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In a watered down East, Celtics-Cavs is the best thing going

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — As star after star migrated from the Eastern Conference to the West this summer, the lesser of the NBA’s divisions got so watered down that some spice was badly needed.

Kyrie Irving delivered.

The mercurial guard stunned the rest of the league by requesting a trade away from LeBron James and the Cavaliers and the annual trip to the NBA Finals that comes with James. In subsequent interviews since he was traded to the Celtics, Irving has done little to smooth things over with the game’s best player or the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011.

“It’s just really between two men,” Irving said last month when asked if he planned to reach out to James to clear the air. “If it happens or not, I’m pretty sure you guys won’t know about it.”

James didn’t hide his disappointment in Irving’s decision after teaming with him to go to the last three finals and win a championship two years ago.

“I tried to give him everything and give him as much of the DNA as I could,” he said. “At some point, when he was ready to take over the keys, I was ready to give them to him. So, the only thing I’m upset about is he took a lot of the DNA and a lot of the blueprint to Boston.”

James wasn’t the only one upset by the deal.

Isaiah Thomas was deeply wounded by Boston’s decision to trade him after an emotional and dominant season, setting the stage for a tense fight for conference supremacy.

“It definitely caught me off guard, but it also woke me up,” Thomas said. “It made me realize that this is a business and anybody other than probably LeBron James or Kevin Durant or those type of guys can be traded.”

This level of drama and intrigue is needed in a conference that lost Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague over the summer.

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Cleveland – Death, taxes and LeBron in the finals.

2. Boston – The biggest question may be how will they account for the loss of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder on defense.

3. Washington – John Wall and Bradley Beal are ready for prime time. Now they have to get the rest of the team to follow them.

4. Toronto – Perpetually overlooked around this time of year, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan refuse to give in. Adding C.J. Miles was an underrated score. If they can breathe a little more movement into their offense, they’ll be in the mix again.

5. Miami – Here’s betting the second half of last season (30-11) was a lot closer to what the Heat actually are than the first half (11-30) was. A team that plays as hard as they do could climb even higher in the wide-open East.

6. Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo – aka the Greek Freak – seems destined for MVP consideration in the very near future. Jabari Parker‘s recovery may keep him out until February, which could hinder the Bucks’ climb up the ladder this season.

7. Charlotte – Here is where it starts to get really tricky. This is a vote of confidence in coach Steve Clifford’s ability to get more out of Dwight Howard than anyone since Stan Van Gundy.

8. Philadelphia – If Joel Embiid is somehow able to stay healthy for 60 games or more, veterans like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson should be able to usher these kids into the postseason.

IN THE MIX

1. Detroit – Getting Bradley from the Celtics is a nice fit for Van Gundy. The bigger issue will be getting a team that at times seemed fractured and miserable last season on to the same page. That starts with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.

2. Orlando – Someone has to be 10th. Adding Jonathan Isaac‘s defensive instincts to the roster is a plus, but it remains an imbalanced team light on shooters and long on big men in a league that is getting smaller by the day.

FACING LONG ODDS

1. New York – New GM Scott Perry is boldly trying to go where few Knicks executives have gone – to Rebuilding Road. Now that Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson are gone, it’s Kristaps Porzingis and a bunch of unknowns trying to turn the corner.

2. Brooklyn – A year after posting the worst record in the NBA, the Nets should be … a little bit better. Coach Kenny Atkinson has more to work with in DeMarre Carroll, DeAngelo Russell and Allen Crabbe.

3. Indiana – Everyone knew Paul George was on his way out. That made deal-making difficult for GM Kevin Pritchard, and it showed in the return he got for one of the best players in the league. Now Myles Turner will have to step into the void, which is a big one.

4. Atlanta – That 60-win season seems longer than two years ago. New GM Travis Schlenk arrives from the Warriors, and it is going to take him some time to tear things down and build them back up.

5. Chicago – Likely opening night starting five: Jerian Grant, Justin Holiday, Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez. Enough said.

WHAT TO KNOW

LEBRON’S FUTURE: There are more than just whispers that James will leave the Cavaliers after this season, with the Lakers and Clippers as two potential suitors. James has said he intends to finish his career in Cleveland, but that doesn’t figure to quiet the questions until he signs a new contract next summer.

SIMMONS DEBUTS: 76ers G/F Ben Simmons, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, missed the entire season with a foot injury. He is ready to go this year, giving the Sixers even more hope that all the pain of the last few years is finally behind them.

HAYWARD’S IMPACT: Gordon Hayward was one of the few stars to leave the Western Conference for the East this summer. How quickly he assimilates with Irving and Al Horford will directly impact Boston’s ability to unseat the Cavs.

HOT SEAT: In a volatile industry, the NBA went an entire season without a coaching change for the first time since 1963-64. The odds of that remarkable stretch of stability holding until the start of next season are remarkably small. Van Gundy, Clifford, New York’s Jeff Hornacek and Indiana’s Nate McMillan enter the season under scrutiny.

 

Former Cavaliers coach David Blatt reveals he has multiple sclerosis

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David Blatt is one of the NBA’s all-time memorable characters. Renowned for his overseas success, Blatt got hired as Cavaliers coach just before LeBron James returned. Blatt won a lot in both the regular season and playoffs, but he was cocky and had plenty of blind spots. He alienated his players, which ultimately got him fired during Cleveland’s 2015-16 championship season.

Blatt now coaches Olympiacos in Greece. Unfortunately, his story has taken a sobering turn, as he was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis.

