Posts Tagged ‘Anderson Varejao’

First Team: ‘Bron still after one award

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Despite being hailed as a stellar defender, LeBron has yet to nab a coveted Defensive Player of the Year award.

Despite being hailed as a stellar defender, LeBron James has yet to nab a coveted Defensive Player of the Year nod.

Many will remember the 2013-14 season for what LeBron James didn’t accomplish.

No third straight MVP. No third straight championship. No Defensive Player of the Year award. No … well, that’s about it. When you’ve turned the NBA upside down over the past 11 years, your list of failures is short.

Last season, ‘Bron scored 27 points per game on 57 percent from the field. What gives for the outlandish accuracy? He has mastered the drive. He can certainly shoot it, but his dominance is due to his pronounced ability to control the area closest to the rim. It’s the same strategy his transcendent high-flying predecessors — Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan — adopted.

The other side of the ball holds his lingering individual motivation. James has made no secret about his desire to capture the top defensive award. After famously shedding serious weight this offseason, he promises to be quicker and more agile and disruptive than ever.

A Defensive Player of the Year award may come to Cleveland, although the franchise would gladly accept a championship first.

Here are his top games last season:

November 15, 2013 — Torching The Old Nemesis

The Line: 39 points on 14-for-18 shooting

The Quote:If I get 37 shots in a game, I’m going to put up 60. Easy.” — James


VIDEO: LeBron James runs wild on the Mavericks for 39 points

Earlier in the week, Rudy Gay set an NBA record with 37 field goal attempts. On this night, LeBron shot about half that number for 10 more points.

Drifting jumpers, quick dribble-drives, long 2s … in short, James had the full repertoire working. The Mavs elected to follow the Spurs’ 2013 Finals strategy of not double teaming, but contesting every perimeter shot he took. In other words, Shawn Marion, Jae Crowder and Monta Ellis were on their own.

A one-legged Dirkian fadeaway by James with a little over two minutes left gave the Heat the cushion needed to put Dallas away. (more…)

Varejao matters again, for Cavs and Brazil


VIDEO: FIBA: Round of 16, Day 2 Wrap

MADRID – It’s easy to forget how much of an impact Anderson Varejao can make on a game. The little things he does don’t mean much when his team is losing more than twice as many games as it’s winning, like the Cleveland Cavaliers have done over the last four years.

Come Oct. 30, when the Cavs tip off the 2014-15 season with LeBron James back and Kevin Love on board, Varejao is going to matter again.

In fact, Varejao matters right now, with Brazil having a chance to earn a medal at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. The Brazilians advanced to the quarterfinals with an 85-65 victory over Argentina on Sunday, avenging losses to their South American rivals in the 2010 World Championship round of 16, 2011 FIBA Americas final and 2012 Olympics quarterfinals.

Down three at the half on Sunday, Brazil just blitzed Argentina with 52 points on its final 29 possessions (1.79 points per possession) after scoring just 33 on its first 38 (0.87). Point guard Raul Neto, whose rights are held by the Utah Jazz, came off the bench and gave his team a huge lift, scoring 21 points on 9-for-10 shooting.

“In the second half,” Tiago Splitter said afterward, “that was our team — the way we played good D, running fast breaks, finding the open man and going for offensive rebounds.”

Brazil is now 5-1 at the World Cup, looking like the tournament’s third best team behind Spain and the United States. They haven’t hidden that they want to go home with a medal.

“We came here for that,” Varejao said. “We know that it’s not going to be easy. But we prepared ourselves.”

Their NBA frontline of Nene, Splitter and Varejao is obviously seen as a strength, but it had its ups and downs in group play. On Sunday though, the trio stepped up and played is best collective game of the tournament.

The three bigs combined for just 25 of Brazil’s 85 points. But Nene and Splitter shut down Argentina’s Luis Scola, holding him to just nine points on 2-for-10 shooting. (He dropped 37 on Brazil when these two teams met in the same round four years ago.)

Varejao, meanwhile, attacked the offensive glass. He picked up five offensive rebounds, including three in a critical stretch late in the third quarter. With Brazil up five, he saved a Marquinhos Vieira miss and, as he was falling out of bounds, got the ball to Splitter under the basket for a layup. A few possessions later, he grabbed two offensive rebounds that eventually led to a Neto layup.

“I had to be aggressive, going for offensive rebounds,” Varejao said, “because they had Scola and [Andres] Nocioni [as their bigs]. We had size on them. We spoke about it. We said if we shoot the ball, crash the glass, because we have a chance to get a second-chance shot. That’s what I did.”

Varejao finished the game eight points, nine rebounds and four assists. He was doing the dirty work that we can expect him to do in Cleveland. When you have James, Love, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, you need that fifth guy to defend, rebound, set screens, and just give his team extra opportunities.

Varejao’s activity and playing time (more than 32 minutes) on Sunday are clear indications that, after playing just 146 games over the last four seasons, he’s healthy.

That’s good news for the Cavs, and good news for Brazil, who will play Serbia in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. A win there would put them in position to play for that medal they seek.

It’s also good news for Varejao, who’s happy to be playing big games again.

