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.

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.