likely will e broken up to take on some ugly mid-sized contracts that will expire. For that the Cavs will want draft picks and young players. Start from the ground up again. Rebuild. This year the wins don’t matter.

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.

 

Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.

 

Vintage Kobe: Redeem Team recalls him running over Pau Gasol

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If the goal of a trailer is to get you to want to see the movie, then well done Netflix. I’m in.

Netflix released a trailer for its upcoming Redeem Team documentary on the 2008 Olympics, featuring some vintage Kobe Bryant. Just as a quick refresher, in 2008 the USA’s toughest opponent would be a deep Spanish team led by peak Pau Gasol but also with Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, José Calderón, Rudy Fernández, Juan Carlos Navarro and more. This was a legitimately dangerous team and one the USA would face first in group play.

Kobe wanted to set a tone — and did by running through his friend Gasol. (Warning: There is NSFW language in the video clip below.)

“‘First play of the game I’m running through Pau Gasol.’ And we was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘First play of the game, I know what they’re gonna run.’ And he knew Pau was gonna be the last screen and he said ‘I’m running through him,'” Dwayne Wade said

Spoiler alert: The USA thrashed Spain in group stage play. However, come the Gold Medal game it was a lot tougher for the Americans to beat the Spaniards, with Kobe having to have a big fourth quarter and — what often goes unremembered — a master class from Chris Paul in game management to control the tempo and flow.

I’m all in for the documentary, which drops on Oct. 7 on Netflix.

Spurs’ Keldon Johnson to miss start of training camp with shoulder injury

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Keldon Johnson is poised to have a monster season on a rebuilding Spurs team.

Except he’s going to miss the start of training camp and the team’s preseason games. And could be out longer.

Johnson suffered a “right shoulder posterior dislocation during Spurs open gym” the team announced Saturday. Posterior dislocations are rare (less than 5% of all dislocations) and are usually from a fall on an extended arm. Recovering from the injury depends on many factors but can extend out for months. However, the Spurs said Johnson is expected to be available for the start of the regular season less than a month from now.

Johnson averaged 17 points and 6.1 rebounds a game last season, and is an elite perimeter shooter off the catch-and-shoot (39.8% from 3 overall), who also can put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. He was the team’s second-leading scorer last season (to Dejounte Murray, who is now in Atlanta).

The Spurs will be cautious with bringing Johnson back. Even in what could be Gregg Popovich’s last season as coach the Spurs are looking more to be part of the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes than push for a playoff spot. Johnson is a quality player who helps San Antonio win games, which both is why they want him back healthy and why they are not going to rush him.