Varejao feeling healthy after tough four years without LeBron

Anderson Varejao hopes to remain healthy as he competes with Brazil. (Photo courtesy FIBA)

Anderson Varejao is using the FIBA World Cup to prepare for a title run with the Cavaliers. (Photo courtesy FIBA)

GRANADA, SPAIN – Derrick Rose isn’t the only player looking to use the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup as a springboard to a healthier and more successful NBA season for a title contender.

Cavs center Anderson Varejao would love to put some injury issues behind him as well. In the four years since LeBron James left Cleveland, Varejao, who turns 32 later this month, has averaged just 37 games per season, dealing with injuries to his upper and lower body.

James is back and Kevin Love has arrived. With Kyrie Irving and a bunch of shooters, the Cavs’ offense should be ridiculously good. But their defense will ultimately determine how far they go, and Varejao will be a big part of their success on that end of the floor.

With Mike Brown on the bench and Varejao playing 65 games last season, the Cavs improved from 27th to 17th in defensive efficiency. And they allowed 4.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Varejao on the floor than they did with him on the bench.

The Cavs lack rim protection, but the last two seasons in which they had James and (a healthy) Varejao together, they ranked in the top 10 defensively. Brown was the coach then. David Blatt, who has had strong defenses with the Russian National Team, is the coach now.

As Blatt gets ready to put his new super team together on both ends of the floor, Varejao is in Spain with his Brazilian national team, a contender for a World Cup medal. Brazil is in a tough Group A, where it will play Spain on Monday (4 p.m. ET).

In Granada, after a win over Iran on Saturday, Varejao spoke with NBA.com about his health and the upcoming season.

NBA.com: How do you feel now compared to the last couple of years?

Varejao: I feel pretty good. I feel like I’m 100 percent. I feel like I’m moving a lot better. I’m healthy. I feel like I’m in shape. So this helps a lot.

Does this tournament really help you get your legs back and get back in basketball shape?

Varejao: Yes, it does. I believe the preparation that we had was about 40 days. And now we have the tournament. I just want to stay healthy.

How do you look back at the last four years, not only not playing with LeBron, but not being able to play a full season?

Varejao: Tough four years for me. It was very tough on me. It wasn’t easy, because every year that I was doing well, people were talking about All-Star, this and that, and then I would get hurt. So it wasn’t easy, but it’s all past now. The good thing is that I’m in shape, I’m healthy, and I’m looking forward to the next season.

How good can the Cavs be defensively?

Varejao: To me, defense is all about effort. If we put effort in, I believe we could do really well.

Have you talked to David Blatt?

Varejao: I did when he signed. I spoke with him during the soccer World Cup. I was in Brazil and he called me. I spoke with him once.

What do you know about him?

Varejao: I know that he’s a winner. He won the Euroleague last year. When he was with Russia he beat Brazil in the Olympics. With six seconds left in the game, they beat us.

He’s a good coach. He’s a winner. Everybody that I asked about him said good things about him. Anthony Parker played for him [at Maccabi Tel Aviv]. He said he’s one of the best human beings that he’s met and he’s a great coach.

Do you feel like you fit pretty well with Kevin Love on the frontline?

Varejao: I feel like I have to do what I always did when I played with LeBron, set screens, roll to the basket, be ready whenever I have a chance to go to the basket, play defense and rebound.

Plenty to watch at World Cup


VIDEO: Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis talk about the upcoming FIBA World Cup

GRANADA, SPAIN – The FIBA Basketball World Cup is the best hoops you can get outside of the NBA season. Yes, it’s better than the Olympics.

There are twice as many teams, allowing for more depth from Europe and the Americas. And there’s an extra round of single-elimination, tournament play, giving us 15 win-or-go-home games once pool play is completed.

No, the NBA’s top two players aren’t here. But there are 46 guys currently on NBA rosters, a high for any international tournament. And because Kevin Durant and LeBron James aren’t representing the United States, and because there is so much depth among the second tier of teams, the competition for medals will be captivating.

Along with the U.S., Spain is the co-favorite. As the hosts they will enjoy a home-court advantage, which helped propel Turkey to the final game four years ago. But they also have a ton of talent and experience, both in the NBA and in making the U.S. sweat for a gold medal. The reason U.S. has four centers on its roster is because Spain has Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

Beyond the top two, the competition to reach the semifinals could be wide open. Pool play will help sort things out somewhat, but as many as 10 other teams could have dreams of making the semifinals and playing for a medal.

Most of those teams will be on Spain’s half of the 16-team bracket after pool play is completed. In Group A play in Granada, the hosts will face Brazil, with its three NBA big men and terrific point guard, France, the 2013 European champion with five NBA players on is roster, and Serbia, who knocked out Spain in the quarterfinals of this tournament four years ago.

When pool play is completed, the top four teams from Group A (Granada) will match up with the top four from Group B (Sevilla) on the Madrid side of the bracket. Group B features Argentina, Croatia, Greece and Puerto Rico.

The U.S. has an easier path to the final. In Group C pool play in Bilbao, its toughest opponent will likely be Turkey, which has fallen hard since the 2010 World Cup, or the Dominican Republic, which the Americans blew out in New York last week.

