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NEXT MAN UP

After their surprise regular season Eastern Conference title in 2014-2015, the Atlanta Hawks could have been forgiven for blindly doing whatever it took to keep their roster intact. When the TorontoDemarre Raptors threw $14 million per at Demarre Carroll, however, the Hawks sensibly opted to let him go, rather than invest a fifth of their pre-tax cap space in their fifth starter.

While the Hawks clearly made the right business decision, Carroll does leave a significant, junkyard dog-sized hole in the Atlanta starting five. In his two breakout seasons in Atlanta, Carroll averaged over 31 minutes a game which, if nothing else, is a lot of floor time to fill. Last season, Carroll was also productive in those minutes, averaging 12.6 points, 5.3 boards and 1.3 steals per game. More importantly, as anyone who watched the Hawks play last year knows, Carroll’s impact is only partially reflected in his numbers. The Junkyard Dog also brought a level of intensity, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, that is difficult to replace.

THJrThe Hawks have made a few offseason moves to help fill the Carroll void. They brought in Tim Hardaway Jr from the Knicks and picked up Justin “Jrue’s Brother” Holiday from Golden State. While both, particularly Hardaway, will be able to provide some valuable minutes at the three spot and may evolve into impact players down the road, neither will be able to step into Demarre’s role right away.

Instead, the person best positioned to pick up Carroll’s slack is the man that backed him up for most of last year – Thabo Sefolosha.

Sefolosha is currently rehabbing from a serious NYPD-inflicted injury that ended his 2014-2015 season (and seriously hurt the Hawks title hopes) and neither Sefolosha nor the Hawks are yet talking return dates. However, if Thabo can make a full recovery from the injury, he may be more ready than anyone thinks to step into the Carroll’s spot in the starting lineup. While Thabo has never produced on the offensive end in the way that Demarre did over the last two years, the Thabo2similarities between the two players suggest that Sefolosha may be on the verge of the same kind of breakout season we saw from Carroll in 2013-2014.

To begin with, they are physically virtually identical. Carroll is 6’8, 212 lbs, while Sefolosha stands 6’7 and weighs in at 222 lbs. Both are known for their athleticism and hustle, moreso than for their skills.

When we look at the numbers in the season before each player joined the Hawks, we can see that Thabo actually seems to have been well ahead of Demarre prior to landing in Atlanta. In 2013-2014 Sefolosha’s final season with the Thunder, he averaged 6.3 points, 1.3 steals, 1.3 assists and 3.6 rebounds in 26 minutes of action per game. These numbers are all slightly ahead of Carroll’s 6.0 points, 0.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 2.8 rebounds per game in nearly 17 minutes for the Jazz in 2012-2013. While Sefolosha’s elevated numbers could be viewed as a product of the extra nine minutes per game he played in OKC, the fact that he was entrusted with more minutes playing for a better team is hardly a compelling argument in favour of Carroll.

Sefolosha’s numbers dipped in his first year in Atlanta (except in rebounding, where he jumped to 4.3 per), but this drop off is likely tied to the dip his minutes took when he found himself playing behind Carroll. When we compare the two on a per 36 minutes basis, Sefolosha’s stats are better than Carroll’s in rebounding, steals, assists and blocked shots, with Carroll edging Sefolosha out only in scoring.

Carroll and Sefolosha also seem to be developing along a similar path. Both began their careers as defence and energy guys, with Carroll adding his offensive abilities later on. His big leap in Atlanta Thabo1seemed to come from the three point line. Carroll did not shoot a meaningful sample of threes until his final year in Utah, when he averaged 1.1 attempts per game. It was not until he arrived in Atlanta that he was able to shoot with sufficient proficiency to justify attempting any more, shooting 36% in 2013-2014 and 39% in 2014-2015. Thabo, on the other hand, arrived in Atlanta having already proved that he can be deadly from beyond the arc. Prior to a drop off in his final year in OKC, Thabo shot 43% on 1.7 attempts per game in 2011-2012 and 41% on 3.2 attempts per game in 2012-2013. Whereas Carroll arrived in Atlanta needing to develop a 3-point shot, Thabo showed up fully formed.

