Brandon Knight

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Cavaliers enter promising and perplexing era with two point guards, Darius Garland, Collin Sexton

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Collin Sexton was the crown jewel of Cleveland’s rebuild.

He was the fruit of the Nets pick – a selection (acquired for Kyrie Irving) the Cavaliers treasured so highly, they shortchanged their championship odds during LeBron James‘ last season to keep it. The 2018 first-rounder landed No. 8, and the Cavs drafted Sexton. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert seemed particularly intrigued by the point guard from Alabama.

Sexton averaged 16.7 points per game last season, third-most among rookies, behind only Luka Doncic and Trae Young. With the top five picks comprising the first team, Sexton landed on the All-Rookie second team. He looked like he could be Cleveland’s point guard of the future.

With that growing profile, Sexton booked a gig on Yahoo Sports’ NBA draft show.

Shortly before filming began, he got word the Cavs would use the No. 5 pick on another point guard – Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland.

***

By the time the Cavaliers were on the clock, it had been publicly reported they’d take Garland if not trading the pick. The awkwardness in Yahoo’s studio was palpable. Nearly everyone referenced the elephant in the room – Sexton sitting there as Cleveland drafted his potential replacement. The mentions were usually accompanied by nervous laughter.

Finally, Sexton was asked about the Cavs picking Garland.

“Honestly, I think it would be cool,” Sexton said.

He seemed relaxed and confident. Suddenly, all the tension on set dissipated.

It’s only beginning in Cleveland, though.

***

Maybe Sexton will pan out. Maybe Garland will pan out. Maybe both will. Maybe neither will.

It’s far too early to say.

That’s why the Cavaliers were right to pick Garland even after taking Sexton.

Drafting is extremely difficult. It’s hard enough to assess the long-term futures of teenagers. Overly focusing on fit adds another complication and creates even more opportunity to get the selection wrong.

No. 3 on my draft board, Garland was a tier above anyone else available and two tiers above the next non-point guard. He was too good to pass up.

Still, that strategy creates immediate complications.

Garland and Sexton are both ambitious young players trying to carve their own paths. They don’t mesh simply on the court. Managing the pairing will be a season-long effort.

***

The big question: Can Garland and Sexton coexist long-term?

I don’t think so. But I don’t know, and there likely isn’t a rush on determining. The Cavs probably won’t part with either Garland or Sexton anytime soon. Both guards will have time to try to blend. If they surprise and find a nice chemistry, that’d only be to Cleveland’s benefit.

Sexton compared the Cavs duo to Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, point guards who frequently shared a backcourt during the Raptors’ run to a championship.

Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who initially paired Lowry and VanVleet, is a big proponent of two-point guard lineups.

“I don’t know too many times offensively where it’s not a benefit,” Casey said. “Because any time you can have multiple ball-handlers, multiple pick-and-roll players, it’s a plus.”

Garland profiles as an elite shot-maker, able to pull up from all over the court and bury jumpers. He has work to go as a distributor, but he’s a willing passer and looks like an NBA point guard. He’s the clear 1 when playing with Sexton.

Sexton, who describes himself as a “combo 1,” is more of a slasher. He can make the pass in front of him, but he hasn’t shown an ability to read the whole floor. It’s tough to run an offense through someone with that tunnel vision. Still, Sexton’s speed and aggressiveness could serve him well off the ball.

“He’s very fast and get him into space as quickly as we can,” Cavaliers coach Jon Beilein said. “When you have the ball all the time, people load up. When you don’t have the ball, and all of a sudden you get it, you can really quick strike. So, we’ll be looking for that a lot.”

The biggest swing skill between both players might be Sexton’s 3-point shooting. After making just 34% of his 3-pointers at Alabama, Sexton shot 40% from beyond the NBA arc last season. If he can knockdown open spot-up 3s, that’d go a long way in making the pairing work.

Offensively.

Defense remains a challenge. Lowry and VanVleet are stronger and more advanced in their awareness. Sexton has been a rough mix of overaggressive and inattentive. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, he’s quite small for the bigger guard. Garland (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) is small fory any role.

There are also ego questions whenever multiple players accustomed to controlling the ball must share it. Yet, both Garland and Sexton downplayed that concern.

“We’re both here to win,” Garland said. “It doesn’t matter how we play, if we play together, if we don’t. It doesn’t matter. We’re just here to win games.”

***

The Cavaliers probably won’t win many games this season. After years of contending around LeBron James, Cleveland is just getting its rebuild off the ground.

