ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

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Last season: A complete mess. The Cavaliers made well-intended moves in free agency in an attempt to make an immediate run at a trip to the postseason, but Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack and especially Andrew Bynum were of no help at all. Mike Brown had zero control of the team as head coach, which became painfully evident to Luol Deng once he got an up-close look at the team in the second half of the season. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters bickered over their roles behind the scenes, and a miserable season ended with the Cavaliers finishing five games out of the playoffs in the dreadful Eastern Conference.

Signature highlight from last season: There were plenty of Kyrie Irving highlights to choose from, but I liked this particular play because it involved three players who should all figure somewhat prominently in Cleveland’s success in the upcoming season. Matthew Dellavedova uses an Anderson Varejao screen to perfection, then finds a cutting Dion Waiters with a gorgeous pass to set up an athletic, one-handed reverse slam dunk.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Cavaliers season:

The players: The Cavaliers undoubtedly made the biggest summer splash by overhauling things completely, adding superstar talent while still retaining the team’s core players. Once LeBron James committed to returning home to Cleveland, the team went all out to fortify the roster, trading unproven lottery picks for an established All-Star in Kevin Love, and then signing some key veteran role players to round things out.

Cleveland should be one of the best teams in the league offensively, with enough firepower to simply outscore their opponents most nights. But the defensive end of the floor is a concern, as is the lack of depth on the frontline. Once you get past Love, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, things get dicey fairly quickly, and Varejao, remember, has had trouble staying healthy for the bulk of his recent seasons. The Cavs will be looking at guys like Lou Amundson in training camp, who may have a shot to make the roster.

As for the positives, scoring should come fairly easily, with James, Love, Irving and Waiters all being capable scorers. It will take time to sort out the hierarchy of how the shots get distributed, and it will also take time for the young guys like Irving and Waiters to understand how to play alongside James without deferring too much. But there’s a long 82-game regular season for them to figure all that out, and simply from a pure talent standpoint, the Cavaliers have instantly become one of the favorites to take home the title.

The coach: Cleveland went in a different direction after the Mike Brown disaster of a season ago, hiring well-respected and experienced David Blatt, who built a pristine reputation and a long, successful career coaching overseas. It should be viewed as a huge positive that the organization hired a career coach with tons of experience, and one who is coming off of a championship season with Maccabi Tel Aviv — as opposed to an NBA retread who was fired from his last position.

Blatt has 33 years playing and coaching in Europe, and to a certain extent, basketball is basketball, so the transition shouldn’t be all that bumpy. But it is worth noting that he hasn’t coached in the NBA, where not only is the game different, but so are the player personalities. Blatt was hired before LeBron was confirmed to return, which obviously was a pleasant surprise. But he’ll be thrown into the fire quite quickly, and if things take longer than expected to come together, how he handles it all will be a key factor in the end result of this Cavaliers season.

The pressure: When LeBron left Cleveland to sign with Miami four years ago, the Heat immediately became rock stars. The media crush was palpable, and the team was expected to win on a nightly basis. There was talk of them surpassing Chicago’s record of 72 regular season wins, and every loss was met with an avalanche of criticism, along with questions of whether or not the team had what it took to ultimately become champions.

That Miami team was led by Pat Riley in the front office, and coached by his protege in Erik Spoelstra — both of whom had resumes full of previous championship experience. And, veterans like Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem were similarly there to help keep the panic in check and keep the team focused when there was nothing but constant hysteria surrounding them.

It’s very different in Cleveland. Not only is Blatt inexperienced with this type of situation in the NBA, but Love has never made it to the playoffs even once in six NBA seasons. The Cavaliers as a franchise haven’t been there since James was last on the roster, so it’ll be interesting to see how the team reacts to the circus-like atmosphere that is firmly in place now that LeBron, along with the championship-level expectations, have returned to town.

Why you should watch: LeBron James is the game’s best player, and he’s in the prime of his career. Add Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to the mix, and you have essentially the makings of an All-Star team in the starting lineup every single night. If you’re not a fan, of course, there’s the potential train wreck factor — root for Cleveland to go on a three-game losing streak early on, and watch the ensuing chaos.

Prediction: There should be no reason that the Cavaliers finish anywhere outside of being one of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. I think the Bulls have a chance to be better, especially on the defensive end of the floor, but a lot of that hinges on Derrick Rose, which hasn’t worked out all that well the past two seasons.

Cleveland could certainly compete for a title in its first season with all of these new pieces in place, which would make a ridiculous five straight trips to the Finals for LeBron James. I don’t see a championship for the Cavaliers due to a lack of depth and too many new parts needing to fit together seamlessly, but it’s realistic to expect that they get extremely close.

After four months off, first NBA teams practice in restart bubble

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotel and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the (hashtag)JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor.

Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”

Zion Williamson’s stepfather accused of taking $400,000 before Zion’s season at Duke

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The legal fight over NBA rookie Zion Williamson’s endorsement potential now includes an allegation that his family received $400,000 from a marketing agency before his lone season for Duke.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed a lawsuit last summer in a Florida state court, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. That came a week after Williamson filed his own lawsuit in a North Carolina federal court to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

In court filings Thursday in North Carolina, Ford’s attorneys included a sworn affidavit from a California man who said the head of a Canadian-based firm called Maximum Management Group (MMG) told him he paid Williamson’s family for his commitment to sign with MMG once he left Duke for the NBA.

The documents include a marketing agreement signed by Williamson with MMG from May 2019, a December 2019 “letter of declaration” signed by Williamson and his stepfather agreeing to pay $500,000 to MMG president Slavko Duric for “repayment of a loan” from October 2018, and a copy of Williamson’s South Carolina driver’s license — which listed Williamson’s height as “284” and his weight as “6′06.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, Williamson attorney, Jeffrey S. Klein, said those documents were “fraudulent.”

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent – and neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealings with them,” Klein said. “We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.

“This is a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball.”

The affidavit is from Donald Kreiss, a self-described entrepreneur who worked with athletes and agents in marketing relationships. He had recently contacted Ford then provided the affidavit last week outlining interactions with MMG and Williamson’s family, according to one of the filings.

Ford’s attorneys have sought to focus on Williamson’s eligibility. His lawsuit stated that Prime Sports violated North Carolina’s sports agent law, both by failing to include disclaimers about the loss of eligibility when signing the contract and the fact neither Prime Sports nor Ford were registered with the state.

Ford’s attorneys have argued the Uniform Athlete Agents Act wouldn’t apply if Williamson was ineligible to play college basketball from the start.

Ford’s attorneys had sought to have last summer’s No. 1 overall NBA draft pick and New Orleans Pelicans rookie answer questions in Florida state court about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils. They had also raised questions about housing for Williamson’s family during his Duke career in a separate filing in North Carolina.

A Florida appeals court last month granted a stay to pause the proceedings there, shifting the focus to the North Carolina case.

Duke has repeatedly declined to comment on the case because it isn’t involved in the litigation, but issued a statement in January that school had reviewed Williamson’s eligibility previously and found no concerns.

Russell Westbrook, James Harden do not fly to Orlando with Rockets, will join team later

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The Houston Rockets have landed in Orlando to be part of the NBA’s restart bubble.

Except for stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Neither was on the team’s charter flight from Houston, but both plan to join the team soon. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news, with the story confirmed by others soon after.

Just-signed Luc Mbah a Moute and assistant coach John Lucas also did not fly with the team and will catch up soon, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Westbrook and Harden are not the only stars to delay their arrival in Orlando, the Clippers Kawhi Leonard did the same for personal reasons. The teams have agreed to this, but with limited practice time in the run-up to the eight seeding games, coaches want everyone in camp to work on rebuilding chemistry as fast as possible.

Coach Mike D’Antoni did fly with the team and was cleared to be in the bubble. D’Antoni, 69, was subject to extra consideration for entrance into the bubble by the NBA due to his age and the risk factors for people older than 65 with COVID-19.

The Rockets are one of the most interesting teams to watch in Orlando because of their all-in commitment to small ball — 6’5″ P.J. Tucker will play a lot of center. In the uncertain world of the NBA’s restart, that unconventional approach could get them upset wins. Or, they could get bounced early. There is no more high-variance team in Orlando than the Rockets.

Knicks’ coaching job frontrunner Tom Thibodeau interviews with team

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Tom Thibodeau has been considered the frontrunner for the Knicks coaching job since the day Leon Rose was hired as team president.

New York has done its due diligence talking to other candidates — Jason Kidd, Kenny Atkinson, Mike Woodson, Mike Brown, Ime Udoka, Will Hardy, Pat Delaney, Jamahl Mosley, Chris Fleming, and Knicks interim coach Mike Miller — but through it all Thibodeau remained the frontrunner, according to multiple sources around the league.

Thursday Thibodeau finally got his turn, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thibodeau wants to return to NBA coaching and his decades-long friendship with Rose appears to give him an inside track.

The big question becomes, is Thibodeau the right fit? Which leads to a couple of other questions: What style of team are the Knicks trying to build? And, how do they intend to build it?

Thibodeau has shown previously to be a win-now coach who leans on veterans and a short rotation. If New York is looking to draft and develop a core of young players that can be a long-lasting foundation for winning in the future, it’s fair to ask if Thibodeau the best coach for that task. Thibodeau says he has grown and will bring a broader perspective to his next job.

The Knicks have a couple of players that could be part of a long-term rebuild, but also feel they are well positioned to trade for a star if one becomes available. As the Lakers did, the Knicks are looking to stockpile good young players, try to win with them, but if the right trade comes along — Anthony Davis for the Lakers — they will send the youth out the door. All of this sounds good, but to make it work, the new coach needs to build a player-development program in New York, something that has never been a strong suit for the franchise.

Whichever way the rebuild goes, and whoever gets the Knicks job, there is a lot of work to do to build a winner.