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Ex-Cavaliers in the bubble: Western Conference pretenders and contenders

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Thank God the Lakers didn’t listen to Magic Johnson and copied Cleveland. Oh, the Clippers, Nuggets, and Rockets are alright, too.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Remember when Magic Johnson was wrong? I’m sure a lot of you replied, “Which time?” But, there is one moment in particular that really sticks in my craw. In late 2018, Johnson, then running the Lakers, spoke candidly in an interview with Sirius XM Radio that he didn’t want the team to copy Cleveland.

“We are trying to make sure that we watch his minutes but also that we don’t run everything through him because now it is Cleveland all over again and we don’t want that,” Johnson said. “We want to get up and down.”

To be fair, Johnson wasn’t completely wrong. Playing with pace and not grinding LeBron James into the ground is always a smart move. But, where he was unequivocally incorrect was that he didn’t want the Lakers to be “Cleveland all over again”. What made Cleveland so successful in the second LeBron era was that they copied what the Miami Heat did and constructed a roster tailor-made to both win now and perfectly compliment James. Johnson didn’t do that and failed the best player to ever wear the Lakers purple and gold. Now Johnson is out of a job and back to tweeting his milquetoast analysis of the game.

Fast forward to this season, and thankfully Rob Pelinka, who took over for Johnson, ignored his predecessor. The Lakers are once again the best team in the NBA and sure, trading their young core for Anthony Davis is a good place to start. But, more than anything, the Lakers did the right thing by adding plenty of former Cavaliers to their roster to accentuate James.

Other than James himself, the Lakers also have his former Cleveland teammate Danny Green joining him in the starting lineup. Sure, Green didn’t last long with the Cavs, he was waived in his second season after playing 20 games his rookie year, but it helped shape the trajectory of Green’s career. After leaving Cleveland, Green joined the San Antonio Spurs and after developing in Gregg Popovich’s system, became one of the better defensive wings in the NBA. Green earned All-Defense second team honors in 2017 and winning two championships with both San Antonio in 2014 and Toronto in 2019. Now reunited with James in Los Angeles, Green is a key cog in the Lakers’ defensive system, averaging 1.2 steals per game and posting a DRPM of 1.48. Green, alongside Avery Bradley and Alex Caruso, has formed a stalwart perimeter defense to support James and it’s all because of the Cleveland connection they share.

But, Green isn’t the lone former Cleveland wing now on the Lakers’ roster. Joining Green, James, and the Lakers in Disney World are former Cavs legends Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith. Normally, adding both Waiters and Smith to your roster is likely a recipe for disaster but not when James is leading the charge. During their time together in Cleveland, James tried to take Waiters under his wing and guide him. It didn’t work out at first, with Waiters being traded from James and Cleveland and then being further humbled after being waived this year but now things are different. Waiters is playing for his basketball life now, and knows hitching his wagon to James will keep him above water and maybe win a title.

Ditto for Smith, who was waived by the Cavs last year after a messy divorce. When Smith was traded to Cleveland from New York (interestingly enough it was part of sending Waiters out of town), James held Smith accountable and the two formed an inseparable bond. Now, Smith can join James in winning another title together. There’s just something that feels right about James and Smith together again and with this technically being a contract year for Smith, we could see him a game or two single-handedly for the Lakers in the playoffs.

Other than that, the other noteworthy former Cavs player on Los Angeles’s roster is former Canton Charge guard Quinn Cook, who won D-League Rookie of the Year in 2016 and D-League All-Star MVP honors in 2017. There’s also Phil Handy on the coaching front, who served as a player development coach for the Cavs from 2013 to 2018 and is doing the same this year with the Lakers. The former Cavs coach has plenty of accomplishments but his greatest is helping develop Kyrie Irving into the player he is today. Handy will soon be an NBA head coach, and it’s thanks to in part to the always powerful Cleveland connection.

Speaking of Los Angeles basketball and former Cavs coaches that are criminally underrated in the NBA, Tyronn Lue is Doc Rivers’s lead assistant with the Clippers this year. Lue, the greatest head coach in Cavaliers history, was instrumental in helping James and the Cavs bring home the 2016 NBA Championship. The Cavs fired Lue after starting 0-6 last season, and for sticking with Cleveland’s veterans over their youngsters, and it was probably for the best for Lue. During James’s last season, Lue dealt with persistent chest pains and anxiety. Cleveland letting him go allowed Lue to prioritize his health, and now he can help coach the Clippers to a championship this year. After that, he’ll likely be a lead tactician for a team next season - with the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers being favorites for his services, per league sources.

In the Western Conference race, the only true contenders are the Lakers and the Clippers. It’s been written into the stars since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined the Clippers and Anthony Davis was traded to the Lakers. Everyone else, the Houston Rocket and the Denver Nuggets, will make some noise in the Western Conference players are are largely just pretenders at this juncture. But, they both do have a chance with some key former Cleveland personnel on their respective payrolls. For the Nuggets, former Canton Charge head coach Jordi Fernandez serves as both the offensive coordinator and one of Mike Malone’s top assistants. For the Rockets, former Cavs good guys Jeff Green and David Nwaba are playing for Houston under the Disney bubble.

It’s nice both Denver and Houston have some former Cavaliers on their roster but it won’t make a difference in their title hopes. As mentioned before, it’s likely going to come down to who wins the Western Conference Finals between the Clippers and the Lakers. Given the Lakers have six former Cavs members, it’s logical to assume that they win both the West and the 2020 NBA Championship.