The Year of Dion Waiters.

October 14, 2013

I’m all in on this Cleveland Cavaliers team. One big reason: Dion Waiters.

Aside from Andrew Bynum’s health, Dion’s physique appears to be the story of training camp. A guy whose weight drew the ire of Byron Scott during last year’s Summer League, the Syracuse product has apparently slimmed down for his sophomore campaign. Waiters did yoga over the summer — in addition to these workout videos posted to YouTube.

So far this preseason — of course an extremely small sample size of two games against likely lottery teams in Milwaukee and Orlando — Dion leads the Cavs at 16.5 points per game in 24.5 minutes. (That’s a per-36-minute scoring average of 24.2, about a 6-point improvement over the 2012-13 season.) He’s shooting 50% from the field, 67% from 3-point territory and 88% from the foul line. He’s attempted as many free throws, 8, as Kyrie Irving. (Last season, he shot 41.2% from the field, 31.1% from deep and 74.6% from the FT line.)

Of course this is all with the preseason caveat. Dion’s not only had the benefit of weak opponents, but also of playing teams wary of showing too much scheme in meaningless games.

That said, you can’t help but marvel at the year-over-year progress. Dion — and the rest of the Cavs — appear to have completely bought into MB’s defensive intensity. Two more reasons to be optimistic:

* Dion’s got a year under his belt playing with Kyrie Irving. As Waiters told the media, per Bob Finnan: “[The coaching staff] put us in a position where we can feed off one another. They want me to play strict the ‘2.’ We never really established that much of a connection [last year]. This year, he knows where I like the ball, and I know where he likes the ball. We can work off one another and make each other better.”

* Also, the addition of Jarrett Jack as a backup PG and secondary playmaker allows Waiters to focus on one thing on offense: scoring. Barring an injury to Irving or Jack, Dion should never have to dribble the ball up.

To be a playoff team, Cleveland needs Dion to be a 16-20 points guy. Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee are defensive-minded players, Anderson Varejao’s points usually come off pick and rolls and offensive rebounds, Tristan Thompson’s still developing as an interior scorer, and Andrew Bynum (health) and Anthony Bennett (development, conditioning) remain big question marks. Aside from Irving and Jack, Waiters is the only player on this roster who can consistently create his own shot.

Dion had games last season of 25 in Chicago, 26 in Miami, 20 vs. San Antonio and 28 at the Clippers. This year, he just needs to fill the bucket on a more consistent basis. If he does, chances are this is a playoff team.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Mike Miller Would Be Nice, But Not Enough for OKC

July 19, 2013

Mike Miller has cleared waivers and appears headed to Oklahoma City, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. Woj is reporting the Thunder are the frontrunners to sign Miller, with just about every other Western Conference contender — San Antonio, Memphis, Houston and Golden State — also mentioned as potential suitors.

The Miami Heat waived Miller earlier this week under the amnesty clause to duck counting his $12.8 million over the next 2 years against the cap. Miami’s still on the hook for Miller’s full salary — $6.2 million in 2013-14 and $6.6 in ’14-15 — but can save considerably in luxury tax penalties under the new CBA. Woj had linked Miller to Cleveland on Wednesday.

Miller cleared waivers after no team claimed the 33-year-old Florida product before Thursday’s 5 p.m. EST deadline. He is free to sign with any team.

As a move draws closer, Miller is also weighing back surgery, Woj reports. Miller has only played one full 82-game slate his entire 13-year career — his rookie season in Orlando.

What would Mike Miller mean to OKC?

Shooting. Lots of shooting.

Miller, a career 41% 3-point shooter, nailed 7-of-8 3s in Miami’s Game 5 elimination win over the Thunder in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals. The Thunder just lost their most potent 3-point threat, Kevin Martin — who shot a team-best 42.6% from deep last season and was particularly deadly from the corners — to Minnesota.

Spacing for OKC is crucial. Russell Westbrook, a limited long-range scorer himself, and Kevin Durant often command double-teams, leaving role guys like Thabo Sefolosha and, potentially, Miller open. With shooters on the perimeter, it’s that much harder for wing defenders to collapse on drives; if they stay on their man, that means more open lanes for OKC’s 2 stars, and, if they do help, well, open shooters.

And that goes without mentioning that Kendrick Perkins, and his albatross of a contract, is one of the league’s worst offensive players, requiring no defensive attention outside the paint.

Last season, OKC made 7.4 3s per game on 19.4 attempts. About league average. In the postseason, only one team, Houston, attempted more 3s per game (33.7) than OKC (24.7). Miller’s been to the playoffs 8 times, in which he’s converted a very respectable 37.7% of his 3s.

But Miller is not an answer to Martin’s departure.

The competition in the Western Conference is improving. It’s no longer a two-horse race, limited to San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Houston added Dwight Howard, Golden State added Andre Iguodala, the Clippers added Doc Rivers, Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison, Memphis returns a roster that advanced to the Western Conference Finals, and even San Antonio improved with Marco Belinelli.

With Martin headed north, also gone are 14 points, 10 shots and 28 minutes a night. Your No. 3 scorer. Miller’s a nice piece — a shooter, capable defender with 6’8″ size at the 2, extremely underrated rebounder and even, best case scenario, a double-figure-a-night scorer — but he’s no No. 3 option. Not even a No. 4. Not on a championship team.

Of course Serge Ibaka could be your No. 3 option, and you could lean more on Reggie Jackson, likely to play more than the 14.2 minutes he averaged in 2012-13. The Oklahoman has reported that Derek Fisher’s likely to return for a third consecutive season, bringing (maybe) shooting and championship pedigree.

But Fisher’s not much more than a 3rd point guard. Your only major (but not really major) offseason addition is No. 12 pick Steven Adams, a 19-year-old New Zealand center unlikely to contribute much this season. In 2 years, you’ve went from James Harden to Kevin Martin to … Jeremy Lamb? More will certainly be asked of Lamb, the former Connecticut 2-guard who saw 23 games of garbage time in OKC last year.

In other words, for the tl;dr folks, two points:

  • Kevin Martin, himself a far cry from James Harden’s pre-trade production, darted in free agency, and the Thunder lack a viable replacement.
  • The Western Conference is improving, yet the Thunder are back-pedaling in the primes of their 2 stars, Durant and Westbrook. Aside from a healthy Russ, OKC’s done next to nothing to improve this summer.

No need to sound the panic alarm just yet. The summer is still young.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Brooklyn: The East’s No. 2 Team?

July 13, 2013

Who needs long-term flexibility? The Brooklyn Nets are all in for 2013-14, with a collection of future Hall of Famers and a projected starting lineup that boasts a combined 35 All Star appearances. All 5 of those guys are poised to earn more than $11.5 million next season, and Brooklyn’s payroll will exceed $100 million, almost double the cap.

Look at this roster.

This summer, Brooklyn’s traded for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, all NBA champions; re-signed Andray Blatche, who rocked a 21.98 PER last season, for close to minimum dollars; signed 6-foot-7 backup point guard and former No. 4 overall pick Shaun Livingston for about the same; wooed Andrei Kirilenko, who declined a $10-million player option in Minnesota, for $3.1 million a year; and dumped one of the league’s worst contracts, one that pays Gerald Wallace $30.3 million over the next 3 years, on Boston.

That’s a haul.

Here’s your rotation, assuming full health.

  • PG: Deron Williams | Shaun Livingston
  • SG: Joe Johnson | Jason Terry
  • SF: Paul Pierce | Andrei Kirilenko
  • PF: Kevin Garnett | Reggie Evans
  • C: Brook Lopez | Andray Blatche

Now, add Mirza Teletovic and Mason Plumlee.

Some fortunate circumstances.

The Nets got lucky 4 times this offseason.

* The Celtics were anxious to rebuild and eager to dump Pierce’s $15.33 million this year and Garnett’s $23.5 the next 2 years. Danny Ainge had just traded his $7-million-per-year coach to Los Angeles for a first-round draft pick. For a few extra picks, take 2 of the league’s top 30 players.

* The Wizards infamously amnestied Andray Blatche not too long after signing him to a 3-year extension. So Blatche is collecting $7.8 million this season and $8.5 next, even if only $1.4 million of that’s coming from Brooklyn. Blatche has previously made clear his desire to not let Washington off cheap — the more he signed for with Brooklyn, the less of that $7.8 million the Wizards would have to pay.

Blatche is, from a straight numbers angle, at least a $5-million-a-year guy. Per 36 minutes last season, Blatche averaged 19.5 points and 9.7 rebounds on a team where he was, on a lucky night, the 4th option. His PER ranked No. 14 in the NBA and 2nd on his team behind Brook Lopez.

* Brooklyn also gets great value in Shaun Livingston, who will replace C.J. Watson as the team’s backup PG. Signed on Christmas Day by the Cavs, Livingston tallied 7.2 points, 3.6 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 23.2 minutes over 49 appearances. Not helped by Jarrett Jack’s deal with Cleveland, the market collapsed on Livingston, who’s stayed healthy and productive whenever he’s received an opportunity since 2008-09.

That horrific knee injury is well behind him, and Shaun’s still only 27. He’s not an elite defender, but he has enough length to disrupt passing lanes. On the other end, he’s a solid facilitator and very underrated back-to-the-basket scorer, particularly against smaller guards.

