Mo Williams, reunited with LeBron, thriving for Cavaliers

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Mo Williams has a future with the Cavaliers. “He’s going to be a huge part of our success,” LeBron James said.

Williams also has a past with Cleveland. He played with the Cavs from 2008-11, and LeBron’s 2010 departure for the Heat devastated him so much, he said he considered retiring.

“I don’t really look in the past,” Williams said.

Nor does he look to the future.

“I just take it one day at a time,” said Williams, who, if he had a desire to discuss his career arc after Cleveland’s loss to the Pistons on Tuesday, did a great job hiding it.

That was the Cavaliers’ second straight loss, dropping them to 8-3 and creating a minor panic for such a hyped team.

But imagine where they’d be without Williams, who has started at point guard for an injured Kyrie Irving. Williams is averaging 15.5 points on 47.7% shooting with 5.3 assists per game. And 8-3 looks great relative to the 1-6 record Cleveland posted without Irving last season.

“Mo’s given us everything we could ask for,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said.

What a difference a few years make.

During LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland, the Cavs faced frequent questions about their inability to get LeBron a star sidekick. LeBron had just two All-Star teammates in those years: Zydrunas Ilgauskas in 2005 and Williams in 2009.

LeBron didn’t make the playoffs until 2006, so few were sweating his supporting cast when Ilgauskas reached the All-Star game. By the time they traded for Williams in 2008, the Cavaliers had already been to the Finals, where LeBron was overwhelmed by the deep Spurs.

So – with an All-Star appearance to his name – the burden of being LeBron’s top teammate fell to Williams.

That was asking a bit too much of him. Williams is a good jump-shooter, and he passes pretty well, but he’s streaky and has never defended well. He’s no Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, and he never should have been positioned to be.

Williams – the No. 47 pick in the 2003 draft – should be celebrated for carving out such a long career from such humble beginnings. The only other active players who have played so long after being drafted so low or going undrafted are Manu Ginobili, Rasual Butler, Kyle Korver, James Jones, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem.

Instead, Williams has worn a not-good-enough-for-LeBron label as he made stops with the Clippers, Jazz, Trail Blazers, Timberwolves and Hornets.

Williams returned to a comfortable position this summer by signing with Cleveland – right next to LeBron. His true-shooting percentages with LeBron on the court – 59.1 in 2008-09, 60.6 in 2009-10 and 62.5 in 2015-16 – have been higher than any season without LeBron.

Here are Williams’ shooting percentages without LeBron on the floor as a teammate (wine) and with LeBron on the floor as a teammate (gold):

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Williams has assisted LeBron more than anyone has, and nobody has assisted Williams more than LeBron has this season.

They look in sync, just as they did a few years ago:

But it wasn’t long ago Williams was fuming about how LeBron left Cleveland, and that frostiness was just as visible:

That relationship has been repaired, according to Anderson Varejao, who has played for the Cavs since 2004.

“I’m telling you, in the locker or on the court, to me, it feels like it never happened,” Varejao said. “…Dinners together, everything is fine.

“They’re good. They’re good friends.”

How did Williams wind up back in Cleveland to even give himself a chance of reconnecting with LeBron?

In 2013, Williams left the Jazz because they wouldn’t make him a starter. He went to Portland, where he wanted to stay, but he opted out for more money with the Timberwolves in 2014. Minnesota dealt him just before the trade deadline to Charlotte, where he averaged 21.3 and 8.5 assists in his first 11 games. The Hornets essentially gave him the biggest role of his career.

But Williams signed with the Cavs last summer, probably taking less money than he could’ve gotten elsewhere. He’ll almost certainly return to the bench once Irving gets healthy.

Why did Williams give up so much to return to LeBron and Cleveland?

Varejao says he has noticed more maturity from Williams since they were teammates in 2011.

“Now, more than ever, he’s thirsty to win,” Varejao said. “All he wants to do is win.”

Whatever Williams has been through with him, LeBron can certainly help Williams do that.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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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.

The Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-