DEBATE: Do the Cavs have any legitimate rivals in the East?

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The Toronto Raptors are aiming to get past the defending champions.

JAY ASSER SAYS YES

We’re so used to seeing LeBron James’ teams stroll to the NBA Finals year in and year out that it’s against our nature to pick against his squad to come out of the Eastern Conference.

While no one should bet against LeBron, it’s obvious there’s more of a vulnerability to the Cleveland Cavaliers this year than in the past two. And that’s not a sentiment drawn from a small sample size – we have half-a-season’s worth of data that suggests Cleveland are beatable.

Since the All-Star break and up to the loss to Atlanta in the first of a back-to-back, the Cavaliers were 12-12 with a point differential of minus-0.7. While their offence has mostly held strong with a 111.4 offensive rating during that span, it’s been the other side of the ball that’s turned into a legitimate liability.

Only the Los Angeles Lakers have a worse defensive efficiency in the second half of the season, with Cleveland surrendering 111.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve been leaky and it’s no surprise considering they have few average to above average defenders.

And yet, they’ve likely done just enough to retain the top seed after dominating Boston in a game that could have very well tipped the scales against the Cavaliers had they lost, at least from a confidence perspective.

It would be short-sighted to write off the Celtics in a series against Cleveland simply off that one performance, as dismal as it was, but Boston may be the least of the Cavaliers’ concern in the playoffs, with threats also posed from the nation’s capital, as well as north of the border.

Washington have multiple scorers, while Toronto are one of the most balanced teams in the league.

The Raptors appear to be the East’s best chance to beat the defending champions and their mid-season trades of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker have bolstered their toughness and defence – they own the third-best defensive rating post All-Star break at 102.7.

The Cavs’ decline, coupled with other teams’ improvement, spells a more wide open battle in the East.

Washington's John Wall drives against Cleveland's Kyrie Irving.

Washington’s John Wall drives against Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving.

JAMES PIERCY, SPORT360 EDITOR, SAYS NO

This season it’s been a little more challenging for Cleveland as, at various stages Boston (who could still get there), Toronto and Washington have had ideas on LeBron’s Iron Throne.

But still the Cavs stand above them, with the feeling there is a little more in the tank. And while that is hypothetical, what has to be considered is, realistically, how much better can that trio play?

Starting with the Raptors, yes, they have Kyle Lowry back at the right time and Serge Ibaka has added improvement both physical and technical at both ends of the floor, but can we expect DeMar DeRozan to go for 25+ points each game beyond Saturday? Or Lowry to be shooting 41.4 per cent from 3-point range (having averaged 30.4 in the postseason last year)? Or Jonas Valanciunas and Ibaka to stay out of foul trouble?

All that has gone so right could easily go so wrong. And they’re also historically awful in the playoffs.

The Wizards are this season’s surprise package with coach Scotty Brooks reinvigorating a stale-looking roster and given John Wall and a finally-fit Bradley Beal the freedom to play.

But Wall has a pretty poor shooting average (37.6 per cent) in the postseason (including a wretched 20.4 from 3-point range), and while he’s clearly a better player that, you’re still not backing him up against Kyrie Irving. At least not yet.

Beal, unlike Wall, has put up some impressive playoff numbers but may find himself having too much to do with a supporting cast of Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic (combined playoff games: 0.

Boston have depth, defence and a clutch scorer to end all clutch scorers in Isaiah Thomas but can a team without a winning record against any of the East’s top six be relied upon to beat the very best in a seven-game series?

Finally, and perhaps most conclusively, it’s those numbers which paint the Cavs superiority in the best light as their regular season record against the next best three reads: 3-0 v Toronto; 3-1 v Boston; and 2-1 v Washington.

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STATESIDE: UNC Tarred by stain of corruption allegations

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UNC have been in hot water despite their NCAA win.

From layup to cover up. The North Carolina revenge mission may have been completed with the pain of last year’s buzzer-beater defeat to Villanova wiped away with last week’s March Madness title win over Gonzaga.

It was UNC’s seventh championship and confirmed they are the best college basketball team in the land. Yet as the tickertape fell, chronic wrongdoing and scandal were being glossed over.

In the next few weeks, the spotlight will publicly shine again though, this time, dark matters will come to the fore. An exhaustive three-year investigation involving the NCAA is coming to the end, which, some believe, will uncover the worst academic fraud in history.

It’s alleged that between 2007 and 2011 over 3,000 students were enrolled in fake classes to help bring the best athletes in the US to their coveted programme.