Group D (Gran Canaria) features two tougher teams – Australia and Lithuania – which the U.S. will likely face on the Barcelona side of the bracket.

The USA’s history in this event (formerly called the World Championship) is not great. Prior to 2010, it had only won 1954, 1986 and 1994. Yugoslavia, which continued to exist as a basketball team after it dissolved as a nation, won five World Championships.

But Mike Krzyzewski has compiled a 43-1 record and a 36-game winning streak in his nine-year tenure as the USA head coach. He won this tournament four years ago with a roster of 12 guys who had never played a senior-level international game. And the world has yet to experience the defensive of new assistant Tom Thibodeau first hand.

The U.S. won its four exhibition games by an average of 29 points, but could still use improvement, especially on offense. Pool play, beginning with Saturday’s game against Finland (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will allow them to work some things out, but it’s doubtful that anything can prepare them for a potential gold-medal game against Spain in Madrid.

Before we can think about that, there is a ton of high-quality basketball to be played and plenty of reasons to watch.

There are key players on NBA contenders — Derrick Rose and Anderson Varejao — looking to get back into basketball shape after injury-riddled seasons.

There is the last stand of Argentina’s golden generation and their beautiful brand of basketball, represented by Andres Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni and Luis Scola.

There’s the continued growth of Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Senegal’s Gorgui Dieng, and Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas

There are six incoming rookies, including Australia’s Dante Exum (Jazz), Greece’s Kostas Papanikolaou (Rockets) and the Croatian pair of Bojan Bogdanovic (Nets) and Damjan Rudez (Pacers), to watch and figure out how they might contribute to their new teams.

There are 2014 draftees like Croatia’s Dario Saric (Sixers) and Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic (Suns), who might eventually be NBA contributors. And there are a few potential prospects, like the Ukraine’s Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (who will play at Kansas next season), to keep an eye out for.

There’s the curiosity of how veteran Euroleague floor generals like Marcelo Huertas (Brazil) and Milos Teodosic (Serbia) would fit in the NBA.

There’s the Dragic brothers racing up the floor at every opportunity for Slovenia. There’s Andray Blatche playing point-center for the Philippines. And there’s the flair of real point guards like Carlos Arroyo and Ricky Rubio.

Seventy-six games over 17 days. If you can’t wait the upcoming NBA season, with Kevin Love joining LeBron in Cleveland, the Spurs trying for their first repeat, and Rose back in a Bulls uniform, the FIBA World Cup should hold you off for a while.

World Cup stacked with NBA players


VIDEO: USA tops Puerto Rico in exhibition

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – LeBron James was always taking the summer off from competitive basketball. Kevin Love decided to do the same just before the U.S. National Team opened training camp in Las Vegas last month. But there are still reasons for Cavs fans to watch the FIBA World Cup, which begins Saturday in Spain.

The Cavs are one of two teams that will have four players taking part in the World Cup. Kyrie Irving, of course, will start (at least some games) at point guard for the United States. He’ll face new teammate Erik Murphy, playing for Finland, in the USA’s first pool-play game.

Murphy, who was acquired in a trade from Utah last month, may not necessarily be on the Cavs’ opening-night roster. Only $100,000 of his $816,000 contract is guaranteed, the Cavs are already over the 15-man roster limit, and they’ve yet to sign Shawn Marion.

Irving has already faced Brazil’s Anderson Varejao in an exhibition game. And he could go head-to-head with his Cleveland back-up — Australia’s Matthew Dellavedova — in the knockout round.

The Rockets are the other NBA team that will have four players at the World Cup. James Harden, the Dominican Republic’s Francisco Garcia, Lithuania’s Donatas Motiejunas and Greece’s Kostas Papanikolaou will all represent the Rockets in Spain.

Papanikolaou is one of five incoming rookies at the tournament. The others are the Bulls’ Cameron Bairstow (Australia), the Nets’ Bojan Bogdanovic (Croatia), the Jazz’s Dante Exum (Australia), and the Pacers’ Damjan Rudez (Croatia).

Croatia’s Bogdanovic is not to be confused with Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was selected in this year’s Draft by the Suns and will play at least two years in Turkey before coming to the NBA. The Serbian Bogdanovic is one of six guys taken in the last two drafts who has yet to come over.

The others are Alex Abrines (OKC, Spain), Arselan Kazemi (PHI, Iran), Joffrey Lauvergne (DEN, France), Raul Neto (UTA, Brazil) and Dario Saric (PHI, Croatia). (more…)

Nene mends ways with Brazilian team


VIDEO: Rose, Davis lead U.S. to 95-78 win over Brazil

Getting booed at United Center was better than getting booed at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro.

At least it was for Nene. Last October, when the Washington Wizards played the Chicago Bulls in Rio in one of the NBA’s preseason global games – and the first staged in South America – the Wizards big man took loud and cutting heat from the sellout crowd. No matter that he was the first player from Brazil to participate in the NBA – people were unhappy that Nene had played only twice for the country’s national team since he was drafted in 2002.

