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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – As Cavs practice wound down on Monday, Isaiah Thomas lingered, flipping set shots at a rim on the far end of the floor. Thomas is months away from playing, his balky right hip still limiting him, yet his presence at practice underscored an important point: Whatever Cleveland is now, they will be something significantly different when Thomas returns.
Strange days in Cleveland. Kyrie Irving is gone, and a roster overhaul has planted eight new players on a three-time conference champion’s roster. A faded former MVP will attempt to hold down the fort until Thomas is ready, and a smaller, deeper team will try to mount another challenge to Golden State — and hold off hard-charging Boston in the process.
Where to begin? How about point guard, where Derrick Rose, fresh off an underwhelming season in New York, will start. Few players have earned as much praise from Cavs coaches as Rose, who cut 13 pounds from his 6-foot-3 frame this summer and publicly embraced a role as a facilitator.
Said Rose: “My job is to push the ball and facilitate, especially with the first group.”
Ultimately, Rose must do more. The Cavs were the highest-scoring team in the conference last season, after which the team’s second-leading scorer (Irving) forced a trade. The rejiggered frontcourt will produce — more on it later — but Rose will need to be more than a surgically reconstructed Elfrid Payton.
“I need him to be who he is,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “Aggressive, making the right play, attacking the basket, getting into the paint. We’ll be able to adjust and play off of him. I don’t want him to change his game.”
In Cleveland, Rose gets a fresh start. The money has dried up — Rose will make $2.1 million this year, a $19 million pay cut from last season — but the opportunity to reboot a flagging career is there. New York was a forgettable experience; what began with a civil rape trial (Rose was found not liable) bottomed out with Rose going AWOL for a midseason game against New Orleans. The numbers were respectable — 18 points on 47.1 percent shooting — but his 3-point shooting cratered (21.7 percent) and opponents spent the season ducking under screens, daring him to shoot.
The Cavs hope any 3-point shooting issues are resolved in the frontcourt, which will be headlined by three 36-percent-plus 3-point shooters. Kevin Love will start at center, the middle man in a floor-spacing starting lineup with LeBron James and Jae Crowder.
“It’s been a little bit of a change,” Love said. “I still find myself spacing a little bit, wanting to roll a little bit more. On defense, playing the primary big the whole time, it’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end.”
Crowder — a 39.8 percent 3-point shooter last season in Boston — will have a significant role. Offensively, he will be asked to draw out interior defenders; defensively, he will have to bang with them on the other end, a physical role Crowder is prepared for.
“They told me when I came over, ‘Don’t change up anything,’ ” Crowder said. “Just play my game. I play physical. I’m a very physical type of player. Nothing will change. The physicality of our team should pick up with us playing smaller.”
The bench should be better. J.R. Smith, after initially recoiling at losing his starting position to Dwyane Wade, has accepted it and can be a potent scorer with the second unit. Tristan Thompson — another former starter — joins him, as will versatile wingmen Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert and Jeff Green. The Cavs were 28th in the league in bench scoring last season; this year, they should be markedly better.
As for how long it will take to click — that’s anybody’s guess. A mid-camp ankle injury has limited James over the last week, slowing the development of any on-court chemistry. To a man, the Cavs believe this group will come together. Yet few can tell you when.
“We’re going to see,” Love said. “We have such high-IQ basketball players that there will be a lot of good things that will happen for us. It’s not going to come out perfect at the start. But we’re going to play hard and stick to our principles and play our style of ball.”
Added Rose: “It’s going to take time. We haven’t played with LeBron in I don’t know how long. It’s going to be a process. Everyone [will] learn their roles, get used to playing with one another, learn everybody’s tendencies and play their game and not think while they are out there. Just react.”
Say they are right. Two months in, the Cavs get comfortable — and here comes Thomas, an All-NBA point guard with the fifth-highest usage rate in the league last season. How long it will take to incorporate Thomas — and how effective he will be — will make or break this Cleveland season.
The Cavs believe Thomas can fit in quickly. “He’s another guy who always plays with a big chip on his shoulder,” Love said. “On our team, you see that a lot.” And they see how badly he wants to contribute. Thomas traveled with the team during the preseason, and participates in as much of practice as team doctors will let him. The NBA’s top little man badly wants back on the floor, and Cleveland won’t know what it has until he is.
Promise … fulfilled?