It is clear that Sefolosha has all of the skills and natural ability needed to step in and replace Demarre Carroll as soon as he’s healthy enough to return to action. The biggest question mark is whether he will be able to bring the same energy and intensity that Caroll brought every time he stepped on the floor. If so, the best move the Hawks made this offseason may have been letting the Junkyard Dog get away.

SUMMER OF LOVE

On June 16, 2015, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost the 2015 NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors. The following day, the Cavs had already been selected by the oddsmakers in Vegas as the favourite to win the 2016 NBA Crown – and for good reason. The Cavs are one of, if not the most, Lebrontalented team in the league. Given the state of the Eastern Conference, they should have a much easier road to the Finals than any other true contender.

In that context, it’s hard to criticize the Cavs off-season strategy of trying to keep their core intact. Lebron took the Warriors to six games with the worst supporting cast to make the Finals since AI’s 2001 Sixers. Surely the addition of Uncle Drew and Mike Love’s Nephew Kevin back into the mix would be enough to make Lebron an even .500 on the League’s biggest stage.

Still, the Cavs handed K-Love a massive deal to keep him in the fold this off-season. Any team that does that has to question whether the guy is truly worth it. Maybe more importantly, they have to KL2ask whether there might be a better way to spend that money.

The case for Love is not a weak one. His numbers dipped this year, but he has still been one of the most statistically productive players in the NBA over the past five years. Over the second half of the season, the Cavs were virtually unstoppable when Lebron, Kyrie and Love were in the lineup together. Consistency at the elite end of a roster also has value, as does the comfort and trust built over the course of an NBA season. It is difficult to argue that bringing Love back does not assure the Cavs a spot among the NBA’s 2016 title favourites.

For those reasons, there is no question that Love is worth the money the Cavs gave him. It is also certain he he would have received a max deal somewhere if the Cavs had not made the offer. The more interesting question is whether Cleveland could have better spent that money elsewhere. The answer to that question is… absolutely.

Kevin Love is an elite level player. However, because of their personnel and their style of play, the Cavaliers do not make full use of his talents. We see this partly in Love’s numbers. If we take 2012-2013 out of consideration given that Love played only 18 games that year, he averaged 26 or more points per game in his last two seasons in Minnesota and only 16 points per game this year in Cleveland. Love’s rebounding numbers, always among the best in the league, were similarly down this year, to the lowest they’ve been since his rookie year. There is value in having a 25 and 15 type of talent on a team, even if he is not putting up those numbers, but to some degree value has to be tied to actual production.

The bigger problem for Love and the Cavs is his ability to play effectively with Lebron and Uncle Drew. In Minnesota, Love got his points in two ways, shooting spot-up threes and posting up. Love does not get to use his post-up game in Cleveland. Lebron and Kyrie are options 1 and 2 in the Cavs offence. To be effective, they both need to have the ball a lot, and they cannot have two bigs in the paint taking up space they need to get to the hoop. When Love is playing with a centre like Mozgov or Varejao (which is always), he has to step out to give Lebron and Kyrie room to work. This creates an irreconcilable Catch-22 in the Cavs’ offence. Love needs to post-up to score effectively, but the Cavs’ offence needs him out of the way to be at its best. As a result, Love is too often relegated to the role of spot-up shooter and exiled to the three-point line, which also hurts his ability to contribute as a rebounder. Factor in that Love is often a defensive liability and, at the very least, the Cavs are not getting full-value for their money.

tristan-thompsonTristan Thompson’s performance following Love’s injury also gives us reason to question whether bringing him back was the right move. While Thompson is a much less gifted player offensively, he is a much better fit for Cleveland, giving the Cavs what they need in terms of defence and rebounding, without needing the ball to be productive. Thompson has yet to re-sign, and there are reports that the Cavs are contemplating a future without him, but whatever he would have cost to bring back, it would have been dramatically less than what they paid Love.

