Four-Point Play

The 2019 NBA All-Star Draft

Word out of New York this week says the League for the first time is going to televise the NBA All-Star Draft, with the leading vote-getters from the East and West selecting their superstar squads before a live TV audience.

We could not wait to speculate.

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So here in this spot, I will assume the roles of likely All-Star general managers LeBron James, who I figure will lead all Western Conference vote-getters and thus qualify as West captain, and fellow All-Star GM Giannis Antetokounmpo, who I figure will lead all Eastern Conference vote-getters.

After all, James and Antetokounmpo were the top two vote recipients on the 2018 NBA All-Star ballots a year ago.

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1. Team LeBron selects Kevin Durant
LeBron gets first pick (again) in 2019 All-Star because now he is representing the West (and the East rep got first choice in 2018 All-Star). So once again, I expect LeBron to take his good friend and Finals rival Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors so he can begin recruiting the free-agent-to-be to Los Angeles in this coming summer. Wait, did I write that?

2. Team Giannis selects Steph Curry

Of the remaining seven All-Star starters voted in by the fans (my guess is the fans also choose Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid amongst the 10 starters), The Greek Freak likely chooses Stephen Curry to break up the unbreakable,  unshakable Warriors dynamic duo of Steph and KD for at least one day during the 2018-19 season.

3. Team LeBron: Anthony Davis

This pick will make both team members happy so that LeBron also can begin recruiting A.D. to the Lakers, while Durant can counter by also courting A.D. for the Warriors. The NBA All-Star Game, which now follows the League trading deadline, kicks off the start of the NBA’s official/unofficial free-agent recruitment/tampering season.

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4. Team Giannis: James Harden

There is no way Mr. Antetokounmpo is going to let the reigning NBA MVP James Harden dip any further than fourth in this All-Star Draft, giving the young Buck his dream backcourt: Curry and Harden (no offense to Eric Bledsoe or Malcolm Brogdon).

5. Team LeBron: Kawhi Leonard

Although the 2014 NBA Finals MVP is best suited to defend Finals MVP forwards LeBron and K.D., there is nothing that would make all involved happier than to finally play together for the first time, as LeBron makes Kawhi an honorary guard for his starting star squad. Look for these three to combine for 100 points on their own.

6. Team Giannis: Joel Embiid

If Giannis does not draft Embiid here, he forces himself to play starting center. That’s incentive enough. Plus, Giannis’ team needs a giant like Embiid to protect the rim so that LeBron, K.D. and Kawhi don’t get their 100 combined points on all dunks and layups.

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7. Team LeBron: Kyrie Irving

Reunited and it feels so good. Just like the 2018 NBA All-Star secret draft, conducted by LeBron and Curry behind closed doors, LeBron will again draft his former Cavs teammate and 2016 NBA champion. This time, though, Kyrie is his only true guard in his starting lineup, with Kawhi converting to the 2 spot here for the occasion.

8. Team Giannis: Victor Oladipo

As a result of Team LeBron’s drafting, Team Giannis will be forced to start a three-guard lineup themselves, with Oladipo being the last starter selected at pick No. 8. Because LeBron James got first pick in the starter rounds, Giannis Antetokounmpo gets first pick in the reserve rounds—from players selected by the coaches—at pick No. 9. The rest of the draft goes as follows:

9. Team Giannis: Khris Middleton

10. Team LeBron: Chris Paul

11. Team Giannis: Russell Westbrook

12. Team LeBron: Klay Thompson

13. Team Giannis: Nikola Jokic

14. Team LeBron: Draymond Green

15. Team Giannis: DeMar DeRozan

16. Team LeBron: Damian Lillard

17. Team Giannis: Kyle Lowry

18. Team LeBron: Ben Simmons

19. Team Giannis: Blake Griffin

20. Team LeBron: Andre Drummond

21. Team Giannis: Al Horford

22. Team LeBron: Kemba Walker

Philadelphia’s Sunken Subs

No pair of subs is missed more than former 76ers Marco Belinelli (now with the Spurs) and Ersan Ilyasova (Bucks), who both served as silent assassins off the Philadelphia bench during the Sixers’ 52-win season a year ago.

Consequently, the 2018-19 76ers have become the gang that cannot shoot straight, with signed supersub Wilson Chandler missing the first 10 games as their super-starter squad struggled out the gates (Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid).

