NBA Season Preview: Golden State Warriors

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Last season: 26-56, which is kind of the record you end up with when you don’t play much defense. And Don Nelson had stopped caring about defense, or seemingly coaching half the time. But as much as that, it was an injury-ravaged season that kept the win total that low.

Head Coach: Keith Smart, who still wants this team running as fast as anyone in the league, but has set up some flex (think Jazz) half court sets. And he is going to hold guys accountable on defense. (Note to Warriors fans, defense is the thing played on the other half of the court where your team is not shooting. Just wanted to give you a reminder as you hadn’t seen it in years.)

Key Departures: Owner Chris Cohan — no player move the Warriors could have made is as big as this. Cohan had owned the Warriors 16 seasons and the team made it to the playoffs just once. Front office power plays took place while he watched seemingly uninterested. He was one of the few owners in the league you could compare to Donald Sterling (of the Clippers). Just him being out gives hope to Golden State fans.

Anthony Randolph seemed like a guy that should blow up in Don Nelson’s system — the Warriors hyped him like he would — but it never really happened. So he goes to the Knicks along with Kelenna Azubuike and Ronny Turiaf as part of the David Lee deal. It’s not a bad deal in that Lee brings some needed skills across the country with him, but giving up Randolph and Azubuike is a lot of potential out the door. But it’s time for a little of the old coaching axiom in Golden State — potential will get you fired. With Lee, you know what you get every night.

The real head scratcher of a summer move was sending Anthony Morrow to the Nets for a second round pick. Morrow is a lights-out shooter at an affordable price. How does that not fit in any system?

Also gone are Anthony Tolliver and Corey Maggette.

Key Additions: New owners Peter Guber and Joe Lacob (Lacob will be the front man). They may or may not be great owners — Lacob was part owner of the Celtics and saw how a first class organization works first hand, but he also said the Warriors would not spend over the luxury tax. Already they are making changes — Nellie is out, while they bring in gritty players that will actually rebound the ball (David Lee, Lou Amundson) which alone will bring a needed change to the roster. Bottom line — the new owners bring hope to a fan base that has wanted desperately to believe. Now, we all believe.

On the court, there is David Lee. The Warriors were a terrible, terrible rebounding team last season and David Lee will change that. Parts of his game may have gotten overhyped in New York, but not his work on the boards, where last season he grabbed 17.9 percent of the available rebounds when he was on the floor. He is particularly a beast on the defensive glass. Now, as for his defense, that will be a fun challenge for Smart.

Also in the door in Golden State are draft picks Ekpe Udoh (No. 6 overall) and Jeremy Lin (the fan favorite), plus Dorell Wright, Amundson, Rodney Carney, and even Dan Gadzuric.

Oh, and cool new uniforms.

Best case scenario: The Warriors start to figure out who they want to be, who fits with that, and the second half of the season they make a run at a playoff spot while keeping the cap space and flexibility they have to build in the future.

For that to happen: The Warriors just need to be smart about it. What that last paragraph really says is there is true hope for the future now, because the Warriors have some good pieces to start building around. And just watching something with a chance to grow that ownership will not uproot too early for no good reasons will go over huge with the loyal Warriors faithful.

Golden State has a lot of potential in the Stephen Curry/David Lee pick and roll. Lee is a very good roll-man — he sets a quality pick and last season shot 64 percent when he got the ball in that spot. He also picks up a fair amount of and-ones in that spot as he is strong enough to get off a good shot while rolling even if hit. Meanwhile Curry is an improving ball-handler on the pick-and-roll. You have to fight over the top of the pick or show hard on Curry — you have to respect his shot and cannot just let him get a clean look — and Curry is figuring out how to use that attention to set up others.

Like Monta Ellis, who is another great scorer and also a ball-handler that is solid as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Ellis just puts points on the board — not terribly efficiently last season, but he was asked to carry a lot of the Warriors offense.

There are questions if Ellis and Curry can play together, but two ball-handlers who can both be fantastic catch-and-shoot guys can work very well together — if they want to. It’s more about desire and ego than fit.

The Warriors also have a nice collection of role players. Reggie Williams is a personal favorite to watch and Smart will give him quality minutes. Andris Biedrins could be a strong center if he can stay healthy. Dorell Wright gives Golden State some nice athleticism on the wing. It’s just a matter of finding the direction for the team then seeing who fits.

More likely the Warriors will: Be better with flashes of really good, but struggle to win a lot in a very deep Western Conference. However, what is different is this time they will not self-destruct and rip apart whatever future there might have been. They will learn and build. In a year or two, they will be the team that makes the big leap forward, just not this season.