This comparison brings us to the real issue to be considered. It’s not a question of whether Love is a good player, whether he’s worth the money he’s being paid, or whether the Cavs are better with him than without him – the answer to all of those questions is obviously yes. The real question is, could the Cavs have found a way to get better value for the $20-$25 million they’re going to pay him in each of the next five years. When we consider who the Cavs could have signed for that money, it becomes clearer and clearer that Love was the wrong choice.

First, it appears that the Love contract may have cost the Cavs Thompson. Thompson is a better fit for the Cavs, and would likely have cost a whole hell of a lot less than Love (the biggest contract Thompson could have signed would have been $17,500,000.00 per year). In any business, when you can get equal or greater value for less money, it’s a good decision.

Looking outside of the Cavs 2014-2015 roster, there are a number of other intriguing options. Given their status as top contenders, they may have had a shot at big ticket free agents like LaMarcus Aldridge or DeAndre Jordan. Jordan in particular might have been a good fit for the Cavs given that he, like Thompson, is highly effective without any thought being given to getting him touches. A Jordan/Thompson front line would have been the most dominant rebounding 4-5 duo in the league, and would have been a much better fit with Lebron and Kyrie than a Mozgov/Love pairing. That said, the prospect of the Cavs bringing in another superstar is highly speculative, and even if possible, would come with the downside of the other 2/3rd of their big three learning how to play with the new kid. While the DJ hypothetical is an interesting one, the addition of someone like Aldridge or another superstar is unlikely to make the Cavs better in the short-term than would bringing back Love, just because the Cavs would have to start the process of learning to play together all over again.

The more intriguing option would be to split the money between two or three strong role players. The Cavs don’t need another volume scorer, they need guys that can defend, rebound, hit open shots and, maybe most importantly, given last years’ playoff experience, step in in case of injury. The following are five examples of packages the Cavs could have put together with Love’s money – they include only guys that changed teams this year (to prevent the unrealistic inclusion of guys like Danny Green, who wasn’t leaving the Spurs), and do not include David West, who took way too little to go to San Antonio.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews points to a teammate for an assist after scoring a 3-point shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)Package #1: Wes Matthews (Dallas, $16 million) and Brandon Bass (LAL, $3 million)

We learned this off-season how valuable Wes Matthews is, even coming off a torn achilles. He would be an excellent fit with the Cavs, as a strong three-point shooter and an excellent perimeter defender who could take a lot of defensive pressure off of Lebron. Bass would be a solid backup for Thompson as a good defender and rebounder. He also has the ability to contribute offensively TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 30:  Brandon Bass #30 of the Boston Celtics looks to pass the ball against the Toronto Raptors during their NBA game at the Air Canada Centre on October 30, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.(Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)as a mid-range jump-shooter who does not need to dominate the ball to score.

Package #2: Robin Lopez (New York, $12 million) and Arron Afflalo (New York, $8 million)

Lopez is exactly the kind of big the Cavs need. A great defender and rebounder, and someone who does not need the ball to contribute. Arguably, Lopez may not be a great fit beside Mozgov, but having two strong rim-protectors on the same roster presents some interesting options. During his time in Orlando, Afflalo showed that he can be a legitimate scoring threat and if he can regain even some semblance of that form he could fill the role J.R. Smith was supposed to play on last year’s squad without the emotional volatility.

Package #3: Tyson Chandler (Phoenix, $13 million) and Lou Williams (LAL, $6.5 million)

The Chandler/Williams combo fits with the Cavaliers in the same way as Lopez and Afflalo. Chandler is an elite defensive centre (or at least has been to this point in his career). Reigning sixth man of thPistons at Wizards 1/18/14e year Sweet Lou Williams showed in his one year stint with the Raps that he can still fill it up off the bench – without all that J.R. Smith crazy.

