The Inbounds: The Warriors become tank-proof

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The Warriors won’t be able to tank next year if they try. Well, OK, if they try they will. But it’s going to be a lot harder, because all of a sudden, their ten-man rotation isn’t just decent, it’s downright pretty good.

Watching the Warriors’ moves over the past year has been an exercise in intelligent reformation, if not championship recalibration. But at a very basic level, they’ve managed to establish control over what plagued them last year, the disaster when injury was not available, and a lack of acceptable defensive presence. It’s one thing to have the injury issues the Warriors had last year, those are hard to plan for. But it’s another to have those injury issues and have no depth to cover when those players go down. After the Warrior’s moves, though, they have moved into a strong position even in the constantly-strong Western Conference.

Again, they’re a long way from title contention, but they have bolstered the roster enough to make a huge step forward.

The new second line after Monday’s signings includes Jarrett Jack, Richard Jefferson, Carl Landry, Brandon Rush,  Andris Biedrins, Charles Jenkins and rookies Festus Ezili and Draymond Green. There’s nothing prolific about that lineup, but Jack, Jefferson, and Landry are capable starters playing in bench roles, and Rush and Biedrins can play well in limited minutes. Their second line is considerably better than the tank-fest they put together at the end of last year. If Ezili makes any noticeable splash whatsoever, everything is there for a playoff run.

So is that a good thing?

The Warriors are kind of an oddity, a team that hasn’t been very good in a very long while in a big market with an adoring fanbase. They’re not on Boston, New York, or L.A.’s level, but they’re located in a large California metropolitan area. Oakland or San Francisco, their location is a better attraction to players than almost any of the Midwest cities, save for Chicago. So the secret here is that while fans can express consternation at a roster that is at the cap, but under the luxury tax, that’s playoff worthy but not playoff-series-win worthy team, the Warriors have the luxury of paying for this team now, and still being able to make moves down the line.

The Warriors haven’t gone Pistons ’09 on us, throwing long-term, huge contracts for players that won’t deliver a title. Even the acquisition of Andrew Bogut and his freak injury concerns (seriously, if Greg Oden has his injuries described as freak injuries, Bogut’s are from some other planet) could be considered an overall liability, which they’re not, considering if healthy Bogut is likely the third best center in the league, his contract only runs two more years. The only toxic asset the Warriors have is David Lee’s deal which has $57 million left over four year. One problem with that, David Lee’s actually good. He’s a power forward who can actually produce and while he’s overpaid, especially given the new financial reality of the CBA (man was amnestying Charlie Bell a mistake on so many levels), he’s still a productive member of basketball society.

Stephen Curry’s a free agent after this season, and so he’ll need the big long-term extension. But it’s clear the Warriors are hedging their bets with Curry to see if he’ll ever get healthy. Having one big deal on a four-year extension isn’t terrible, and while that combined with Lee’s could be bad for their future mobilization, the Warriors’ ownership group and market situation allow for them to get around those issues if they play their hand right. And there are promising signs. Don’t pay the luxury tax if you’re not going to contend. If you can get the big fish, like Dwight Howard, stay in the talks. Eventually, one will come your way and when it does, you’ll have the pieces to immediately move forward. There’s a lot to like about the approach.

But for now, the Warriors just have a good team. Not a fast team, or a quirky team, or even a necessarily interesting team. Truth be told, outside of the Klay Thompson-Harrison Barnes combo, there’s not a lot to get juiced up about this team, because every legitimate possibility of compelling play is tempered by injury concerns. Those players making a leap would change things, Curry and/or Bogut staying healthy would change things. But in the end, they’re just a good team with no chance of being great and almost no chance of being terrible. The Warriors may not be as lovable next year, but they also in all likelihood won’t be losers. There’s something to be said for fielding a professional team, and not every team is in a “tank for No.1” or “overspend to contend” mode. The Warriors have the luxury of short-term success with a longer-term goal. And if this current construct is a disaster?

Well, they’ll cross that bridge when they get to it. But tanking out with this team would be exceptionally difficult.

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.