Joe Harris, as role grows, makes compelling case to start for Cavaliers

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BOSTON – Cavaliers coach David Blatt was asked what he could say about Joe Harris, the rookie shooting guard who played the entire fourth quarter of Cleveland’s comeback win over the Celtics on Friday.

“What do I say about him?” Blatt said. “Well, I put him in there, so I guess I said everything I had to say about him. I believe in the kid.”

That faith in Harris could reportedly soon morph into a starting job for the No. 33 pick.

Shawn Marion is still starting at shooting guard, playing regularly in the backcourt for the first time since started at point guard for Vincennes, the junior college he attended before transferring to UNLV. Dion Waiters, who campaigned during the offseason to join the starting lineup and began the year there, remains on the roster. The Cavaliers could are also reportedly interested in trading for Corey Brewer.

But Harris could emerge as a starter in a lineup that also includes LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.

Wide-eyed and talking a mile a minute, Harris – who’d been sitting alone in a chaotic locker room full of reporters eager to follow Cleveland’s big three – said before Friday’s game he was beginning to get comfortable in the NBA after his four-year career at Virginia.

“You’re just trying to soak it all in and take in as much as you can in your rookie year,” Harris said.

While Harris is doing that, he’s giving the Cavaliers quite a bit.

He hit a clutch 3-pointer against the Celtics and made all three free throws after being fouled on another attempt down the stretch in Boston. Against the Hawks on Saturday, Harris doubled his previous career high with 12 points and raised his season total to 6-of-12 on 3-pointers.

Harris is a Cavaliers-best +62 despite ranking just ninth on the team in minutes.

“Joe Harris is going to be a big piece for our team,” LeBron said. “He’s going to have his rookie mistakes. We all know that. But mistakes can be covered when you play hard, and that’s one thing that kid is doing.”

Most importantly, Harris is showing he fits with LeBron, Love and Irving – no matter whether Anderson Varejao or Tristan Thompson is playing center. Varejao starts, but Thompson has played nearly as much.

With the big three, Cleveland has played well with Marion-Varejao but not Marion-Thompson, well with Waiters-Thompson but not Waiters-Varejao. Harris-Varejao and Harris-Thompson has worked just swell.

Here’s how the Cavaliers have performed with LeBron, Love, Irving and each of the main shooting guard-center combinations on the floor:

Shooting guard Center Minutes Offensive rating Defensive rating Net rating
Harris Varejao 14 132.6 114.2 +18.4
Harris Thompson 10 140.6 113.2 +27.4
Marion Varejao 65 118.1 115.4 +2.7
Marion Thompson 20 81.7 101.3 -19.5
Waiters Varejao 47 99.1 107.4 -8.3
Waiters Thompson 18 134.7 106.8 +27.8

Of course, we’re dealing with small samples everywhere at this point at this point of the season, especially with Harris. And Harris’ increase in playing time has overlapped with the big three getting a better feel for playing with each other.

But an excellent spot-up shooter, Harris seems like a good fit with LeBron, Love and Irving. Citing stats from the Cavaliers, Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal reported Harris made 57 percent of his corner 3s at Virginia last season. Those stars will get Harris plenty of those highly efficient looks.

At 6-foot-6, Harris also has the size to play competent defense in a sound team scheme – especially one where LeBron can roam and create plays.

So, traditional scouting also says Harris fits well with the big three. In a slightly larger sample, the numbers bear that out:

With big three Minutes Offensive rating Defensive rating Net rating
Harris 30 137.2 98.7 +38.5
Marion 98 112.3 107.7 +4.7
Waiters 75 113.9 109.6 +4.3

Of course, regardless of the fit, starting for a contending team is a challenge for any rookie.

Magic Johnson famously started for the 1979-80 Lakers in his first year, but since the NBA began tracking starts two years later, just two rookies having started even somewhat regularly for an NBA champion:

  • Kurt Rambis, 43 starts for the 1981-82 Lakers
  • Marc Iavaroni, 77 starts for the 1982-83 76ers

Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Harris has yet to start even a single game for Cleveland.