Package #4: Greg Monroe (Milwaukee, $16 million) and Jeremy Lin (Charlotte, $2 million)

Monroe is an elite level centre, good enough to push Mozgov to the bench and probably a better option than Kevin Love outright. The fact that he comes in nearly $4 million cheaper than Love is just gravy. This discount would let the Cavs upgrade at the back-up point guard spot. For all his hustle, Matthew Dellavedova is not the guy you want running your offence in the Finals if Uncle Drew goes down again. Jeremy Lin probably isn’t either, but he’s shown himself to be a serviceable starter and could be a top notch backup with the right team.Jeremy Lin

Package #5: Demarre Carroll (Toronto, $13.5 million) and Marco Bellinelli (Sacramento, $6 million)

Demarre Carrol is an extremely athletic, versatile, hard-working player that is exactly what the Cavs need. Like Matthews, he is a great defender and has developed into a proficient three-point shooter. He contributed over 5 boards per game for the Hawks last year, primarily from the small forward position. While there aren’t a lot of extra minutes at the 3 spot for the Cavs, both Lebron and Carroll are versatile enough that they could play together. Bellinelli is a deadly three-point shooter with championship experience who could provide some much needed bench scoring.

There were a number of other players on the free agent market that would have fit for the Cavs and provided better value for money than Kevin Love. Guys like Cory Joseph, Al-Farouq Aminu, Monta Ellis and Derrick Williams all pose intriguing options. There is no guarantee that any of these players would have signed with Cleveland had they been pursued. However, Cleveland is a sufficiently attractive destination, that surely they could have put something together that would have made more sense than the $20 million they’ll be paying to Love next year.

In today’s NBA, there are too many teams with deep pockets to build a championship by blindly stockpiling talent. If the Cavs are going to succeed in their second chance with the best player in the world, they need to think about fit and getting the most value for their free-agent dollars.

HAVE THE LAKERS MANAGED TO COBBLE TOGETHER A PLAYOFF TEAM?

Answer: Absolutely not.

The NBA’s Western Conference remains the NFL to the East’s Arena League, and it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than the good doctor Hibbert to make the Lake Show a contender again. That said, the Lakers may surprise some people and have added more than enough talent to guarantee that the Sixers finally get to cash in that lottery pick that Lance Blanks earned for tricking Mitch Kupchak into paying a defective Steve Nash nearly $30 million. If nothing else, they should be a whole lot more entertaining to watch than the Carlos Boozer led 2014-2015 version.

For the third year in a row, LA’s other NBA team whiffed in free agency. They took a shot at LaMarcus “The Marcus” Aldridge, and Kobe ruined it. They made a bizarre attempt to make a deal for Boogie with George Karl, who did not and does not D'Angelohave the authority to trade him and, I assume, Kobe ruined that too. The Lakers clearly thought they were getting one or both of those guys, as it’s the only way the decision to pass on Jahlil Okafor for D’Angelo “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” Russell (of the 1:2 assist to turnover ratio in summer league) makes any sense. Presumably, the Lakers took shots at a myriad of other free agents, which Kobe also ruined, be it through action, inaction, or mere presence.

As a result of Kupchak’s ineptitude, the Lakers have adopted the “bunch of chuckers and a guy that can rebound” model of team building. It’s a variation on the model used by the Sixers in the late 90s early 2000s that helped AI drag the worst supporting cast ever to the make the Finals to be sacrificed at the altar of the Big Aristotle in 2001. On that team, The Answer was the only guy allowed to dribble the basketball, and the rest of the squad was there to defend, chase down boards, and pass the ball to Allen on the rare occasions it somehow slipped his grasp.

The Lakers have put themselves in a position to run the same kind of show, but with the role of AI being played by committee. To understand how this works, we need to first forget about Julius Randle and Untitled. I have my doubts about Russell, though I think Randle might turn into a decent player, but we’ve clearly reached the point where guys are getting drafted so young that only generational talents like D-Rose, KD and the King are likely to have a meaningful impact in their rookie seasons.

