Three Things We Learned Thursday: Ice-cold Warriors struggle to find old identity without Durant

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There was a time not long ago when watching the Warriors play was like watching a golden eagle hunt a fox, but not the last couple of games. So if you were watching videos of Eagles hunting on YouTube rather than the NBA’s offerings, here are the key takeaways.

1) Warriors struggle to adapt to life without Kevin Durant, can’t just flip the switch to old self/style, fall to Bulls. Andre Iguodala said it postgame: “He made the game easy for us, and you can get comfortable because of his skill set and his talent.” All season long, getting to a 50-9 record, the Warriors had a “get out of jail free” card when they were cold or sloppy because Kevin Durant could create his own shot, space the floor with his shooting, and provide them interior defense. KD was playing in a way that would have gotten him on a lot of MVP ballots (not at the top, but in the bottom three of the five voting slots), he was the Warriors best player, and he made the game easy.

With Durant out until around the start of the playoffs with a knee injury, the idea was that the Warriors would just slip back into the mode and style that won them a title two years ago, then 73 games last season. But as losses to the Bulls and Wizards the last couple nights showed, it’s not that simple. The Warriors are not near that spot right now. There are a number of factors at play.

• The Warriors spacing is off without Durant, and the cuts and screens off ball that generated so much of the Warriors offense with KD is not as effective without him on the court and touching the ball. The last two seasons the Bulls relied much more heavily on Stephen Curry running the pick-and-roll on offense, he’s very good at it, and Steve Kerr needs to get back to a heavier dose of that offense.

• More Curry pick-and-rolls, and a larger role for Klay Thompson, only works if the Splash Brothers are splashing shots. They are not, both are ice cold.

• The Warriors played Durant with the second unit a lot, and that group really missed having him on the floor. The Warriors also coasted on defense at points, they can’t do that anymore without KD’s length out there to cover some of their mistakes.

• If there has been an exploitable flaw in the Warriors this season, it’s that if you get them into close games, they are not nearly the same team that just destroyed opponents in that situation last season. Even with Durant, the Warriors struggled in the clutch compared to previous seasons — it was just hard to get them in that situation. (For purposes of “clutch” we are talking about a game within five points in the final five minutes or overtime.)

• All of that does not give the Bulls, and particularly Jimmy Butler, enough credit. Butler was the best player on the court, finishing with 22 points, six assists, and doing a fantastic job defensively anticipating passes and being disruptive of the Warriors offense. Bobby Portis had maybe his best game in the NBA with 17 and 13, but all the Bulls were just making plays.

2) Interesting NBA subplot: Could Kevin Durant injury earn Paul George $210 million? The Indiana Pacers didn’t trade Paul George at the deadline mostly because they didn’t want to — they want to find a way to keep him, to build a contender around him. (A lot of talk radio guys ask “why didn’t the Celtics pull the trigger?” on a George trade and miss the point, it takes two to dance, and the Celtics were not the unwilling partner.) There are a couple of ways to do that, but the most likely is for George to make an All-NBA team this season, allowing the Pacers to offer him a “designated player” max contract that will be about five-years, $210 million. George may have frustrations with Pacers management, but he’s not leaving an extra $30 million on the table.

The problem is, George may well not make the All-NBA team. There are six forward slots (two each on three All-NBA teams) and a few days ago there seemed to be five locks: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That would leave George, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, LaMarcus Aldridge, and any other forward you want to name battling for one spot. The consensus was George would be on the outside looking in.

However, does the Durant injury change the equation? He’s played in just 59 games this season, and while he played fantastically (see item No. 1) could him missing the end of the season lead to him missing the All-NBA team? And if so, does that open up a slot that would go to George?

I think Durant still makes the All-NBA team, although the injury could mean landing on the second or third team rather than the first. Also, I would rank both Butler and Hayward ahead of George this season if you’re going to take two of those three. Meaning this little thought exercise is likely moot. But know that media voters are aware of the impact of this vote on potential players and their earnings, and this scenario has been noticed (Zach Lowe even tweeted about it).

3) Russell Westbrook puts up 45, but Portland gets a key win at home in its chase for a playoff spot. As Denver’s Jamal Murray told NBC over the All-Star break, Denver is making a priority of winning games and getting the eighth seed. They believe the experience of the postseason for their young players — even if it is getting quickly waxed by the Warriors — is more valuable than moving up a couple of slots on the draft board. Denver is going to win its share of games down the stretch.

Which is why Thursday night’s win over Oklahoma City is vital for Portland — they need more wins if they are going to overtake Denver and get into the dance. The Blazers were down eight in the fourth but went on a 16-0 run behind the play of Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard, then held off a late push from the Thunder to get the win, 114-109. The win got Portland within 2.5 games of Denver, two back in the loss column.

Russell Westbrook did Russell Westbrook things dropping 45 points, but Lillard countered with 33 in what was a duel of two of the best scoring point guards in the game.

Report: Spurs re-signing Pau Gasol to three-year contract

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Even after Pau Gasol opted out, there it nearly certain he’d stay with the Spurs.

Now, a deal is done.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m a little surprised San Antonio guaranteed Gasol’s salary next season. By rule, it must be within 5% of what he’ll earn this year.

The Spurs could have major flexibility to chase free agents next summer, making keeping the books clean a priority. Their only constraints with Gasol this year are paying him up to 120% of his prior salary (which comes out to $18.6 million), the hard cap ($125,266,000) and whatever expense ownership would endure. So, if Gasol were willing to play ball, San Antonio could have paid him a sizable salary this year and far less – the room exception or even the minimum – next year.

Instead, Gasol’s compensation will be more balanced between the seasons. We’ll see how much he’ll earn.

