What if Miami Won the Derrick Rose Lottery?

Derrick Rose Heat

Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes. 

Miami operates with a firm “best player available” rule. Michael Beasley may be a better fit as a forward next to Dwyane Wade, but through the draft process it becomes clear that Memphis point guard Derrick Rose is the better prospect. So when their No. 1 pick comes up in the 2008 NBA Draft, they don’t hesitate to take Rose and figure out the fit a bit later.

That hastiness doesn’t do Rose or the Heat any favors. He looks good when given the chance to attack the rim as he’d like, but with Wade monopolizing the ball those opportunities are few and far between. The tension is so thick that Rose’s hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, eventually calls Miami to make an offer for Rose. The Heat refuse, and Chicago winds up very thankful that they did. After all, had they acquired Rose they never would have entered the 2009 NBA Draft in position to draft a far better point guard, but coach Vinny Del Negro’s frustrating year and Chicago’s roster without scorers gives them the league’s seventh worst record and a desperate need for playmaking. So they grab Davidson’s Stephen Curry and never look back.

Year 2 of the Rose era is more of the same, and by season’s end the team becomes determined to deal him if their lofty free agency goals are met. So to clear the cap space necessary to sign Chris Bosh and LeBron James to join Dwyane Wade, they trade Rose to Minnesota for a future draft pick.

Minnesota is thrilled with the return on their meager investment. Rose turns his career around playing next to Kevin Love and even competes for an MVP award in Minnesota. It is eventually won by James, who goes on to win a total of five straight, but the Rose-Love combination finally gives the Timberwolves some hope in the post-Kevin Garnett era.

As his five MVPs suggest, LeBron wins quite a bit in Miami. They win the Eastern Conference in his first season with the team and the championship in his next two. But eventually, the Curry-Tom Thibodeau combination overcomes the old and worn down Heat in 2014. They lose to San Antonio in the NBA Finals, but in asserting themselves as the new conference leaders they essentially force LeBron’s hand in leaving Miami for Cleveland.

James, Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins on one side, Curry, Jimmy Butler and Thibodeau on the other. No one can imagine a more intriguing Eastern Conference rivalry, especially with the winner likely to take on Rose and Love’s Timberwolves in the NBA Finals.

 

Alright, It’s Finally Time to Have the Stephen Curry to Charlotte Conversation

Stephen Curry Hornets

I don’t think Stephen Curry is going to sign with the Hornets next summer. Stars just don’t leave champions without extenuating circumstances. But the Warriors just lost one of the most gut-wrenching playoff series of all time. The chemistry of the team is in serious jeopardy as emotion leader Draymond Green may well have cost them a championship and the greatest team of all time title because he couldn’t stop himself from kicking someone in the nuts. And the Golden State roster is very much in flux.

The Warriors are going to be aggressive this summer. Kevin Durant is in play and so is Dirk Nowitzki, but neither seems likely to come. Al Horford probably would if they asked, but their interest in him is unknown. Nic Batum will get a look on the high end of the potential Harrison Barnes replacements; Marvin Williams, Luol Deng, Evan Turner and Solomon Hill make up the rest of the spectrum. Barnes and Festus Ezeli could both be gone and in order for the Dubs to create max cap space, both will have to be along with some combination of Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

Next year’s Golden State roster is going to look different, and for the first time in the Steve Kerr era, the front office is going to be in attack mode. This is the first time it really feels like the Warriors need something, that they can’t just waltz into the season with the same group and expect to win a championship. And that raises all sorts of questions about both their past and future.

Now that LeBron has topped the 73-win Warriors, do we have to consider some sort of asterisk for the 2015 championship version? Did the Cavs provide some sort of blueprint for the rest of the league to beat this Golden State team? Has it now been definitively proven that you can’t win a championship without paying at least some lip service to two-pointers? Did Cleveland just win the championship because the road through the Eastern Conference was so much easier?

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 26: The Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate after defeating the Atlanta Hawks during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 26, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

We’ll again throw out the disclaimer that if the Warriors win the championship next season none of this matters. But if they don’t, everything in the above paragraph comes into play.

Would Curry wonder if his Golden State squad was even capable of winning a championship without help from the injury gods? Is there something they can realistically do to counter defenses that switch as relentlessly as they do knowing that nobody on their roster can take advantage of it close to the basket? Would Curry be better off on a team with a more diverse skill set? Would Curry have ever gotten hurt if he played in the East?

Tomes could be filled with answers to even one of those questions. But for the first time since the Warriors became the Warriors, they don’t feel like… well… the Warriors. They feel like just another team.