It mattered little to them that the 6-foot-9, 260-pound fellow – listed on the official roster in last Saturday’s game vs. the United States by his full name, Maybyner Rodney Hilario – had aggravated a foot injury in the 2012 Olympics that lingered into the regular season. Nene also reportedly had been at odds with the program over insurance policies and other decisions.

So the fans in Rio booed him pretty much from start to finish. Legendary Brazilian player and Hall of Famer Oscar Schmidt criticized him, and Nene bristled back – and clearly was rattled – on that awkward night in October.

What he heard Saturday then, by comparison, was a breeze. Nene was booed during the introductions for Brazil’s game against Team USA, the first tuneup for both squads for the 2014 FIBA World Cup tournament that begins Aug. 30 in Spain. And that reaction was driven by respect from Bulls fans who recalled his work (17.8 ppg, 54.8 percent shooting, a one-game suspension for headbutting Jimmy Butler) in the teams’ first-round series last spring, won by the Wizards in five games.

But that was it. The rest of the evening was straight basketball, with Nene scoring eight of his 11 points in the first half, to go with five rebounds, three steals and one block in 19 minutes. Even after Brazil lost 95-78, the big man was effusive as he came off the court.

“It doesn’t matter if they have big men or not, they still sharp outside,” he said of his fellow NBA players on Team USA. “They’re so athletic. So talented. But it was a good game to have an idea.”

What, Nene was asked, did he think of Anthony Davis, the young New Orleans center who dominated (20 points, eight boards five rebounds) at both ends?

“He looked like Dhalsim,” Nene said.

Who?

Dhalsim. The street fighter. Like a cartoon. With both hands. He was catching everything. Yeah.”

It was a disappointing night for Brazil, which lost the street fight. It wasn’t able to flex what some figured to be an advantage up front, with Nene lined up in various combinations with Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao, two more proven NBA bigs. Davis went MMA underneath and Kenneth Faried, who backfilled in Denver after the Nuggets traded Nene to Washington, added 11 points and nine rebounds.

Team USA had superior wings and guards, but the onus will still be on Brazil’s front line when, after playing France in its World Cup opener Aug. 30, it faces Spain – and the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc – two days later.

Having Nene – who will turn 32 on Sept. 13 and has two years and $26 million left on his Wizards contract – clearly is better for Brazil than not having him. His NBA buddies made that clear when talking to the Wizards’ Monumental Network during their squad’s stay in Chicago.

“Nene’s a guy who’s very talented, very strong, who knows how to play the game,” said Splitter, San Antonio’s second big next to Tim Duncan. “Every day you get better playing with him and of course he’s learning our system too. That’s important for him.”

Varejao told the network: “Nene’s been great. He had a great playoffs this last season. He’s a big piece of the Brazil national team. He’s a guy who can defend, who can score, who can be a leader on the court too. When you have a guy like Nene on the court, the other team has to always worry about him, what they’re going to do to try to stop him.”

This much is clear: Not having a guy like Nene on Brazil’s roster is worse. Then he’s the one worrying about how he’s perceived, and how he’ll be be received, back home. In the U.S., players such as Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and other stars opting out of the competition have wiggle room because of the depth of talent. For Nene, opting out in the past meant squirming, not wiggling.

Waiters a better fit than Irving with new Cavs


VIDEO: Cavs close to acquiring Kevin Love

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Cleveland Cavaliers are a brand new team. LeBron James is coming home and Kevin Love is coming soon.

The pair joins a roster that went 57-107 over the last two seasons, with a point guard that’s thought of as a star, other unproven young guys, and a pair of centers that have dealt with injuries.

It’s up to new head coach David Blatt to bring it all together on both ends of the floor. But it’s also on the players to make the necessary adjustments so that the whole isn’t less than the sum of the parts. The Miami Heat didn’t quite figure out their identity until the end of their second season together, and they didn’t have as many players who were used to having the ball in their hands.

Who’s taking a back seat?

The Cavs will now have four guys – James (5th), Love (9th), Kyrie Irving (13th) and Dion Waiters (22nd) – who ranked in the top 25 in usage rate last season. At least two of those guys are going to have to say goodbye to the basketball.

Usage rate = Percentage of his team’s possessions that a player ended (via field goal attempts, free throw attempts, assists and turnovers) while he was on the floor.

In a chat at USA Basketball camp in Las Vegas last week, Waiters admitted that he’s still more comfortable with the ball in his hands. But he acknowledged that things are going to change now.

“I got to find a way to score,” Waiters said, “and I got to find ways to make the team better if I don’t have the ball.”

But Waiters should be more prepared for an adjustment than Irving. When the two shared the floor last season, it was Waiters’ usage rate that took a dip (from 29.5 percent to 24.4 percent). Irving’s usage rate actually went up a tick in those minutes.

Waiters can also look at his SportVU numbers to know that he can play off the ball. He was a very good shooter off the catch last season, but not so much off the dribble. His catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (41.6 percent) was right with the Spurs’ Danny Green (41.5 percent).

Irving, meanwhile, is a rare breed, a guy who shot better off the dribble than off the catch. According to SportVU, Irving’s pull-up 3-point percentage (40.9 percent) was better than Kevin Durant‘s (40.7 percent) and Stephen Curry‘s (39.3 percent).