Tutors were found carrying out  homework for students. Grades had been adjusted accordingly. Plagiarism became commonplace.

The end product for sporting supremacy? Millions of dollars for coaches, teachers and the facility. (NCAA rakes in around $900 million for March Madness alone).

The African and Afro-American studies department which has come under the severest scrutiny boasted 10 of the 15 players who helped the Tar Heels win the title 12 years ago.

“Their classes were especially popular among those who played the ‘revenue’ sports of football and men’s basketball,” said a report.

To hell what happens in the classroom. Education? No, just worry about the next match.

Such a flagrant trouncing of rules by greedy men who should know better ignores the effect this will have on those in the system right now and in the future.

This sorry state of affairs is nothing new. College sports has been riddled with corruption for years.

University of Southern California (USC) were forced to take away 30 scholarships and had two title triumphs overturned because of illegal payments made to agents in 2010. A year later, Ohio State were banned after players received money for autographing memorabilia. Yet this mess digs far deeper into the depths of a continually abused system.

The whispers about UNC grew too loud to ignore and in 2014 Kenneth Wainstein, a former assistant attorney general, was asked to compile a report. His findings were remarkable. Student athletes were pushed towards meaningless subjects and even told to have a sleep at their desk if it all got too much. But despite all this, it took the NCAA ages before acting decisively.

Last December, a tough set of accusations against the university were filed. UNC lawyers agreed but quickly passed the buck back to the NCAA, whose rules members are supposed to operate under.

Taking retrospective action is problematic – these incidents started a decade ago – though naturally, the response on campus was one of startling innocence. Behind the scenes however, everyone knew about the firestorm brewing.

Other former employees spoke of UNC operating, “like a crime family who would do anything to protect their athletic machine.”

No team has ever had championship banners taken down but if the titles remain, penalties may still follow. Scholarships could be taken away along with wins, while strong denials from the university could see the hammer fall even harder.

“People have tested my credibility and I haven’t appreciated that,” said Roy Williams (left), UNC’s coach who has now won three titles during the period in question and bagged a nice $500,000 bonus last Monday. “It’s been used against us in recruiting… I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy and I don’t have too many enemies.”

The NCAA, however, appear to be pulling no punches, declaring the situation in North Carolina, “implicates issues at the very core of the Collegiate Model.”

Crunch time is looming. The lines between academic and sporting prowess have been blurred and the NCAA need to act or risk further embarrassment elsewhere.

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COMMENT: Westbrook's historic campaign should be appreciated

Jay Asser 9/04/2017
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History-making: Westbrook.

We speculated, imagined and dreamed, but no one actually expected Russell Westbrook to average a triple-double.

As remarkable as the feat is, it should be remembered not as the end goal, but rather the end result of a player carrying his team.

By eclipsing six assists in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 120-99 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday, Westbrook locked in a triple-double average for the season, joining Oscar Robertson as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish the ultra rare holy trinity.

Westbrook, who finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, fell just shy of overtaking Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles in a season with what would have been his 42nd, but has three games remaining to own that mark.

By securing a triple-double average though, the 28-year-old force of nature has immortalised his season, which will be remembered with great admiration and respect, as Robertson’s famous 1961-62 campaign is.

What’s insane in what has been a season of crazy is that Westbrook may not even win the Most Valuable Player award, potentially losing out to other worthy candidates in James Harden, Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James.

Regardless of your view on who should earn the honour, it’s impossible to deny how much of the burden Westbrook has shouldered, especially in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure.

The fact that he’s registered triple-doubles with regularity has been the result of that burden.

There is no ‘chicken or the egg’ question here. Oklahoma City often win when Westbrook reaches double digits across the three categories. Westbrook doesn’t get triple-doubles because the Thunder win.

It’s not a coincidence that he averages 31.7 points, 11.8 assists and 11.4 rebounds in wins this season, compared to 31.6 points, 8.6 assists and 9.7 rebounds in losses.

Westbrook gets killed for ‘stat padding’ and while there are instances when he’s chasing numbers, those moments are heavily outweighed by the moments he’s doing everything in his power to help Oklahoma City win by any means necessary.

“My main goal since I got here, especially this season, is to win a championship,” Westbrook said after the loss to Phoenix. “If I wanted to get 10 assists, I could get 10 assists. Everybody wants to see the record broke, but it’s bigger than that for our team and for me.”

Yes, triple-doubles hold too much importance. They’re a measure of arbitrary, round numbers at the end of the day. But Westbrook has given meaning to those numbers and for that, his historic campaign should be appreciated.

All about your Mindset... #whynot

A post shared by Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) on

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