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As a five-man unit last season, that stellar Sixers quintet posted the NBA’s best plus-minus net rating of the season (+21.0 in 601 minutes together). This season, that same quintet has collapsed as a group, posting a -0.9 net rating in 88 minutes together, with Saric losing his outside touch altogether (.480 true shooting percentage in 356 minutes).

What compounded the issue was that nobody off the bench filled the void left by Belinelli and Ilyasova, who combined for 24.4 points per game as Sixers.

Maybe that will change soon, with Chandler returning to the bench this week.

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Maybe not.

If these Sixers cannot shake the rust off their 7-5 start, and if this becomes a trend, management may have to go shopping for new shooters.

Essentially, both Belinelli and Ilyasova were one-year acquisitions last season that were made at little cost to the franchise, with former GM Bryan Colangelo acquiring $6 million man Belinelli as a backup wing at a minimum contract after he was waived by the Atlanta Hawks, while $5 million man Ilyasova was acquired as a backup big by similar route after he too was waived by Atlanta.

Belinelli and Ilyasova were efficient as Sixers (14.2 and 14.6 Player Efficiency Ratings, respectively), made their threes (39 and 36 percent) and provided the spacing that made them as deadly on the court (+10.8 and +8.9 on-court ratings per 100 possessions) as they were missed off the court (+7.6 and +4.9 on-off court ratings).

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New 2018-19 replacements, rookie guard Landry Shamet and veteran big Mike Muscala, are good three-point launchers, but they lack the shot-creating, all-around game that both Belinelli and Ilyasova provided for both Philly’s first- and second-string units. Plus, they average nine fewer points per game than Belinelli and Ilyasova combined (24.4 to 15.2 points per game).

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To no fault of Shamet and Muscala, none of the Sixers’ subs has that leadership wherewithal that both Belinelli and Ilyasova brought to last season’s 52-30 club.

The two foreign-born Sixers were especially effective with non-shooting point guard and fellow foreigner Ben Simmons, with the trio playing 153 minutes together at a +18.7 net rating per 100 possessions.

Now with nobody to take the shot-creating, floor-spacing pressure off Simmons the way these two did, it is no wonder most of the staggered combinations of starter-sub lineups arestruggling out the gates this year.

Factor into the equation an additional non-shooter working his way into the rotation in sixth man and perimeter liability Markelle Fultz, and you do not see the problem fixing itself anytime soon.

If Chandler can do half the job, he may be able to stop half the bleeding.

But it is doubtful Atlanta saves the day again for Philly by waiving a pair of shooters. Outside help must be found somewhere soon and fast.

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DeMar, The Merrier

You would not expect a team led by Tom Brady and Randy Moss to commit too many turnovers, especially since both were two of football’s most sure-handed ballhandlers when they were New England Patriots teammates. So it should come as no surprise that these DeMar DeRozan-LaMarcus Aldridge-led Spurs have helped San Antonio become the NBA’s most turnover-free team in 2018-19.

On a similar note, these 2018-19 Spurs also rate as one of the five slowest-paced teams in the NBA. That should come as no surprise to the team that had Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for three decades.

Still, these ball-control manipulators are surprising critics by coming out the gates with six wins in their first nine contests, despite losing three crucial guards to injury (starter Dejounte Murray, who is out for the season; his replacement Derrick White, who returned to the lineup Wednesday, and rookie Lonnie Walker, who should be back in December.

Fans and followers of the Spurs, however, are not so surprised, since this what Spurs do annually, dating back to 1998 when San Antonio began its perfect postseason attendance record.

It appears these revamped Spurs are actually more of the same.

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DeRozan simply plugs in as a ball-dominant shooting guard for the first time in his life and posts career-best, all-around averages of 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists.

As great as the two-time All-NBA and four-time All-Star guard was in nine seasons in Toronto, DeRozan never was as productive, nor as efficient (24.9 Player Efficiency Rating and .584 true shooting percentage) as he is as a first-year Spur.

Consequently, he righted the ship long enough for White to recover from his heel injury and for Walker to come within a couple weeks of his return from a torn meniscus.

It really is a feel-good story for San Antonio after enduring the drama of Kawhi Leonard’s mysterious injury last season, which saw the All-NBA forward limited to only nine games of action in 2017-18.

One year later—with DeRozan quarterbacking the 2018-19 Spurs ala Brady, and Aldridge serving as his Moss—head coach Gregg Popovich’s team now leads the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.15) and lowest turnover percentage (11.4), thanks to DeRozan, Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli conservatively manning all the minutes at the guard posts.