Prediction: 33-49, and by the end of the season a formed identity. That or Smart will be gone and a coach with an identity will be brought in.

Dwight Howard reportedly to return to Washington D.C., start on-court steps in recovery

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The return of Dwight Howard should solve all the Wizards problems…

Low hanging fruit jokes aside, Howard was expected to be out two-to-three months for back surgery that happened at the end of November, that would have him back in the coming weeks, and he is now on his way back to the nation’s capital, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Howard played in nine games for the Wizards this season, scoring an efficient 12.8 points and grabbing 9.2 rebounds a game.

The Wizards have been starting Thomas Bryant, with Bobby Portis playing some five behind him, in recent games. How Howard fits into that when healthy will be a question for coach Scott Brooks.

The Wizards would need to make up three games and jump three teams in the final 24 games of the season to make the playoffs.

Surprise: Emanuel Terry joins Heat, not Team USA as planned

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MIAMI (AP) — Emanuel Terry’s plans to play for his country this weekend have been thwarted, for a very good reason.

He’s back in the NBA instead.

Terry was signed to a 10-day contract Wednesday by the Miami Heat, who made the move after he spent a few days with USA Basketball in its training camp at the University of Miami this week. So instead of playing Panama on Friday and Argentina on Monday in the last games of qualifying for the FIBA World Cup, Terry will be with the Sioux Falls Skyforce for a G League game in Long Island on Thursday and then with the Heat this weekend.

Terry got told of the move just before Team USA broke camp in Miami. He says he’s “had dreams about this.”

Terry averaged 4.5 points in two games with Phoenix earlier this season.

Team USA has already won enough games to qualify for the World Championships in China this summer.

Joel Embiid out week with left knee soreness, no structural damage found

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What the Philadelphia 76ers need is time on the court to get all their new players used to each other, their rotations set, and just to find a way to get the most talented starting five in the East to gel before the playoffs start. They have 24 games to make it happen.

This does not help that cause.

The Sixers announced Joel Embiid will miss at least a week to get treatment on a sore left knee, the team announced. Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia has the details.

Embiid felt some soreness and was getting treatment before the All-Star break but did not miss games.

Obviously, what matters most is Embiid being healthy in the postseason, so rest now is better than the alternative.

But this is still not ideal. Especially as the Sixers try to make up a game and climb past the Pacers to ensure home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Through four games (73 total minutes) the new starting lineup of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Embiid has been a force — a 116.5 offensive rating and a 91.9 defensive rating. Small sample size theater is at play here, things have not always looked completely smooth to the eye test (see the loss to Boston), and both Butler and Embiid have chaffed against coach Brett Brown’s system at points this season, but a +24.6 net rating through four games is an auspicious sign.

They just need more time to come together, and this injury cuts into that. At least a little.

The more significant concern starts when the bench comes into play. In the playoffs, Brown will likely want to keep two of his big four on the court with the subs (probably an eight-man rotation, nine tops). That’s where the real interesting stuff comes in the next few weeks: Which players would be willing to get their rest a little earlier in the first half to get more opportunities (read: shots) with the ball in their hands with the second unit? Butler? Harris? Which four work best together when it gets down to pairs?

Finding all of that out is now on hold temporarily.

Not just numbers, David Griffin says being GM means handling “noise” around team

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Analytics are a part of the job.

Just often not the most important part.

Part of what has fueled the rise in popularity of the NBA in recent years has been player movement around the league — and how much fans love to talk about the possibilities. Fans love to play GM. Those fans are increasingly savvy and understand analytics better, they know how to go to the NBA stat page and look up detailed data, and they know how to work ESPN’s trade machine. It leads to more “who says no?” trade Tweets than overpriced coffee shops in Seattle.

Ask any current or former general manager/team president — for example, former Suns and Cavaliers GM David Griffin — about the job and they almost cut off the question to say there is so much more to it than a spreadsheet. For example, keeping players happy and helping them understand/deal with social media is now part of the gig. Even in the evaluation of players, there is the eye test and other intel gathered about them, all of which matters as much or more than just the data.

“It’s got to be a marriage of all of them, you know analytics are never the answer in and of themselves,” Griffin told NBC Sports. “But there is infinitely more data available to us thanks not only to SAP but Second Spectrum… they have given us far more robust data sets to make decisions from. I think because of that people think the answers are in the numbers, but the reality is the numbers only answer the better questions you ask it to solve. I think people lose sight of that. The numbers are a part of the process, they are not the answers in and of themselves.”

