Five questions that will decide NBA Finals

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This was the matchup we expected in June before the season started: Golden State vs. Cleveland for the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Again.

However, the road to get here was far different — and with far more twists and turns — than we imagined. It was the kind of season that left us with questions — including questions about how the Warriors and Cavaliers match up in the Finals.

Here are the five questions whose answer will determine the winner of the NBA Finals.

1) How challenged, how engaged will the Warriors be this series? It’s easy to say the Golden State Warriors shouldn’t need more motivation to bring their “A” game every night — they are in the NBA Finals, the biggest stage in basketball. They are four wins away from a third NBA title in four years. They are playing to be considered a dynasty.

Yet, as we have seen this all season from Golden State, if this team doesn’t feel challenged, if it doesn’t get pushed, the Warriors coast and fall bad habits, making mistakes on both ends. The question isn’t even “will they coast in the Finals” as much as “how much will they coast in the Finals?”

The Warriors are unquestionably the more talented team in this series — for the Cavaliers to have any shot the Warriors have to be party to their own demise. The best way to tell if that’s happening (outside just missed threes by Golden State) is if Cleveland can replicate what Houston did last series — take away Golden State’s off-ball movement with good switching defense, and force them into a slowed down game in the halfcourt featuring Kevin Durant isolations. The Warriors will fall into that trap, if led there. The Rockets had the defensive talent, the defensive recognition and communication to pull that off. The Cavaliers… that brings us to our next question.

2) Can Cavaliers’ defense even begin to slow down Warriors’ offense? The Cavaliers are playing better defense in the playoffs than they did the regular season — Cleveland gave up 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the season (29th in the league), but it has been down to 105.9 per 100 in the postseason (7th in the playoffs, the equivalent of 15th in the league for the season). Cleveland players are putting in the effort, or at least they are when LeBron James is putting in that effort.

None of that may matter against the Warriors.

The Rockets had success shrinking the floor, switching everything, and defending the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, but the Cavaliers do not have the same personnel to make that defense work. Cleveland doesn’t have a rim-protecting big the likes of Clint Capela who can also switch on the perimeter and hold his own. The Cavs don’t have a good matchup for Kevin Durant (not that anyone does, but Trevor Ariza did a respectable job; now the defense of Durant likely falls to Jeff Green and LeBron). They don’t have switchable wing defenders who can play a physical style, like P.J. Tucker. They don’t have anyone who can hang with the off-ball movement of Klay Thompson.

George Hill, with his length and veteran savvy, may do okay on Stephen Curry. However, expect the back cuts, split cuts, and other off-ball movements that the Rockets took away from the Warriors last round to come back. And expect a lot of finger-pointing and glaring at each other from the Cavaliers after wide open made Warriors baskets.

3) Who will be the fifth man for the Warriors? Golden State hopes Andre Iguodala will be back this series — he is out for Game 1 at least. He would help their cause, primarily as a quality defender on LeBron James (so that Kevin Durant and Draymond Green don’t have to shoulder that burden all the time). Iguodala matters — in the 2017 Finals the Warriors were +60 when he was on the court and -26 when he was not. On offense, Iguodala is a smart playmaker who keeps the motion offense going.

Shaun Livingston has been the best fifth man with the rest of the Hampton’s lineup (Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green), but he’s not as good a defender and more of a midrange shooter. Jordan Bell brings athleticism and energy, but for every good play he makes he also seems to bring a rookie mistake. Kevon Looney tries. There is just not a great fifth option without Iguodala, but how much can the Cavaliers exploit that.

4) Can the Cavaliers knock down their threes? In the regular season, the three ball accounted for 34.8 percent of Cleveland’s non-garbage time shots, fourth highest percentage in the NBA (higher than the Warriors at 31.3 percent). In the playoffs that hasn’t changed, with 35 percent of Cleveland’s shots coming from beyond the arc (second highest percentage of playoff teams).

