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After Kyrie Irving trade, here are five biggest threats to Warriors

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Let’s be honest: The blockbuster Kyrie Irving trade to the Boston Celtics likely means the NBA Finals goes five games instead of four.

The Golden State Warriors can be that good. They won 67 games last season with the NBA’s top offense and second-ranked defense, now they have been in the system for a year as a unit, know each other better, and made some good offseason additions. The Warriors will be better. And they still have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. The Warriors are the clear favorites to repeat as NBA champions.

But life rarely follows the script. So who are the biggest threats to the Warriors? Here are the top five.

1) The Houston Rockets. Houston won 55 games last season with the NBA’s second-ranked offense and a style of play that can hang with the Warriors — then they added Chris Paul to the mix. Plus GM Daryl Morey added quality veteran wing defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, guys picked up in part to match up with the Warriors firepower. On paper, Houston is the NBA’s second best team and the one best poised to challenge the Warriors. It’s fair to wonder if Chris Paul and James Harden can share the backcourt and the ball — and if they can find a tempo that works for them — but coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t worried. It’s also fair to question if this team can be good enough defensively, even though they added good defenders. Still, the Rockets are a threat and a contender.

2) The Cleveland Cavaliers. The reason they are here is not the trade, it’s LeBron James. He remains the best player on the planet (although Durant is close). But the trade helps. In terms of pure offensive production, Isaiah Thomas matched or even bested Irving last season, IT is an All-NBA player for a reason. Also, the Cavaliers pick up the kind of “3&D” wing they have desperately needed in Jae Crowder. And if another player they really want/need comes available, they have assets in Ante Zizic and that Brooklyn first round pick to get him. Cleveland gets this spot because they are the clear favorite to win the East again, and if they are back in the Finals they have a shot despite an aging roster. The Cavs have beaten the Warriors in the Finals before.

3) The Boston Celtics. Admittedly, there is a bit of a drop off after those first two. I see Boston as more of a threat in two seasons (2018-19) and beyond, but after this trade they have quality players at key positions — Irving at the point, Gordon Hayward on the wing, and Al Horford in the paint. Boston also has one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, who will put Irving in better situations (so long as Irving buys in and doesn’t just force isolation action, as he did at times in Cleveland). What Boston needs is guys like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to develop, and Marcus Smart to step up, to become real contenders. They also need to show they can defend, they traded away some of their best defenders this summer. That and a stronger defensive presence in the paint. All that said, Boston has a legitimate shot to beat Cleveland and come out of the East, and if they reach the Finals, then the Celtics at least have a puncher’s chance against the Warriors.

4) The San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs won 55 games last season, had the best defense in the NBA, and with Kawhi Leonard they have their own superstar. The Spurs are going to execute and make plays. They will miss the depth that Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons brought, but they added the scoring punch of Rudy Gay off the bench. What we know is the Spurs will not beat themselves, that they will be in the hunt, and we should know by now not to sleep on them.

5) The Oklahoma City Thunder. I think this is a dark horse contender. What we know is that the Thunder should be a top five defensive team — they were 10th in the NBA last season, they brought back their core guys (Andre Roberson and Steven Adams are key here), and they added an excellent wing defender to the mix in Paul George. The Thunder will get stops. If George and Russell Westbrook can figure out how to play well together on the offensive end — last season the Thunder were middle of the pack offensively with the Westbrook show — and get in the top 10, they become a team that could surprise some people.

Tampering is common in the NBA, but proving it is very difficult

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Want proof there is tampering in the NBA: Free agency starts on July 1 at midnight Eastern every year, and every year a number of new contracts for players with new teams are announced at 12:01 a.m. There is no way that a complicated NBA contract — even one where the two sides are both interested and will agree quickly on the price — is negotiated faster than it takes to get an In-N-Out Burger (or Five Guys burger, if you prefer the inferior).

Those deals are announced that fast because everything’s already been agreed to through back channels. Same with meetings when a major (or even mediocre) free agent starts talking to teams on July 1. Yet, the NBA rarely investigates, and even more rarely punishes a team for tampering. Why? Because it’s very difficult to prove.

The Lakers are being investigated for tampering with Paul George while he was under contract to the Indiana Pacers, an investigation reportedly started at the request of Pacers’ owner Herb Simon. Teams are not allowed to recruit or entice players under contract. The Lakers have denied any wrongdoing. Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and, with a wink, joked about what he’d tell George if they met this summer, and that ticked Simon off. The Pacers had to trade George, and because everyone around the league knows he more likely than not is a Laker next summer (long before Magic went on TV), his trade value was diminished. The Pacers got back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him the day before free agency opened (although there may have been better offers on the table, and the choice and timing were odd). The Pacers think if there is an agreement in place between the Lakers and George that would have driven down the trade market (because he was a one-year rental, that market was already depressed).