* And, the most mysterious of all, Andrei Kirilenko, who’s making $6.9 million less (plus cost-of-living increases in New York!) than had he accepted his player option in Minnesota. Perhaps the incentive was his relationship with Nets’ owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who, as owner of CSKA Moscow, employed AK-47 from 1998-01.

This deal seems so fishy, Yahoo! Sports ace Adrian Wojnarowski even reported some team executives are asking the NBA to investigate, wary of potential side deals between the two Russians. Unless something materializes, Brooklyn scored big-time, grabbing a former teammate of Deron’s in Utah and one of the league’s best perimeter defenders to guard the likes of LeBron James, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.

Prokhorov may have said it best in a statement after the Pierce-KG trade became official. “Today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets.”

How do they stack up?

There’s 5 frontrunners in the Eastern Conference: Miami, Chicago, New York, Indiana and Brooklyn. Miami, 2-time defending champs, return the same team and are atop the throne. But, then, all hell breaks loose.

Chicago adds Mike Dunleavy and returns a healthy Derrick Rose, but drops Marco Belinelli, Rip Hamilton and, most likely, Nate Robinson. Indiana returns David West and a healthy Danny Granger, adds C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland, and drops Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin. New York adds Andrea Bargnani and returns J.R. Smith and a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire, but loses Copeland, Steve Novak and Jason Kidd … to Brooklyn!

Those are not bad offseason, by any measure, but not on par with Brooklyn’s. With the Ak-47 move, the Nets boast the deepest bench in the Eastern Conference, maybe even the NBA. Of course 2 big questions remain: How will Kidd fare as a rookie head coach, and how will these guys mesh?

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

Related: Semi-delayed thoughts on the KG, Pierce deal


Andrew Bynum to Cavs: All reward, no risk

July 12, 2013

Andrew Bynum is your newest member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The news of an incentive-laced 2-year, $24-million deal, first reported Wednesday by ESPN’s Chris Broussard, brought out excited Cavs fans on Twitter. And why not.

Admittedly hesitant at first, here’s why I love this deal.

Not a lot of financial risk.

$6 million guaranteed in Year No. 1, Year 2’s a team option. Sign me up!

If Bynum flops, Chris Grant lets him walk next summer and maintains flexibility to sign a max-contract player, such as a LeBron James. Even after the signings of Earl Clark and Jarrett Jack, the Cavs needed to spend to reach the $52-million salary floor. Why not spend it on a 7-footer who’s still only 25 and has averaged double-figure scoring every year he’s played since 2007-08, all while carrying the burden of being Shaquille O’Neal’s successor in L.A.

If Bynum plays well, Grant owns a team option for an affordable $12.5 million, barely $1 million more than DeAndre Jordan and JaVale McGee are scheduled to make, next season. Trade Anderson Varejao and decline team options on Clark and Alonzo Gee, and, boom, you’ve got your max slot again!

Or, Grant could pick up Bynum’s team option and then shop him. L.A. picked up Bynum’s option last summer, only to deal him to Philadelphia in the Dwight Howard trade 2 months later.

The injury history is real, but doesn’t bother me.

Not every day does a team add a 19-point, 12-rebound-a-night center. Those were Bynum’s stats in 60 games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, under current Cavs coach Mike Brown, while sharing touches with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. He’s a 2-time NBA champion with 74 postseason games under his belt, easily the most among any current Cavs player barring a Luke Walton return.

Sure, Bynum’s a health risk. He’s played only one 82-game season throughout his 8-year career, and he’s missed at least 15 games 5 out of 7 times since he started earning meaningful minutes in 2006-07. Much is made of how Bynum’s knees, re-aggravated during a November bowling injury, kept him out of all last season in Philly, and how many, including Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have questioned his work ethic.

But now, Bynum’s legitimately playing for his NBA career. If he flops in Cleveland, and if the knee issues return, he’s going to have a hard time finding anything more than veteran-minimum dollars in free agency next summer.

Look at this roster. This is a playoff team.

There’s five teams in the Eastern Conference above everyone else — in no particular order, Miami, Brooklyn, Indiana, Chicago and New York. Boston traded 2 of its 3 best players, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, to Brooklyn, sent their Hall-of-Fame coach to L.A. and could be shopping Rajon Rondo. Atlanta lost Josh Smith to Detroit, and Milwaukee’s likely to lose Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick.

I see the Cavs, next to Washington and Detroit, competing for those 6-8 playoff spots, along with Atlanta, maybe Toronto and whatever Boston throws on the floor.

The Cavs needed an offensive punch, so here comes Bynum, Jack and No. 1 selection Anthony Bennett. The Cavs needed a defensive mentality, so here comes Mike Brown, Clark and Jack.

Barring any other major moves or injuries, that’s a rotation of Kyrie Irving and Bynum, 2 of the league’s top 30 players when healthy; Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Bennett, Jack, Clark, Tyler Zeller, C.J. Miles, Gee and maybe Sergey Karasev. That’s 11 quality NBA talents.