High-usage Cavs, 2013-14 3-point shooting, via SportVU

Pull-up Catch-and-shoot
Player 3PM 3PA 3P% Rk1 3PM 3PA 3P% Rk2 Diff. Rk3
Irving 72 176 40.9% 6 50 156 32.1% 151 -8.9% 74
James 49 159 30.8% 49 59 121 48.8% 2 17.9% 6
Love 34 103 33.0% 36 152 382 39.8% 63 6.8% 41
Waiters 19 73 26.0% 73 72 173 41.6% 35 15.6% 9

Rk1 = Rank among 86 players who attempted at least 50 pull-up 3-pointers
Rk2 = Rank among 166 players who attempted at least 100 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers
Rk3 = Rank among 74 players who attempted at least 50 pull-up threes and 100 catch-and-shoot threes

Yes, that’s LeBron James ranking No. 2 in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage. Of the 166 guys who attempted at least 100 catch-and-shoot threes last season, only Kyle Korver (49.9 percent) was better. So, James will likely be better at playing off of Irving than Irving will be at playing off of James.

But James is also the best finisher in the league. And, according to SportVU, the Heat scored 1.32 points per James drive last season, the fourth highest mark among 166 players who drove at least 100 times. Nobody in the league puts more pressure on the opposing defense when he’s attacking the rim.

So James isn’t taking a back seat to anyone. As a floor-spacing big, Love is a perfect complement offensively. Mike Miller played 82 games last season and shot 45.9 percent (seventh of 166) on catch-and-shoot threes. And Waiters should also be fine playing off the ball, though he said last week that he’ll be watching some Dwyane Wade film to see how to make better cuts to the basket. Wade is one of the worst 3-point shooters in NBA history, but still found a way to play off James.

“You can’t be one-dimensional,” Waiters said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll watch film, watch the things D-Wade did. It helped him.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s going to work out. I just got to make those cuts and try to play the right way.”

But it’s Irving that has a much bigger adjustment to make. Not only did he shoot poorly off the catch last season, but the Cleveland offense was more efficient with back-up point guard Matthew Dellavedova on the floor (104.7 points scored per 100 possessions) than with Irving on the floor (101.7).

Dellavedova was also pretty good (39.2 percent) on catch-and-shoot threes. The 23-year-old Australian went undrafted, but Blatt likes him, and he could be a key piece on a contender in just his second season.

Irving and James will need time together to develop chemistry, but Blatt should consider staggering their minutes, so they each get time to work without the other.

Either way, the Cavs should certainly be a top-five offensive team. And if things come together right, they could rank No. 1 on that end of the floor.

How well will they defend?

It’s defense that will ultimately determine just how good the Cavs will be. Miami’s offense was pretty ridiculous last season, recording the highest effective field goal percentage in NBA history for the second straight year. But they fell off defensively, ranked 11th on that end of the floor, and couldn’t stop the Spurs’ attack in The Finals.

It was James’ worst defensive season since before he was ever an MVP, in part because Wade wasn’t always there (playing just 58 games) to help carry the offensive load. With Irving and Love to help with the offense, James can put more energy on D.

But the defense starts with Irving at the top. Not only was the Cavs’ offense better with Dellavedova on the floor last season, the defense was much better.

Rim protection is just as important as on-the-ball defense. And in that regard, the Cavs have a questionable frontline. Love is a terrific rebounder, but not a guy who alters shots. Of 94 players who defended at least four shots at the rim per game in 40 games or more, only three allowed a higher field goal percentage. One of them was Love’s new back-up, Tristan Thompson.

Anderson Varejao is a good pick-and-roll defender, but doesn’t defend the rim all that well either. And he’s played just 146 games over the last four seasons (235 fewer than James). Brendan Haywood is more of a rim-protecting center, but missed all of last season with a broken foot.

(Speaking of injuries, Waiters said he’s lost about 15 pounds, from 230 to 215, having cut “the candy, the pizza, the chips” from his diet and “really getting after it” with his workouts. That could help him with his defensive quickness, but he says his main goal is to “get through a whole season without missing any games.” He wants to arrive at camp at about 210 pounds.)

Under Mike Brown, the Cavs did show defensive improvement last season, moving up to 17th in defensive efficiency from 27th in Byron Scott‘s last season. Blatt had defensive success with the Russian National Team. And James is obviously a defensive upgrade over any small forward they’ve had in the four years since he left.

But, for the Cavs, the path to a top-10 ranking on defense isn’t as clear as it is on offense. Historically, defense has been more important than offense when it comes to title contention. So how quickly the Cavs learn a new system and build chemistry on that end of the floor will be a more critical development than how well their stars play off each other offensively.

Wiggins’ strange summer is no Love-in

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Andrew Wiggins scores 21 points in Cavs’ Summer League loss Thursday

LAS VEGAS – The best advice for Andrew Wiggins at this point is to rent. Don’t buy.

If the recently re-crowned King of Cleveland is calling Kevin Love, as Yahoo! Sports reported Thursday, then it can’t be too long before the Wiggins-for-Love swap goes down. LeBron James gets what LeBron James wants.