But as the Cavaliers search for the shooting guard who fits best in their starting lineup, it just might be Harris.

Heat retiring Dwyane Wade’s No. 3 in weekend-long celebration

Dwyane Wade
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MIAMI (AP) Dwyane Wade says that whenever he would hear the national anthem play before Miami home games, he would take a moment and look to the rafters.

“I always imagined my jersey being up there,” Wade said.

He will no longer have to imagine the sight. After this weekend, it’ll be there for good.

Wade will become the fifth Heat player to get his number retired by the team, joining Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Bosh. A three-day celebration of Wade’s time in Miami starts on Friday, a weekend highlighted by his No. 3 formally going to the rafters on Saturday night when the Heat play host to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Wade spent 16 seasons in the NBA, 14+ of those with the Heat. He was one of two players to be part of all three Heat championship teams – Udonis Haslem, whose No. 40 will almost certainly be retired by the team one day, is the other.

It was never a question of whether Wade’s jersey was going to be retired by the Heat, only a question of when. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in points, games, assists and steals and is probably going to keep most, if not all, of those records for a very long time. Consider: He scored 21,556 regular-season points with the Heat, and Alonzo Mourning is second with 9.459.

Earlier this season, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers – like Wade, a Chicago native who went on to play at Marquette – said he believes Wade doesn’t get enough credit for what he did as a player, especially in the NBA Finals.

“He’s been underrated his whole life,” Rivers said. “He didn’t get recruited very highly. Took Marquette to a Final Four. He still didn’t go as high as he should have in the draft and then he took the Miami Heat to NBA championships. That’s just who he is.”

Wade was the 2006 NBA Finals MVP, was selected to 13 All-Star Games in his 16 seasons, was an All-Star MVP in 2010 and won an Olympic gold medal.

“Every time I look up to the rafters and see your (hash)3 hanging there, I’ll think of the impact you had not only on this organization, this city and this league, but on my life,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wrote in an open letter to Wade that will be part of the team’s game-night giveaway program for fans on Saturday.

The weekend also includes a night of tribute speeches on Friday and a showing of a documentary about Wade on Sunday.

Report: NBA executives believe 76ers more likely to trade Joel Embiid than Ben Simmons

76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
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The 76ers have spent years building around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Supporting players come and go. Embiid and Simmons remain, even amid a sometimes-awkward fit.

But chatter has increased about Philadelphia trading one of its top two stars.

So, would Embiid or Simmons be the one to go?

Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

There is no consensus, but league execs think that if the Sixers do explore a trade, Embiid is more likely to be moved — health being the determining factor in building around Simmons.

When a team is looking to trade one of two players, people frequently predict the less-valuable player will get dealt. It’s not logical. Other teams also know about Embiid’s health concerns. That’ll lower Philadelphia’s return.

I wonder whether these executives know something or are just conveying how they’d handle the situation.

The latter doesn’t mean much. The 76ers have their own view and, less than a year ago, owner Josh Harris called Embiid “our most important player. He’s clearly our future.”

Perhaps, Philadelphia’s stance has changed. Trying to line up trade trade proposals, the 76ers might have tipped their hand.

The mere possibility of that scenario makes this worth watching.

Former John Beilein-coached Michigan player in NBA: Cavaliers players don’t value winning

Former Cavaliers coach John Beilein
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The Cavaliers tuned out John Beilein then tuned their music to songs about thugs.

Beilein lasted less than a season as Cleveland’s coach.

But one of his former players at Michigan is sticking up for him.

Sam Amico of Sports Illustrated:

Even under the cloak of anonymity, that’s a harsh way for an NBA player to talk about fellow NBA players.

Who said it? There are nine suspects:

Whoever he is, that player lacks full context.