Gasol remains an effective scorer, in part because he increased his range beyond the 3-point arc. He rebounds well in his area, and his length and basketball intelligence make him a passable defender given his other skills. His immobility can be a major defensive liability in certain matchups, though.

He’s also 37, an age where players can drop off quickly – another reason a one-year deal would’ve been preferable. At least the partial guarantee in the third year will help San Antonio.

Report: Kyrie Irving asked Cavaliers to trade him, blindsiding LeBron James

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Kyrie Irving said the Cavaliers were in a “peculiar place.”

We didn’t realize quite how peculiar.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Kyrie Irving is ready to end his run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, as league sources told ESPN that the guard has asked the team to trade him.

The request came last week and was made to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Irving has expressed that he wants to go play in a situation where he can be a more focal point and no longer wants to play alongside LeBron James, sources said.

James was informed of Irving’s request and was blindsided and disappointed, sources said.

Irving has admitted playing with LeBron has sometimes been rocky. It paid off with a championship in 2016, and I’m sure Irving found the tradeoff worthwhile then.

But the Warriors are so dominant with Kevin Durant. Even a team with LeBron, Irving and Kevin Love is a major underdog. If Irving would prefer to lead a team, it’s much easier to reject a supporting role when it’s so unlikely to culminate in a championship. (It’s also easier with a title already under his belt.)

This shouldn’t quiet the alarms of LeBron leaving next summer. Just because Irving doesn’t want to play with him doesn’t mean LeBron wants to play without Irving. This could push LeBron further out the door.

I also wouldn’t read too much into this signaling LeBron’s intent to stay in Cleveland. Though it’s possible Irving has a read on LeBron’s plan, a trade is the only sure-fire way to escape LeBron – and do it without playing another year with him.

I wouldn’t  tell Irving what would make him happiest. Cleveland is not a premier market, and playing in LeBron’s shadow isn’t always ideal for another star.

But I’m leery of Irving’s ability to lead a successful team. The Cavs stunk before LeBron returned and have stunk when he sits and Irving plays. Irving’s shortcomings – defense, distributing – become more pronounced as his team’s best player.

Maybe Irving is up for the challenge. He clearly wants it.

Then again, Cleveland doesn’t have to grant him the ability to try. He’s locked up for two more years. He can request, but not force, a trade.

This is a difficult time for the Cavaliers, who need visionary leadership. Their general manager has his hands full.

Oh, right.

NBA: Cleveland won’t get 2020 or 2021 All-Star game unless arena renovation begins by Sept. 15

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Cavaliers CEO Len Komoroski said Cleveland had been promised an NBA All-Star game if it upgraded its basketball arena.

The city committed taxpayer money to arena upgrades.

So, the Cavaliers are hosting an All-Star game?

Not so fast.

A group has opposed the city spending taxpayer money on arena so the billionaire who profits off the arena doesn’t have to pay for upgrades himself. That money could better serve a wider section of Clevelanders, and the group has tied up the plan in court.

Now, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum wrote in a letter that Cleveland might not get an All-Star game.

Kevin Cleps of Crain’s Cleveland Business:

The letter was included in a 276-page summary that was filed with the Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday, July 20.

In the letter to Gilbert, Tatum confirms that the NBA has received the sports commission’s bid packet to host the All-Star Game in Cleveland, and says the league will be awarding the 2020 and ’21 events in the near future.

But, he adds, the league “will not be able to consider Cleveland as the host city for NBA All-Star 2020 or 2021 unless construction of The Q’s ‘Transformation’ project begins on or before September 15, 2017.”

Tatum says that the NBA has “already delayed the awarding” of those showcase events to “accommodate Cleveland, and unfortunately we cannot ask the other NBA cities that have held these dates open to wait any longer.”

The NBA is dangling a carrot in front of Cleveland, urging the local government to spend taxpayer money on the billion-dollar business’ arena. It might work. It often does. But Cleveland will be fine without an All-Star game, the economic effects of which are often exaggerated.

As Sept. 15 nears, it appears increasingly likely other cities will get the next couple All-Star games to be assigned. Still, there’s a chance the Cavaliers prevail in court in time.

J.J. Redick: Clippers lost joy

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J.J. Redick and the Clippers seemed done with each other before free agency even began.

Redick – who signed a one-year, $23 million contract with the 76ers – gave Uninterrupted a behind-the-scenes look into his free agency. In the above video, he revealed plenty about his situation in L.A.:

It’s s—y to say this, but I think I’ve had a loss of joy. I look at our team and how we play, and it’s just there’s no joy in it. That bothers me.

On June 29th at about 10 p.m., I got a call from Lawrence Frank from the Clippers. I jokingly call it my breakup call. He just told me they weren’t going to offer me a contract. I wasn’t going to be back.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Blame Chris Paul for not relenting enough in his grating perfectionism and being petty. Blame Blake Griffin for being aloof about weight of his actions. Blame Paul and Griffin for waiting too long to get serious about bonding. Blame Doc Rivers for bringing in Austin Rivers and inviting accusations of nepotism. Blame Doc Rivers for too long setting a tone of whining.

Blame a tough Western Conference and injury for keeping a team with championship aspirations from never advancing past the second round. Blame familiarity, which bred contempt over several years with the same core.

Whomever or whatever you blame, the outcome seems tough to dispute: The Clippers looked joyless by the end of their run. Redick saying it only confirms the perception.

I’m curious whether he’ll find more joy in Philadelphia. A new situation will be refreshing, and the 76ers – young and talented – are hungry. Expectations are low after years of tanking, so even modest gains will be celebrated. But they’re also worse than the Clippers were, and losing more often will be an adjustment.

To get a better idea where Redick is coming from as he begins in Philadelphia, I recommend watching the video in full. It’s quite illuminating.