This isn’t rocket science — the Cavaliers need a high percentage of those shots to fall. Cleveland is shooting 34.7 percent on playoff threes (non-garbage time) and that simply isn’t going to be good enough against the high-powered Warriors. LeBron James, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and every other Cavalier player taking threes has got to knock them down this series at a high clip — Cleveland doesn’t defend well enough to lock Golden State down, the only way the Cavs win is outscoring the Warriors in a shootout. Which means making a lot of threes.

5) Will LeBron’s supporting cast be anywhere near enough? Last year, the Warriors beat the Cavaliers in five games in the NBA Finals — and that was a Cleveland team that had Kyrie Irving, Channing Frye, Deron Williams, Richard Jefferson, and James Jones. None of those guys are back this season.

LeBron has had to carry an incredible burden to get this team roster to the NBA Finals.

He’s got a few veterans who have been here before — Korver, Smith, Tristan Thompson — but not as many and some not as good as who they replaced. Then there are the newcomers such as George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson — those guys are going to have to step up and have big series on a stage they have never been on before.

Kevin Love’s return from a concussion — his status is not known for Game 1 as of this writing — would be a big boost. He can score, he is a matchup problem, and he’s got a ring to show he can play under this kind of pressure.

Can the rest of this team? The Cavalry is not charging over the hill to save the day for LeBron, he’s got to make due with the guys around him. That just doesn’t look like it will be enough.

Cavaliers make consecutive NBA Finals with unprecedented roster turnover between

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The Lakers got Wilt Chamberlain in 1968. The 76ers got Moses Malone in 1982. The Warriors got Kevin Durant in 2016.

And the Cavaliers lost Kyrie Irving in 2017.

It’s not uncommon for a team to be involved in star movement between back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. But teams good enough to make the Finals usually lure a star, not lose one.

Cleveland is the exception, dealing Irving to Boston after he requested a trade last summer. Not only did they lose half of LeBron James‘ supporting stars, the Cavs moved on from several other players who participated in their 2017 playoff run – Iman Shumpert, Deron Williams, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Derrick Williams, Dahntay Jones and James Jones.

Yet, the Cavaliers are back in the Finals again.

Cleveland’s returning players account for just 62% of its postseason minutes the year prior. That’s the lowest mark for a returning finalist since the NBA began tracking minutes in 1952.

Only the Chamberlain-acquiring Lakers, Durant-acquiring Warriors and Malone-acquiring 76ers are even within shouting distance.

Here’s how every team to reach consecutive NBA Finals ranks in percentage of playoff minutes returned from the first year (counting only players who played in both postseasons):

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Though the Cavaliers already rank first in roster turnover, this method even underrates their transformation.

Since the 2017 Finals, Cleveland acquired, gave significant roles to then traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose. None of those four factor into this calculation, but they obviously contribute heavily to the Cavs’ instability.

Irving counts, and he thrusted the Cavaliers into this historic situation.

Sure, the Lakers, 76ers and Warriors moved significant pieces to get Chamberlain, Malone and Durant. But those were clear upgrades and easy organizational decisions.

Irving chose to be traded far more than Cleveland chose to trade him. That decision sent the Cavs spiraling… but also wound up with them right back where they started.

If there’s a lesson in all this: No how matter how much surrounding chaos, LeBron wins the East.

Trey Lyles had some not-so-nice things to say about playing for the Utah Jazz

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Trey Lyles is now a member of the Denver Nuggets, but the University of Kentucky product started his career with the Utah Jazz, and although he played significant minutes it wasn’t the best start to a career.

Lyles was moved on draft night in 2017 for Donovan Mitchell, who is now a Rookie of the Year candidate for the Jazz. Lyles, meanwhile, has been a better player for Denver during the 2017-18 season.

Still, that doesn’t mean the bad taste from his experience in Utah has left Lyles’ mouth. During a recent edition of Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye‘s “Road Trippin'” podcast, Lyles voiced his general displeasure with Utah, Salt Lake City, and coach Quin Snyder.