To Curry, the Hornets probably don’t feel like just another team. He was on the court when LeBron won a championship for his hometown. He has to know how special that would feel, and as he already has a ring, he wouldn’t exactly be risking his legacy to join a weaker team in making the jump.

How many players get the chance to wear their dad’s jersey? Same number, same city, same team? How many players get the chance to have their dad announce their games? How many players get a chance to do that while playing with their brother (and make no mistake, the Hornets will aggressively try to add Seth at some point before July of 2017 to try to entice Steph further)?

Golden State doesn’t have the same sentimental attachment, and as Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted on his appearance on The Lowe Post, Curry’s relationship with Joe Lacob is far from infallible. When the owner on the other line is Michael Jordan, well, that presents quite a problem. If Lacob no longer has sentiment and his team’s basketball prospects are in doubt, well, what is there to sell Curry on committing to the Warriors for the rest of his career?

This is an ongoing conversation we’ll spend the next year having. There are too many variables for any answer to present itself yet. But after what just happened in the NBA Finals coupled with his team’s uncertain future this is finally in play. Stephen Curry might actually decide to leave the Warriors for the Hornets.

LeBron Can Leave Cleveland Now

LeBron Leaving

There are going to be a lot of stories today about LeBron James bringing Cleveland the championship he so often promised, about what a local hero he is to a city that hadn’t won much of anything for five decades, about how his legacy as a Cavalier is officially cemented and how no one will ever be able to question his commitment to winning or to Ohio for the rest of his career.

It’s easy to feel that way today because LeBron just won the championship. We saw him hug Kevin Love, we saw Dan Gilbert on the podium and Kyrie Irving make that game-winning three. Emotions run high in the heat of the moment. As overjoyed as he must be right now and as much as we all might think this is his happy ending, sooner or later that emotion is going to die down and he’s going to be faced with all of the same problems he had 24 hours ago. After all, he more or less said those exact words to his detractors four years ago.

Several months ago, I imagine sometime in the winter, after a loss in which Irving took too many shots and Love allowed too many to go in, James probably drove home in the snow and brooded in his living room (or lounge, or, dare I say, study) for a few hours. Maybe there was a deer’s head on the wall and a few logs roasting in the fireplace. For a split second he must’ve thought, “man, it’s not fun playing for Cleveland right now.” And then he probably thought, “I wish I could play with players who just get it.” And for just the briefest of moments, I have to imagine he realized something along the lines of “you know, I don’t have to stay in Cleveland once I win them a championship.”

So I’m going to present a very different type of story. What if this isn’t about LeBron coming home to win one for “the land.” What if this was about LeBron winning one so he could get out and never look back?

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The social contract LeBron signed with Cleveland was very specific. He promised to revive the city and he did it. He regretted leaving the team in embarrassing fashion and with a bare cupboard and now he can do so with neither. It was never about winning “not five, not six, not seven,” it was, in his own words, about “bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.

Note the use of the word one. 

It might be arbitrary, but by now we should’ve learned to take LeBron at his word. He spent his entire Miami tenure croning about how badly he wanted to come back to Cleveland at some point to win them a title. Nobody bought it until it happened. He didn’t mention Andrew Wiggins in his letter returning to Cleveland, and then Wiggins was traded.

So what has LeBron said? Well, in that same famous letter he stated that his goal was still “to win as many trophies as possible,” and it’s fair to wonder if Cleveland is the best place to do that. Remember, had Draymond Green played in Game 5, it’s possible that the Cavs lose the series then and there and we aren’t having this conversation. Cleveland still has to reconfigure their roster to fit better against Golden State next year, when a suspension is unlikely and the Warriors will likely be healthier.

It’s also fair to wonder if his best shot at grabbing a few more rings might come through something else he said. I’ll present this quote from Howard Beck’s Brotherhood story earlier this season without comment: “‘I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together,’ James said. ‘At least one, maybe one or two seasons—me, Melo, D-Wade, CP—we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that.'”

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He and Wade are both slated to be free agents next month, and both spent last year—and will likely spend most future years—playing with the flexibility of one-year contracts. Carmelo Anthony is eminently acquirable considering his age and the likely direction of the Knicks’ franchise. And Chris Paul is going to be a free agent one year from now.

We looked it over in April and deemed Houston the likeliest team to unite the super friends. But realistically, LeBron could hop right on his banana boat back down to South Beach this summer along with Wade and get Pat Riley to trade Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic for Anthony. From there it would be a simple matter of waiting for Paul next summer and a few pay cuts to make it all possible. The same could be said of the Lakers, and the Knicks already have Anthony and could easily create the cap space to fit James and Wade in.

These are all cities that athletes would much rather live in than Cleveland. These are all cities that can accommodate James’ other interests—be they film, business or who knows what else—far more than Cleveland can. And most importantly, these scenarios all involve players that LeBron actually seems like he wants to play with. James never subtweeted Dwyane Wade in Miami. He never called out Anthony’s defense during the Olympics.

And frankly, there’s something much more interesting for LeBron to do with his buddies somewhere else anyway. Robert Horry and John Salley are the only players ever to win championships with three different teams. If James feels that he can’t catch Michael Jordan’s total of six, then the next best thing might creating an entirely unique resume of his own to change the conversation.

Who knows, he might even just retire. Maybe he wants to try football for a year, he hasn’t exactly been shy about his interest in doing so in the past. His beloved Dallas Cowboys could use another pass-catcher. There’s an argument to be made that he’s done everything he can do in basketball anyway. Why not try something new? He may be too far away from Jordan to become the greatest basketball player ever (though I don’t subscribe to that theory), but winning a Super Bowl could make him the greatest athlete ever. That’s not a bad distinction.

None of this is to say that LeBron is headed elsewhere right now. But rather, the terms of LeBron’s unspoken deal with the city of Cleveland have been met. He is free to do as he pleases from this point on, and there are more than a few signs that suggest playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers isn’t on top of that list.

Hey LeBron, This is Your Own Goddamn Fault

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This is your own goddamn fault LeBron.

You’re the one who chose the coach. You’re the the one who fired the great basketball mind because you didn’t like him personally and replaced him, on a team with championship aspirations, with someone who had never been a head coach at any level. Ty Lue’s mistakes are your mistakes. His choice to play Channing Frye in crunch time over Kevin Love is on you.

You’re the one who traded for Kevin Love and then spent two years undermining his confidence and turning him into a glorified Anthony Morrow. Here’s a thought: if you don’t want to play with another power forward, then don’t trade for one. Here’s another: if you don’t want to play with defensive liabilities, don’t enable them by playing lazy defense yourself.

And before you get ahead of yourself, no, don’t blame him for ruining the chemistry or any LeBron nonsense like that. He didn’t lose you Game 4. He had a lower +/- than any Cavalier starter. He played some of the best defense of his life. He sacrificed for his team by willingly coming off of the bench, passing up shots and hell, even returning last year despite how inhospitable you made the environment.

You’re the one who handpicked the supporting cast. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, 4-15 from the field in Game 4. 18-44 For the series! Stellar work! How’s that four-year Shumpert deal you insisted on looking right about now? But on the bright side, James Jones has given you 16 hard-fought garbage time minutes. Roster spot well spent.

And worst of all? You encouraged Kyrie Irving to play this way. You welcomed him into your entourage, you matched his isolations with plenty of your own, you even wrote about him in your increasingly pessimistic letter. If you really wanted him to play team basketball he would. Or if he wouldn’t, you’d make damn sure that he’d be the one on his way out, not Kevin Love. But you picked the wrong horse and it’s going to cost you this championship, and maybe more.

This is why Miami never turned you loose on the other aspects of its organization, and probably why you left. Pat Riley warned you about this. Erik Spoelstra held you accountable. You didn’t like that, because apparently two championships mean less if they aren’t won your way. Miami didn’t want to play ball because they had more sense than that. That you don’t is becoming more and more apparent by the day.

So I want to make this clear, because when you lose Game 5 on Monday I can only imagine there will be subtweets galore. This did not happen because Cleveland wasn’t committed to putting a winner on the floor. This did not happen because they failed you as an organization, or that your teammates weren’t talented enough.

You did this to yourself. This is your own fault. And if you want to have any chance of preventing it from happening again next year, and the year after, and so on until you retire without bringing Cleveland a championship, you’ll stick to playing basketball and let the rest of the team do their goddamn jobs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are Nearly Unbeatable When Kyrie Irving Passes

Kyrie Irving passes

Good news guys, Cleveland has cracked the code to beating the Warriors and winning a championship.

No, it’s not about Kevin Love. It’s not their small-ball lineup either, though that was admittedly helpful. It’s about Kyrie Irving.

When Kyrie Irving passes, the Cleveland Cavaliers are nearly unbeatable.

This season, the Cavs are 10-2 when Irving finished with at least eight assists. Last season, they were 8-2. That 18-4 record is obviously impressive, but let’s dig a bit deeper.

All of Cleveland’s four losses over the past two seasons in which Irving finished with at least eight assists have been by single digits. Their overall point differential in those 22 games is +265. So on average, when Irving has at least eight assists, the Cavs win by 12 points per game. The Warriors had an average point differential of +10.8 per game. In other words, when Kyrie Irving passes, the Cavs play better than the Warriors.