And poor Wiggins thought getting used to hoops life in Lawrence, Kan. was a rough transition.

But man, all this so fast has to be a bit crushing for the 19-year-old No. 1 pick. First the best player on the planet completely omits him in his epic “I’m Coming Home” essay in Sports Illustrated and is now dissing the kid with the hope of discarding him by personally reaching out to Minnesota’s discontented double-double machine.

This has to be one of the strangest Summer League experiences in the history of top draft choices. Last Friday, as Wiggins is preparing for his hyped pro debut in Las Vegas against Milwaukee and No. 2 pick Jabari Parker in front of an overflow crowd, he finds out with the rest of the world that James is returning to Cleveland. Wow, cool. Then the rest of the world reads along with Wiggins about how excited James is to play with Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and his favorite crazy-haired Brazilian Anderson Varejao. No mention of Wiggins. Whoa, not so cool. (Interestingly, James also didn’t list 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett as a member of his mentorship club either. Bennett would likely be included in a trade).

In the days between then and now, new coach David Blatt has told reporters Wiggins isn’t going anywhere while whispers come and go and come again that he is-he isn’t-he is available, and now LeBron’s talking to Kevin. To his credit, Wiggins, the one-and-done star out of Kansas via Canada, has handled it like a pro.

That the 6-foot-8 wing and projected phenom played against Houston on Thursday revealed that a trade is not imminent, not yet. The Rockets’ defenders had zero clue how to keep Wiggins from using his super-stretchy arms and legs to get from the top of the arc to the basket in only a few long strides with a ball fake or two mixed in.

Wiggins officially only attempted five shots, and made three, but secured 15 of his 21 points on 20 trips to the free throw line. He added five rebounds and another blocked shot, this one of the chase-down variety in the fourth quarter (he’s second in the Summer League in blocks per game and first among non-centers).

“You know what you got to like about a kid like that is it doesn’t make a difference if it’s the fourth game of Summer League and the fourth game in seven days or eight days, or if people are keying on him, or if the crowd has funny things to say to him,” Blatt said. “He just goes out there and really plays and has a nice calm about him and a real good demeanor. Andrew’s going to be a high-level player and it’s good to see it.”

The 6-foot-10 Love is a high-level player, a three-time All-Star, and he, James and Irving would make quite the offensive triple-threat. And that’s the crux of it all: Go for the gold right now with Love or patiently wait — hope — for the kid to get great. We know what LeBron wants.

With the rumors swirling, the Cavaliers aren’t exactly thrilled to have their new coach and top pick inundated by trade questions during what should be breezy Summer League postgame interview sessions.

After Thursday’s game, Cavs officials quickly whisked Wiggins off to an ESPN photo shoot and then immediately to a sit-down autograph session for trading card behemoth Panini in the concourse of the Thomas & Mack Center. Fans stood in a line that snaked around the corner and out of site.

From there, Wiggins was in the custody of his agent and was not made available to wax about his 15 free throws and 21 points or to talk ice fishing.

The second question posed to Blatt asked if the persistent trade rumors are a distraction for Wiggins. After all, a No. 1 pick is typically immune to the business side of sport for at least a couple years, not a couple minutes. If a top pick is traded it almost always occurs on Draft night, a deal having been worked out in advance. A Cleveland official monitoring the outwardly personable Blatt’s interview session quickly stepped in to deflect the question, but Blatt, just as quickly, said he could answer it.

“I can answer that just because rumors are rumors, that’s why they call them rumors,” Blatt said. “And sooner or later in one’s career, you’re going to have to deal with it. So if you have to deal with now, so be it. It’s Summer League, he’s learning everything as he goes along.”

Not exactly a comment to inspire confidence on a down payment. If the Cavaliers decide to move Wiggins in a deal for Love, the Timberwolves will jump for joy and jump on it fast, before Cleveland has time to rethink it. But watching Wiggins in Summer League should have the Cavs proceeding with caution. His size and ability are apparent to the most casual observer. He hasn’t shot the ball particularly well, but he’s showing he can use his length and quickness to be a very good two-way player, and soon.

And wouldn’t James love a young set of legs to chase the other team’s best player on a nightly basis? Wiggins could become James’ pre-knee problems Dwyane Wade, a slashing, offensive force and a defensive partner capable of hyper-trapping the perimeter and busting it the other way.

LeBron, fast approaching 30 and now taking his contract year-by-year — apparently to maximize his annual take as the salary cap is estimated to increase each year, and not as an escape — clearly doesn’t feel he’s got time to wait.

The ball’s in Cleveland’s court, and that’s got to be a tough thing for the No. 1 pick who has come to find out he isn’t fit for a King — at least not at this juncture of his reign.

“No, no, I don’t talk to him about any of that stuff because, for me, it doesn’t mean anything,” Blatt said. “At least not right now.”

How good can the Cavs be?


VIDEO: LeBron James: On Returning to Cleveland

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – LeBron James is back in Cleveland, leaving Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh behind and joining a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since he took his talents to Miami in 2010. Kyrie Irving is an All-Star, but he’s also just the second No. 1 pick in 10 years to not make the postseason in his first three seasons.

As he wrote on SI.com, James knows that this is a different situation than the one he had upon arriving in Miami.

I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach.

But the Eastern Conference looks to be wide open. And if you have the world’s best player and some decent talent around him, you have to be considered one of the favorites. But how good can the Cavs be this season? That’s a question that requires a two-part answer. To truly contend, you need to be very good on both ends of the floor.

Offense

The Cavs ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency last season, scoring just 101.3 points per 100 possessions. They improved on that end after trading for Luol Deng, but weren’t much better offensively with Irving on the floor than they were with him on the bench.

The Cavs’ coaching change could have changed things by itself. David Blatt has coached one of the best offenses in Europe over the last few years.

And obviously, the addition of James means that we can just throw last year’s numbers away. James’ teams have ranked in the top six in offensive efficiency each of the last six years.

The last two seasons in Miami were the best of those. The Heat found their space-the-floor offensive identity in the 2012 playoffs, complemented James with a bevy of shooters, and basically eviscerated opposing defenses for two years straight.

So, with the Cavs, just how good they are offensively (Top 10? Top 5?) is going to be a matter of how much shooting they can put around James.

Last season, the Cavs had two guys who shot better than 37 percent on at least 100 3-point attempts. Both of them – Spencer Hawes and C.J. Miles – have left via free agency.

So the pressure is on Irving (35.8 percent from 3-point range last season) and Dion Waiters (36.8 percent) to improve from beyond the arc. No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins should be adjusting his pre-camp training to work more on corner threes. And Cavs GM David Griffin obviously has to make shooting the priority as he pursues other free agents (like Ray Allen and Mike Miller).

Playing with James should make everybody a better shooter. According to SportVU, Waiters shot 41.6 percent (72-for-173) on catch-and-shoot threes last season.

Irving will need to learn how to play off the ball. The good news is that he can’t be a worse 3-point shooter than Dwyane Wade. But Irving was better on pull-up threes (38.8 percent) than he was on catch-and-shoot threes (32.1 percent) last season.

A huge key for Miami was having another forward (Shane Battier mostly, Rashard Lewis in the 2014 playoffs) who can spread the floor offensively and defend opposing bigs (somewhat competently) on the other end of the floor. Maybe that’s Anthony Bennett some day, but right now, Cleveland doesn’t have that guy.

With the best player in the world and a smart head coach, it’s hard to imagine the Cavs not ranking in the top 10 offensively. But without enough complementary shooting, it’s also tough to see them in the top five.

Defense

Cleveland was one of the most improved defensive teams last season, allowing 2.1 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did in 2012-13 (as league efficiency improved). They ranked 13th on that end of the floor overall, but got worse defensively (and ranked 20th) after the Deng trade.

Again, we can throw that all out with the coaching change and the addition of James, who has the ability to be the best defensive player in the league when he has enough in the tank to do it. If Blatt’s system can take some of the offensive load off his shoulders, James can get back to contending for DPOY after what was his worst defensive season in several years. It will help that Irving can play more games and carry a bigger offensive load than Wade could.

But Irving’s defense has to improve. If he isn’t staying in front of the ball, the Cavs’ defense will break down early and often. Also key is Anderson Varejao‘s health. He’s Cleveland’s best interior defender, but he’s played just 146 games in the four years since James left. (For comparison, James has played 381.)

Elsewhere, the Cavs just don’t have any proven defenders. With another coaching change, their young players have to learn a new system. And the fatigue factor (four straight years of going to The Finals) still applies to James.

Without that Battier-esque “other” forward, James will either have to defend bigs (which he doesn’t like to do) or play more at the three. Two true bigs on the floor could help with paint protection, but will hurt the offense. Still, this may be the end of the floor where they truly need a year or two to develop before they can call themselves title contenders.

James will make the Cavs much better. They will surely be a top-five team in the East. But as he said, his patience will be tested. The Cavs are likely a year or two (and a player or two) away.

Sixth Man candidates by the numbers

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Kia NBA Sixth Man Award is a lot more straightforward than the Most Improved Player Award, in part because the field is limited. To be eligible for the Sixth Man Award, players need to have come off the bench in more games than they started.

If you eliminate players who have started at least half the games they’ve played and also players who haven’t played at least 1,000 minutes, you’re left with fewer than 100 guys (even if you add a few guys — like Steve Blake — that can get under the 50-percent threshold by continuing to come off the bench over the last two weeks). And since there aren’t too many great players coming off the bench, it’s not too hard to determine the *cream of the crop.

* Luke Babbitt, though?

The Sixth Man Award often goes to the eligible guy who averages the most points per game. And while instant offense is an important part of bench play, it’s not that hard to go beyond that and look at total production, in terms of basic boxscore stats …

All stats are through April 1, 2014.