Good luck proving tampering. Unless Magic did something stupid like text George directly, it will be almost impossible to prove.

NBA agents and front offices know how to avoid tampering using “back channels” — not unlike how governments who are public enemies still communicate. Someone, a couple of people removed from the agent/GM, can talk with someone a couple of people removed from the other side and set something up that gets brought back and agreed to. Or, an agent can have one of his other players do some of the work for him — players recruit each other all the time on social media (and off it), and the league doesn’t see that as tampering, unless specifically ordered by a GM/owner. James Harden recruited Chris PaulDraymond Green and other Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, and the league shrugged, but GM Bob Myers could not have done that (or directed the players to do that… again, good luck proving it if you think he did).

There are a few reasons it will be hard to prove the Lakers did anything. First, the Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka is a former agent and knows how to work the system — he’s not getting caught. Look what another agent told Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer.

“Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.”

To prove tampering, Magic needs to have left a “paper trail,” which more accurately is a digital trail of texts or emails. But even that can get tricky. If Magic was texting with George’s agent Aaron Mintz that alone proves nothing, he also represents Julius Randle on the Lakers and D'Angelo Russell, who the Lakers traded a week before the George trade. It will take an email or text specifically talking about George for the Lakers to get in trouble, and Magic is smarter than that. Well, we think he is.

The bottom line is tampering is common and almost impossible to prove. Unless Magic screwed up, it will be unprovable here. Maybe the Pacers made their point, maybe Simon feels better, but it’s hard to see how this is going to be tampering.

Russell Westbrook wins union’s Players Voice MVP

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The players union released its long-anticipated long-overdue awards, and there are some doozies. First of all, I still can’t figure out what Chris Bosh – who was announced as the “host” of the Twitter-released awards – has to do with this. But let’s get to the actual winners.

Here are the major awards, with the traditional award/Players Voice equivalent:

No surprise Westbrook won both MVPs. He deserved them. Still, James Harden could’ve hoped for a split result like in 2015, when Stephen Curry won actual MVP and Harden won the players’ version.

There’s obviously slight differences in the other categories. I think Green had the best defensive season and deservedly won Defensive Player of the Year, but I also think Leonard is the NBA’s best defender and therefore deserved this honor. I would’ve picked Andre Iguodala for Best off the Bench (and Sixth Man of the Year, for what it’s worth), though that’s a minor quibble. But how on earth did Joel Embiid not win Best Rookie? He was the best rookie in years, let alone this season. I picked Brogdon for Rookie of the Year based on his overall contributions in far more playing time, but there should have been no question about the best rookie.

The union also released several awards without a corresponding NBA honor:

  • Comeback Player of the Year: Joel Embiid
  • Hardest to Guard: Russell Westbrook
  • Clutch Performer: Isaiah Thomas
  • Global Impact: LeBron James
  • Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team: LeBron James
  • Most Influential Veteran: Vince Carter
  • Best Dressed: Russell Westbrook
  • Best Social Media Follow: Joel Embiid
  • Coach You’d Most Like to Play For: Gregg Popovich
  • Best Home Court Advantage: Warriors

LeBron winning Player You Secretly Wish Was On Your Team has to be an implicit slap in the face to Kyrie Irving. I’m glad to see Thomas and Carter deservedly recognized.

Lastly, the union awarded a Teammate of the Year on each team:

Dirk Nowitzki won the NBA’s Teammate of the Year – which is voted on by current players after a panel of former players selects nominees – then didn’t even win for his own team here? That’s just weird.

Kevin Durant gifted Warriors an absurdly good offseason

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I’m grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Warriors’ 2016 offseason sent shockwaves through the league, sparking questions about competitive balance and whether the entire system required reform. Think about that for a moment. The Warriors’ summer of 2016 was so incredible, it became a referendum on the NBA itself.

We didn’t even fully understand how incredible it was until this summer.

Forget the attention and pressure. Ignore industry-specific factors, like who beat whom in the playoffs. The Warriors wooed Kevin Durant with many of the same reasons we choose jobs – pay, work environment, location. Durant picked a max salary from one of the NBA’s most successful teams in the trendy Bay Area. It was a reasonable decision.

Golden State followed that with an unreasonably good 2017 offseason.

The Warriors impressed Durant so much, they didn’t even need to pay the max to keep him.

Everything fell into place from there for Golden State, which secured its place as a budding dynasty. The defending champions enter next season even stronger.

