67RIEFNS No. 56: Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in the playoffs

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The NBA is full of talent, personality and suspense. During the offseason, It’s easy to forget how wonderful the league can be. So, I’ve assembled 67 Reasons I’m Excited For Next Season (67RIEFNS). They’ll be presented in no particular order.

Kevin Love might be the best player ever to miss the playoffs his first six seasons. The way the Cavaliers were going, Kyrie Irving was on pace to join the discussion.

Obviously, playing for the Cavaliers with LeBron James, Love and Irving will break that trend this season. That, in itself, is a good thing. It’s fun to see the NBA’s stars playing such meaningful games.

But just how much can two players without any postseason experience help in late April and beyond?

Since the NBA adopted its current eight-teams-per-conference playoff format in 1984, 47 teams have reached the playoffs with at least two of its top three players (judged by win shares) lacking postseason experience. Of those 47, just three have reached the conference finals (players without postseason experience marked with asterisk):

  • 1989 Suns (Kevin Johnson*, Tom Chambers, Jeff Hornacek*)
  • 2002 Celtics (Paul Pierce*, Antoine Walker*, Tony Battie*
  • 2007 Jazz (Carlos Boozer*, Mehmet Okur, Deron Williams*)

Those might seem like low odds, but consider: Teams led by players lacking playoff experience usually aren’t that good to begin with. Many just sneak into the playoffs with a low seed.

On a whole, the playoff teams with at least two top players making their postseason debuts actually advanced further than their seed would have projected. Here are all 47 such teams with their expected number of playoff series (gold) and actual number of playoff series (wine):

 

 

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  • 2014 TOR: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan*, Jonas Valanciunas*
  • 2013 GSW: Stephen Curry*, David Lee*, Carl Landry
  • 2012 LAC: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin*, DeAndre Jordan*
  • 2011 NYK: Amar’e Stoudemire, Landry Fields*, Danilo Gallinari*
  • 2011 MEM: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol*, Mike Conley*
  • 2011 IND: Danny Granger, Josh McRoberts*, Mike Dunleavy*
  • 2010 OKC: Kevin Durant*, Jeff Green*, Russell Westbrook*
  • 2009 POR: Brandon Roy*, LaMarcus Aldridge*, Joel Przybilla
  • 2009 CHI: Ben Gordon, Joakim Noah*, Derrick Rose*
  • 2008 ATL: Josh Childress*, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith*
  • 2007 UTA: Carlos Boozer*, Mehmet Okur, Deron Williams*
  • 2007 TOR: Chris Bosh*, Anthony Parker*, Jose Calderon*
  • 2007 GSW: Andris Biedrins*, Baron Davis, Monta Ellis*
  • 2006 MIL: Michael Redd, Andrew Bogut*, Bobby Simmons*
  • 2006 LAC: Elton Brand*, Sam Cassell, Chris Kaman*
  • 2005 PHI: Allen Iverson, Kyle Korver*, Andre Iguodala*
  • 2005 CHI: Tyson Chandler*, Kirk Hinrich*, Eddy Curry*
  • 2004 MEM: James Posey*, Pau Gasol*, Shane Battier*
  • 2004 HOU: Yao Ming*, Cuttino Mobley, Steve Francis*
  • 2004 DEN: Andre Miller*, Marcus Camby, Carmelo Anthony*
  • 2002 BOS: Paul Pierce*, Antoine Walker*, Tony Battie*
  • 2001 DAL: Dirk Nowitzki*, Michael Finley*, Steve Nash
  • 2000 TOR: Vince Carter*, Tracy McGrady*, Antonio Davis
  • 1999 MIL: Ray Allen*, Glenn Robinson*, Ervin Johnson
  • 1998 CLE: Wesley Person, Zydrunas Ilgauskas*, Brevin Knight*
  • 1997 MIN: Kevin Garnett*, Tom Gugliotta*, Dean Garrett*
  • 1997 LAC: Loy Vaught, Bo Outlaw*, Darrick Martin*
  • 1996 DET: Grant Hill*, Otis Thorpe, Allan Houston*
  • 1994 ORL: Shaquille O’Neal*, Nick Anderson*, Anfernee Hardaway*
  • 1994 GSW: Latrell Sprewell*, Chris Webber*, Billy Owens
  • 1994 DEN: Dikembe Mutombo*, LaPhonso Ellis*, Bryant Stith*
  • 1993 CHH: Larry Johnson*, Alonzo Mourning*, Muggsy Bogues
  • 1992 NJN: Drazen Petrovic, Derrick Coleman*, Mookie Blaylock*
  • 1992 MIA: Glen Rice*, Grant Long*, Rony Seikaly*
  • 1990 SAS: David Robinson*, Terry Cummings, Willie Anderson*
  • 1989 PHO: Kevin Johnson*, Tom Chambers, Jeff Hornacek*
  • 1988 SAS: Alvin Robertson, Johnny Dawkins*, Frank Brickowski*
  • 1988 NYK: Patrick Ewing*, Mark Jackson*, Bill Cartwright
  • 1988 CLE: Mark Price*, Brad Daugherty*, Hot Rod Williams*
  • 1987 IND: Steve Stipanovich*, Vern Fleming*, Wayman Tisdale*
  • 1987 GSW: Sleepy Floyd*, Larry Smith*, Chris Mullin*
  • 1985 HOU: Hakeem Olajuwon*, Rodney McCray*, Ralph Sampson*
  • 1985 CLE: World B. Free, Phil Hubbard*, Roy Hinson*
  • 1985 CHI: Michael Jordan*, Orlando Woolridge*, Steve Johnson*
  • 1984 KCK: Eddie Johnson*, LaSalle Thompson*, Larry Drew*
  • 1984 DET: Bill Laimbeer*, Isiah Thomas*, Kelly Tripucka*
  • 1984 DAL: Rolando Blackman*, Mark Aguirre*, Brad Davis*

