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Meet the New Cavaliers, not the same as the old Cavaliers

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The Cleveland Cavaliers that won 50 games and were the four seed in the East were not that impressive, despite LeBron James‘ MVP season. They had the 29th ranked defense in the league, and while the offense was still elite (fifth in the NBA) the Cavaliers had the point differential of a 43-39 team — Cleveland was the “luckiest” team in the NBA, out-performing their point differential by seven games (a lot of that came down to LeBron being dominant late in close games).

The playoff Cavaliers that just swept the Raptors out of the second round are different. Their defense hasn’t improved much (it is the exact same net rating of 112 points allowed per 100 possessions as they had in the regular season, stats via Cleaning the Glass). The difference is their offense has taken another step forward.

LeBron is part of that. But more than just him, they have found a role for Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, and found a lineup that works for them — one that Tyronn Lue never broke out in the regular season. From Owen Phillips at fivethirtyeight.com.

In the team’s series against the Pacers and Raptors, Cleveland’s most-used lineup has been George Hill, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Kevin Love. So far this postseason, they’ve logged 110 minutes together. That’s 110 more than they played together in the regular season. Compared to the Toronto Raptors, whose most-used lineup in the playoffs1 logged 801 minutes together in the regular season, Cleveland looks like it’s experimenting on the fly. But it’s working. Cleveland’s most-used postseason lineup is outscoring opponents by 41 points, good for third-best in the playoffs.

That lineup flummoxed the Raptors, who want to play big — Dwane Casey’s biggest mistake was keeping Jonas Valanciunas on Love until Game 4 — and did it with a simple action out of the corner that the Raptors could not solve. Zach Lowe at ESPN got into that with a brilliant breakdown of what those two are doing — and how they are improvising depending on the situation and defenders involved (check out the link, which has video breakdowns).

The play is this: Love jogging over as if to set a pick for LeBron, only to veer suddenly toward the corner and hammer Korver’s man with a pindown screen…

Korver and Love would smile hearing (Pacers’ coach Nate) McMillan describe what they do as “random.” Aside from that set pindown play, they react in the moment to how the defense approaches them — and which two defenders are involved. It mostly starts with Korver positioning himself to run around a Love screen. That is dangerous enough. Staying attached to Korver at all costs is on the first page of any opponent scouting report.

The pair has countless options from there — Korver backdoor cuts, Love postups on the switch, or if two men go with Korver on his cut then Love gets an open three, and that’s just the start — and the Cavaliers unleashed all of them on the Raptors.

Traditionally, coaches and teams find what works and a comfort level during the regular season, then build on those lineups — and use them to exploit specific matchups — in the playoffs. Cleveland’s season before the trade deadline was a write-off. Of the guys who came in after the flurry of moves, George Hill has been important as a starter, solid defender, and stabilizing influence at the point guard spot. After that, guys they snapped up at the deadline like Jordan Clarkson (playing in the low teens in minutes unless it’s a blowout) or Larry Nance Jr. (out of the rotation, playing only garbage time) are not making a difference. It’s the veterans, guys who were largely already there, guys with a high hoops IQ who know how to play the game.

They have changed these Cavaliers into the team to beat in the East.

Cleveland has found the groove it was in last season that led it to the finals — the defense wasn’t good, but it was good enough with an unstoppable offense. And an unstoppable force leading it.

That may well be enough to get them back to the Finals this season.

Dwyane Wade signs ‘lifetime’ deal with Li-Ning

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MIAMI (AP) Dwyane Wade has signed a lifetime contract with Chinese apparel company Li-Ning.

Wade made the deal official at an event in Beijing on Wednesday with the company’s CEO and namesake Li Ning, who is revered in China for his gymnastics success.

Wade’s relationship with Li-Ning began in 2012, after he previously was an endorser for Converse and Jordan Brand. In addition to the continued production of basketball and lifestyle apparel, the new deal calls for Wade to take “a greater role” in youth developmental camps and basketball clinics in China and other parts of the world over the coming years.

Wade finished last season with the Miami Heat. He has not decided if he will return to the Heat next season, which would be his 16th in the NBA.

New Bulls forward Jabari Parker: ‘They don’t pay players to play defense’

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Jabari Parker never found his footing with the Bucks. Parker’s injuries and Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ascension left Parker – a top recruit then No. 2 overall pick – trying (and often failing) to to fit into a complementary role he clearly never envisioned for himself.

After signing a contract to become the Bulls’ highest-paid player, Parker is unapologetically embracing a new mission.

Parker, via 670 The Score:

I just stick to my strengths. Look at everybody in the league. They don’t pay players to play defense. There’s only two people historically that play defense. I’m not going to say I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. Because I’ve scored 30 and 20 on a lot of guys that say they play defense.

