51 Questions: Three (unlikely) reasons the Cavs don’t return to Finals

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

What could keep Cleveland from a return trip to the NBA Finals?

Cleveland is the class of the Eastern Conference. And it’s not all that close.

Sorry to be so blunt to the fans in Chicago, Washington D.C., Toronto and Miami, but if everything plays out according to plan and the Cavs perform anywhere near their potential Cleveland will win the East again. Comfortably. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James, two other top 15 guys in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, plus they added some depth to a roster that made the Finals last season and is just getting comfortable with one another. This is going to be a better Cavs team.

Three things can keep the Cavaliers from a shot at a ring in June.

1) Health. This is the only of the three possibilities I would consider realistic.

LeBron has been an ironman through his career, he doesn’t miss many games due to injury. He played in 69 games last season, missing 13, but remember eight of those were for his mid-season sabbatical to get his head and body right. You can be sure coach David Blatt will give him some rest during the season, but the bottom line is the Cavaliers need LeBron — their offense was 12.2 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court last regular season, their defense 4.6 per 100 better. Come the playoffs, he had to carry a ridiculous load but the Cavs still outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions when he played. If he were out, the Cavs are not near the same team.

The Cavaliers can reach the Finals again without Irving or Love — two guys with lengthy injury histories — but they are not going to beat whichever team comes out of the West without them. Also, they will need Timofey Mozgov, Mo Williams, Iman Shumpert and the rest of the supporting cast come June. Already the Cavs are battling injuries as Irving and Shumpert will miss the start of the season due to injuries, but what matters is they are right come the playoffs.

I believe the Cavaliers are going to be better this season, in part because it’s their second season with this core lineup under David Blatt, but to finally bring a title to Northeast Ohio they are going to need all hands on deck come the Finals.

2) Chemistry issues. Could the Tristan Thompson holdout situation become something that festers among the roster and starts to turn LeBron off (we all remember how he played before he left in 2010, right)? Could Love become unhappy with how he is being used and start to pout his way through games? Could J.R. Smith’s Phunkeeduck antics start to frustrate guys in the locker room and cause a division?

Probably not. In fact, it’s highly unlikely. LeBron is focused on the ring and is going to keep his teammates on that track this season. But one can imagine a scenario where things start to go sideways in the locker room and Blatt doesn’t have the ability to reign it all in. It’s not impossible that these Cavaliers self-destruct. I wouldn’t bet on it.

3) Another team in the East makes a blockbuster trade. While the Cavaliers sit atop the conference on a level all their own, there are five teams in the second tier in the Eastern Conference — Chicago, Washington D.C., Toronto, Atlanta, and Miami. Those five could finish in any order 2-6 in the East and I would not be surprised.

But what if one of those teams pulls off the unexpected mid-season trade for a superstar? What if they make the serious “Lakers nab Pau Gasol” kind of upgrade? Then that team may well be able to challenge Cleveland.

This is the least likely scenario that keeps Cleveland out of the Finals, just because those kinds of deals are hard to pull off and have become increasingly less likely to happen during the season. We don’t know of any franchise changing players up on the trade block, and even if they were it would be difficult for some of these teams to pull off a deal without shredding their core. Bottom line, don’t expect Oklahoma City to move Kevin Durant at the deadline. (That would only happen if he told OKC there is zero chance he would re-sign with them, and KD’s too smart a business man to close a door like that.) But it’s not impossible, so we list it.

Which is how I feel about any scenario that keeps the Cavaliers out of a return trip to the NBA Finals — it’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.

Mark Cuban’s plan for a restart, “I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way”

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Wild, fanciful ideas for restarting the NBA that would never fly in a typical year — 1-16 seeding, or maybe a soccer World Cup-style group stage — are getting an airing this season because everything is on the table. As the NBA moves closer to a restart plan, countless ideas are being floated.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his own plan.

Shocking, I know. But it’s interesting.

“What I proposed is that we extend the playoff format to 10 teams from each conference, and play at least five games prior to going into playoffs,” Cuban said laying out is plan to NBC’s Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.” And if we do that, every team in the Eastern Conference would have a chance to make the playoffs, and all but two in the Western Conference would do it [Ed. note: Golden State and Minnesota].

“Then, what I would do, once we got 10 and 10, I would reseed them, and 17 would play 20, and 18 would play 19, in a one-game series. The winner then would take on the eighth-place seed in a five-game series, while the No. 1 seed in each conference would get a bye. Then you go ahead normally from there.

“That gives us a chance to have more meaningful games, it gives almost every team a chance when we come back for whatever is left of our regular season. I think we’ve got to change it up some, I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way.”

Cuban later added, speaking to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, that he wants to see all 30 teams come to Orlando for regular season games, building excitement for the NBA’s return in every market. This dream, however, seems a long shot, and Damian Lillard spoke for a lot of players when he said he’s not playing if there is not a path to the playoffs for Portland.

Cuban’s point that this is the year to try something different, not to play it safe, has real validity. This season is already upside down due to the corona

Cuban’s plan is a long shot, but is it any longer a shot than any of the other ones out there?

