Getty Images

Five teams with the best shot of knocking off Golden State

7 Comments

Jeff Van Gundy thinks the Warriors are going to run away with this NBA season.

NBA GMs think the Warriors are going to run away with this NBA season.

One of the things we love about sports is — like life — it rarely follows the script. This NBA season may not either. Maybe the Warriors get challenged — during the regular season, during the Finals, but there will be obstacles in their way. Maybe the Warriors fall. I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s possible.

If the Warriors are knocked off, who does the deed? Here are the five teams with the best shot of dethroning the champs.

1) The Cleveland Cavaliers. They top the list for two reasons. First, they are the best team in the East, they are likely to reach the Finals, and that gives them the best shot at the Warriors (who could be beat up and worn down after at least two tough series just to get out of the West). The other reason is LeBron James. He remains the best player on the planet (I will listen to your Kevin Durant arguments but still choose LeBron). He raises his game, and the games of everyone around him, in the playoffs. However, for the Cavaliers to have a real shot at the Warriors a lot of things need to come together. Most importantly, as a team they need to defend better. Isaiah Thomas needs to return and get back to close to 90% of his last-year self. The Jae Crowder/Kevin Love starting front line needs to work. The Derrick Rose, Tristan Thompson, and either Dwyane Wade or J.R. Smith bench rotation (however it shakes out to be) has to give the team quality bench play. Things have to go just about perfectly, but because they likely will get their chance in the Finals the Cavaliers have the best shot at dethroning the Warriors.

2) The Houston Rockets. The Rockets had the second-ranked offense in the NBA last season, and they got there with a style of play that can hang with the Warriors. Throw Chris Paul into the mix — once he and James Harden develop some on-court chemistry — and the Rockets are the one team that can score with Golden State. The challenge will be on defense, which was pedestrian last season. CP3 certainly improves the defense out top, plus GM Daryl Morey added quality veteran wing defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to the roster. Those wings are all about matching up with the Warriors firepower. On paper, Houston may be the team best positioned to beat the Warriors, but we need to see all of it work over the course of a season before we give them much hope.

3) The Oklahoma City Thunder. Like the Rockets, if this team comes together maybe they have a shot at the Warriors. For the Thunder, everything starts on defense — they were 10th in the NBA last season, they brought back their core guys (Andre Roberson and Steven Adams), and they added an excellent wing defender in Paul George. Nobody stops the Warriors, but the Thunder have the players to make them work more for their points. On offense, if George and Russell Westbrook can integrate with Carmelo Anthony and figure out how to make the needed sacrifices and play well off each other — making this team a Top 10 offensive squad, too — they have a shot. We need to see the team in action, but maybe.

4) The San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had the best defense in the NBA last season, and they have an MVP-level player in Kawhi Leonard. We know how this is going to go, the Spurs are going to defend, execute and make plays. Pau Gasol will impress. They will miss the depth that Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons brought, but they added the scoring punch of Rudy Gay off the bench (once he gets healthy), plus we know Gregg Popovich will throw guys we don’t know out there and they will shine. What we know is the Spurs will not beat themselves, and because of that for years the Spurs have set the bar in the West. They will be that again, but the Warriors and maybe another team or two can clear that bar.

5) The Boston Celtics. I think Boston will be a bigger threat next season and beyond, but maybe things come together faster than expected. Plus, they are in the East, so get past the Cavaliers and they get to take a swing at the Warriors. The Celtics have quality players all over the floor, Kyrie Irving at the point, Gordon Hayward on the wing, and Al Horford in the paint, plus good role players such as Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and now Jayson Tatum. Boston also has one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, who will put Irving in better situations than he has seen in the past. The question in Boston is defense — they are not going to be terrible, but after trading away Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder this summer they will not be as good. Can the Celtics get enough stops to stick on this list?

Spencer Dinwiddie, after facing threat of being forgotten by NBA, flourishing with Nets

Abbie Parr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

DETROIT – Spencer Dinwiddie looked like he might be finished in the NBA.

Major ACL injury at Colorado? He declared for the 2014 draft while still recovering.

Slipping to the second round? He drew confidence in being the Pistons’ first pick that year and the initial selection of the Stan Van Gundy era in Detroit.

Barely playing with the Pistons in two seasons? He engineered a trade to the Bulls, who needed a backup point guard and had roster room then played well for Chicago’s summer-league team.

But the Bulls traded for Michael Carter-Williams just before the season and waived Dinwiddie, who signed in the D-League. For the first time in years, the player who believed since he was 4 years old he’d make the NBA was neither in the league nor on track to reach it.

Then, the Nets called.

They weren’t offering much – $100,000 guaranteed in exchange for Dinwiddie signing a three-year minimum contract in December 2017. If he lasted a month, the rest of his salary that season ($726,672) would become guaranteed. But the remaining two seasons would remain up to Brooklyn. If Dinwiddie flopped, he’d get waived with a small payout. If he exceeded expectations, he’d be stuck on a cheap contract for years.