None of those players were on a clear NBA track when arriving in Ann Arbor. They all developed under Beilein’s tutelage. Beilein’s message lands differently when you’re already in the NBA – especially when you’re a proven player like Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson. As I said when Beilein was hired, there was going to be a race between Beilein convincing his players he could help them and them believing they could walk all over him. He lost the race. In Ann Arbor, in part because of his power over his less-heralded players, Beilein repeatedly earned buy-in first.

None of those players were on Beilein’s first Michigan team, which went 10-22. Beilein has typically come into a new job preaching fundamentals. That sets a foundation for future winning. But in the short term, the lack of focus on games can lead to plenty of losing. Beilein’s first season with the Wolverines was exhausting, and the end was a welcome respite. Everyone returned for year two better prepared, and Michigan took off. But the NBA season is far longer. The Cavs already endured 54 games under Beilein’s first-year approach. Another 28 was asking a lot.

Maybe Cavaliers players would have been better off in the long run if they accepted Beilein’s teaching. But it’s on Beilein to earn their trust, and he never did.

The case for Luka Doncic as Most Improved Player

Mavericks star Luka Doncic
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Luka Doncic checked his phone at halftime Sunday. Someone sent him a picture of 17-year-old Doncic and Russell Westbrook in an exhibition game between Real Madrid and the Thunder in 2016. Now, Doncic was playing with Westbrook in the NBA All-Star game.

“It was kind of amazing,” Doncic said.

Doncic has been playing professionally since he was 16. He came to the NBA as EuroLeague MVP. Now, he’s an NBA MVP candidate. It feels like he has been on this level a long time.

But Doncic’s Most Valuable Player campaign has obscured a bid for an award that fits him even better: Most Improved Player.

Voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, especially highly drafted ones like Doncic, who was the No. 3 pick in 2018. There’s a notion those players are “supposed to” improve.

But we don’t do this for any other award. Imagine not voting a No. 1 pick for Rookie of the Year because he’s supposed to be good. Nobody will refuse to vote Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP this season because, as reigning MVP, he’s supposed to be good. It’s a silly argument.

Besides, this far more than typical second-year improvement.

Doncic has increased his box plus-minus from +4.1 last season to +11.4 this season. That’s the biggest jump ever for a Rookie of the Year into his second season. Only LeBron James is even in the ballpark.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus by Rookie of the Year winners into their second season. Players are listed by their rookie year:

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

LeBron finished sixth in 2005 Most Improved Player voting. Bobby Simmons, who increased his box plus-minus by just 2.5 (-0.8 to +1.7) won the award.

Again, it’s hard for second-year players.

But again, this is not just some predestined natural improvement. This is one of the biggest leaps of all-time.

Here are the largest-ever increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (minimum: 500 minutes each season)

Mavericks star Luka Doncic

Again, LeBron is Doncic’s only peer on that leaderboard. They’re the only two to start with a positive box plus-minus.

But Doncic’s rookie-year plus-minus was even higher than LeBron’s.

It’s harder to go from good to great, and that’s what Doncic has done – unlike anyone else ever.

Doncic has taken total control of the Mavericks’ offense. He creates for himself, for others. And he even improved his efficiency while shouldering the extra burden.

Among players who had a prior high of at least +3.0, Doncic has increased his box plus-minus FAR more than anyone else (minimum: 500 minutes each season):

Box plus-minus probably tends to overrate players who contribute across the box score, like Doncic. That stat is just one of many considerations.

I’m not totally convinced Doncic should win Most Improved Player, though he was my midseason choice. Hornets point guard Devonte' Graham has gone from out of the rotation to quality starter. Brandon Ingram blossomed just in time to get paid. Trae Young, another highly drafted sophomore, is having a breakout year. There are plenty of other candidates, too.

But Doncic – regardless of his experience and draft position – absolutely belongs prominently in the discussion.