NBA season preview: Golden State Warriors

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Last Season: The Warriors hope that last season was one where the decisions the franchise made put the team in position to compete for years to come — starting now. First year head coach Mark Jackson didn’t have much to work with, and Stephen Curry’s ankle problems that allowed him to play only 26 games didn’t help matters. By making the big trade that sent Monta Ellis out of town in exchange for Andrew Bogut, along with some smaller moves and some decent draft picks, Golden State is poised to show some major improvement if things go as planned.

Key Departures: Monta Ellis was the big one, traded to Milwaukee for injured big man Andrew Bogut. Dorell Wright is also gone, which only is important to mention because he started 61 games for the Warriors last season. Wright’s productivity was down from the previous year, however, and after the team selected Harrison Barnes in the draft, the club  realized his services would no longer be needed.

Key Additions: Bogut will be the biggest difference-maker for the Warriors, especially defensively. Rookie Festus Ezeli should also provide help on the defensive front, and Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact on both ends of the floor. Jarrett Jack will provide some veteran stability at point guard off the bench, after putting up career numbers last season on a dreadful Hornets team in New Orleans. The Warriors also added Carl Landry, who should be another more than serviceable option off the bench.

Three keys to the Warriors season:

1) One word: Health. It’s the first thing that comes out of every Warriors fan’s mouth when they talk about their team’s outlook for the upcoming season: “Hey, if we can stay healthy …” But can they? Andrew Bogut doesn’t exactly have a reputation as an iron man, and neither does the team’s young starting point guard, Stephen Curry. Bogut was targeting training camp for his return but he isn’t back yet, and while Curry has looked great early in the preseason, the team is still waiting as long as possible before finalizing a contract extension for him by the Oct. 31 deadline.

2) Defensive improvement in a major way: Mark Jackson wants to coach a team that plays some defense. Whether or not he can get a defensive system in place that his entire team will buy into is another story. Bogut in the middle is a good start, but there’s virtually no one behind him on the bench that can provide what he can while he sits. Maybe that’s Ezeli’s role to fill, and maybe the team can get 10-12 solid minutes a game from him there.

The Warriors are going to put up plenty of points with Curry and Klay Thompson lighting it up from the outside, but whether or not they can commit to defense and improve significantly from the 106 points per 100 possessions they gave up a season ago (only three teams were worse) will go a long way in determining just how much the team will improve in the standings.

3) How good of a coach is Mark Jackson? We have no idea, honestly. A lockout-shortened season and one where the team suffered injury to one of its best players, then made a franchise-altering trade is no way to treat your first-year head coach, not to mention one with absolutely zero prior head coaching experience at any level. If the team stays healthy, we’ll find out fairly quickly if Jackson’s systems and leadership style are indeed elite, and if he can put his stamp on this Warriors team by leading them to or very near the postseason, he’ll have proven that he belongs.

What Warriors fans should fear: See 1), above. The health concerns are so real with this team that it’s worth hitting home a second time.

Prediction: This Warriors team is going to be very tough to deal with offensively, and a third place finish in the division behind the Lakers and Clippers seems like good place to start. The starting five is legit, with David Lee and Richard Jefferson in the mix alongside Curry, Bogut, and Thompson. There’s a ton of depth in the Western Conference, but if everything comes together the way the team is hoping, a run at one of the conference’s final playoff spots is certainly within reach.

What’s Kyrie Irving’s problem with LeBron James?

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Kyrie Irving reportedly requested a trade from the Cavaliers because he no longer wants to play with LeBron James.

But what does that actually mean?

Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Much of Irving’s disenchantment with James was rooted in game play, sources said. James, as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, controlled the ball more than any other forward perhaps in league history.

But there were ancillary issues that bothered Irving, too, such as how James’ good friend Randy Mims had a position on the Cavs’ staff and traveled on the team plane while none of Irving’s close friends were afforded the same opportunity.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In registering his preference for a trade, league sources said, Irving divulged to Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that he’s become increasingly uneasy about a future that includes a roster constructed to complement LeBron James — a roster that could be devoid of James come free agency in 2018.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Irving wants to take his show away from James so he can grow his career (his on-court acclaim and notoriety, his brand, his voice) outside of James’ shadow.

Numerous people who’ve talked to Irving over the past month have said to cleveland.com that he told them he wanted to leave to grow his career, and it was the message Irving sent to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert when he asked to be traded last week.

These can all simultaneously be true. There needn’t be one singular reason Irving wants a trade.

It can also be true that former general manager David Griffin might have soothed Irving’s discontent. It can also be true that the Warriors’ dominance influenced Irving, as he might have been more willing to remain in a secondary role if it were more likely to result in a championship.

But so much of this comes back to LeBron, a massive presence around whom everything in Cleveland revolves.

Being the top player on a team means so many things – dictating on-court action, having the supporting cast built around you, influencing team staff, building a larger sponsorship presence. Irving can’t get any of that while playing with LeBron.

Irving led the Cavs in shots and usage percentage last season, but that happened only because LeBron allowed it. LeBron obviously retook control in the playoffs. There’s no question whose team this is.

There is also no indication Irving is fighting that. He’s not trying to usurp LeBron’s power, and Irving has molded his game the last few years to fit with LeBron.

But now Irving his exercising his own power so he can get even more the only place possible – somewhere away from LeBron.

Did Cavaliers dropping David Griffin lead to Kyrie Irving’s trade request?

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Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he had the NBA’s hardest coaching job. Following that thinking, former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin might have had the most difficult front-office job.

Not only did he face the same championship-or-bust pressure and oversee the same players (and their egos) as Lue, Griffin also reported directly to Dan Gilbert, the Cavs’ sometimes-difficult owner. The Gilbert aspect is often discussed, as is working with great/brilliant/passive-aggressive LeBron James. But it has probably been undersold how high-maintenance Kyrie Irving – who requested a trade – also was for Griffin before the general manager was ousted last month.

Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Over the previous few months, the Cavs had been worried about Irving’s mindset. They knew at times he’d grown unhappy with playing a secondary role on the team. Griffin had several conversations with Irving throughout the year, sources said, trying to find ways to work on the situation.

After the season, there was a desire to arrange a meeting to clear the air from all sides, sources said, but it didn’t take place. Unlike most teams, the Cavs did not have postseason exit meetings with their players.

What followed was a whirlwind, with the Cavs putting forth a series of trade packages looking to acquire either Butler or George. Some of these talks included Irving, which upset him even more when he found out about it, sources said. Previously, Griffin had worked to keep lines of communication with Irving open, but now Irving was in the dark.

Irving’s trade request had been building for years. The reported timing is vague, but Irving might have even requested a trade while Griffin was still in charge.

Either way, there’s no guarantee the Cavs keeping Griffin would have placated Irving. But it seems an experienced voice running the front office could have only helped.

Now, the task of trading Irving or mending fences falls to new general manager Koby Altman – who must solve this issue in a spotlight he never wanted.

If only Cleveland had Phil Jackson to insist on exit meetings. Maybe this would have been smoothed over a month ago.

LaVar Ball gets technical foul, pulls his AAU team off the court, forfeits game it was winning (video)

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Magic Johnson said he’s convinced LaVar Ball’s outlandishness is just marketing and that the father of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball is truly committed to developing younger players.

This didn’t look like someone who put youth player development over his own image.

With LaVar Ball’s AAU team leading by nine, he got a technical foul then pulled his team off the court:

He (kind of) explained why after the game (warning: profanity):

He also touched on his reasons in a video that, of course, quickly turns to promoting his brand:

This doesn’t mean Johnson is completely wrong, but the Lakers president seemingly misdiagnosed Ball’s priorities. What if Johnson is also wrong about Ball staying clear of the Lakers? That could create problems – if it hasn’t already.

I was never convinced, as NBA commissioner Adam Silver predicted, LaVar would settle down after Lonzo was drafted. I still believe Lonzo’s talent justifies managing LaVar, but that appears increasingly likely to be a burden the Lakers must actually handle rather than just brush off.

James Dolan’s MSG threatens to sue Steve Ballmer’s Los Angeles Clippers

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This story requires a little background.

The Forum in Inglewood was best known for decades as being both fabulous and the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, back from the Jerry West era and through Magic’s “Showtime” teams. Then in 2001 the Lakers moved downtown to Staples Center, and after that the Forum went through some rough times. It was a number of things, including a mega church for a while, but mostly it was empty. Then several years ago the Madison Square Garden company (owned by Knicks owner James Dolan) bought the Forum, fixed it up, and started booking it again. Now the Forum is one of the hot major concert/event spaces in Los Angeles again, and it’s about to get a boost because it’s adjacent to where Stan Kroenke is building the new Los Angeles Rams stadium. Hello gentrification!

Now enter Steve Ballmer. The Clippers’ owner wants out of Staples Center and the Lakers’ shadow, so he has proposed to build his new arena in Inglewood in another space adjacent to the Rams stadium — land that MSG used to lease. As you might imagine, Dolan’s MSG is not thrilled — they are already battling with Staples to fill their space, now a state-of-the-art arena is moving in down the street.

In a proxy Knicks/Clippers battle, MSG may sue to Clippers and Inglewood in an attempt to block the new building. Here is what Dolan’s attorney in the case, Marvin Putnam, told the Daily Breeze in Los Angeles.

“The mayor made it extremely clear that he needed that piece of land back for a kind of ‘Silicon Beach,’ ” said Marvin Putnam, a partner with the law firm Latham & Watkins, which filed the damage claim that serves as a precursor to a lawsuit. “They’re attempting to flat-out trick people.”

(Inglewood Mayor James) Butts declined to comment, and there is no proof that he made those statements. But when Madison Square Garden Co. relinquished the parking lease to the city, its approved contract states that the land would not be used for anything that would hurt the Forum’s business, according to documents.

Right now the Clippers and Inglewood are in an exclusive negotiating agreement to come to terms on the sale and plans for the property. Putnam told the paper — and the Inglewood City Council — that if the deal goes forward they will sue to block it.

It’s impossible to say how this will turn out, although as a former government reporter I will say these cases tend to be decided in favor of the side about to spend a ton of money on a new building.