If you know the game, you also know that everyone’s a pro, right? And you know that certain guys have an average. No matter what you do, they still get that average. They pay people to score the ball, and I would hope that somebody scores the ball on me if they pay them that much. So, I’m not saying that to cop out or nothing. It’s the NBA. We’re professionals. Everybody scores. It’s just about limiting them as much as you can, trying to contain them.

A better offense wins a championship.

Parker is generally right. Scoring is rewarded far more than defense. If NBA teams don’t want to encourage that attitude, they ought to pay players more for other skills. Until then, players like Parker – who has no salary guarantee beyond this season – will continue to be drawn to scoring.

Parker is also correct that certain players get their points-per-game average no matter what. What he fails to explain: If that player needs too many shots to get it, he hurts his team. Good defenders force inefficiency from their opponents.

But, again, players who get theirs in the points column are often rewarded in salary.

So, expect Parker to hunt his points during his upcoming contract year.

These quotes only reinforce what we’d already seen from Parker. He showed glimpses of strong defense during this year’s playoffs, but that was rare for him. His skill set and approach are offense-first.

And great offense probably beats great defense. But offenses are rarely reliably great. Defense more often can be. The Warriors, as exceptional as they are offensively, are also elite defensively. I’m not sure Parker grasps that.

It’s on Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to convince him, but managing this issue is easier said than done. Not only does Parker bring years of habits to Chicago, he’s playing to prove himself next season. The Bulls have a team option on him for 2019-20.

Parker will most positively affect winning by trying hard on both ends of the floor. He might most positively affect his bank account by saving his energy for offense.

You might not like him saying it, but it’s also reality.

Report: Kawhi Leonard warming to playing for Raptors

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Shortly after the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, word leaked he didn’t want to play for Toronto.

That stance is apparently softening.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

They’ve been in communication with Kawhi Leonard’s camp. He’s going to play. He’ll be in training camp. He’s healthy. He may be at USA Basketball’s minicamp next week which Gregg Popovich is coaching. That’s possible.

But the one thing I was told today he’s started to warm to the idea that he’s going to a contender. He’s got a team that could be as good as anybody in the Eastern Conference.

And now it’s on Toronto to try to recruit him, keep him. But in his mind right now, he’s headed to L.A. next year.

Leonard has little choice but to get on board. If he withheld services from the Raptors, they could fine him – eventually all the way up to his entire $20,099,189 salary for next season. Perhaps even more catastrophically, if it was determined he withheld services for more than 30 days of the season, he could be denied free agency entirely.

Maybe he could have finessed using his injury as an excuse rather than explicitly holding out. It has been threatened before. But that’s hard to manage and would have hurt his stock among all teams, including his preferred destination(s).

The best way for Leonard to get everything he wants is going to Toronto, playing well then becoming a free agent next summer.

I’d advise Leonard to keep an open mind until then. It might have made sense to posture against the Raptors to discourage a trade. But the trade has happened. Maybe he’ll join Toronto and like it more than he expects.

Paul George didn’t expect to stay with the Thunder, but he considered them throughout the season and found a long-term home. I don’t expect that to repeat with Leonard and the Raptors, but it could. Why close the option?

If not, Los Angeles will always be waiting.

Report: Spurs wanted to declare Kawhi Leonard out for the season, but he wouldn’t let them

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In February, Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again during the 2017-18 season. Leonard didn’t, but the Spurs never followed Popovich’s doubt with a clear statement on Leonard’s status. Instead, Popovich repeatedly deferred questions of Leonard’s health in the following months to Leonard’s “group.”

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Privately, officials within organization had hoped Leonard would let the Spurs declare him out for the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he’d eventually return, Leonard declined each time

Did Leonard not realize this made him – not the Spurs – look bad? Especially once it leaked he’d been cleared medically. Especially when he told the team repeatedly and public once he’d return soon but never did.

Perhaps, this was just genuine competitiveness. Maybe Leonard really thought, or at least wanted to believe, a return was around the corner. This could have been him valiantly never giving up.

But there’s a reason teams usually err on the side of caution in long-term injury announcements. It’s to protect the player from looking bad for remaining out if he’s not quite ready as quickly as initially projected.

The Pacers received a disabled-player exception for Paul George in 2014-15, and he still beat the odds to return late in the year. The Celtics called Gordon Hayward out for this season and weren’t going to stray from that public stance until he suited up, even when – for a moment – it appeared he had a chance of returning.

Even if the Spurs publicly declared him out for the rest of the year, nothing would have stopped Leonard from playing. It’s not a binding resolution. Instead, he repeatedly missing targeted return dates and looked soft to many because of it.

And he insisted on the strategy that led to that perception!

This is just more evidence those around Leonard might not know what they’re doing.