NBA Season Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

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Last season: Despite the ugly record of 21-45, there was hope last season in Cleveland in the name of Kyrie Irving. The No. 1 draft pick out of Duke was Rookie of the Year and looked like a future All-Star. (Then he carried that over to his performance with the USA Select Team this summer where he impressed.)

That said, the Cavaliers were terrible last season — bottom four in both points scored and points allowed per possession. They might have been the second worst team in basketball, they at least looked like it at times. They have a long, long way to go. But there is hope.

Key Departures: It was time to let Antawn Jamison go, the veteran could not be part of the rebuilding process in Cleveland. But that is still 17.2 points per game gone from an unimpressive offense to begin with. None of the other departures are going to hurt much.

Key Additions: Cavaliers GM Chris Grant is going with the Thunder model of rebuilding through the draft and for the third straight year had a top 5 pick, this time using it on Dion Waiters out of Syracuse, picturing him as a guy they can pair with Irving in the back court. We’ll see.

But the guy that may have a bigger impact this year is draft pick Tyler Zeller, the big man out of North Carolina. He is solid, runs the floor well and may never be an NBA star, but he can be a solid part of what is being built. A couple other pickups to watch are C.J. Miles getting minutes behind Irving, plus Kelenna Azubuike who if he gets healthy could make an impact.

Three keys to the Cavaliers season:

1) How good can Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters be? This is not really a one-year question. We will not have all the answers come April. But it may be the biggest question facing Cavaliers long term.

Cleveland had three top four picks the last couple years and out of that we are sure that Kyrie Irving is the real deal. But if you are following the Thunder model, you still need to get your Russell Westbrook and James Harden picks, and nobody is sold yet that the Cavaliers have those.

Thompson was nice as a rookie, 8.3 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, decent touch around the rim but needs some range. The question is what kind of leap can he make this season. Waiters was unimpressive and not in NBA condition at Summer League, can he show he deserved to be the No. 4 pick? It’s easy to look at the guys taken behind Thompson (Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard) and Waiters (Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Thomas Robinson) but the Cavaliers players deserve the chance to prove they were the right calls. They deserve three years each to show that they can develop.

But that development is key to the Cavaliers’ future.

2) Can Kyrie Irving help generate enough offense for Cleveland? Make no mistake, Irving is very good. He is the face of the franchise, he is the guy people in other markets buy tickets to see. He is a guy who can not only score but make the players around him better.

But can he develop into a true franchise anchor player? Can he generate enough offense for the Cavaliers to be dangerous? Cleveland is young and just figuring out where their points will come from, and a lot of that burden is going to fall on Irving now (especially with Jamison gone).

Again, we don’t know for sure, but this feels more like a yes. Not because of his 18.5 points and 5.4 assists per game as a rookie on a bad team, although that doesn’t hurt. But rather it feels like a yes because of the rave reviews of Irving from the USA Select Team. That squad of young players pushed Team USA in practices and scrimmages before the London Olympics, and the reports on Irving were that he impressed. It feels like he can keep improving and be something special, a guy who can control and generate the offense Cleveland will need. It just might not all come this year.

3) Will Dan Gilbert be patient? Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert was frustrated in the wake of LeBron James leaving, and he said some impatient things. I think we can all understand why, even while we think he should have been more mature.

But can he be patient now. The Cavaliers are on a slow building course and while they will be better this year they will not be the Heat. They won’t even be the Nets. They likely will not even be the Bucks.

Can Gilbert be patient and let this team improve slowly over a few seasons? Or will he get impatient and order young parts to be traded away for veterans that can win now? My belief is that he can be patient, that he is willing to take the long view. But if there are bumps in the road, how will he react?

What Cavaliers fans should fear: That the answer to No. 1 above — the question about how good Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters can be — is not very good. Drafting is an inexact science and some top picks do not pan out, while others surprise. But Cleveland has had the rare chance at three top 4 picks in the past couple drafts and they need to have more to show for it than just Irving. They need other top players, not just eventual role players. They need Thompson and Waiters to pain out (or at least one of them).

How it likely works out: Cleveland is going to be better this year, they are on the right path to building a good team. Irving is going to make a leap forward and will be a borderline All-Star (it’s hard to be an All-Star point guard in the East with Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo already). Thompson will get better. Dion Waiters will show some promise. Someone like Alonzo Gee will step forward. I think Tyler Zeller will turn out to be a nice pickup.

This is a young team that will take a step forward. But that is not enough to make the playoffs, not yet.

Don’t be shocked if the Cavaliers make trades to stockpile more picks and young players this season. They have about another year of that before then need to start thinking about what veterans to put with their young core.

