Stick a fork in them: The Cleveland Cavaliers

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This is the first in our new ongoing series here at PBT: Stick a fork in them.  As we feel teams are done, toast, dead to the playoffs, we will give them a sendoff and obit. We’re not talking mathematically eliminated, we mean when their playoff chances really give up the ghost. John Krolik starts it with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but your team is coming. Probably sooner than you think.

This should not come as news: The Cleveland Cavaliers are horrible. I mean, really horrible. The team has won one game since November 27th, and that win came in overtime. They have won no games since December 18th. They have lost 20 straight games, are four losses away from tying their own record for consecutive losses, and will have to beat the Heat in Miami today to avoid going winless in January. They are 0-26 in games decided by 10 points or more. No other team has more than 18 double-digit losses, and no other team has failed to win less than two games by a double-digit margin. Not only are they the worst team in the NBA; they are one of the worst teams in basketball history.

Here are a few things you should know about the Cavaliers:

1. They were the worst team in basketball when they were healthy. It’s easy to point to injuries as the root cause of the Cavaliers’ futility, and the loss of starting center Anderson Varejao, as well as various other injuries, have certainly made the team even worse. However, the team lost 16 of the last 17 games that Varejao played in. That’s not a very small sample size, and that is a very bad record. The team’s 7-9 stretch to open the season is often pointed to as evidence that the team was competing when they were healthy and hadn’t been embarrassed at home by the Heat, but those wins came against the Nets, the Wizards, the Bucks, and the Grizzlies.

The team certainly felt the tangible loss of Anderson Varejao and were never quite the same again mentally after getting beaten down at home by the Heat, but the team’s early “success” was more the product of a weak schedule and everybody playing with early-season uncertainty than anything the Cavaliers were doing particularly well.

2. The players who were supposed to thrive in LeBron’s absence have been huge disappointments. Ramon Sessions was supposed to give the team some of the playmaking it lost and help get the team running, but he has spent almost all of his time on the floor making reckless drives to the rim and almost none of it being a facilitator. J.J. Hickson was supposed to have a breakout year, but lost confidence in his perimeter game, has far too many mistakes with the ball in his hands, and is still an atrocious defensive player.

Antawn Jamison is playing the worst defense I have ever seen an NBA forward play, and his offense consists of running to a spot on the floor and firing up a shot as soon as he touches the ball. Mo Williams has improved as a playmaker, but is completely incapable of creating high-percentage shots and plays horrible defense. Varejao is a great defensive player, but could not create offense from the high post. Because of all that, the team has no way of scoring points with any consistency or stopping opponents from scoring at will. That is a bad combination.

3. The team’s short-term rebuilding plan was fatally flawed. The Cavaliers lost Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shaquille O’Neal, and Delonte West along with LeBron. On a pure talent level, those players should have been easily replaceable. All three players missed a lot of games in 2009-10, and none of them played at a particularly high level when they did. In fact, a full season of Jamison, the trade for Sessions, Hickson moving into the starting lineup, and Daniel Gibson’s career year probably should have offset the loss of those three role players on paper. However, the three players the Cavaliers lost were often responsible for guarding the rim and the other team’s best scorer.

Instead of trying to replace their defensive value, Byron Scott and new GM Chris Grant traded for Ramon Sessions, promoted J.J. Hickson, and promised a high-octane team that would utilize its athleticism by pushing the break and running the Princeton offense. However, it quickly became apparent that the Cavaliers lacked the skill to out-score teams, and their off-season maneuvers left them with no player outside of Varejao capable of making a significant defensive impact. The Cavaliers came into the season with an offensive gameplan that their personnel had little chance of executing with success and no defensive gameplan to speak of. The team is now 8-39.

4. Yes, the team was built around LeBron, and many of the players they signed or traded for in his seven years with the team are significantly worse (Williams, Moon), or completely useless (Moon, Jamario) without him feeding them easy shots and covering for their defensive mistakes. However, the bigger issue is that the Cavaliers failed to accumulate any significant talent with the draft picks they had after LeBron. They used their one post-LeBron lottery pick on Luke Jackson, effectively gave away their other post-LeBron lottery pick for a Jiri Welsch rental, and used their biggest chunk of cap space on Larry Hughes. (For a full breakdown of what the Cavs did with their post-LeBron draft picks, click here. Full disclosure: I also wrote that.)

5. Yes, LeBron was that good. Statistically speaking, he added an estimated 30 wins to the Cavaliers last year. I don’t dispute that number: he had one of the best statistical regular seasons ever. He was also the backbone of a top-10 defense, and made players like Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao far, far better offensively than they would have been without him. Losing a player like that, having a fatally flawed rebuilding plan, and suffering injuries to the only decent players remaining on the roster is how a 61-win team becomes one of the worst teams in NBA history over the course of an offseason.

Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis headline NBA All-Defensive teams

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It can be one of the most challenging selections to make on the ballot — NBA All-Defensive Teams.

The reason is all the variables: What kind of system was the player in? What were they asked to do within that system? Were they asked to cover a lot for lesser defenders on the court with them?

The votes are in, and it is Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis at the top with the most points. Just as interestingly, six players made All-Defense for the first time.

Here is the voting breakdown. Voters had to choose one center, two forwards, and two guards for each team.

FIRST TEAM (player, team, total points, first team votes)

Rudy Gobert, Utah, 192 (94)
Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 163 (73)
Robert Covington, Philadelphia, 90 (27)
Victor Oladipo, Indiana, 136 (58)
Jrue Holiday, New Orleans, 105 (39)

SECOND TEAM (player, team, total points, first team votes)

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia, 90 (4)
Draymond Green, Golden State, 86 (26)
Al Horford, Boston, 85 (24)
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio, 80 (32)
Jimmy Butler, Minnesota, 79 (20)

Just missing the cut were:
Chris Paul, Houston, 74 (20); Paul George, Oklahoma City, 69 (22); Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, 43 (15); Kevin Durant, Golden State, 31 (7); Klay Thompson, Golden State, 24 (8); Josh Richardson, Miami, 22 (3); Marcus Smart, Boston, 18 (5); Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City, 17 (3).

The six first-timers on the All-Defensive Teams are Covington, Oladipo, Holiday, Embiid, Murray, and Butler.

The fact that two Pelicans — Holiday and Davis — made All-Defense but the team was just average defensively speaks to what they were trying to cover up on that roster much of the season.

Forward was particularly deep and difficult to choose this season. On my final (official) ballot I had Antetokounmpo on the squad, but that meant leaving off Green (who is unquestionably an elite defender when he wants to be, but was up and down during the regular season with his focus on that end). The injuries to Andre Roberson and Kawhi Leonard took some of the pressure off at forward and let a deserving Horford in the club, but it was still a deep field.

Guard was a challenge as well, with CP3 being deserving (he was on my ballot) and Klay Thompson being the perennial “I wanted to put him on the team but…” guy.

Clint Capela with the Rockets had a fantastic defensive season, but with Gobert and Embiid filling the center spot that’s a tough field to crack.

Celtics hope return home can slow LeBron, Cavs in Game 5

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BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics expected to see a different LeBron James in Cleveland after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 hole to open the Eastern Conference finals

Two games and back-to-back wins later, James has reminded everyone exactly why he’s been to seven straight NBA finals.

Boston will be back in the embrace of its raucous fans at TD Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday. But a team that has thrived on youth this postseason suddenly looks disoriented without a go-to player and opposite a more veteran squad that has found a new attitude thanks to the fuel being provided by its biggest star.

“My teammates are putting me in position and wanting me to be in attack mode and trusting me to put our guys in position to be successful,” James said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the collective group, and I’m one of the byproducts of that.”

While the Cavs are certainly feeling rejuvenated, coach Tyronn Lue said it hasn’t changed their sense of urgency.

“We still gotta play,” Lue said. “We have veteran guys who have been there and know what it takes, but this is a young team, a good team that’s playing at home so experience is not going to be a factor. We have to come in there and have the same mentality that we had in Game 3 and 4.”

Two games ago, the numbers seemed all on the Celtics’ side.

They had moved to 9-0 at home during these playoffs and taken 2-0 series lead, which has been a magic number for a franchise yet to surrender such an advantage during its storied history (37-0). Over the last 96 minutes, Boston has been outscored by 39 points, has dropped to 1-6 on the road and is suddenly facing a must-win game to maintain home-court advantage.

Coach Brad Stevens said at the start of the playoffs that he believed there was value in the greenness of a young group that had several players getting their first taste of postseason basketball. He was proven right with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum all thriving as first-time postseason starters.

Their success had the cumulative effect of masking the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now, the lack of an alpha like Irving capable of creating his own shot is sticking out with every 40-point game James produces.

Al Horford, Boston’s only healthy All-Star, was never a dominant scorer, but more of a facilitator who worked well in a finely tuned system.

Horford started off the series strong but his scoring and assist numbers have declined over the last two games.

Lue’s move to reinsert Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup in Game 2 is a huge reason.

Thompson has not only helped things move better on the offensive end for Cleveland, he’s combined with Larry Nance to make things difficult on Horford. Horford had just four shots and seven points in 30 minutes in Game 3. He scored 15 points in Game 4 but was just 5-of-13 from the field with one assist.

If the Celtics are going to get back to the by-committee style that got them here, it must begin with his leadership. To that end, Horford said they’ll focus on correcting their issues, but also won’t dwell on them.

“As a group, we’re excited to be back, going back home,” he said. “Obviously we understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity. We have a Game 5 at home, and we have to make the most of it.”

Cleveland is hoping James’ once quiet supporting cast continues its surge in Boston.