“A lot of people don’t make it out of the D-League,” Dinwiddie said. “Or, if I don’t sign it, then what if nobody picks me up? Am I still down there? Am I overseas right now?

“It’s very easy to be forgotten about in this league. There’s a lot of good players all over the world that, whatever reason, didn’t hit off right off the bat, and their careers paid the price for it.

“I was told that there was no other opportunity. There was no other option. So, obviously I wanted to be in the NBA. So, I signed.”

Much to Brooklyn’s benefit. And maybe Dinwiddie’s.

Dinwiddie played relatively well in a narrow role last season, doing enough to show he belonged in the NBA. This year, he’s making his case as an NBA starter.

After injuries to Jeremy Lin and D'Angelo Russell, Dinwiddie became the Nets’ starting point guard. Tasked with greater responsibility, Dinwiddie is playing his best basketball. He averages 13.4 points and 6.4 assists per game, but those marks don’t quite show how he has steadied an erratic team.

Dinwiddie ranks No. 18 overall in real plus-minus – behind only potential All-Stars, Robert Covington, and Tyus Jones and ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Andre Drummond, Paul George and Kristaps Porzingis. That isn’t to say Dinwiddie is as good as those stars. But that his production holds its own in such elite company is also revelatory.

Especially considering Dinwiddie’s contract.

He ranks third in real plus-minus among players on minimum salaries, behind only Nikola Jokic and Tyus Jones:

image

This makes Dinwiddie an intriguing trade candidate in advance of next month’s deadline.

How helpful would it be to have a credible starting-caliber point guard making just the minimum this year and next? That’d free so much money – below the salary cap and/or luxury-tax line – to spend on other positions.

The Nets aren’t positioned to take advantage. They’re still below the cap and, still recovering from years of lost draft picks, not ready to build a competitive roster. They also might want to tank next season, as they’ll finally keep their own first-rounder in 2019. Plus, Russell is acclimating back into the rotation, and Lin should return next season.

If Dinwiddie no longer fits in Brooklyn, in a sudden reversal, numerous teams should covet him. He’s not sweating whether he gets moved, but whatever happens, it won’t change how he views the Nets.

“I’m forever indebted to Brooklyn for giving me this opportunity,” Dinwiddie said.

Of course, the Nets could keep him. They’re trying to build a culture, and continuity matters for that. They’d also be positioned to extend his contract next December, two years from when he initially signed (as would a team that trades for him).

Dinwiddie’s max extension would follow the same format as Josh Richardson‘s with the Heat and Norman Powell‘s with the Raptors – which were each worth $42 million over four years – though a rising salary cap will lift Dinwiddie’s max slightly. Perhaps, Dinwiddie could get more in unrestricted free agency in 2019. But for someone set to earn around the minimum his first four seasons, an extension would provide nice security.

Dinwiddie isn’t holding his breath for a payday in December, though.

“You know how long a year is?” Dinwiddie said. “A year in the NBA is an eternity. Anything can happen.”

Just look at Dinwiddie’s last year.

“When we first got him, he was really not a confident player,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Very timid to make plays.”

Now, he’s hitting gamewinners, including one at Detroit on Sunday:

Did that one mean more to him?

“I’ve kind of tip-toed around it. Let’s just be real here,” Dinwiddie said. “I start my career off here. For lack of a better word, I was essentially cut. So how would y’all feel?”

This wasn’t the caretaking point guard the Pistons and Bulls gave up on. Dinwiddie was holding court in the visiting locker room, assured he belonged.

The 6-foot-6 point guard plays with an even keel, steadily using his size advantage offensively and defensively. He’s not flashy, and this doesn’t appear fluky. A sudden jump in 3-point shooting is the easiest way a prolonged hot stretch can be mistaken for a meaningful breakthrough, but Dinwiddie is shooting just 34% from beyond the arc – below his mark last year (38%) and below league average. A high 3-point attempt rate makes his outside shooting helpful, and that’s something he can more easily control than whether the ball goes in.

A more aggressive shot hunter, Dinwiddie can develop as a passer next. Among 284 players who qualify for the assist-per-game lead, Dinwiddie ranks third in assist-to-turnover ratio, behind only Tomas Satoransky and Shelvin Mack. The leaderboard, with assists and turnovers per game noted:

image

While that’s helpful in some ways, especially on the young and up-tempo Nets, Dinwiddie doesn’t often enough create quality looks through his passing. He takes what the defense gives him and nothing more.

“He’s not a high-risk guy,” Atkinson said. “It’s just not his personality.”

It’s the same mindset that contributed to Dinwiddie accepting Brooklyn’s team-friendly offer last season.

