How the Warriors and Cavaliers built championship contenders so quickly

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Kyrie Irving reportedly wanted Harrison Barnes. So did many Cleveland fans. The Cavaliers leaked they did, too.

The Warriors indicated they wanted Dion Waiters.

The Cavaliers drafted Waiters – who shut down workouts (before visiting Cleveland) and then shot up draft boards – No. 4 in the 2012 NBA draft. They either played into Golden State’s gamesmanship or poached the player the Warriors really wanted. Golden State took Barnes No. 7.

Three years later, the Warriors and Cavaliers are no longer sparring in the lottery. They meet in the NBA Finals – hoping to become the first team in seven years to jump from outside the playoffs to a championship so quickly.

Cleveland had the worst-ever four years preceding a conference-finals appearance, let alone the worst lead-up to a conference – or even NBA – title. Before its turnaround that begun in 2012, Golden State made the playoffs just once in 18 years.

How did these downtrodden franchises change their fortunes?

The Warriors have made the most of their opportunities. The Cavaliers have made the most most opportunities.

For Cleveland, everything starts with LeBron James.

When the Cavaliers drafted him in 2003, he immediately set them on a track toward title contention. They never reached the pinnacle, and those hopes exploded in flames of burning jerseys when he left for the Heat in 2010.

But Cleveland immediately began preparing to maximize its next championship window – whenever that might be.

They signed-and-traded LeBron for two first-round picks, the right to swap another first-rounder with Miami and two second-rounders. They accepted Baron Davis’ burdensome contract in exchange for the Clippers’ unprotected first-round pick. They dealt J.J. Hickson to the Kings for Omri Casspi and another first-round pick. They traded Ramon Sessions to the Lakers for a first-rounder and the right to swap future fist-rounders. They helped the Grizzles escape the luxury tax by taking Marreese Speights – and yet another first-round pick as bounty.

Some of those picks have been squandered. The Sacramento pick (which still has not been conveyed) went to Chicago for Luol Deng, who didn’t help Cleveland get anywhere before bolting in free agency.

But others have proven instrumental. The Clippers’ pick won the lottery, sending Kyrie Irving to the Cavaliers. They also had their own pick after a poor season, which resulted in Tristan Thompson.

Infamously, that wasn’t the end of the Cavs’ lottery luck. They won again in 2013 (Anthony Bennett) and 2014 (Andrew Wiggins). In their lone non-lucky lottery since LeBron left, they picked up Waiters.

Essentially, the idea was accumulating assets while the team was bad and then cashing in on them when it became good. The lottery helped immensely, but the underlying plan was sound.

Paying Davis and Speights didn’t bother Cleveland at the time. Spending that money on better players wouldn’t have been enough to make the Cavaliers good, anyway.

Now, every roster upgrade matters, and the Cavaliers have shifted gears.

They sent away Tyler Zeller (acquired with accumulated draft picks in the first place) and another first-rounder to dump Jarrett Jack, clearing the cap space to sign LeBron. They dealt Wiggins, Bennett and a first-rounder acquired in the LeBron sign-and-trade to get Kevin Love. They used Waiters to acquire J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. That deal came with a Thunder first-round pick, which Cleveland packaged with that Memphis first-rounder to get Timofey Mozgov.

The Cavaliers have built a complete team very quickly because they and luck positioned them so strongly entering last summer. I’m sure LeBron wanted to return home, but I doubt he would have signed with Cleveland if its collection of assets weren’t so impressive.

The Cavaliers made plenty of missteps along the way, but they and lottery luck afforded themselves that imperfection.

The Warriors, on the other hand, didn’t have such room for error. They needed to – and did – operate much more shrewdly.

Golden State also relied on fortune – not of lottery luck, but health.

The Warriors traded Monta Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut in 2012 – a highly controversial deal at the time – and Bogut didn’t play the rest of that season. Curry was also done for the year due to an ankle injury.

Golden State was essentially building around two injured players.

And it couldn’t have worked any better.

Bogut and Curry got healthy, but not before the Warriors tanked their way into keeping their top-seven protected 2012 first-rounder and Curry agreed to a four-year, $44 million contract extension.

Barnes became that pick, and Curry’s bargain extension gave Golden State a ton of flexibility to upgrade the rest of the roster. So did the team’s best 2012 draft pick – second-rounder Draymond Green, who like most second-rounders, signed for near the minimum.

The Warriors used some of that flexibility (necessarily furthered by a salary dump on the Jazz) to sign Andre Iguodala in 2013 and add Shaun Livingston last year.

They also took a huge risk – firing Mark Jackson, who’d helped the team escape its decades-long rut, and hiring first-time coach Steve Kerr. Of course, it has worked beautifully. Green, Barnes and Klay Thompson have blossomed this season, and the team is clicking on both ends of the court.

This is the culmination of Golden State’s plan, but the road gets more difficult from here.

Green becomes a restricted free agent this summer, and he’ll surely command a max contract. That would take the Warriors into the luxury tax, so they’ll have to pay big to keep this group together.

Likewise, the Cavaliers are running out of future assets to trade in for immediate help. They also have the urgent task of keeping Love, who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Both franchises face difficult decisions in the years ahead.

But title windows are difficult to crack ajar, let alone prop open for extend periods of time.

Golden State and Cleveland have done both. Whatever happens in the Finals, these teams should remain in contention for the next few years.

And to think, not long ago, they were trying to misdirect each other about selecting Dion Waiters high in the draft.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.