Garland and Sexton are the centerpieces. Managing their development should be the priority.

Does that mean frequently playing them together so they each maximize their minutes? Does that mean staggering them so they get as much experience as possible without stepping on each other’s toes?

Beilein said he’d determine that as the season unfolds, but the Cavs’ somewhat coincidental abundance of combo guards points to using somewhat interchangeable guards, anyway. Cleveland acquired Brandon Knight and Matthew Dellavedova in salary dumps mainly about adding draft picks. Jordan Clarkson has played both guard positions. A Garland-Sexton backcourt could play a similar style to any other combination of those guards.

That makes it easier to get through this season, though not necessarily easy.

***

Sexton particularly enjoyed doing the Yahoo draft show with Nets center Jarrett Allen, another promising young player. Sexton said everyone teased Allen about the possibility of Brooklyn signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving later in the summer.

“He was like, ‘I don’t know what y’all know,'” Sexton said.

Of course, the Nets landed Durant and Irving. Only Sexton, not Allen, knew what move lied ahead for his team.

But how will it work out in Cleveland? That remains the rebuild-defining mystery.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drives through all Cavaliers for dunk (video)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is undeniable.

Watch this video. He’s the only Bucks player in sight on the court. All five Cavaliers appear. Antetokounmpo dunks anyway.

He dribbles past Jordan Clarkson then through David Nwaba and Tristan Thompson. Nik Stauskas and Brandon Knight are shading close enough to narrow his potential path. None of it matters.

Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone anyone we’ve ever seen.

Report: Rockets trading first-rounder to dump salary in three-way deal with Cavaliers and Kings

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta called the luxury tax a “horrible hindrance.”

So, Houston will do something about it.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Houston Rockets are acquiring guard Iman Shumpert in a three-way deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings, league sources told ESPN.

The Rockets will send guard Brandon Knight, forward Marquese Chriss and a 2019 lottery protected first-round pick to the Cavaliers, league sources said.

The Cavaliers will send guard Alec Burks to the Kings, and guards Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin to the Rockets, league sources said.

Sacramento also got a second-round pick from Cleveland, according to James Ham of NBC Sports California. (Update: The pick will come from Houston.)

This trade puts the Rockets in line to save $7,780,376 – $6,417,710 in luxury tax and $1,362,666 salary – this season. The bigger savings come next season, when Knight – who hasn’t been good in years – is guaranteed $15,643,750. Everyone Houston got is on an expiring contract.

The Rockets are now just $4,290,472 over the tax line and could still try to dodge the tax altogether. But they will likely be active on the buyout market, which would only add to their payroll. Maybe Houston will try to flip Stauskas and/or Baldwin before tomorrow’s trade deadline to make an eventual post-buyout signing less costly. Escaping the tax entirely seems less likely.

At least this trade also helps the Rockets on the court, unlike their money-saving decisions last offseason. Knight and Chriss were non-factors. Shumpert isn’t great, but he’s a reasonable two-way wing with deep-playoff experience. Teams can’t get enough of those.

Still, Shumpert is a minor upgrade relative to what Houston could’ve gotten for a first-rounder if that pick weren’t doing the heavy lifting of unloading bad salary.

That pick is why Cleveland took Knight and Chriss. The Cavs aren’t going anywhere quickly, anyway. Better to stock up on long-term assets like draft picks in exchange for taking negative-value contracts now. Maybe even Chriss is worth a flier. He gets his desired trade. The first-rounder is the real prize, though.

Swapping Shumpert for Burks, who’s also on an expiring contract, seems like a parallel move for the Kings. Burks is an inch taller, and Sacramento needs a bigger wing. But Shumpert had done a nice job of competing at small forward. I’m not convinced Burks will match that. At least the second-round pick offers buffer. But in a season where the Kings could end a 12-year playoff drought, they should focus primarily on the players involved. Maybe they just like Burks.

Austin Rivers downplays tension with Chris Paul: ‘If we ever play in L.A., me and CP know all the tunnels’

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HOUSTON — Despite positive results from their first victory without guard Chris Paul, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey acted with haste in patching the hole on his roster that could undermine advancement toward securing a playoff bid in the competitive Western Conference.