It really is a testament to DeRozan’s basketball IQ that he is able to quickly mesh with the corporate knowledge of veteran Spurs on the roster—Mills and Belinelli, the last holdovers from the 2014 NBA championship squad, along with third-year Spur Forbes.

White’s return this week should allow these men to return to their natural positions, with Pop knowing his early-season makeshift lineups were able to keep San Antonio at top 10 offensive level, despite missing three key guards.

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Even more intriguing is the successful midrange combo Pop discovered whenever he played DeRozan, Belinelli and Aldridge together. Nobody could stop these shooters, who outscored opponents 209-163 in 78 minutes as a trio.

To Spurs’ fans delight, this year’s San Antonio squad is just full of surprises thus far, which is a good sign after the summer exodus of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Kyle Anderson …

A real good sign, indeed.

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A Tale Of Two (Intrasquad) Teams

The Cleveland Cavaliers are conducting a Civil War experiment with themselves.

It’s kind of like Avengers Civil War, only without the superheroes.

Yeah, Ironman LeBron James flew the coop last summer, while Spider-Man Kyrie Irving left town a summer before that, only to leave Thor himself Kevin Love alone on Planet Cleveland to fend off all alien foes.

And when Love had to undergo foot surgery last week, that ended all hopes for a long-run release, with his Cavaliers subsequently dropping 11 of their first 12 games thus far.

It’s an ugly beginning.

So ugly, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and exec Koby Altman fired 2016 NBA championship coach Tyronn Lue after he defied exec orders and tried to win games with the veteran lineup rather than succumb to tanking with the young kids.

His head coach replacement, Larry Drew, tried the same, but the Cavs are now so bad without Love that even that does not help matters, as the 1-11 record we already reference so readily reflects.

Which brings us to the story at hand: What do you do now if you are Cleveland?

Love is out until January. His replacement Sam Dekker is out with an ankle sprain until December. Point guards George Hill is also gone ’til December with a bad shoulder. Point guard Collin Sexton and small forward Cedi Osman are day-to-day hurt.

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In the one game Cleveland won this season—a 136-114 home victory over Atlanta 10 days ago—Drew played a lineup of Hill, Rodney Hood, Osman, Dekker and Tristan Thompson, which still falls short of the veteran lineup Love was begging for before he suffered his foot injury.

After three losses in Cavs’ first three games, Love told The Athletic, “In our commitment to helping guys grow, the guys who know how to win have to play. I think having Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and J.R. Smith, those guys know how to win in this league, and having them will help bring the others along. So they need to play.”

It was not until Love’s replacement Dekker got hurt that four-year Finals starter Smith was finally inserted into the 2018-19 Cave’ starting lineup for the first time Wednesday. And with that, two-year Finals super-sub Kyle Korver was finally given 21 minutes in Wednesday’s contest after being limited to 128 minutes in 10 Cleveland contests.

Perhaps Channing Frye will hear his number finally called again Friday after being limited to 21 minutes thus far.

It really is a joke to see these vets suffer the indignity of sacrificing playing time before this team ever had a chance to compete for victories.

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The 19-year-old rookie Sexton, who was chosen eighth in the 2018 NBA Draft, quickly showed he was not even close to being ready for 25 minutes per game (his current average), but that did not stop someone in the organization from ordering his minutes. And then Lue’s firing. And then Drew’s harassment.

Inexperienced 23-year-old Cedi Osman has become the team’s leading minutes man after serving as a 22-year-old third-string prospect last year, acting as an apprentice for LeBron, J.R., Jeff Green, Korver and Jae Crowder.

And now, he is their team leader.

Go figure.

What is most puzzling of all is that the Cavaliers do have one truly outstanding prospect on their team who is ready to become an NBA player.

His name is Ante Zizic and entering his second NBA season, the 21-year-old center already is posting an All-Star-like career 23.4 Player Efficiency Rating in 279 career minutes, which translates to 20 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks for 36 minutes per game with a .711 true shooting percentage.

And for some reason, this 6-11, 254-pound prospect can only land 65 minutes of playing time this season.

The good prospect sits; the not-ready-for-prime-time players play.

Go figure that one out and call me back.

It’s the biggest mystery what Cleveland is doing out there, but it is only a matter of time where we expect they’ll allow the rest of the league to start raiding their refrigerator for all that’s left.

It really is a sad situation that is only going to get sadder.