Durant’s discount from his max salary ($34,682,550) to the Non-Bird Exception ($31,848,120) allowed the Warriors to retain Andre Iguodala‘s and Shaun Livingston‘s Bird Rights. Durant’s discount from the Non-Bird Exception to his actual salary ($25 million) effectively serves as a wealth transfer from the millionaire player to the team’s billionaire owners. His $6,848,120 concession, based on the current roster, will save Golden State more than $30 million in salary and luxury tax.

So, now the Warriors are more equipped to win and turn a bigger profit.

Stephen Curry re-signed on a five-year super-max deal, and he didn’t even get a player option. Golden Sate signed the NBA’s two best free agents, and the only drama was over just how team-friendly their contracts would be. At least Curry got every last dollar.

The Warriors also signed Nick Young (taxpayer mid-level exception) and Omri Casspi (minimum) – luxuries for a team already running circles around the rest of the league. Young has become a 3-point specialist who tries defensively, and he’ll provide excessive firepower in limited minutes behind Klay Thompson. A combo forward, Casspi fits well in the small-ball lineups Golden State has popularized.

Zaza Pachulia (Non-Bird Exception), David West (minimum) and JaVale McGee (minimum) re-signed. A formidable big-man rotation for less than most teams spend on a single moderately helpful center. The Warriors are just operating in a different world than everyone else.

Case in point, Jordan Bell. The Warriors paid the Bulls a record $3.5 million for the No. 38 pick to get Bell, a versatile defender who’s perfectly cast as Draymond Green‘s understudy. But because drafted players can count less toward the tax, signing a rookie free agent to a minimum deal instead of acquiring Bell would’ve cost Golden State $2,131,243 more in luxury tax. Deduct that from the $3.5 million and consider Bell’s talent, and it’s a clear win for Golden State.

The Warriors just keep getting all those moves, big and small, right.

The repeater tax and raises for Thompson and Green loom. Guaranteeing the 33-year-old Iguodala $48 million and 31-year-old Livingston $18 million limits flexibility. Teams don’t remain elite forever.

But Golden State is riding its wave – on and off the court – higher than maybe any team ever.

Offseason grade: A

Rumor: Warriors to pursue Paul George

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Remember when Klay Thompson‘s dad/Los Angeles sportscaster Mychal Thompson brought up the Warriors chasing Kevin Durant more than a year before they actually signed him?

It seems Tim Kawakami and Marcus Thompson of The Athletic are doing something similar with Paul George and Golden State.

Kawakami on Posting Up:

Marcus and I have teased this for more than a year. We think they’re going to go after Paul George, somehow. I think Joe Lacob is going to try to find a way to get Paul George. I don’t know how that would happen, but I didn’t know how it was going to happen when they were – three years ago, when they said they were go after Durant. Well, they didn’t say it. But they might have whispered it.

The Warriors could have had George already – if they would’ve traded Klay Thompson to the Pacers. But there’s obviously a huge difference between acquiring George on an expiring contract and signing him outright in free agency next summer.

As far-fetched as Golden State landing Durant seemed, the impending salary-cap spike always made it plausible. The Warriors had to dump Andrew Bogut and let Harrison Barnes walk, but that was small potatoes for getting Durant.

Signing George would almost certainly require very large potatoes.

A little perspective: The salary cap projects to be $102 million next summer, but it won’t be determined until then. Even if they trim their roster to just Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors wouldn’t have enough cap room to pay George his max unless the salary cap eclipses $118 million. The NBA’s salary-cap projections can fluctuate, but a $16 million increase within a year is nowhere near heard of. And that would leave just the room exception – which would be about $5 million in this scenario – for Kevin Durant, who would have presumably opted out. He might be taking an unexpectedly large discount this year, but that’d be a monumentally large sacrifice by Durant next year.

More realistically, Golden State could use Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston to sign-and-trade for George. But that’d require appeasing the Thunder, no easy task. The Warriors would also have to stay below the hard cap – which is barely feasible, unless George and/or Durant take large discounts. Even then, it’d be a tough squeeze.

Golden State could also try to trade for George before the trade deadline, acquiring his Bird Rights then spending any amount to re-sign him and Durant. But Oklahoma City would have even more leverage than the offseason. How could the Warriors entice the Thunder? If good enough, Oklahoma City might not be at-all willing to deal Russell Westbrook‘s co-star. (This could be a reason Westbrook has yet to sign a contract extension. If he waits to re-sign until next summer, he implicitly demands the Thunder not sell during the season – or leads to them trading Westbrook, too).

If George hits free agency, Golden State’s realistic chances of landing George likely evaporate. The Warriors would probably have to trade one of their top four players to get George. But doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?