And when they need buckets, a 3-guard lineup of Irving, Waiters and Jack, coupled with Bynum and Bennett would give defenses a lot to handle.

Yeah, I really like this team.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Clippers: Summer’s early winner, but questions loom

July 7, 2013

We’re 6+ days into free agency, and most of the big chips have fallen. Dwight Howard to Houston, Chris Paul to stay in L.A., Al Jefferson to Charlotte, Josh Smith to Detroit, Andre Iguodala to Golden State and Paul Millsap to Atlanta. Four notable pieces still on the market include Brandon Jennings, restricted and likely to stay in Milwaukee; Monta Ellis, probably headed to Denver or Atlanta; Nikola Pekovic, restricted but likely out of Minnesota; and Andrew Bynum, who knows.

Below, I take a look at my ‘winner’ of free agency through 6 days.

The Los Angeles Clippers

L.A. was known for its deep bench last year, boasting the likes of Jamal Crawford, Willie Green, Lamar Odom, Ryan Hollins, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe, Ronny Turiaf and Grant Hill. At 40.1 points per game, L.A.’s bench trailed only Dallas and Denver in scoring, and Crawford finished the runner-up in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year voting.

But a postseason bench is not 12 guys deep. Hill played in 1 game in the team’s 6-game opening-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Ryan Hollins and Willie Green averaged less than 7.5 minutes per and did not appear in every game. DeAndre Jordan’s inability to make free throws saw him to the bench in crunch-time minutes, and Lamar Odom, and his 11.0 PER, was ineffective all season.

Six days into free agency, the Clippers have turned Caron Butler and Bledsoe into J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, re-signed Matt Barnes and acquired Darren Collison, an ex-UCLA product, for pennies on the dollar. L.A. drafted sharpshooter Reggie Bullock at No. 25 overall. Oh, and they extended arguably the top free agent in this year’s class, Chris Paul, for 5 years, and traded for a championship coach in Doc Rivers, who brings instant credibility, and an offensive system, to Staples.

Concern: Lack of frontcourt depth

My concern with this team, as they flirt with luxury tax territory, is frontcourt depth, especially after a playoff series where they were bullied by the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph; in that series, Gasol and Randolph averaged a combined 38.1 points and 15.5 rebounds. Right now, with Turiaf and Hollins unrestricted free agents — though ones, according to Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times, they’re interested in re-signing — the only NBA-caliber bigs on this roster are Griffin and Jordan, the latter of whom cannot play down the stretch and is owed an immovable $22.4 million through 2014-15.

Doc could always move Blake to the 5 and play Barnes or Dudley, 6’7″, at the 4. Both are strong individual defenders. And, then there’s also the rest of the summer. L.A. flirted with Carl Landry, whom eventually agreed to a 4-year, $27-million deal with Sacramento, one that L.A.’s cap flexibility, or lack thereof, would not have permitted. Rivers just needs to fill a 19.7-minutes-per-game slot opened by Odom’s likely departure, whether that’s more minutes to Blake, DeAndre, both or other faces.

Improvement: 3-point shooting

In last year’s postseason, L.A. shot a measly 30.4% from 3. L.A. loses an OK 3-point shooter in Butler and an improving one in Bledsoe, but Dudley (40.5% career) and Redick (39%) are improvements. Redick’s averaged double-figure scoring numbers each of the last 3 seasons, including 15.1 in 50 games in Orlando before his trade last season. Dudley’s also been in double figures each of the past 3 years, and has never shot below 45.9% from the field in his 6-year career.

Bullock shot 44% from 3 last year at UNC, and possesses great size, 6’7″, for a hybrid guard-forward. Barnes is 33% from deep throughout his career, but is especially efficient in the corners.

Bottom line: More weapons for CP3, Blake

The spacing provided by these shooters should open Blake post-ups and CP3-Blake pick-and-rolls, L.A.’s bread-and-butter source of offense. With Paul, Blake, Jordan, Redick, Dudley, Collison, Barnes, Crawford and Green, L.A.’s as good 1-9 as any team in the league. All 9 of those guys are capable of double-digit scoring nights any game.

With Collison, a former teammate of Paul’s in New Orleans, L.A. has a very capable backup point. Collison may not have Bledsoe’s ceiling, but he’s averaged double figures all 4 seasons of his career and only 25. After a disappointing season in Dallas, you can bet on consistent energy from Collison. Should Doc decide to go this route, Collison’s very effective in 2-Lopoint-guard lineups — in 2011-12, Indiana’s most efficient lineup to play at least 100 minutes together featured Collison and combo guard George Hill in the backcourt.

Now, if the Clippers can sure up their frontcourt, I’ll put them right next to San Antonio.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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