That’s the idea behind “GM School,” a new competition show coming to NBA TV (it premieres Wednesday night at 8 ET, with repeat broadcasts throughout the week). The show takes four contestants who are data-driven, die-hard basketball fans and pits them against each other in a series of challenges to show they have what it takes to be in a front office. The contestants don’t just have to pick players to draft (out of an anonymous pool), they need to articulate why they fit with the team philosophy. They have to do a press conference.

“I thought they did an excellent job,” Griffin said of the contestants. “Being at NBA TV before this and getting to see things in a totally different light, I had a different appreciation for this process than I would have otherwise. I thought they did a fantastic job — SAP and the partners affiliated with this — of putting together four really diverse contestants who all had strengths of their own, each was unique from the other, so it was a cool process.”

Like the real GM job, this is about more than the numbers.

“It’s not just taking into account everyone thinks they understand analytics — I hope we speak to the analytics crowd — but it’s about the totality, we hope, of what the job requires,” Griffin said.

There are things that a show like this could just not do justice to with a test.

For example, how to set up an organization that can handle the volume of noise that swirls around a good team. Griffin had to deal with that first hand as the GM of the Cavaliers during LeBron James’ second tour of duty with the franchise.

“One of the things that’s critical to running an organization that’s going to be all about winning — and the only thing that will mark success is winning a championship — is that you’re naturally going to be subjected to more noise around the process,” Griffin said. There’s going to be more tension in the system — and that can be a positive thing if you make it out. You have to become really adept at dealing with adversity and turning adversity into a positive, galvanizing force.

“I think you’ve seen Golden State do that this year with the blowup between Draymond [Green] and KD [Kevin Durant]. They’ve come out of that a stronger, better version of themselves, and that’s what you have to do as an elite franchise. All adversity becomes opportunity for you.”

It’s one thing for a Warriors’ team that is now veteran and savvy to embrace adversity — and tune out the social media noise it creates around the team — and it’s something else entirely for an up-and-coming team with players who have not been there before.

“I think that for teams that are going from being lottery bound year after year to being truly elite there are several steps in that process that are very difficult and painful. And people don’t always welcome adversity…” Griffin said. “You’re not going to get to a championship caliber team from a team of young kids who were in the lottery overnight.”

Some players get thrown off seeing the media used to deliver messages about them and their trade availability — as happened a lot with the Lakers/Anthony Davis saga around the trade deadline, for example. The Lakers, as an organization, has seen more than its fair share of drama over the years and understands how to handle it, but the young core players on the team were going through this part of the business for the first time.

Griffin said the key is being proactive — talking to players to help them understand it before everything overwhelms them.

“[The Lakers] were dealing with more media and more scrutiny than most teams ever do because they are one of the flagship franchises in our league,” Griffin said. “Magic Johnson grew up in that spotlight. I doubt anything happened that they weren’t prepared for. But what happens is LeBron’s presence by itself brings that kind of spotlight. It takes some time to learn how to deal with it.

“Again, if you don’t get in front of it from a leadership standpoint, if you let it just happen, the proliferation of sports media and social media, it just creates so much around your players that, to some degree, if you’re not telling them how to decipher it, they can’t help but to take it poorly. You need to do a really deft job as a leader of getting people to ignore those things. I think Kevin Durant called it a ‘toxic’ environment around a LeBron James team. I don’t think he meant that relative to LeBron and his actions. I think he meant it just relative to the sheer volume of noise around a team. That takes getting used to.”

Handling social media and its fallout is now part of a GM’s job. Like it or not.

“All of these players are on social media, they are subject to noise from more angles and at a greater volume than any players ever have been,” Griffin said. “And because of that, I think it makes it really important that you run the kind of organization that you love each other enough that you tell each other what you need to hear. You have to have conversations. You have to be in front of those messages with Lonzo Ball ahead of time. You have to talk to Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma ahead of time. So that when those things happen, they understand it’s just a natural outcropping of being on a team of that magnitude. That it happens because you matter as a franchise.”

Whenever a GM job comes open in the NBA now, Griffin’s name is one of the first to come up. Most recently that was with the Pelicans (although the buzz All-Star Weekend is that things never really got too serious between the sides). Griffin is open to returning to the NBA, but he’s in a position to be picky about the gig he takes now.

“I think the blessing of doing what I’m doing relative to NBA TV is selectivity,” Griffin said. “It’s helped me be radically better at analyzing things than maybe I wouldn’t have been as good at. As I look at it now, the thing that would attract me to an opportunity is just the opportunity to be in lockstep with ownership. To have ownership, the coach, and the front office all on the same page moving forward and sharing a vision…

“You have to raise a family, and if you’re not going to come at it with that approach it’s probably not a situation that would speak to me.”