The Rockets on Monday announced the signing of free agent guard Austin Rivers, recently released by the Phoenix Suns following a trade that sent Rivers westward from Washington. Rivers, in his seventh season, has averaged 9.3 points and 2.4 assists over 437 career games with New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Wizards. Rivers posted career-best marks in points (15.1), assists (4.0), rebounds (2.4), and steals (1.2) last season with the Clippers.

With Paul expected to be sidelined between 2-4 weeks with a Grade-2 left hamstring strain, the Rockets opted not to roll the dice by increasing the workload on guards James Harden and Eric Gordon. Guard Brandon Knight recently returned from a knee injury that cost him almost two full seasons, but in averaging 14.9 minutes over the previous two games, it became clear that Knight isn’t ready for such heavy minutes. That led Morey and the Rockets to Rivers.

“He can give us stuff, especially with Chris out, another ball handler, scorer,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A guy that attacks, can play defense — he’s a good NBA player. It makes us deeper and it keeps us from having Eric to play too many minutes and different guys. Another good body. A lot of positive stuff.”

Rivers will play on Tuesday when the Rockets (17-15) host the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-11) at Toyota Center. Houston has produced the fourth-best offensive rating (112.1) in the league this month and improved to 7-4 in December with a 108-101 home victory over the San Antonio Spurs last Saturday, their first victory in six games this season with Paul sidelined.

Rivers and Paul were teammates for three seasons in Los Angeles, and rumors abounded about their supposedly frosty relationship. They were central in an altercation, highlighted by talk of secret tunnels, between the Rockets and Clippers last season.

Rivers was quick to dismiss those allegations prior to his first practice with the Rockets on Monday.

“I had no problems with Chris,” Rivers said. “Obviously if I had a problem with Chris I wouldn’t be here. Chris has a huge input on this team as he should; he’s a Hall of Fame point guard. Obviously, if that was that serious I wouldn’t be here. That just goes to show you that it’s not real.

“That’ll be quickly put to bed.”

Rivers, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

“For better or worse, right?” Rivers said of his history against the Rockets. “If we ever play in L.A., me and CP (Chris Paul) know all the tunnels. We’ll be all right there. It’s funny. This is a team I always admired and wanted to play for with (Mike) D’Antoni and the way they play, getting up and down. It’s a very fitting place.”

Stability and success have been companions for the Thunder, winners of 9 of 13 with two of those four losses coming by just two points. In the second game of a back-to-back, the Thunder fell 114-112 to the Minnesota Timberwolves at home on Sunday. Still, third-seeded Oklahoma City possesses the best point differential (6.4) and net rating (6.1) of all teams in the West.

Those margins have been built but the league’s second-best defense (102.0 rating) and by prowess on the glass. Oklahoma City ranks fourth in rebounding percentage (52.0) and, especially concerning for the Rockets, first overall in offensive rebounding rate (31.4). Houston is 29th in defensive rebounding percentage (69.4) this season, ahead of only the Wizards.

“That’s the game,” Harden said. “Obviously, we know how really good they are defensively but rebounding (will be decisive).”

Chris Paul diagnosed with Grade 2 hamstring strain, will be re-evaluated in two weeks

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Just as the Rockets were getting on a roll, having won five in a row, the basketball gods struck down Chris Paul — he limped to the locker room in Miami Thursday night with what was later described to be a strained hamstring. Houston is 0-5 in games Paul has sat this season, and that’s not counting Thursday night when Miami took the lead on a 17-4 run third-quarter run with CP3 out, and the Heat held on to win.

How long will Paul be out? An MRI was done Friday and the team announced it is a Grade 2 strain and Paul will be re-evaluated in two weeks. He could miss a little more time, hamstrings are slow to heal and tricky because players think they are 100 percent and want back out but the muscle is not yet ready for explosive movements.

The report from the team fell in line with what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN had reported earlier.

The Rockets stumbled out of the gate 4-7, in part due to injuries and suspensions (including Paul being suspended for two games after a scuffle with the Lakers in an early season game after Rajon Rondo spit on him). All season long it has been two steps up and one step back with no real traction. The Rockets’ defense has been terrible and the offense inconsistent. That changed somewhat during the five-game win streak, when James Harden played at an MVP level again lifting the offense, while the defense improved to average.

Now we could see another step back for the Rockets. Houston will have to lean more on Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Knight, options that should make Rockets’ fans nervous. The Rockets have been looking at wings on the trade market, would GM Daryl Morey consider a move for a stop-gap point guard?

It may depend on how long Paul is out. If it really is just a few weeks, the Rockets will try to weather the storm.