Unlike many of those teams, the Cavaliers will actually be very good. Maybe Love’s and Irving’s inability to reach the postseason reveals defects in their games, but more than anything, I think it speaks to how poorly their franchises had built teams around them. With them – and LeBron – now joining forces, that has obviously changed.

Love and Irving will finally reach the playoffs. Once there, there’s no good reason to believe they can’t contribute to the Cavaliers advancing deep.

Report: Cavaliers seeking first-rounder for Kevin Love, other teams seeking first-rounder for taking Kevin Love

Kevin Love
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Kevin Love doesn’t fit on the Cavaliers.

He’s a good veteran. They’re a bad team. His talent would be better served on a team ready to win now. Cleveland is unlikely to reach that level during Love’s remaining prime.

But…

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:

The Cavs are asking for a first-round pick in exchange for Love, one source with knowledge of the situation said. But teams are actually asking for a first-round pick from Cleveland just to absorb the final 3 1/2 years on his deal.

This is why Love didn’t crack my preseason list of players most likely to get traded this season. He has a $28,942,830 salary this season, and he’s due $91,459,342 over the next three years. The Cavaliers signed him to this contract to be an asset. Other teams view the 31-year-old as a liability.

A first-round pick going in opposite directions is a large gap to overcome.

Still, this is how negotiations work. There’s plenty of time for Cleveland and another team to find common ground.

With Love reportedly preferring a trade, the Cavs might want to help someone who helped them win a championship. They might also benefit from removing a sulking player amid resistance to coach John Beilein.

No other team looks desperate to add an offensively talented power forward. But that could change quickly with an injury, an unrelated trade or even just the progression of a season.

Love getting traded would be unsurprising. It also doesn’t appear close to happening.

Report: Knicks considering hiring new coach during season

Knicks coach Mike Miller
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The Knicks lost eight straight games then fired David Fizdale as coach.

The losing streak reached 10 games under interim coach Mike Miller, culminating with a 28-point setback to the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. New York blew a 22-point lead to the lowly Warriors last night, but rallied in overtime to finally end the skid.

Still, Miller hasn’t exactly galvanized the Knicks.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

there have already been ownership-level discussions about hiring a new coach in-season if the team continues to crater, according to sources.

I bet Knicks president Steve Mills wants to hire a new coach. Mills is on the hot seat, and he could sell owner James Dolan on getting a chance to build the roster around a new coach. It’d be like when Mills seized control of the front office by signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a huge contract before Dolan could find another lead executive to replace Phil Jackson.

Dolan should fire Mills by the start of next offseason and let Mills’ replacement pick a coach. Mills has done a poor job. Hiring a new coach now would only bother potential replacement executives.