 

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: Thunder considered trading James Harden for me on draft day 2012

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The first three picks of the 2012 NBA Draft, which was held in June:

1. New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans): Anthony Davis

2. Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets): Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

3. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

That August, the Thunder reportedly offered to trade James Harden to Washington for Beal. Washington reportedly rejected the offer due to Harden’s desire for a max contract extension (which Wizards owner Ted Leonsis denied). The Rockets were more than willing to pay Harden, and Oklahoma City dealt him to Houston that October.

Apparently, Washington had a chance to land Harden earlier that offseason.

Beal on “All The Smoke:”

We’re sitting in the draft room. Sure enough, my agent is tapping me. He’s like, “It’s possible you might go to OKC.” I said, “Damn, how am I going to go there? I ain’t even worked out for OKC.” I only worked out for three teams – Washington, Cleveland and Charlotte.

So, the deal was to trade James to Washington, right? OKC gets the third pick. It was either the second or third pick. They were going to trade up to 2 or 3, get me, trade James to Washington.

I would have been in OKC with KD and Russ.

That was a last-minute decision. It was almost done.

I can’t tell whether Beal is also revealing a Harden-to-Charlotte offer or just got mixed up on which teams held the Nos. 2 and 3 picks. Obviously, if Beal was the main prize to the Thunder, they would’ve cared only minimally whether they got him with the No. 2 or No. 3 pick. So, there might have been trade talks with Charlotte, too.

But I’m not convinced Oklahoma City valued Beal that way.

The Thunder were a championship contender. They had just lost in the 2012 NBA Finals to the Heat. Oklahoma City couldn’t have depended on a rookie Beal to contribute on that level.

That’s why – in addition to picks/young player acquired from the Rockets for Harden – the Thunder also got Kevin Martin. The veteran Martin was much better than Beal in 2012-13. (Ironically, the open title window was also a strong argument for just keeping Harden, whatever his contract status).

But the 2012-13 season didn’t go as planned for Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook got hurt early in the playoffs, and the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in the second round. Martin left for a lucrative contract with the Timberwolves the following summer.

Even with the long runway Kevin Durant and Westbrook provided, Oklahoma City never got back to the Finals. Beal could have grown into a third star whose shooting complemented the duo. The Thunder might have won a championship with this trade (or, again, just keeping Harden).

The Wizards almost certainly would have won more. Harden has perennially gotten the Rockets to the playoff. (They’ve gone further in years he has had more help.) Beal hasn’t singlehandedly carried Washington like that.

So, this is an interesting “what if?” – if you take it at face value.

Beal’s agent warning him of a trade possibility means something. But we don’t know which other pieces were involved.

The Thunder didn’t trade Harden until just before the rookie-scale-extension deadline, suggesting they wanted to give themselves time to extend him themselves before taking the drastic step of trading him. Would Beal have been enough of a return to give up in June (or even August) on keeping Harden? Maybe. Harden didn’t fully blossom until reaching Houston. But I’m skeptical. At minimum, Harden had already established himself as young and good. Beal was young, promising and under greater team control. There’s significant value in the certainty of a player being at least a near-star, and Harden – not Beal – had that.

Even in hindsight, we’re still revisiting the situation with only limited information.

Report: NBA games could resume in August, not July

Bucks center Brook Lopez and Raptors center Marc Gasol
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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A week ago, the NBA was looking to resume games in July at Disney World.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In fact, there’s a possibility the first games played in Orlando could be in August, not July, sources said.

It’s good the NBA is being flexible on a start date. The coronavirus presents so much uncertainty.

The league is approaching its most lucrative time – the playoffs. The NBA should make every effort to play the postseason, whenever that can be done safely.

Everyone can figure out next season later, especially because there’s a willingness to delay the start.

Report: Pistons searching for new general manager

Pistons executive Ed Stefanski
Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski as a senior advisor to owner Tom Gores in 2018. Among Stefanski’s duties: Assist in the ongoing search for a new head of basketball operations. But it quickly became clear Stefanski would just run the front office himself.

Now, two years later, Detroit is finally getting around to that general-manager search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Detroit Pistons are opening a search to hire a general manager to work with senior advisor Ed Stefanski, sources tell ESPN.

Stefanski will be working with Pistons and Palace Sports Vice Chairman Arn Tellem on the process to hire a GM, sources said.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

If Stefanski is still running the front office, a new general manager would be the No. 2 – equivalent to assistant general manager on many teams.

After taking over an inflexible roster left by Stan Van Gundy, Stefanski couldn’t do much. Stefanski’s big move was trading Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers just before the trade deadline. That positioned Detroit to have major cap space next offseason, but it’s unclear how much will actually materialize. The salary cap could drop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pistons must determine whether they’re still building around Blake Griffin, the 31-year-old due $36,810,996 and $38,957,028 the next two years. Last season, he returned to stardom and carried Detroit into the playoffs. This season, he missed most of the year due to injury.

If they’re trying to win now with Griffin, the Pistons are short on quality complementary players. If Detroit is ready to rebuild, its pool of young talent – Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, impending free agent Christian Wood, its own first-round pick – is hardly assured of success.

After years of being stuck on a path charted under the Van Gundy regime, the Pistons can soon pick a new course. This is the time get the front office up to full staffing.