The further down the rabbit hole we go, the more insane these numbers become. In the 12 games this season in which Irving had at least eight assists, the Cavs averaged 111 points per game. Only Golden State averaged more, and remember that they play at the league’s fastest pace while the Cavs are near the bottom of the league. They never scored fewer than 100.

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Were they scoring those points efficiently or just playing faster? Well, they shot 47% from the field in those games (compared to 46% in the regular season overall), and 44% from three (compared to 36.2% in the regular season overall). The big takeaway here? Cleveland’s spacing improves drastically when Irving sees fit to pass.

The first half of Game 3 was essentially all of these trends in a bottle. In the first quarter, Cleveland’s offense was humming. Irving was passing, deferring to LeBron James as the primary ball-handler for most of their early run and letting the open man take good shots. Cleveland won the first quarter by 17 points. Everyone was touching the ball, Irving took mostly good shots. It was harmonious basketball.

And then in the second quarter, Irving sensed how hot he’d been earlier in the game and went overboard. Cleveland’s offense devolved into pure iso-ball and fell off of a cliff practically instantaneously. The Warriors won the quarter by nine points despite spending most of it without Klay Thompson. Had Stephen Curry been shooting at his normal rates, the Warriors easily could’ve grabbed back the lead.

There were obviously micro trends that helped Cleveland win Game 3. They switched far more on defense than they usually do, and it threw Golden State off of their game. Tristan Thompson rebounded better than he had in the first two games. Smaller lineups almost universally score more than bigger lineups, and LeBron should be playing power forward exclusively at this point in his career. And yes, Irving actually tried on defense, a 50/50 proposition even on good nights.

But the data is very clear on the macro front. The Cleveland offense is significantly better when Kyrie Irving passes. When he does, the Cavaliers win basketball games.

What If Michael Redd Chose Cleveland in 2005?

Michael Redd Cavs

Every Wednesday, Pick and Popovich will dive down the rabbit hole and explore a different NBA “What if.” The only rule is that the scenario must come from a place that is somewhat realistic and grounded in at least somewhat believable rumor or hearsay. Otherwise, anything goes. 

Loyalty is important to Michael Redd. The Milwaukee Bucks stood by him and helped him grow into a star player, and he doesn’t see any particular reason to leave them as a free agent. But Cleveland is an exception. He grew up in Columbus, played at Ohio State, and the chance to bring his home state a championship is just too alluring. Of course, playing with LeBron James doesn’t hurt either, so in July of 2005, Michael Redd signs a five-year deal to play for the Cavaliers.

James is still young, so the Cavs have to wait their turn. Miami wins the Eastern Conference and the championship in 2006, and despite an unlikely run to the Finals in 2007 Cleveland is beaten by San Antonio in six games. But everything comes together in 2008, when Redd’s additional scoring pushes Cleveland past the Celtics and Pistons in the east and, eventually, the Lakers in the Finals as well. At only 23-years-old, LeBron James has toppled his greatest rival in Kobe Bryant and brought Cleveland its first championship in over 50 years.

The good times don’t quite last. Injuries pile up for Redd almost immediately after the championship, and Cleveland loses before the Finals in back-to-back seasons. But James is still happy enough with the title that he agrees to re-sign with Cleveland as a free agent in 2010. This devastates several of his suitors, most notably Miami, who still walks away with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and New York, who settles for Amar’e Stoudemire.

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Chicago, however, is more than prepared to miss out on LeBron. The ascension of Derrick Rose at point guard gives them the league’s best record, and Cleveland’s roster outside of LeBron is too depleted to put up any sort of fight against the Bulls. Rose leads Chicago to the 2011 title, and James quietly begins to grumble about his support system.

Cleveland’s front office agrees, and after seeing what a sidekick like Redd did for LeBron the first time around, they decide to punt on major roster additions that summer and focus on clearing cap space for 2012. That decision comes back to haunt them in the short term. Rose’s knee injury in the first round opens up the conference for other contenders, but without surrounding talent James can’t knock off the aging Celtics. Boston eventually gets the better of Oklahoma City in the Finals to give Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce their first championships.

But the summer still belongs to Cleveland. They nab Deron Williams to pair with LeBron, setting themselves up as the surefire title favorite for the 2012-13 season. The rest of the league sees a ticking clock and an unlearned lesson, though. Williams’ conditioning is far from ideal and his knees come with some red flags. If Williams is going to deliver the Cavs a title, it’s going to have to come fast, because eventually, he’s going to suffer the same fate as Redd.