Prediction: 34-48, finishing around the 10 seed in the East and out of the playoffs. But there will be signs of progress. It’s a slow process sometimes, but the Cavaliers are on the right path.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

Associated Press
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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.

 

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk… into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.

Watch James Harden drop 54 to lead Houston past Orlando

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — James Harden found his 3-point shooting touch — again.

Harden scored 54 points, matching the team record of 10 3-pointers he set in Houston’s last game in the Rockets’ 130-107 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.

“I just want to win,” Harden said simply. “Whatever it takes.”

Harden scored 50 or more for the fifth time this season and the fourth time in his last seven games. The rest of the NBA has combined for only five such games this season.

Harden was 10 of 15 from long range and 19 of 31 overall from the field. He also had a seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes, receiving a loud ovation from the Orlando crowd when he headed to the bench in the final minutes.

“I feel like we lost against just him tonight,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “He’s the MVP for a reason. We talked about in pregame that he’ll take shots, and we’ll just live with the results. He did not miss tonight, period.”

Harden set the Houston record for 3-pointers with 10 in 18 attempts Wednesday night in a 55-point game in a victory at Cleveland.

“When he’s shooting over the top like that, I don’t know what you can do,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said.

Russell Westbrook added 23 points for Houston. The Rockets were 22 of 39 from 3-point range, setting a record for the most 3-pointers by any Magic opponent in franchise history.

“We just shot the ball extremely well,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “When James is like that, it’s hard for anybody to really beat us … no matter what kind of defense you’re going to throw, we’ve got guys.”

The Rockets pulled away in the second quarter, with Harden scoring 18 points, including Houston’s last 11 for a 59-49 lead.

Fournier led Orlando with 27 points. Aaron Gordon added 21. The Magic have lost three straight after winning four in a row.

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard combine for 88 points in Clippers win

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s hard to stop Paul George. It’s hard to stop Kawhi Leonard. It’s really hard to stop both at the same time.

George and Leonard showed what the Los Angeles Clippers had in mind when they teamed up the superstar duo Friday night. George scored 46 points, Kawhi Leonard had 42 and the Clippers held on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 124-117 for their fourth consecutive victory.

“It’s special, two guys offensively,” George said. “The thing about it is, we’re dishing, finding each other, feeding each other. And then when we have moments to be aggressive, we’re looking to get aggressive, attack, look for our shots. It’s great when both guys can get it going”

Leonard and George became the first set of teammates in Clippers’ history to each score 40 points. It was the 21st time in NBA history it has happened. The last time it was done, it also involved George. He and Russell Westbrook did it for Oklahoma City last season.

Leonard and George’s previous high this season came Dec. 1, when they combined for 65 points against Washington.

“It’s great that we can have somebody else out there to help scoring the ball, making the game easier for myself,” Leonard said. “We’re still trying to build our chemistry out there.”

Karl-Anthony Towns had 39 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which lost its seventh in a row. Towns had 14 points, including a 4-point play, in a 22-6 fourth-quarter run that trimmed a 21-point Los Angeles lead to five.

Andrew Wiggins added 34 points for the Timberwolves. His basket with 1:04 left cut the Clippers’ lead to 119-115. Minnesota didn’t get closer than four the rest of the way.

“Disappointed from the loss, but we fought back,” Wiggins said. “We were down big. Dug ourselves a hole. We fought back though. We went out swinging.”

Leonard and George set the tone early, combining to score the first 23 points for a Clippers team playing without Lou Williams, who sat out with a calf injury. In his absence, George and Leonard accounted for 54 of Los Angeles’ 65 first-half points. They became the first duo to each score 35 or more points through the first three quarters of a game in the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Leonard made a career-high 19 free throws. He was 19 for 19 from the line.

“That was great,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We knew without Lou tonight, every play was basically for those two guys. And they came up big.”

The Timberwolves took a 51-50 lead in the second quarter with a 15-2 run, capped by a Towns 3-pointer. Leonard responded with seven consecutive points to give the Clippers the lead for good.

George started the third quarter with a 7-0 run of his own. He scored 16 in the third, when Los Angeles took control by outscoring Minnesota 37-23.

“Forty-six and forty-two, they make it very tough on you,” Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said.

Leonard’s 31 first-half points set a career high for points in a half. He tied a career high for points in a first quarter with 16.

“We got into our spots early, made shots,” Leonard said. “Paul carried us in that second half.”

Montrezl Harrell scored 18 points for the Clippers. Jeff Teague scored 22 for the Timberwolves.