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.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard meeting with Clippers set for July 2

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Kawhi Leonard will tip the balance of power this summer.

Whatever the Finals MVP decides with his free agency — stay with the Raptors, come to the Clippers, something else entirely — will change the landscape of the NBA. Wherever he goes that team will be an instant contender, with the Raptors and Clippers long having been the frontrunners and everyone else trying to get their foot in the door.

His decision likely will not drag out, but it’s not going to be LeBron James last summer “let’s do this so I can go on vacation” instant, either, if we believe this report from Frank Isola of The Athletic.

Of course, this report would be unofficial/off the record because teams cannot yet officially reach out to players or agents, and we know there is no tampering in the NBA. (Read that last sentence again in your best sarcastic voice to get the full impact.)

In Los Angeles, the Clipper hype has led to billboards.

If the Clipper meeting is July 2, in Los Angeles we presume, the question becomes when is the Toronto meeting? June 30/July 1 in Toronto, giving the Clippers the last shot? Or, are the first couple of days meetings with other teams that are longshots — Knicks, Lakers, Mavericks, etc. — just to get them out of the way.

It has long been rumored to be a two-team race for Leonard’s services. On the one hand is the chance to return home and become the leader of a 48-win Clippers team poised to be a threat for years to come if they land a superstar. (The Lakers have never been a serious consideration for Leonard, according to sources, for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say he’s not a superteam kind of guy.)

On the other hand is a Raptors team where he was given room to recover and be himself, and where he just won a ring. A city where he was fully embraced by the fans.

Also remember Leonard is at eight seasons of NBA service, meaning the max of this next contract is for 30 percent of the cap (a starting salary around $33 million next season). After two more seasons, he will have 10 years of service and be eligible for 35 percent of the cap (a starting salary of $38 million right now, and with the cap expected to go up the next couple of years it will be higher than that in reality). Despite the injury history, is Leonard willing to bet on himself and sign a two-year contract to get to the larger max, then re-sign?

The leading theory floating around the league now is Leonard signs a short deal in Toronto, then re-enters the market in a year or two. But it’s just a theory. Nobody really knows because Leonard does not tip his hand. About the only thing we seem to know his he will meet with the Clippers on July 2.

Ex-Sacramento Kings exec gets 7 years for siphoning $13.4M

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A former top Sacramento Kings executive was sentenced Monday to seven years in prison for siphoning $13.4 million from the team.

Jeffrey David, 44, the team’s former chief revenue officer, pleaded guilty in December to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

David diverted the sponsorship payments of five companies to a bank account he controlled from October 2012 through July 2016, using the money to buy and remodel Southern California beachfront properties, pay for a private jet membership and pay off credit card bills.

“The brazen scheme involved forgeries, stolen corporate executive identities, money laundering and even instructing a former colleague to destroy evidence,” U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott said in a statement. “Today’s sentence should deter others from committing substantial frauds such as this one.”

David’s lawyer, Mark Reichel, disagreed with the sentence from U.S. District Judge William Shubb.

“We see no appropriate purpose served by a sentence this lengthy,” Reichel wrote in an email, citing David’s “tremendous life work” before and after his crimes as cause for a reduced sentence.

“The Kings received back every single penny of the previously purloined money, and Mr. David worked very hard to make sure that happened. He is tremendously remorseful,” Reichel said.

The Kings have received over $13.2 million in restitution to date, according to the Department of Justice.

David is scheduled to begin his sentence on Aug. 20.

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss: “I have 100 percent confidence in Rob Pelinka”

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Internally, the Lakers believe they are on the right track: They signed LeBron James as a free agent, they spent years acquiring assets then turned those assets into Anthony Davis, and they believe the roster that will take the court next season will bring vindication for the front office and ownership group. The Lakers believe they will be back on top, where they belong.

From the outside, um, let’s just say there are doubts around the league. Doubts about all the picks — particularly the pick swaps and deferments — that the Lakers gave up to get Davis and now that could hurt them in the future. There are doubts about the ability of Rob Pelinka to build out a roster around LeBron and Davis that is truly a threat.

Jeanie Buss has no such doubts. Speaking to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times (and other reporters) at the NBA Awards show Monday, Buss expressed nothing but confidence in Pelinka and the Lakers’ staff.

“I’ve always had confidence in Rob, whatever the speculation is out there,” Buss said. “We don’t need outside media to validate the things that we do. I’m very happy and I think we’re on the right path.”

“I have 100% confidence in him in running his basketball operations,” Buss said. “He’s brought us a great new head coach in Frank Vogel, whose teams have had a lot of success in the playoffs and who have played consistently ranking high in defense, which means not only does he emphasize defense but the players buy into his defensive schemes.”

The question isn’t Vogel’s credentials, although how a staff with Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, and other veteran coaches with big egos will mesh together is going to be interesting.

The question is talent.

The Lakers have the high end of that with LeBron and Davis, but when you think about the Laker title teams of the past it wasn’t just Shaq and Kobe, it was also Derek Fisher and Robert Horry and Rick Fox and a host of others. The same thing was true in this past Finals — the deeper team won because the Raptors could adapt and handle their star not being 100 percent.

Are the Lakers going to chase another star and then complete the roster with minimum salary players? Or, get two or three quality role players with their cap space to have a deeper team? Has this all been planned out and thought through? Maybe Rob Pelinka builds this roster out beautifully, but we only have one year of experience to judge him on, and that did not go well.

Buss may have confidence, she should, the rest of us are in wait and see mode.

The Greek Freak has arrived, Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Mike Budenholzer came in with a plan — an offense built around the fact no one man on the planet can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It worked. The Bucks won 60 games and had the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer picked up Coach of the Year hardware for his efforts.

Now Antetokounmpo has won the NBA MVP award, edging out James Harden (who chose not to attend the NBA’s awards show in Los Angeles Monday). He was emotional in thanking teammates for helping him reach this point, then talking about his father.

It was a long road to this point, Antetokounmpo was playing second-division ball in Greece when the Bucks drafted him at No. 15 back in 2013. The word we used to describe his game at the time was “raw” — he was a long way from the player he would become. What he also turned out to be was driven. Willing to put in the work, be coached, and put in the long hours to get better and maximize his potential. Antetokounmpo earned the chance to walk up on that stage and accept the MVP award.

Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, but it was his ability to destroy any defender one-on-one that made the Bucks offense work. Either the Greek Freak got to the basket and finished, he drew a foul, or he drew so much attention the shooters that surrounded him on the floor had clean looks of their own. He also was the Bucks best defender, a guy tasked with tough assignments nightly.

Antetokounmpo was the best player on the best team.

Antetokounmpo won the award handily with 941 points to Harden’s 776. The Greek Freak had 78 of the 100 first-place votes.

James Harden — who averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game — finished second in the voting, Paul George of Oklahoma City was third. Harden has finished first or second in the voting for four of the past five seasons. Harden believed he deserved to win and was frustrated with another second.

Antetokounmpo is the first player from Europe to win the MVP award since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007.

Nikola Jokic came in fourth in the voting, Stephen Curry was fifth. Here are the full results: