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Three Things We Learned Wednesday: LeBron says Cavs lack toughness, or are they bored?

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The NCAA Tournament gets back underway Thursday, but the NBA ball just keeps rolling along. Here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) LeBron James says Cavaliers lack toughness. Is there trouble or are they just bored with the regular season?
Here is the unquestioned fact: The Denver Nuggets trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, 126-113. There are a number of factors in this, starting with Denver is playing better than people think — the Nuggets are the fifth best team in the NBA since the All-Star break, outscoring teams by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. Jamal Murray is emerging as the ball handling guard of the future for this team, Gary Harris is a sniper, and they have solid veterans such as Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler. But at the heart of it all is Nikola Jokic, who is for real. Watch what he does to LeBron James here.

Yes, Cleveland had to go play at altitude in the middle of a long road trip. Still…

What is going on with the Cavaliers?

Opponents have outscored them by 0.9 points per 100 since the All-Star break, and the Cavs are playing terrible defense (second worst in the NBA since the break). Asked in Denver after the loss what is wrong with the Cavs, LeBron said the team lacked toughness, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said… “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”

“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”

LeBron is clearly challenging his team to get serious on both ends and to start getting in playoff mode.

To me, the Cavaliers look bored. As in the real season starts in a couple of weeks with the playoffs, and they feel they can flip the switch then, but right now the regular season feels like a tedious slog. That’s what it looked like in Denver. Before that, I watched the Cavaliers in person against the Lakers Sunday, and LeBron James played well enough all game, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were getting theirs, but the team lacked any urgency, and it showed on defense. The tanking Lakers hung around. Then, LeBron seemed to say “screw this” and for a five-minute span took charge of the game, looking every bit the best player on the planet, the rest of the Cavaliers quickly fell in line, Cleveland took control of the game, and they coasted from there to the win.

That was against the Lakers, the worst team in the NBA since the All-Star break and a team playing youth everywhere. Denver is legit right now, they are playing well, and the Cavs couldn’t just flip the switch on Wednesday. Jokic and Mason Plumlee led the way as the Nuggets scored 70 points in the paint.

It’s still hard to picture any team in the East beating Cleveland. However, they have not spent the regular season building good habits to fall back on when the eventual challenge comes in the playoffs. There’s been a lot of comparisons to the 2000-01 Lakers, a defending championship team that battled injuries and didn’t impress in the regular season, looked bored on defense, then flipped the switch in the playoffs and went 16-1 on the way to the title. Maybe. But teams that flip the switch are the exception, not the rule.

The bored Cavaliers are playing a dangerous game, but will it haunt them before June? Can any team in the East make them pay?

2) The Knicks have no answer for Rudy Gobert, Jazz thump Knicks. Rudy Gobert is a defensive powerhouse of a big man, the best rim protector in the game and a man on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year. That was a problem for the Knicks on Wednesday night. A bigger problem — they couldn’t stop him on offense around the rim. Gobert at 35 points on 13-of-14 shooting, with 11 offensive rebounds. The Knicks went small for stretches (with Kristaps Porzingis, but he isn’t strong enough to handle Gobert), other times Willy Hernangomez tried but could not slow Gobert, and the French big man feasted. Check out Gobert’s shot chart.

Or, just watch what he did to the Knicks.

The Knicks started hot in this game behind vintage Derrick Rose for a quarter, but they can’t sustain that kind of play against a quality team. Utah is a quality team (I think they can beat the Clippers in the first round), and the foundation of that is in the middle.

3) Russell Westbrook notches 35th triple-double with perfect shooting, Thunder attack the rim and get the win. Let us formally acknowledge that Russell Westbrook is very, very good at basketball. He had 18 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field. That would be the first perfect shooting triple-double in NBA history. How’s that for adding to the MVP resume.

As for the game, the Thunder attacked the paint and the Sixers had no answers. OKC won 122–97, scoring 76 points while knocking down just four 3-pointers.

Report: Mavericks trade up with Hawks for Luka Doncic at No. 3

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The Mavericks reportedly targeted Luka Doncic.

They’ll get him.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Evaluating this trade hinges on the full protections of the future first-round pick, but Doncic is worth plenty.

He’s so skilled – as a ball-handler, passer and shooter. Doncic won’t singlehandedly transform Dallas, but he pairs nicely with Dennis Smith Jr. long-term. Doncic should also help in the short-term, which Dallas isn’t sacrificing.

The Hawks might have preferred Trae Young, a favorite of Atlanta ownership. Perhaps, the Hawks bluffed their way into this trade. If so, that’s a nice move by them. Young, with his passing and shooting, is an impressive prospect in his own right. This will push Dennis Schroder even further onto the trade market.

The Grizzlies made this trade possible by taking Jaren Jackson Jr. No. 4. He apparently came around on Memphis.

Kings select Marvin Bagley III with No. 2 overall pick in 2018 NBA Draft

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The Sacramento Kings have made a sensible pick in the 2018 NBA draft. After the Phoenix Suns selected DeAndre Ayton No. 1 overall, it was up to the Kings to do something that wouldn’t set their franchise back.

Despite rumors that Sacramento had began to favor Michael Porter Jr., on Thursday night. the Kings took Duke University standout Marvin Bagley III.

Adding Bagley to their rotation of young, switchable wing players was a solid move for Sacramento. Bagley measures in at 6-foot-11 and 234 pounds, making him a power forward for the Kings.. He will likely need to learn for a year behind veteran Zach Randolph, and should be an interesting addition to the frontcourt of Willie Cauley-Stein, Harry Giles, and Skal Labissiere.

