Cavaliers have succeeded when it counts, but – for an NBA finalist – rarely otherwise

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How good are the Cavaliers?

Good enough.

And maybe no more.

The Cavs are back in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year. Cleveland has already achieved the highest reasonable standard for this team just by getting this far. The Cavaliers have nothing to apologize for.

But it’s worth acknowledging how poorly Cleveland – for a team that won its conference – rates in several measures.

Regular-season record

At 50-32, the Cavs have worst record for a finalist since the 2010 Celtics, who were also 50-32 (as were the 2007 Cavs). Nobody has had a worse record since the 49-33 New Jersey Nets in 2003.

Regular-season net rating

The Cavaliers didn’t perform as well, by point difference, as a typical 50-32 team. They won an outsized share of their close games and got blown out relatively frequently.

In all, Cleveland outscored opponents by just 1.0 point per 100 possessions – the worst mark by a finalist since the 1981 Rockets (+0.3 points per 100 possessions).

Defense

Allowing 3.3 more points per 100 possessions than league average, the Cavs had – by far – the worst regular-season defense for any finalist. In fact, it’s the worst regular-season defense for any team that won multiple playoff series.

Seed

The fourth-seeded Cavaliers are the lowest seed to make Finals since 2010 Celtics, who were also a No. 4 seed. The 2006 Mavericks and 2003 Spurs were also No. 4 seeds. The last lower-seeded team to reach the Finals was the eighth-seeded Knicks in 1999.

Playoff record

Cleveland needed seven games to beat the Pacers and another seven games to beat the Celtics, sweeping the Raptors between. Only the 2008 Celtics (20 games) and 2010 Magic (19 games) needed more games to win its conference than these Cavs (18 games).

Playoff point difference

The Cavaliers got outscored by 40 by Indiana – the third-worst scoring margin by the winning team ever in a playoff series. After routing Toronto by 56 points, the Cavs outscored the Celtics by just six.

All told, Cleveland’s playoff point difference entering the Finals (+22) is the lowest since the 1994 Knicks (+21).

The Cavaliers just kept advancing because they repeatedly came up clutch.

What appears to be clutch ability often falls apart in larger samples. But maybe these Cavs are different.

They might just know they’re too old to compete all the time, too experienced and capable to fret even playoff losses and possessing of a once-in-a-generation player – LeBron James – who has proven he can execute in the tightest of late-game situations.

This style of play might just be the right response by a flawed team in a hectic season.

Will it work against the Warriors? Doubtful. Golden State is too good to leave the Cavaliers margin for error and clutch in its own right.

But the Cavs got this far through sheer force of will, answering as many challenges as necessary. Maybe Cleveland will do the same in this series?

Either way, it’s still commendable the Cavaliers made it work this long.

Scoot Henderson says he has skills to be No.1 pick but not hung up on it

Metropolitans 92 v G League Ignite
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Scoot Henderson came out like a man on a mission Tuesday night against the Metropolitans 92 and Victor Wembanyama — he was in attack mode. He used his explosive athleticism to get to the rim, his impressive body control to get off good shots, and his strength to finish with authority. And if the defender played back, he would drain the jumper over him.

A year ago, Jaylen Brown called him the best 17-year-old he’d ever seen. Scoot is better than that now.

Many years, Henderson would be a clear No.1 overall pick. But, not this year, Wembanyama has that crown because he breaks the mold with his size and skill set (in the NBA, height still wins out).

Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer asked Henderson why he should be the top prospect and got a confident answer.

There will be a lot of people making the Henderson case this season — and with good reason. He could be a franchise cornerstone player for the next decade.

Henderson, however, is trying not to get hung up on No.1 vs. No.2.

There’s a long list of legendary players selected No.2: Bill Russell, Kevin Durant, Jerry West, Jason Kidd, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Henderson can be one of them.

Unless Wembanyama’s medicals come back with red flags, he is destined to be the No.1 pick next June. That, however, will not be the end of Henderson’s story. Instead, it will be just the beginning.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.