Once, Justise Winslow was a coveted player. In 2015, Boston, desperate to position itself to draft Winslow, offered four first-round picks for the chance to do it. Then, the Celtics believed Winslow had the skills to develop into an elite two-way player. Today, Winslow is a high-level defender, but consistent offense has been hard to come by. After a shoulder injury ended Winslow’s sophomore season last January, Winslow finds himself in a battle for minutes in Miami’s rotation.
“The rehab process wasn’t easy,” Winslow told Yahoo Sports. “There were a lot of nights alone. A prisoner — or, as I like to say — a hero of your thoughts. I learned a lot about myself as a player and a person. The silver lining was how am I going to become a great player? How am I going to use this to my advantage? For me, just the attention to detail during the rehab process was big. Every rep matters.
“You ask yourself, why me. I’ve always been a believer that everything in life happens for a reason. So then I started searching for that reason. Part of that was asking myself real questions, being honest with myself and just going from there. Being honest, being real, being open, being vulnerable was a big part of it.”
Winslow enters the season with clear goals. He has slimmed down and believes a lighter frame will help him become an even better defensive player. He is targeting a spot on one of the NBA’s All-Defensive teams and says that his 3-point shot — a glaring weakness through his first two seasons — will improve. With Rodney McGruder out for the next three-to-six months with a leg injury, Winslow will get his chance.
Another rebuild in Orlando
It’s been five years since the Magic shipped out Dwight Howard, flipping the team’s franchise player for a six-player, five draft-pick package that was supposed to set up the franchise for the future. It hasn’t. Three coaching changes and one front-office shakeup later and the Magic remain mired in mediocrity, with a number of bloated contracts severely limiting any financial flexibility.
If there’s a reason to be optimistic, it’s that the Magic have assembled an enviable basketball operations staff. Team president Jeff Weltman is backed by GM John Hammond (whom Milwaukee inexplicably was willing to part with) and assistant GM Pete D’Alessandro, a former GM in Sacramento. CEO Alex Martins, who was heavily involved in personnel decisions the last few years, has fully empowered Weltman to rebuild the team.
Basketball brainpower will be required. The Magic are a team filled with interesting parts, but few that stand out. Elfrid Payton is three years into a career that seemingly will never feature a consistent 3-point shot. The eye-popping moments Mario Hezonja produces are outnumbered by an endless string of on-court brain farts. Aaron Gordon will be a full-time power forward this season, with the hope that his uber-athleticism can be better harnessed there.
Ultimately, this may require (another) tear down. The Bismack Biyombo contract ($17 million per for each of the next three seasons) remains brutal, Nikola Vucevic will make $25 million over the next two, and D.J. Augustin will make $7.3 million through 2020 to be a backup. Orlando declined to extend Gordon or Payton, perhaps signaling a more fiscally conservative approach.
Here’s what the Magic need more than anything: consistency. Weltman and Hammond, who plucked a teenage Giannis Antetokounmpo out of obscurity in 2013, have excellent credentials. Frank Vogel is an elite coach with a strong track record of player development. The Magic are excited about rookie Jonathan Isaac and are hopeful Gordon can develop into an All-Star-caliber player.
Trades — bad ones — crippled the Magic over the last few years. Rebuilding slowly, methodically, with an emphasis on internal development could be the smartest way for Orlando to recover.
The Knicks’ rebuild begins
The bad news? The Knicks finished the preseason terribly. The offense was awful, the defense worse and the lack of an experienced point guard pushed the Knicks to the bottom of the league in preseason assist-to-turnover ratio.
The good news? Nobody noticed. The trade of Carmelo Anthony removed a national spotlight from New York, allowing the Knicks to suffer in (relative) anonymity.
And that’s a good thing. The Knicks won’t be good anytime soon. Kristaps Porzingis is a blue-chip prospect who is already a formidable presence, but the talent around him is limited. The Knicks should plummet to the bottom of the conference, which — in the final year of the NBA’s current lottery rules and with a draft class considered loaded at the top — is a good thing.
After years of trying to put Band-Aid’s on bazooka holes, the Knicks have embraced an organic rebuilding approach. Rookie Frank Ntilikina is an intriguing point-guard prospect, one everyone in New York is hoping develops into a better player than Dennis Smith Jr., whom Dallas drafted one pick later. Tim Hardaway Jr. showed enough offensive potential in the preseason (17.8 points per game) to quiet talk of his $71 million contract.
The Knicks have work to do. But after years of free spending and poor trading, they have finally accepted the reality that they can’t buy or trade their way to success. The road back will be rough, but at least it’s a road that could lead somewhere.