The Nets couldn’t be happier with the results. Dinwiddie is aware he lost a potential opportunity to prove himself then hit free agency sooner, but he chalks up any thoughts of regret to looking through the lens of 20-20 hindsight.

And no matter what happens through the rest of his minimum contract, he’ll always have Sunday, when he got revenge against the Pistons.

“No hard feelings,” Dinwiddie said before breaking into a slight grin, “especially after a win.”

Jordan Clarkson on Lakers’ win over Knicks: ‘We just kept the foot on their nut and just kept pushing’

1 Comment

The Lakers outscored the Knicks by one in the first quarter, three in the second quarter, four in the third quarter and 12 in the fourth quarter en route to a 127-107 victory yesterday.

What’s one way to describe that?

Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson in his on-court, post-game interview:

We just kept the foot on their nut and just kept pushing.

That quote is obviously fantastic on its own. Making it better: The NBA published it!

Video of the key moment is above.

Report: Kawhi Leonard disconnected from Spurs

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
2 Comments

Spurs star Kawhi Leonard missed most of the season with a vexing quad injury, returned, went out with a shoulder injury and is now sidelined indefinitely with the quad injury.

San Antonio (30-18) has played well without Leonard, but apparently this saga has taken a toll behind the scenes.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Months of discord centering on elements of treatment, rehabilitation and timetables for return from a right quadriceps injury have had a chilling impact on San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard’s relationship with the franchise and coaching staff, league sources told ESPN.

Under president and coach Gregg Popovich and general manager RC Buford, the Spurs have a two decades-long history of strong relationships with star players, but multiple sources describe Leonard and his camp as “distant” and “disconnected” from the organization.

Beyond the current rehab for the right quadriceps injury that has caused Leonard, an All-NBA forward, to miss most of the regular season, there is work to be done to repair what has been until now a successful partnership.

In an interview with ESPN, Buford rejected the reporting of turbulence between the franchise and Leonard.

This is extremely vague. Leonard has always looked like a dutiful follower in the Spurs’ strong Popovich-led culture. Is this just frustration from injuries? Frustration from injuries causing other minor issues to boil over? Something else major entirely?

The Spurs spent big on long-term contracts for Pau Gasol and Patty Mills last summer, arguably jeopardizing Leonard’s chances of winning another title in San Antonio. Leonard is an elite two-way player in his prime (at least when healthy), and the Spurs were seemingly locking into a team that will likely top out at very good, not great.

So, what’s going on with Leonard now? Aldridge’s situation might be illustrative. Everyone in San Antonio denied a problem, as the Spurs are doing now. But Popovich revealed a couple weeks ago that Aldridge requested a trade. Popovich didn’t panic, though. He met with Aldridge, communicated and found a workable solution. The same can and probably will happen with Leonard.

But that’s no guarantee, and Leonard can opt out next year. Until this is settled, it’s a huge issue with potential to shake up typically stable San Antonio – and maybe beyond.

Wizards’ players-only meeting doesn’t go well

3 Comments

The concept of a “team meeting” is sort of silly. At what does players discussing the team – something that happens nearly every day – rise to “meeting” status?

But these team meetings happen ever year, usually when a team is struggling. The Cavaliers, Thunder and Lakers have already had confabs labeled a “team meeting” this season. Teams usually emerge saying they’ve found solutions to their problems. Sometimes, it translates onto the court. Usually, there’s not a significant turnaround.

I’ve never seen a public response to the meeting itself like with the Wizards, though.

John Wall, via Cam Ellis of NBC Sports Washington:

“At our team meeting, I think a couple guys took it in a negative way,” Wall said after the team’s win in Detroit. “It hurt our team. Instead of using it in a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a bit.”

Bradley Beal, via Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

“It was tough. I try to keep all our stuff as personal as possible but I think in a way not everybody got a chance to speak whenever they wanted to,” Bradley Beal said. “They didn’t want to bring up an issue or something they had a problem with on the team. Regardless of what may be going on, as men we’ve got to be able to accept what the next man says, be respectful about it and move on from it. I think it was one of those situations where we didn’t necessarily get everything that we wanted to get accomplished.

“Honestly, it was probably — I won’t say pointless,” Beal continued, “but we didn’t accomplish what we needed to accomplish in that meeting.”

Yeesh.

Nobody seemed to remember exactly when the meeting occurred, which says something. It sounds as if airing grievances actually hurt team chemistry.

The Wizards (26-20) are good, but not as good as hoped/expected. They too often coast against bad teams, and coach Scott Brooks has openly questioned their effort. So, what’s the solution?

Wall, via Buckner:

“Front office got to figure it out.”

If you’re one of Wall’s teammates who clashed at the meeting, and now you’re hearing him bring it up publicly and imply roster moves might be the solution, how would you feel about your future in Washington?