The Phoenix, Arizona native was a scorer for the Blue Devils during his one year in college, nabbing ACC Player of the Year honors as a freshman while scoring 21 points per game.

The Kings have a slate of young guard prospects as well, including Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox, and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Sacramento hasn’t won more than 35 games since the 2007-2008 season, and no doubt they are expecting that Bagley will add a scoring punch to their young core. More than anything, Sacramento needs this pick to go somewhat right as they continue to try to rebuild after the Isaiah Thomas / DeMarcus Cousins era.

Suns select Deandre Ayton with No. 1 overall pick in 2018 draft

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First in alphabetical introductions, DeAndre Ayton took center stage at a new pre-NBA draft ceremony with his parents. As he walked right down the middle of two rows of adoring children, Ayton extended his 7-foot-5 wingspan to high-five them on both sides. Then, he took his mother’s hand and helped her down the stairs.

Length and touch.

That – plus strength, shooting touch and hops – is why the Suns made him their first No. 1 overall pick in their 51-year history a few minutes later.

Ayton is the right pick, but hardly a surefire star. With his physical package and shooting ability, it’d be hard for him to fail completely in the NBA. But he is terrifyingly unprepared as a rim protector – a nearly essential skill for centers.

He’ll join a Phoenix team trying to end a franchise-high eight-year playoff drought, though Ayton won’t be starting from scratch. Devin Booker, implicitly and explicitly, screamed out for help. Ayton delivers it in a big way.

The Suns also have Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. It’d be nice if any of them pan out. But Phoenix also has all its own future first-round picks plus two extra first-rounders from the Heat.

This is a team on the rise, and the Suns will have other chances to add to their young talent base.

But they’ll probably never have a better opportunity than this.

2018 NBA Draft pick-by-pick tracker with analysis of selections, trades

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It’s been a long time since there was this much uncertainty at the top of an NBA Draft. While the top pick is a lock, and even No. 2 may have fallen into place, things are wide open after that with plenty of talk about trades up and down — and teams looking to move into the lottery. The NBA rumor mill has been in high gear.

Now the floodgates of wild are about to be thrown open.

Right here is the best place to follow all of it. Just keep hitting refresh all night.

We will constantly be updating this post throughout the evening — every pick, every trade — complete with analysis of how that player fits (or doesn’t) with his new surroundings. We’ll be on top of news, rumors, and anything else happening around the NBA tonight. Enough with the preamble…

It’s time to put the Phoenix Suns on the clock.

 
Suns small icon 1. The Phoenix Suns: DeAndre Ayton, 7’0” center (Arizona). Physically, he has the potential to be one of the game’s dominant centers — he’s big and long (7’5” wingspan), he moves incredibly well, he can knock down threes, and he can run the court. Offensively he’s going to be put up numbers and be an impact player from Day 1. If he puts in the work when challenged on his defense he could be a force on both ends. He could be the franchise cornerstone the Suns need, the inside to Devin Booker‘s outside.

 
Kings small icon 2. Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley III, 6’11” forward/center (Duke). One of the best athletes in the draft and a natural scorer, he’s going to be able to get buckets in the NBA. He’s got a great bounce (an amazing second jump), attacks the glass, can finish at the rim and shot 40 percent from three for the Blue Devils. The question is can he defend — he showed poor defensive instincts and Mike Krzyzewski had to play zone at Duke last season because Bagley (and Carter) could not handle pick-and-roll coverages. He’s got to get better on that end to reach his NBA potential.

WE HAVE A TRADE: As had been rumored for a while, the Dallas Mavericks are trading with the Atlanta Hawks — the Mavericks have wanted Doncic and the Hawks will take him at No. 3, then the Mavericks will take Trae Young at No. 5 and that will complete the trade. (The Hawks had pushed to get more picks or dump salary in this deal, but ultimately took what they could get.

 
Hawks small icon 3. Atlanta Hawks: Luka Doncic, 6’8” point/forward (Slovenia). He will not play for the Hawks, he will be traded to the Dallas Mavericks (selecting No. 5). Doncic is the most decorated European player ever to enter the NBA Draft (EuroLeague champion and MVP, ACB champion and MVP), he is a phenom off the pick-and-roll and a great playmaker in transition. He has shooting range from the NBA three and he can finish inside. He’s been putting up numbers against men in Europe, he should adapt to the NBA fairly quickly. The doubts are he’s not an elite athlete, not explosive by NBA standards. Can he defend well enough at this level, and how will he handle being guarded by those kinds of athletes?

 
Grizzlies small icon 4. Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr., 6’11” forward/center (Michigan St.). Has the look and game of the prototypical modern NBA center — he’s got a great wingspan (7’5”) and uses that to protect the rim and block shots. He’s a good shooter out to the arc, can finish inside with either hand. He’s got to learn to play consistently harder and be better on the glass — it’s not all highlight plays, but he’s one of the youngest players in the draft and will grow. Needs to improve his passing as well. Son of 13-year NBA vet Jaren Jackson.

 
Mavericks small icon 5. Dallas Mavericks: Trae Young, 6’2” point guard (Oklahoma). He will not be Maverick, he will be traded to the Atlanta Hawks (for Luka Doncic and a future first-round pick). Young is a fan favorite for many because he has Stephen Curry-like range on his three out to 30 feet, plus he’s a gifted passer who sees the floor incredibly well. Scouts mostly like him, but there is some concern he’s got more Jimmer Fredette in him than Curry. Young has to learn to manage the game, not be so turnover prone. The bigger issues are defensively, he’s not big and not an elite NBA athlete like many guys he’ll be asked to guard — and his defense was poor at Oklahoma. Can he stay playable in an NBA of switching defenses?

 
Magic small icon 6: Orlando Magic: