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.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.