Via Deseret News:

Jefferson: “I liked playing in Utah. I really did.”

Lyles: “Who was your coach then?”

Jefferson: “I had Tyrone Corbin.”

Lyles, grumbling: “So y’all didn’t practice? Y’all didn’t do nothing, yeah. See, we had practice every day (under Quin Snyder). I thought I was in Kentucky again.”

Jefferson, sarcastically: “You had practice every day? Oh, sorry for making you work hard. Sorry. What’s wrong with working hard, Trey?”

Lyles: “I didn’t say nothing about working hard. Three-hour practices? C’mon now.”

Lyles went on to say he “just didn’t like” playing for the Jazz, adding that he felt players who buy into Salt Lake City are usually people with families. Translation: young NBA dudes in SLC don’t have their choice of clubs for post-game relaxation and that didn’t rub Lyles the right way.

Here’s my favorite part of the whole exchange, again from the Deseret News:

“It’s sunny all the time in Utah,” Jefferson said.

Lyles: “Hmmmm.”

“The fans are really, really good.”

“Hmmmm.”

Lyles didn’t want to practice all that much and he’d rather his city has more nightlife. To each his own, although I doubt many NBA franchises listening to that are going to be impressed. Lyles’ current contract runs out in 2018-19.

Report: Nuggets would ‘love’ to trade Wilson Chandler

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Try to win now or build for the future?

The Nuggets face that tricky question on numerous fronts – including with Wilson Chandler.

Chandler is starting small forward for Denver, and there isn’t much depth behind him. The Nugget (29-25) are tied for sixth in the West – on pace to break a four-year playoff drought, though also holding only a one-game cushion for playoff position.

But Chandler is 30 years old, playing his worst basketball in years and holds a $12,800,562 player option for next season. The Nuggets face a luxury-tax crunch next season, whether or not they exercise Nikola Jokic‘s team option.

Where does that leave Chandler?

Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports:

Denver would love to get out of the final year of Wilson Chandler’s contract.

It looks increasingly likely Chandler will opt in. For the same reasons the Nuggets want to dump him, other teams will be leery. Still, Chandler could fit into a larger deal, perhaps one involving Emmanuel Mudiay.

A solace for Denver in the likely event Chandler remains past tomorrow’s deadline: At least he’s contributing. Other options at small forward – Will Barton (needed at point guard), Juan Hernangomez (more of a power forward) and Richard Jefferson (glued to the bench most of the season – bring significant flaws.

And the Nuggets are already under the luxury-tax line this season. Dropping Chandler would be getting ahead of a problem for next season. Talks now could set up a trade this summer.

Reports: Pelicans to sign Jameer Nelson with Rondo out

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With Rajon Rondo out 4-6 weeks with a sports hernia, the New Orleans Pelicans were looking for a solid backup point guard.

This week, to make room to sign Richard Jefferson, the Denver Nuggets waived veteran Jameer Nelson.

While other teams such as the Rockets were calling, the Pelicans and Nelson have reached a deal, reports both Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports added this.

Nelson, in his 14th NBA season, became the top free agent on the market and received interest from contenders such as the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder and several other franchises that hoped to add the respected and accomplished veteran. But for Nelson, the Pelicans represent an opportunity to play significant minutes and provide leadership.

The Pelicans had a full roster of 15 players, they could have waited until next Tuesday and gotten a disabled player exception to add a 16th player, but they decided to go with something more permanent.

Jrue Holiday starts at the point for the Pelicans but with Rondo out — he was supposed to start next to Holiday — there is no depth at the position. The Pelicans can have Nelson step in and get minutes from the first time he steps on the court.

Nelson is still a solid pick-and-roll point guard, but what he brings to the table the Pelicans need more is shooting — he shot 38.8 percent from three last season and is a good spot up player. He can penetrate and make plays off handoffs as well, but it’s his shooting on a team that needs it that will be most valued.

The Pelicans have started the season 0-2 with losses to Memphis and Golden State. They take on the Lakers in Los Angeles Sunday night.