This is a lost year for New York. Maybe a better coach could help avoid some embarrassing setbacks, but the Knicks won’t accomplish anything notable this year. They might as well just enjoy the silver lining that all their errors will net another high draft pick.

In the last three decades, just two teams have ousted multiple head coaches for performance during a season:

  • 2014-15 Kings: Mike Malone and Tyrone Corbin to hire  George Karl
  • 2004-05 Nuggets: Jeff Bzdelik and Michael Cooper to hire George Karl

Karl is available. So are more-mentioned names like Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. Though it hasn’t happened in a while, a team could also pluck another team’s assistant coach during the season.

Devonte’ Graham keeps exceeding expectations, including his own

Devonte' Graham
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Devonte' Graham signed with Appalachian State.

It made sense at the time. His next-best scholarship offer came from Murray State. He didn’t view himself as an elite prospect bound to get better offers. Several of his AAU teammates had already committed. So, Graham pledged to play for the middling Southern Conference team that hasn’t produced an NBA player since the professional league’s infancy.

Seven years later, Graham hardly resembles that unconfident kid. He appears in complete control on the court, leading the Hornets and building a strong case for Most Improved Player.

But shades of the mindset that nearly drove Graham to Appalachian State persist and have helped him reach this point.

***

Charlotte’s prized acquisition this offseason was Terry Rozier, a hyped young point guard to replace Kemba Walker. The Hornets gave Rozier a three-year, $56.7 million contract.

Graham hoped to succeed retired Tony Parker as backup point guard.

Once again, Graham didn’t believe enough in himself. The minimum-salaried Graham has forced his way into the starting lineup, sharing the backcourt with Rozier. It’s a tenable, though unideal, fit. The Hornets often stagger the point guards. Graham is just too good to limit to backup minutes.

“We’re figuring that out on the fly,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said.

Graham is averaging 20 points and eight assist per game. He’s launching nine 3-pointers per game and making 43% of them. His real plus-minus (+3.13) ranks ninth among point guards.

If the Hornets knew Graham would be this good, they might not have signed-and-traded for Rozier.

To be fair, how could they have seen this coming?

***

Graham entered last year’s NBA draft looking like a prototypical college star who’d peak on that level. He was undersized (6-foot-1) and relatively old (23). Charlotte drafted him No. 34.

That itself was an accomplishment considering where Graham started.

He blossomed on the court his senior of high school and, finally realizing he could get bigger offers, decommitted from Appalachian State. But Appalachian State held him to his letter of intent. So, Graham enrolled at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where he continued to impress.

Eventually, Appalachian State fired the coach who refused to release Graham. Jason Capel’s replacement, Jim Fox, set Graham free.

A premier recruit, Graham went to Kansas. It was a big stage for someone who originally didn’t want want to stray too far from his mother, grandmother and sister in North Carolina.

In Lawrence, Jayhawks coach Bill Self urged Graham to shoot more and told him not to worry about getting subbed out. After Graham came off the bench as a freshman, Self told Graham to expect to start the rest of his college career. To Self, it was a simple assessment. To Graham, it was an inspirational message that stuck with him.

Graham started all but two of his games the next three years (coming off the bench once because he overslept and once so a teammate could start on senior day). Graham became Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American.

“He’s the sweetest, nicest, most popular kid on our campus, hands down,” Self said. “Hands down, the most popular kid on our campus. Everybody adored him. He ran this place as much as a college student could.

“We used to get letters in the mail all the time about what a great kid Devonte’ Graham was. ‘We saw him at Wal-Mart, and he walked out to the car and took pictures with everybody’ or just whatever. He’s just an amazing kid.”

From there, Graham joined a Hornets team with Kemba Walker and Tony Parker at point guard. Graham spent most of last season out of the rotation.

How did Graham handle going from Big Man On Campus to such a limited role?

“It’s something that a lot of people might not be used to, but I wasn’t always the best player on my team growing up,” Graham said. “So, I kind of already knew what that felt like, not being the man.”

Undeterred, Graham kept working

***

One of the NBA’s biggest surprises, Graham looks the part.

“He’s an assassin with a boy’s grin and looks like he’s about 14 years old without his hair out,” Self said. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you go back to wearing braids or whatever?’ He said, ‘Coach, do you see how young I look when I’ve got my hair short?'”

More importantly, he also plays the part.