Kevin Love just missed his third straight double-double in Game 4 and sharpshooters JR Smith and Kyle Korver were 12 of 19 from the 3-point line in Games 3 and 4.

Korver’s efforts have stood out.

At 37 years old he was all over the court scoring in Game 4, diving for loose balls and collecting three blocks. While he anticipated being sore from all the activity, Korver said playing “fun basketball” is still propelling a guy looking for his first ring after appearing in 124 playoff games for five different teams during his 15-year career.

“There’s not many of us `03 class guys still around,” James said of Korver. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it. It’s not about his age.”

 

Report: Timberwolves would dump Thibodeau before trading Karl-Anthony Towns

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In the NBA, when it comes down to a struggle between an elite player and the coach/GM, who wins? The player. A top 10 NBA player is much harder to get than a coach. If you don’t believe it’s the player go ask David Fizdale or Kevin McHale or Paul Westhead or.. I could fill up the entire NBC server with instances, you get the point.

As the tension between Karl-Anthony Towns and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau has bubbled to the surface in Minnesota, some teams have called up Thibodeau and the Timberwolves to check on KAT’s availability in a trade.

But would the Timberwolves really trade Towns? If one side is going to lose this battle, it’s Thibodeau, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on The Russillo Show (hat tip Uproxx).

“I think their owner would trade management/the coach before he would trade Karl-Anthony Towns. I don’t think they would allow that. I just don’t believe they’d allow that kind of decision. And I don’t know that they’d want to trade him… he’s Karl-Anthony Towns, they’re not moving him, Towns is eligible for his extension this summer. You know Jimmy Butler… it’s more of a question of Andrew Wiggins. That to me would be, if someone was going to get moved — and I’m not saying anyone’s going to get moved — I think Andrew Wiggins is the one you’re going to look at first. Because you don’t have to make a decision on Towns and Jimmy Butler and one of those guys having to take less on an extension, because you can’t have three [max] guys.”

To be clear, Thibodeau isn’t going anywhere this summer (unless he makes some kind of a power play move, like trying to trade Towns). The Timberwolves improved by 16 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — that was a step forward. Maybe not as big of one as some wanted/expected, but it wasn’t the kind of season that gets a coach/GM fired.

There’s also an odd dynamic in this with Jimmy Butler — he is Thibodeau’s guy. Butler has his back, and he can be a free agent in a couple of years, so if Minnesota wants to keep him then keeping the coach matters.

As for trading Wiggins, that is something to keep an eye on. Even if it’s not likely. After a disappointing 2017-18 season, there has been buzz around the league about the Timberwolves testing the market for Wiggins. The problem is Wiggins’ five-year, $148 million fully guaranteed contract kicks in next season — few teams want to take that on. To move Wiggins, Minnesota will have to take back bad contracts and/or send out sweeteners with him. Demand will not be high, despite Wiggins’ potential.

As Wojnarowski noted, both Butler and Towns have new contract coming up in the next couple of seasons, and both are clear max players. It puts Minnesota in a tight spot with the cap. They will be looking for some relief.

Just remember, if it comes down to Thibodeau or Towns, the player always wins. Especially a young, on-the-rise player.

Boston vs. Houston Finals? In 2-2 series, team with home court wins 80% of time

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Game 1 of the NBA Finals will see the Boston Celtics at the Houston Rockets starting May 31.

Or, at least that’s what the historic odds favor.

Most fans (and media/analysts) expect the Finals will still be Cleveland vs. Golden State, those are the two proven teams. However, as our own Dan Feldman noted, historically in a 2-2 series the team with two home games wins four out of five times.

Tuesday night, Houston looked every bit the kind of team that can stand up to the defending champion Warriors. Down 10 entering the fourth quarter, Houston’s improved ball-pressure defense wore down a Golden State team and took Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (and in the fourth Stephen Curry) out of their rhythm. The Warriors couldn’t get the shots they wanted, didn’t get to the rim, went 0-of-6 from three and 3-of-18 overall in the fourth quarter. They looked like they were replaying the final games of the 2016 NBA Finals again (just with Durant). Meanwhile, Chris Paul was efficient and James Harden made plays that got Houston the comeback win. It was the kind of victory that can define a championship run.

Still, they need two more wins against a Warriors team that is loaded with All-Stars and has been to three straight Finals for a reason. Golden State believes it has another gear, now it needs to find it.

Out East, Boston heads home for Wednesday night’s game — the Celtics are 9-0 in the postseason and 22.4 points per 100 possessions better than on the road. Boston’s young role players have just been vastly superior on the parquet on both ends of the court. Plus, while the Cavaliers won Game 4, the Celtics won the last three quarters and seemed to find some defensive setups and plays that work for them.

Cleveland, however, has LeBron James.

Finally, we’ve got the kind of playoff drama we have wanted out of these conference finals.