Highest total efficiency, players eligible for Sixth Man Award

Player GP GS MIN PPG RPG APG eFG% EFF
Markieff Morris 73 0 1,922 13.8 6.0 1.7 51.1% 1,097
Taj Gibson 74 8 2,132 13.3 6.9 1.1 48.5% 1,094
Anderson Varejao 60 29 1,698 8.6 10.0 2.2 49.4% 1,024
Enes Kanter 74 33 1,955 12.1 7.0 0.9 49.0% 971
Tyreke Evans 65 15 1,804 14.0 4.6 4.9 44.1% 961
Reggie Jackson 71 33 2,038 13.3 3.9 4.2 48.0% 955
John Henson 62 23 1,648 10.9 7.3 1.6 52.9% 926
Jamal Crawford 66 23 2,002 18.6 2.3 3.2 49.9% 923
Vince Carter 74 0 1,810 12.1 3.6 2.7 50.0% 883
Timofey Mozgov 74 22 1,531 8.7 6.1 0.7 51.7% 869

Minimum 1,000 minutes played
eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
Efficiency = PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK – TO – Missed FGA – Missed FTA

That list includes a few names that you’d expect, as well as a couple that you can certainly eliminate because they play on really, really bad teams. But it’s an easy way to look beyond points per game, which, by itself, would indicate that Jamal Crawford is the runaway favorite for the award and that Dion Waiters has been the Cavs’ best reserve. Anderson Varejao has averaged 2.7 more rebounds per game than any other Sixth-Man eligible player in the league.

If we want to adjust for pace and minutes played, we can look at the PIE statistic from NBA.com/stats, which takes a player’s numbers (with weights added to each) as a percentage of the overall numbers that were accumulated while he was on the floor.

Highest PIE, players eligible for Sixth Man Award

Player GP GS MIN PPG RPG APG eFG% PIE
Anderson Varejao 60 29 1,698 8.6 10.0 2.2 49.4% 13.3%
Kris Humphries 66 28 1,338 8.6 6.0 1.0 50.2% 13.3%
Manu Ginobili 62 3 1,418 12.3 3.0 4.4 53.8% 13.0%
Jordan Hill 64 24 1,268 8.8 7.1 0.6 55.2% 12.7%
Tyreke Evans 65 15 1,804 14.0 4.6 4.9 44.1% 12.6%
Markieff Morris 73 0 1,922 13.8 6.0 1.7 51.1% 12.5%
Andray Blatche 67 6 1,504 11.4 5.4 1.5 48.3% 12.4%
Taj Gibson 74 8 2,132 13.3 6.9 1.1 48.5% 12.1%
Chris Andersen 66 0 1,294 6.8 5.2 0.3 66.9% 12.0%
Patty Mills 74 1 1,364 9.9 2.0 1.8 56.2% 11.8%

Minimum 1,000 minutes played

Four guys — Tyreke Evans, Taj Gibson, Markieff Morris and Varejao — are on both lists. Crawford ranks 16th in PIE (11.1 percent), while Manu Ginobili ranks 16th in total efficiency (838), having missed 12 of the Spurs’ 74 games.

But there’s one more thing we need to look at, because the ultimate job of a team’s bench is to build on a lead or at least sustain it. And when we look at how their teams perform with them on and off the floor, a few candidates rise to the top of the list (which I cut down to 10 guys who appear on at least one of the lists above).

On-off court efficiency differential, Sixth Man Award candidates

Player GP GS MIN OffRtg Rank DefRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
Anderson Varejao 60 29 1,698 +5.1 43 -5.6 15 +10.7 13
Manu Ginobili 62 3 1,418 +9.4 8 -0.1 113 +9.5 23
Andray Blatche 67 6 1,504 +4.3 59 +0.0 121 +4.2 72
Reggie Jackson 71 33 2,038 +0.4 137 -3.0 54 +3.4 86
Taj Gibson 74 8 2,132 +3.0 84 +0.2 126 +2.8 96
Markieff Morris 73 0 1,922 -1.2 162 -3.0 53 +1.8 109
Chris Andersen 66 0 1,294 -2.4 185 -2.8 56 +0.5 130
Vince Carter 74 0 1,810 -2.9 191 -1.4 84 -1.5 160
Jamal Crawford 66 23 2,002 +1.1 129 +3.2 189 -2.1 167
Tyreke Evans 65 15 1,804 +0.3 141 +3.2 190 -3.0 181

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
Rank = Rank among 235 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes for one team.

So Varejao comes out as the biggest difference maker, with the Cavs almost 11 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor than when he’s on the bench. Ginobili hasn’t played a ton of minutes, but the Spurs’ offense receives a huge boost when he’s in the game. It’s also interesting to note that Gibson’s impact has been on offense (mostly because the Bulls have been great defensively no matter who’s on the floor).

On-off-court numbers obviously need some context, especially when you’re looking at a guy like Crawford, who has two teammates (both starters) who are top-10 players in the league. He’s played 1,415 minutes (71 percent of his 2,002) with Blake Griffin, but only 955 (48 percent) with Chris Paul. And though the Clippers have been better with Crawford on the bench, they’ve still outscored their opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. So his scoring numbers are far from empty and he is helping his team build on leads.

Still, if you look beyond points per game, the numbers see Ginobili and Varejao as guys worthy of first place votes, while Morris and Gibson should also be near the top of the list.