Graham has increased his box plus-minus from -4.3 last season to +1.5 this season. That’s one of the biggest jumps in the league.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to this season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes this season, 200 minutes in prior season):

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Player Previous high 2019-20 Improvement
Luka Doncic (DAL) +4.1 +13.2 9.1
Devonte’ Graham (CHA) -4.3 +1.5 5.8
Trae Young (ATL) -1.1 +3.5 4.6
Justin Holiday (IND) -0.8 +2.4 3.2
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.1 +3.1 3.0
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.3 +1.4 2.7
OG Anunoby (TOR) +0.6 +3.3 2.7
Malcolm Brogdon (IND) +1.5 +4.1 2.6
Richaun Holmes (SAC) +1.7 +4.2 2.5
Will Barton (DEN) +1.0 +3.1 2.1
Jaylen Brown (BOS) -0.2 +1.9 2.1
Bam Adebayo (MIA) +3.0 +5.1 2.1
Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) +6.8 +8.8 2.0
Luke Kennard (DET) -1.5 +0.5 2.0
Markelle Fultz (ORL) -3.0 -1.0 2.0

Most Improved Players voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, but the usual argument – that highly touted players are bound to improve after a full season of adjusting to the NBA – doesn’t apply. Graham was just a second-round pick, and he didn’t play much last season. His résumé differs greatly from the players sandwiching him on the above leaderboard (last year’s No. 3 pick Luka Doncic and No. 5 pick Trae Young).

Graham also has an attention-grabbing rise in the statistic that matters most to voters, points per game. Including 40 points in the Hornets’ win over the Nets last night, Graham is now averaging 20.0 points per game – a huge leap from the 4.7 points per game he averaged last season.

That 15.3-point increase from his previous career is one of the largest ever. The last time someone improved his scoring average so much: Dale Ellis who went from 7.1 points per game in 1986 to 24.9 points per game the next season.

Here are the biggest increases in points per from a previous career high (marked by the left side of the bar) to a later season (marked by the right side of the bar) with the increase listed in the middle (minimum: 10 games):

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Player Previous high New high Improvement
John Block (1968 SDR) 2.9 20.2 17.2
Neil Johnston (1953 PHW) 6.0 22.3 16.4
Don May (1971 BUF) 4.3 20.2 15.9
Dale Ellis (1987 SEA) 9.3 24.9 15.6
Robert Hawkins (1977 NYN) 3.9 19.3 15.4
Devonte’ Graham (2020 CHA) 4.7 20.0 15.3
Cliff Hagan (1958 STL) 5.5 19.9 14.4
Bob Love (1970 CHI) 6.7 21.0 14.3
C.J. McCollum (2016 POR) 6.8 20.8 14.0
Reggie Lewis (1989 BOS) 4.5 18.5 14.0
Jerry West (1962 LAL) 17.6 30.8 13.2
Bob Kauffman (1971 BUF) 7.8 20.4 12.6
Bob McAdoo (1974 BUF) 18.0 30.6 12.5
World B. Free (1979 SDC) 16.3 28.8 12.5
Phil Smith (1976 GSW) 7.7 20.0 12.3

***

Graham will likely face another test of his confidence next offseason. He’ll be eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth about $54 million over four years. That’s life-long financial security. The way he’s trending and the premium on point guards around the league, it’d be surprising if Charlotte doesn’t offer that highest-allowable amount.

However, if Graham forgoes an extension and completes his contract, he could fetch far more in 2021 restricted free agency. He’d be eligible for any salary, up to the league-wide maximum.

A guaranteed $54 million would be difficult to turn down, especially for someone getting just $150,000 above a minimum salary over his first three seasons. Risking waiting for more money would be a major departure in approach for Graham. At least he could still enter free agency a few years after signing an extension, maybe still in his prime.

Graham has shown, with the right determination, the safe route can work out.

Kawhi Leonard has ‘F U symbol’ on championship ring to remember which finger to put it on

Kawhi Leonard
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Following the great tradition of Shane Battier and Andrew Bogut, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard – who got his Raptors championship ring last night – had a special finger picked for it.

TSN:

Leonard:

I have a logo in there, and it’s on my middle finger. So, it reminds me to put it on my middle finger. So, I have like an F U symbol on there.

Leonard’s hand is filling up. He already earned a championship ring with the Spurs in 2014.

I suspect this ring is also for San Antonio.