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Sunday Basketball Notes

Cavaliers get wake-up call with GM’s firing

Cavaliers No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett has been underwhelming in his first season in the league.

AP/File

Cavaliers No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett has been underwhelming in his first season in the league.

With the good luck he has brought the Cleveland Cavaliers at the NBA draft lottery, maybe team owner Dan Gilbert should appoint his son as the team’s next general manager because everything following the lottery has been an abject failure.

The Cavaliers were given a plethora of draft resources, including two No. 1 overall picks with Nick Gilbert present, to rebuild following the departure of LeBron James. But so far the results have been abysmal.

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Cleveland was tabbed as a cinch playoff team this season, expected to attract James to perhaps return as a free agent. The Cavaliers were the vogue pick to rise in the Eastern Conference, led by their charismatic star point guard, Kyrie Irving, and a talented and youthful supporting cast.

Yet the product has been painfully disappointing. Irving has taken a step back, apparently caught up with stardom and his next destination, according to those close to the team. Fellow lottery picks Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters have been average at best, while last spring’s No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett, has registered a Ryan Leaf-bust type of first season.

So general manager Chris Grant, who astutely saved enough salary cap space to sign a maximum contract free agent this summer but couldn’t compile a capable roster, was fired Thursday by Gilbert, replaced by vice president of basketball operations David Griffin.

“Nobody’s happy with our performance,” Gilbert said. “Especially versus the expectations that everybody had for the kind of season and progress we all thought we could be making. Accountability starts with me. We’re going to turn over every possible stone. We’re going to be aggressive. We have been aggressive. We’re willing to take risks. We’re willing to take chances.

“Pro sports is unlike any other business. We’re involved in over 100 businesses. This is the only business that you can’t walk in and maybe have 100 options that you can do things overnight and change. That’s no complaint whatsoever. You wish there were more options, more moves, more things you could do, especially when you have such disappointment going on.”

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Gilbert is not the same man who promised the Cavaliers would win a championship before James did in Miami. He’s trailing, 2-0, in that competition. He has been humbled by the failure, especially since the Cavaliers have yet to even approach moderate success.

On Wednesday night, they lost at home to the Los Angeles Lakers, who finished the game with four players (Robert Sacre remained in the game after fouling out, thanks to an obscure rule). The Lakers lost four players to injury and fouls during that game but still led by as many as 28.

The Cavaliers’ roster has appeared apathetic this season and the rehiring of Mike Brown as coach has done little to motivate the younger players.

The players are constantly being asked why they cannot sustain a consistent effort, and the answer appears to be because selfishness has filtered into the locker room.

Waiters is a pure scorer who feels Irving should share the ball and the accolades more evenly. They are not a compatible backcourt because both are shooters and neither are defenders.

Thompson is a solid player after leaving following his freshman season at the University of Texas but he is hardly an emerging star, more a workmanlike forward with limited skills.

His career averages of 10.7 points and 8.5 rebounds appear respectable until you consider he was drafted in 2011 before Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Vucevic, and Kenneth Faried.

Irving will be starting in the All-Star Game for the first time next Sunday, but the consensus is that his third season has lacked the sizzle and expected growth from his first two years. His leadership is waning.

The Cavaliers also have yet to bring in an impact free agent. Earl Clark was supposed to blossom with his first opportunity to start in the NBA, but he’s reverted to his pre-Laker days. C.J. Miles, Jarrett Jack, and Tyler Zeller are just there.

“This is the most challenging time in almost nine years since we’ve owned the franchise,” Gilbert said. “We are not happy. We all knew in the three years prior to this it was a rebuilding situation and that we were making progress and we were picking up draft picks and we had a lot of injuries.

“This year, we’ve hardly had any injuries. When you look at all the pieces and factors put together with the expectations, we’re feeling what the fans are feeling. I’ll tell you that.”

Gilbert wouldn’t say whether Brown’s job is safe, but he did say that the team could move positively in the final two months of the season.

The chances of attracting James are probably slim and slimmer. The roster didn’t change last week, only the GM did.

Gilbert was given the opportunity to rebuild after LeBron’s abrupt exit and things appeared to be going smoothly when Irving turned into a potential superstar, but nothing else since has worked out as planned.

Brown is going to have to spend the rest of the season building chemistry and rebuilding confidence or the Cavaliers will turn into the Bobcats of the North.

GOOD THINKING

Barkley believes Ainge making right decisions

While the Celtics will send no player to the All-Star Game for the first time in seven years, TNT analyst Charles Barkley lauded former teammate Danny Ainge on his job rebuilding the team after moving Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets in June.

“Danny Ainge is doing a fantastic job,” Barkley said. “I think the Celtics, they’ve got some good players. They’ve got a bunch of draft picks, so I’m not worried about the Celtics this year. I’m not worried about [Rajon] Rondo. Kudos to Danny Ainge for doing a fantastic job as a GM, getting rid of those old guys with huge contracts. He’s got a good, young nucleus. If they decide to stick with Rondo or somebody will take him, but he’s still a young guy. But kudos to Danny Ainge.”

Rondo is beginning to look like himself two weeks after coming back from a year off because of anterior cruciate ligament surgery. Ex-teammate Shaquille O’Neal is impressed with his recovery.

“Rajon Rondo was always a guy that played in high energy,” O’Neal said. “He doesn’t know how to be hurt. He had a lot of tough injuries, a lot of knickknack injuries that he fought back from. This one, he really couldn’t fight back from. I read the article where it said it’s humbled him but he’s coming back really, really well.”

Regarding the departed Garnett, Barkley and O’Neal believe the potential Hall of Famer is nearing the end.

“Love KG, he plays with a lot of energy and I had this conversation with Kevin when we were in Boston,” O’Neal said. “When you’re a pick-and-pop guy and not banging as much, that allows you to demand the ball a little more. He’s doing stuff well. He’s on the downside of his career, we all know that. He’s doing OK, but OK is not good enough to beat Indiana or Miami.”

Said Barkley: “Father Time, bro. Father Time. It gets all of us. I’m never going to say anything bad about Kevin Garnett, but Father Time, bro.”

Barkley has no faith the Nets could challenge the Heat or Pacers despite their recent string of wins. “When you play in the Eastern Conference, you’re going to go on winning streaks,” he said. “Listen, the Nets stink, man. They lost their best player in Brook Lopez, Deron Williams has been inconsistent. They’re beating up on a bunch of [bad teams] in the Eastern Conference. Don’t act like they’ve got a good team, stop it. I’ve said this and I’m going to stick with this. The third-best team [in the East] at the end of the year is going to be the Washington Wizards. I don’t see Brooklyn beating Washington. I don’t see them beating Toronto, to be honest.”

ETC.

Carter-Williams’s play has 76ers thinking big

Sixers coach Brett Brown is in a similar position to the Celtics’ Brad Stevens in trying to help rebuild an organization that is banking on the draft and potential young cornerstones to return to respectability quickly. Philadelphia has young talent in Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten, and issues with the futures of Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and Thaddeus Young.

The question for the latter trio is whether the 76ers can get equal assets for their services, and whether Turner, Hawes, or Young are starters on quality NBA teams. All three former lottery picks have shown flashes of their potential but they haven’t made the 76ers a winner.

Carter-Williams is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors, with the potential to be a star because of his skills and length at point guard.

“Coaches get greedy. We all want more, I’m no different,” Brown said when asked about Carter-Williams. “I want more from a competitive standpoint, from staying off referees to being more physical, navigating through pick-and-rolls. It’s a point guard’s league and he holds that flag for us, and with that position he has a big responsibility. I feel that I am demanding of him and I think he exceeded what I expected when I first started coaching him, and I think some of his performances again speak for themselves.

“Michael is learning it’s a man’s league. It’s a big league with a bunch of athletes who are shot-blockers.”

Carter-Williams is leading all rookies in scoring, assists, rebounds, and steals. While he has battled injuries, his development has been stunning.

“He’s 6-foot-6, 180-something pounds, a shot like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook when he first came into the league that has tremendous growth,” Brown said. “He asks highly intelligent questions about other point guards or game situations. There’s a quiet competitiveness that is misjudged the most because I used to give him a kick all the time like, ‘We need you to get going, we need you to get tougher, we need you to lead us.’ And he slowly started doing that. I think he’s slowly starting to understand it. In my opinion, that’s the end game, big picture on him on how far he can go. Can he embrace the physicality and toughness of the NBA? And I say, yes he can. And so I think his upside is just extremely high.”

Carter-Williams is trying to become a team leader and also digest the complexity of the NBA game simultaneously.

“This year is a big learning experience for me,” he said. “Learning what I need to do in the offseason, keep plugging away, keep trying to get wins.”

Meanwhile, Turner is dealing with the pressure of being the second overall pick three years ago and falling short of expectations. Turner was selected just behind John Wall after a stellar junior season at Ohio State. Although his career numbers have been solid (11.5 points, 5.5 rebounds), they have been overshadowed by those who followed him in the draft, such as PaulGeorge and DeMarcus Cousins.

Turner is a restricted free agent this summer and the 76ers are attempting to net a first-round pick in a potential trade, realizing they are unlikely to re-sign him. Turner feels as if he has been unfairly criticized considering he is tied with Gordon Hayward as the fifth-highest scorer of his draft class, while no first-round pick from the 2010 class has won a title.

“It definitely has its ups and downs,” Turner said of this season. “We have great young guys and it’s made it a little bit easier because they work so hard and try so hard, but they’re going to go through their rookie mistakes. You just have to keep working and keep having faith.”

Turner is brutally honest about his situation. With a new general manager, he understood that a long-term commitment in Philadelphia would be unlikely.

“I never expected to get a contract extension,” said Turner about the 76ers declining to re-sign him this past offseason. “Especially when we switched GMs [from Rod Thorn to SamHinkie]. I always said Mr. Hinkie is going to do what he wants to do and he has his own vision. So when you trade an All-Star like Jrue [Holiday], nothing of what occurred next was going to surprise me, so I was just trying my best to keep focus, keep helping the team win, and keep getting better.”

Asked if he’s faced undue expectations, Turner said, “Absolutely. But at the same that’s what the No. 2 tag comes with. Sometimes there’s people that write stuff or say stuff that don’t even watch the game. I’ve enjoyed my first few years, first year made it to the playoffs, and was able to play and play some big minutes. Second year, the same thing occurred, they screamed I’m not a scorer. Those two years, the most anybody [on the team] scored was 14 points [Elton Brand averaged 15] and I averaged 10. It’s like people write what they want to write and see what they want to see, and fortunately I’ve gotten over that.

“I’m having a career year [in 2013-14] and people are still complaining. I don’t pay attention to it anymore. I know I can play basketball. Some people have never played basketball in their life and now they’re telling me how to play.

“When it came down to it, I got blamed for dang near everything. I wasn’t this, I wasn’t that. You become insecure about it after a while but once you start maturing, you’re just, whatever. I don’t worry about it anymore.”

Layups

In an example of how difficult and cold the NBA can sometimes be, the Lakers told former Michigan standout Manny Harris they were not going to sign him for the rest of the season following his second 10-day contract. He then went out and scored 19 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves . . . The Phoenix Suns have changed the course of their season and are fully invested in competing for the playoffs. An interesting trade chip they possess is the expiring contract of Emeka Okafor, who has been sidelined all season with a herniated disk in his neck and may not return this season. Teams looking for salary cap space and perhaps one of Phoenix’s lot of first-round picks would be interested. The Suns are in desperate need of a frontcourt veteran to join perimeter-oriented Channing Frye and rookie Alex Len . . . The Pistons signed Chauncey Billups to be a veteran presence in the backcourt but knee injuries have limited him to 19 games and until Friday night he hadn’t played since Jan. 10 against the Suns. He signed a modest two-year, $5 million contract with a team option for next season. Perhaps Billups has something left to offer a contending team and could be moved before the trade deadline. The Pistons have playoff aspirations but it’s obvious Billups is not part of Detroit’s plans with Rodney Stuckey and WillBynum ahead of him in the rotation . . . Mark Tatum became the highest-ranking African-American in the NBA with his appointment as deputy commissioner, the league’s No. 2 guy behind Adam Silver. Tatum, who has worked in the league office for 15 years, has local ties as a graduate of the Harvard Business School.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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