The Inbounds: A Hive In Construction; How to Protect Anthony Davis With Robin Lopez

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Hang on to your monitors, I’m going to get through the rest of this column without mentioning the busted CP3-to-the-Lakers trade. You ready? Break!

When the Hornets agreed to terms with the Suns and Wolves in a three-way trade Sunday night, it wasn’t anything that was going to be bust over Ichiro Hamel’s new deal A-Rod breaking his hand. It was a minor deal. But it was yet another example of what has become the modus operandi of Dell Demps this offseason. It’s an understated move with positional variability which sacrifices neither cap space or crucial assets.

Here’s how quickly these things shift. Had the Suns just recommitted the money to Robin Lopez, who has never established himself as the center Phoenix needs, but has consistently scraped the ceiling of legitimacy enough to keep people interested, it probably would have been panned. Now, the Hornets reached good value on Lopez at three-years, $15 million according to Yahoo Sports, but part of that value is inherently due to what a legit center means for New Orleans, versus what it means for Phoenix.

The Suns, with Marcin Gortat, didn’t need to overpay for Lopez. (After all, they’d already overpaid for Michael Beasley, badum-ching.) They needed a little extra money going forward and to dump Hakim Warrick’s deal. It would have been a better move had they not already gone on a spending spree to try and remake the team immediately after Steve Nash’s departure and been more patient, but moving dead money long-term for short-term dead money (Brad Miller’s retired contract) isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing.

But the Hornets? They needed Lopez. They needed a center, and they needed to not overpay for a center. Lopez gives them everything they need. He’s a fill-in, a decent starter for a lottery team, a player who could surprise everyone and make the leap but if he doesn’t, you’re not drowning at that position. Long-term, there have to be upgrades at every spot but shooting guard and power forward for the Hornets. And that’s fine. They’ve got time. But the biggest key to next season for the Hornets is cohesiveness and the development of Anthony Davis.

Since the Hornets liquidated Emeka Okafor along with Trevor Ariza in the deal to clear cap space in a move for buyout-able Rashard Lewis, there has been talk about what it means for Davis’ positional future. Even in an NBA that is hurtling towards positional liquidity like the big-boned kid off the diving board, you can’t simply expect any player to be any position. They still have to have the ability to succeed at any given position’s set of requirements. In the case of center, Davis fails several smell tests. He’s incredibly long, but razor thin, it’s going to take years for his frame to catch up with his length, and there’s no guarantee that will happen at all, though muscle training will only make him more versatile and dangerous. I like to put this in perspective by saying that Michael Kidd Gilchrist has a substantial weight advantage on Davis. Think about that.

This isn’t to question Davis’ ability to succeed, far from it. We’re on the verge of seeing one of the truly most unique and impactful defensive players of the past ten years make his debut, I believe, and Davis’ talents can make up fora great many physical mass issues. But it’s crucial that the Hornets put him in a position to succeed right away, and depending on him to handle guys with considerably more muscle weight. It’s fine to speak to the lack of talent at the center position, but if you give a big guy the ball in the post with someone he can slam his shoulder into and create separation, there’s going to be scoring. More importantly, though, there’s going to be damage to the smaller player as the impact alone will wear on and injure a player like Davis having to play down in position to that degree.

It’s best put this way. The Lopez move, along with re-signing Jason Smith, adding Ryan Anderson and throwing in Hakim Warrick means that Davis won’t be slotted at the five, and will be best placed in a position to use his singular talents, as I always felt were best expressed here:

 

With Davis as unstoppable pterodactyl, there are a great many things Monty Williams can employ with Lopez along. While the rest of the league is gearing small-ball line-ups, the Hornets can throw out a big lineup with Ryan Anderson, Davis, and Lopez that doesn’t surrender much in the way of pick-and-roll containment or perimeter length. Anderson’s defense needs help defenders behind him, and Lopez will require double-team help if faced against a post player who can dribble and chew gum at the same time, and absolutely, there will be times when Davis is just a rookie getting schooled.

But it puts Davis in the best position to succeed.

It’s not that Davis can’t spend time at the five. He should. It’ll be good for him to learn about post position in the NBA, challenging guys on-ball with frame advantages that prevent him from being able to block it, and will allow him to give weak-side help off that previously-mentioned weak center class, where he should be electric. But it’s important that Davis not be faced with covering for the roster issues of a team in a rebuild. The Hornets will have positional weakness, but they have to protect Davis from those. Some tough love is good for him. Breaking his spirit and body with a set of positional demands that put too much physical and emotional strain on him is not a good plan for development.

The Hornets will still run plenty of small-ball lineups. Anderson and Davis should see substantial time on the floor together, and should a center come available wherever the Hornets draft next year, you have to imagine they’ll be examining that player, along with the best available point guard (Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon on the same team is a whole other boondoggle). You can expect to see Davis and Warrick, Davis and Smith, Anderson and Smith, and a more traditional Anderson and Lopez, which gives them an opening night rotation down low if Davis isn’t ready yet. But Lopez is going to get the job done next to Davis, and on the list of players who you look at and think they may be able to take a leap in production, he’s on there. He could wind up being a steal for the Hornets. A hidden element in the NBA as of late has been the development timelines at different positions. Point guards blossom early, wings sometime around 24 to 25, and bigs closer to 27. Lopez will be 26 in the last year of his deal, and may be giving the team an idea of what he can do. He fits both as a place-holder and a possible long-term investment.

Like I said, subtle, quiet, and important, the Dell Demps offseason.

Now about where the Hornets would be if Stern hadn’t blocked that trade…

Cavaliers were clutch all season, then again in it’s biggest moment

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The Cleveland Cavaliers had the point differential of a 43-39 team this season, just a couple of games above .500. Yet they finished the season 50-32, seven games better than their differential suggested — the highest variance in the NBA.

Why? Because LeBron James and the Cavaliers were clutch. In games that were within five points in the final five minutes this season, Cleveland was 30-15 with a +18.2 points per 100 net rating (second best in the NBA, behind Houston).

That has carried over to the playoffs, where the Cavaliers came into Game 7 Sunday night 6-1 in clutch games with an insane +36.2 per 100.

Game 7 was another clutch one — it was 76-72 Cleveland with five minutes to go — and once again the Cavaliers won, advancing to the NBA Finals. This is the fourth straight year for this team, and the eighth year in a row for LeBron to make it to the NBA’s biggest stage.

In the final five minutes of Game 7, LeBron had six points, while the Boston Celtics team had 7. When we say the Cavaliers are clutch, it all starts with LeBron (as do all things Cavaliers at this point).

“He craves those moments. He loves those moments,” Kyle Korver said after LeBron was clutch in the Cavaliers’ Game 6 win that set up Sunday’s showdown, but what he said applies now, too. “When the game’s on the line, when the season’s on the line, he’s been rising up. That’s what the great players do.”

LeBron accepts that challenge, and through the postseason he has had an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, with a ridiculous 44.3 percent usage rate. Bottom line, he has had to carry the Cavaliers in the clutch, and he has done so efficiently.

“I’m the leader of this team, and I’m going to give what I’ve got,” LeBron said. “My teammates, they respect that.”

It’s going to take more than clutch LeBron and friends to win in the Finals — both of the teams in the West are much tougher than anything the Cavaliers have seen so far. However, we know that LeBron is going to give everything he has left.

And if the game is close late, don’t bet against the Cavaliers.

 

 

 

Jayson Tatum throws down epic dunk on LeBron James (VIDEO)

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The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers held a barnburner of a Game 7 on Sunday, with Boston’s Jayson Tatum going head-to-head with LeBron James.

For his part, LeBron was everything we expected in a Game 7. The King played spectacularly, willing his Cavaliers squad to yet another NBA Finals appearance as Cleveland edged Boston.

But before things were sealed, and the game decided, Tatum got off a raucous dunk right in James’ eye that made many wonder if the torch was on the cusp of being passed.

The play came with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter with Tatum driving down the lane and LeBron moving over to help recover on defense. It would have been easy to anticipate another big LeBron playoff block, but Tatum continued his surprising season by dunking all over The King.

Via Twitter:

Cleveland won the game, 87-79, but Tatum’s dunk on the big stage is just one of many reasons why the Celtics are going to be a complete hassle next year when they’re back to being fully healthy.

LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time

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He’s done it again. LeBron James, the King in the East, played 48 minutes en route to his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance after beating the Boston Celtics in Game 7 at TD Garden on Sunday, 87-79.

Bow down to the greatest player of all-time.