Blatt:

Well, the problem is the PPMS which in my case and in my age manifests itself primarily in the weakness of the legs. fatigue/balance and strength are real issues for me. I have taken on a specific regimen of strengthening and balance exercises as well as swimming and aquatic workouts to improve overall body conditioning and help with muscle pliability and motion.

I am a coach and my job is to lead and teach and inspire a lot of people. Not being as agile or active doesn’t affect my ability to do those things. I am fortunate. I have great doctors trainers physical therapists and management that accept my disabilities and help me overcome. How could I possibly complain? I absolutely cannot and will not.

This is sad news about the 60-year-old Blatt. But I appreciate his determination to overcome the setback. He was always headstrong, and that might be the exact attitude he needs right now.

Marc Gasol says Team USA still incredibly talented, “great team”

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In past Olympics and FIBA World Cup years, international observers have said the guys USA Basketball cuts from the roster — or maybe even the Select Team of young players they practice against — could win gold in their own right. The USA’s talent pool is that deep.

This year that idea is being put to the test.

After a string of high-profile players withdrawing from the team — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, and on down the line — Team USA will have just one All-NBA/All-Star player on the roster in Kemba Walker.

That roster went out and comfortably beat Spain — the No. 2 ranked team in the world by FIBA — in an exhibition last Friday. While we should be careful reading too much into a friendly, Spanish center Marc Gasol told Marc Stein of the New York Times the Americans still had plenty of talent.

“I’m sure that it’s going to fuel them,” Gasol said of the loud skepticism increasingly endured by the American team.

“The amount of talent that the U.S. generates every year is unbelievable,’’ he added. “Even with all the guys that dropped out — or if you want to say these guys don’t have experience internationally — they’re still super talented physically and technically. And they’re pretty well-coached as well. So you put it all together and it’s a great team.”

(The “pretty well-coached” line is a joke, by the way, players and Gregg Popovich have that kind of relationship.)

The USA is still the team to beat in China when the World Cup tips off Aug. 31. Spain has a puncher’s chance to knock off the USA, France has some good talent on the roster, and Greece has Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, Team USA should be able to comfortably beat any of those sides.

Serbia, led by Nikola Jokic, is the one team with a legitimate shot to knock off the Americans.

But Serbia is the underdog for a reason. Even with all the players choosing to stay home, the USA is the most talented roster in the tournament. The gap is narrowing, but the rest of the world has not caught up to the American talent level. What Serbia, Spain, and other countries do have is a familiarity of players and system — these guys grow up playing together and have a natural chemistry, something the USA tries to cram together in a couple of weeks. Popovich has focused on building those bonds with this team, knowing that is the area of both weakness and potential growth.

This USA team may not have the intimidating talent of previous years, but it still has enough to win. And the rest of the world knows that, even if the American public does not.

Lakers reportedly doing “due diligence” in talking to Dwight Howard

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The Lakers were going to lean heavily on DeMarcus Cousins this season. Los Angeles has arguably the best center in the game today in Anthony Davis, but he is not built for nor does he want to play 30+ minutes a night banging away down in the post. Davis wants to face up, run the floor, and play most of his minutes at the four next to a more traditional center, then slide over in key matchups and situations. Cousins was going to be that center (he and Davis have some chemistry from their time together in New Orleans).

Now Cousins is almost certainly lost for the season with a torn ACL, and the Lakers are left looking through the guys other teams have yet to sign to try to find a Cousins replacement. There are not a lot of good options, which is why the Lakers wisely plan to take their time and look at everyone.

Dwight Howard is part of that process. While the Howard camp may be excited about the prospect of returning and gaining redemption in Los Angeles, for the Lakers this is more about part of the process, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Again, as with all of free agency, when you read about a sourced story (about Howard and the Lakers for example), think about who benefits from it being public and telling a reporter about it. Think about the reporter’s connections. Shelburne is very well connected to the Laker organization, for example.

The Lakers absolutely need to take a long look at Howard. After he left Los Angeles, Howard eventually found a groove as a quality NBA center. From the 2015-16 to 2017-18 seasons, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in all of those seasons at about 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use right now. However, Howard played just nine games for the Wizards last season following another back surgery and some hamstring issues. He was not healthy.

The Lakers have to decide how healthy Howard is and would he be able to bounce back to the level he was in those previous three seasons? Even if he can, is he a better option than Joakim Noah, who impressed a lot of people around the league with his solid 41 games for Memphis the second half of last season? What about Kenneth Faried?

Los Angeles has a lot to consider. Howard should be part of that mix, but don’t expect a quick decision here. The Lakers have almost a month until training camp opens and are not in a rush, they want to get this right.

Report: Lakers have interest in Joakim Noah

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The Los Angeles Lakers are reportedly interested in Dwight Howard. He has not yet been bought out by the Memphis Grizzlies, but a return to L.A. for Howard would be one of the most Lakers things of all time.

Howard infamously left Los Angeles under an auspicious circumstances in 2013 after things went south during the 2012-13 season between him, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash. He signed with the Houston Rockets that summer.

But Howard is not the only aging center under consideration by the Lakers. According to Shams Charania, Los Angeles is also considering adding Joakim Noah to their roster.

Via Twitter:

DeMarcus Cousins’ ACL injury has created a dearth of center depth for the Lakers, one that cannot be easily filled quickly. There aren’t a lot of available players left, and Los Angeles doesn’t have much to help facilitate a trade.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis need some help moving forward if they want to go deep into the Western Conference playoffs, and having only JaVale McGee playing at the center position won’t help them do that. They need to add somebody, but Howard or Noah being the answer to that is a scary proposition for a team with championship hopes.