This leaves the Lakers with three legitimate offensive options – Kobe, Swaggy P, and the newly acquired Sweet Lou Williams. What do these three have in common? TheyKobe shrug’re top choice, grade A chuckers. Bean is one of the best 20 or so players ever to lace them up, and probably a top five all-time scorer. In fairness, the jury is still out on how the Mamba will recover from his achilles tear in 2013. Prior to the injury, Kobe looked like an ageless wonder, logging big minutes and performing at a clip comparable to to 2009 and 2010 Championship runs. Since then, however, his body has taken a beating, he’s aged two years (Kobe will turn 37 in August – an old 37 given his NBA debut at age 18). We’ve seen only 41 games since the injury, but the 35 we saw last season were not pretty. Kobe seems to continue to believe that he is good enough to be justified in putting it up every time he touches the rock, but appears to no longer have the game to back it up. 2014-2015 saw him put up over 20 shots per game (above his career average), but shoot below 40% for the first time in his career. Speculation abounded that we were seeing a player more interested in catching MJ on the all-time scoring list than winning. It may be that Kobe is now fully recovered, or that the Lakers have brought in enough talent to interest Kobe in chasing Ws again, but if those trends continue, look out for another depressing season from an all-time great well past his best before date.

If those disturbing trends continue, Kobe will fit in well with Swaggy and his nNew York Knicks v Los Angeles Lakersew teammate Sweet Lou. While Swaggy’s field goal attempts per game lag behind Kobe’s, this appears to be the product of fewer minutes rather than a more conservative approach to the offensive end of the game. Last year, Swaggy took 17.1 shots per 36 minutes, compared to Kobe’s 21.3 and shot 36.6% to Kobe’s 37.3%. Reigning sixth man of the year Sweet Lou follows closely behind Swaggy at 16.6 field goal attempts per 36 minutes, just squeaking over the 40% mark to shoot 40.4% for the year for the Raptors.

If each of these three players keeps up these rates, they alone will take 55 shots every 36 minutes. If we extrapolate that to a 48 minute game, those three players would be taking 73 shots per game for the Lakers, an alarming number considering that Boston led the NBA with 87.9 FGA per game last season. The Lakers took 85.6 shots per game – leaving 12.6 for the other nine members of the squad to share. WhenSP-RAPTORS21NOV Toronto, Canada - November 21  -  In first half action, Toronto Raptors guard Louis Williams (23) drives to the net in traffic. The Toronto Raptors played the Milwaukee Bucks at the Air Canada Centre. November 21, 2014  Richard Lautens/Toronto Star we take into account that those three players are likely getting very few shots off of offensive rebounds, and very few finishes off of dump offs, it becomes pretty clear what a shockingly high proportion of the Lakers offense these three could occupy.

On the surface, this could appear to be a recipe for disaster, when we look at the other roster moves the Lakers have made this off-season, however, we start to see some hints of brilliance – or at least coherence – seeping in. In the abstract, 12.6 shot attempts for nine players seems unworkably low, but when we look at who those players will actually be, it starts to make a little more sense.

The Lakers other two “big” offseason acquisitions were Roy Hibbert and Brandon Bass. Dr. Hibbert has always been a solid rebounder and good rim protector. He’s also a surprisingly proficient free throw shooter. What he is not, and never has been, is an offensive contributor – at least in the sense of creating offense. This Lakers team may be the perfect place for the good doctor. He can defend and rebound and, unlike in Indiana, where they wanted him to put the round thing in the hoop, Kobe will probably cut the bitch if he so much as looks at the basket on offense.

Brandon Bass, who should play the bulk of the power forward minutes over Randle, is a similar player – good rebounder, good defender, not a particularly proficient scorer, and not someone that needs to create his own shot to be effective.

If we assume Jordan Clarkson just does what Kobe tells him to (pass Kobe the ball), this model may be surprisingly effective. With three perimeter players that can create their own shots more or less at will, and two posts that will be content to defend and chase after all of Kobe, Swaggy and Sweet Lou’s misses, the Lakers may have enough talent and size in the right mix to stay competitive in a lot of games.

While the odds of the Lakers being a factor this season remain slim, as anyone who saw J.R. Smith drop seven bombs against the Bucks in Round One, or Nate Robinson put up 23 against the Nets in 2013 knows, when they’re on, guys like these can be a lot of fun to watch and not entirely ineffective.J.R.

Speaking of J.R. – if the Lakers want to go all in on this, he’s still looking for a contract…