Much has been made of LeBron’s place in history as his legacy has began to galvanize toward the end of his career. The conversation has raged on about LeBron vs. Michael Jordan, or Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Preference varies greatly between fans, while some still pick the centrist route and say there’s no simple way to compare across eras. There’s been mathematical attempts to rank the two, and even MJ’s old teammates have said LeBron is a more complete player.

On Sunday, James bounced yet another Eastern Conference Finals opponent, carrying his teammates on his shoulders and playing without All-Star Kevin Love. There was never a doubt for many watching Sunday’s matchup in Massachusetts. Before the final buzzer, LeBron had won 23 straight Eastern Conference playoff series. His determination was absolute, and the cards were always stacked against Boston even given their postseason record at home.

You could sort of just see it coming.

James was the motivating force in the first half for Cleveland, scoring 17 points while no other teammates tallied in double digits. The Cavaliers shot an abysmal 12 percent from beyond the arc, and the Celtics looked like they would be able to control the rest of the game as the crowd at home motivated them forward.

But Cleveland came roaring back in the second half, continuing to put on a defensive show, the kind we would not have expected of them during the regular season. Without Love, the Cavs had to make do with Jeff Green, who turned in a surprising performance. Green scored 19 points, shot 50 percent from the field, and grabbed eight rebounds.

In the face of a strengthening Cavaliers attack, the Celtics seems to retreat. Boston’s final offensive possessions in the fourth quarter were hectic, slow, and unsuccessful. While the Cavaliers tried their hardest during the final eight minutes to get Al Horford switched on to LeBron in isolation sets, the Celtics surprisingly mirrored the same offensive tactics. Instead of playing their regular offense, or running plays to get shooters free, or trying to attack the paint against James (who was in foul trouble) Boston resorted to trying to exploit any mismatches found through Cleveland’s switches.

The result was four field goals inside the 3-point line for LeBron in the fourth quarter, as much as the entire Celtics roster combined.

The play of the game came with 1:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by nine. LeBron was out on the break, with Marcus Morris trailing behind him. Morris went to foul LeBron, making no obvious attempts on the ball as he grabbed onto the Cavaliers star’s shoulders. Even with all of his might, Morris couldn’t stop James from scoring while drawing the foul. It was indicative of the entire fourth quarter for the Celtics, who scraped, clutched and grabbed as much as they could but did not have an answer for LeBron.

So here we are, with LeBron having won another Game 7 out in the Eastern Conference as he heads to another Finals. He probably won’t match Jordan’s championship mark. But Jordan didn’t match Russell’s. Or Horry’s. Or Havlichek’s, either.

Instead, we have to rely on what we see in front of our eyes combined with their dominance, weighted for context. Sunday night’s performance should help push LeBron over Jordan, if he wasn’t there already. James is a more complete player, which has always been apparent, and now he’s survived every challenge that’s been thrown at him. Declaring James the best player of all-time did not come because of Sunday’s game. It’s been years in the making, throughout the entirety of his 15-year career. The win over Boston was just an indication of his place in history.

LeBron has gone nuclear with 40+ point performances. He was part of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the Golden State Warriors. He beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself, in the playoffs, just this very season. James has had a career season at age 33, playing 48 minutes in the 100th game of the 2017-18 season. LeBron has willed his way to yet another NBA Finals, with perhaps his worst team since the 2006-07 squad that was swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the season’s final series. To add to the accomplishment, LeBron pushed this Cavaliers squad past a stunningly good team in the Celtics, on the road, and without Love.

James is the greatest American sports story of our generation, and he’s the best player the NBA has ever seen. If you disagree, that’s OK. But after Sunday night, you’d be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.

Watch Victor Oladipo drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 (VIDEO)

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Victor Oladipo is Indiana’s favorite son after the Indiana Pacers guard blasted through the competition during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Oladipo averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and led the league with 2.4 steals per game. Oladipo’s 3-point shooting improved year-over-year, and his VORP skyrocketed in his new leadership role. Many feel the Pacers won the Paul George trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks to Oladipo.

Thanks in part to his stellar play, Oladipo was invited to drive the pace car at the start of the 2018 Indianapolis 500. Turns out he was pretty good at it.

Via Twitter:

Oladipo is apparently going to be honored with the steering wheel from the pace car he drove. No doubt taking part in a classic local sporting event like the Indy 500 will help ingrain Oladipo into the sports fabric in Indianapolis even further.