This year, can an underdog win the NBA title?

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Bill James, the legendary baseball statistician, has said the problem with the NBA is the best team almost always wins.

In baseball, the summer-long 162-game season gives you the best teams in each division, but the best-of-seven playoff series involves a lot of luck and favors hot pitchers and bullpens. In the NFL the playoffs are single elimination, favoring the hottest team not always the best team. Same with the NCAA college basketball tournament.

But the NBA, with its best of seven, heavily favors the heavily favorite. Put simply, at the start of the NBA season you can name the five teams most likely to win an NBA title and 9 times out of 10 your champion comes from that group.

Which makes this season’s NBA playoffs interesting. Sure, we may still wind up with Lakers vs. Celtics in the finals, but this year there will be upsets and new faces.

Could an underdog actually hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season?

Well, define underdog. Do you mean a team that is an underdog in its first-round playoff matchup? Then no. Look, maybe the Knicks get by the Celtics, or the Trail Blazers knock off the Mavericks, but do you really think New York or Portland are making a run all the way to the NBA finals? I like LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace as much as the next guy, but Portland would have to get past the Lakers and the Spurs just to reach the finals. The Knicks would still have the Heat and Bulls just to get to the finals. So, no, that’s not really happening.

But, could someone we didn’t expect at the start of the year win the title?

The Chicago Bulls fit that bill. And if defense wins championships then they have a real chance because nobody defends like them, taking away what other teams are comfortable with, closing out on shooters. They get enough offense from Derrick Rose, at least they did during the regular season. That will be the test, when teams start trapping Rose and daring anyone else to beat them who will step up. The Bulls will still execute better than anyone on defense, but will their offense be up to the task.

Out west, the Oklahoma City Thunder fit the bill. There were everybody’s darling when they were running up and down the court and pushing the Lakers to six games last year. Now they are more mature and they added Kendrick Perkins to address a need in the paint. They are on the verge of a breakthrough, and they should get past Denver in the first round.

They likely face San Antonio in the second round, and that will be their big test — the Thunder are the more athletic team, but have they matured in how to use that athleticism enough overcome the calm, efficient execution of the Spurs. Will Kevin Durant be a playoff assassin, will Russell Westbrook use his quickness within the system. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was worried they could and said last week that his team would be challenged trying to run up and down the court with the Thunder.

If the Thunder defend, if they get Durant and Westbrook going, they can beat anyone. They can beat the Spurs, they can beat the Lakers. They are contenders.

Still, maybe not this year. But in a couple of years, expect to see a Thunder vs. Bulls finals. But by then they will be the favorites.

Watch Curry, Klay in 3-point shooting contest in Japan. Yeah, they’re good at this.

NBA Japan Games Saturday Night
Jun Sato/WireImage
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The NBA went to Japan to promote the brand, play a few games in a huge market — Japan specifically but Asia as a whole — and put on a show.

Is there a better show than Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson draining 3s? Here they are in a 3-point contest during a basketball exhibition (there were some pro dunkers) in Tokyo on Saturday.

Stephen Curry, was there any other possible outcome?

It’s preseason and they are the defending champs — they should be having fun, playing with some joy.

Thompson took part in the shooting contest but is not playing in either of the exhibition games in Japan as the Warriors ease him back into play this season. It’s a marathon of a season and the Warriors need the best version of Klay starting in April, not October.

Report: Pelicans, Nance agree to two-year, $21.6 million extension

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Larry Nance has been a stabilizing influence in New Orleans since coming over mid-season as part of the trade for CJ McCollum. Nance is a versatile player who can play the four or the five, knocks down his threes, is very strong on the glass, can be a disruptive defender in passing lanes, and fits in — and he has the veteran attitude of work this team needs.

So the Pelicans have reached an extension to keep the 29-year-old around for two years past this coming season, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a signing that should make Pelicans fans happy. Importantly, it makes CJ McCollum happy — they are tight and this is something McCollum wanted to see. The money on this deal seems fair, about the league average for a solid rotation player.

Nance is the kind of veteran this team needs considering its young core of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram (just turned 25), Herb Jones, and guys like Trey Murphy III, Jose Alvarado, and others. Nance compared it to the young Lakers teams he was on, but noted that team lacked the same level of veteran leadership this Pelicans team has.

We may see more Nance at the five lineups — small ball with Zion at the four — to close games this season in New Orleans, that could be their best lineup because Nance can defend but also spaces the floor for Zion on offense. Coach Willie Green has a lot of different players and matchups to experiment with.

And now he has the stability of Nance for a few more years.

Durant tired of talking Nets dramatic offseason: ‘I didn’t miss any games’

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No team had an offseason quite like the Brooklyn Nets. First, they would not give a long-term extension to Kyrie Irving, which sent the star guard looking for a new team (but there were no offers that worked for everyone, so he opted in with Brooklyn). Then Kevin Durant asked for a trade, and to gain a little leverage reportedly threw down an ultimatum of him or the coach and GM. No trade could be found — how much the Nets wanted one is up for debate — so he is back in Brooklyn. And all that is not even getting into the return of Ben Simmons, a trade for Royce O’Neal, or anything else.

The Nets drama and how they move past it has been the talk of training camp. The only talk at training camp, it feels like.

When asked Friday if there were any inaccuracies in the reporting of the Nets summer he would like to clear up, Durant sounded weary of rehashing the summer.

The only thing that will start to move the conversation in a new direction is the Nets playing and winning games (they open the preseason Monday against the 76ers). And even those wins will have the shadow of the offseason cast over them. Durant and Irving made this bed.

Part of the fascination is the Nets remain the team hardest to predict in the league. They arguably have the most talented roster in the league and, if everything comes together just right, they can contend for a title. It’s also possible the wheels fall off early and by Christmas the Nets are looking to trade Durant again. Both things feel possible (even if reality most likely lands somewhere in the middle).

That uncertainty about the Nets’ future is the drama that will keep eyeballs on them — which also means more questions about this past offseason. Durant can choose not to answer them, but the questions aren’t going away.

Highlights from Clippers preseason win fueled by Luke Kennard

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No Kawhi Leonard. Or Paul George. Or John Wall, Norman Powell, Reggie Jackson and Nic Batum. The Clippers decided to rest six key rotation players in their preseason opener in Seattle against Maccabi Ra’anana, a game played in Seattle.

All those guys are expected to suit up Monday when the Clippers play the Portland Trail Blazers in a preseason game also in Seattle, the first NBA exhibition game played in the city since 2018.

Against Maccabi, it was the Luke Kennard show as he had 16 points.

The Clippers also got 14 points and 13 boards from Moses Brown. As a team, the Clippers cruised and put up a few highlights.

The Clippers have great depth, which should allow them to survive a season where both Leonard and George are expected to get their share of load management nights off. Leonard missed all of last season coming off a torn ACL, and George played in just 31 games due to a few injuries, including a shoulder issue. Still, the Clippers finished eighth in the West with a 42-40 record and had a top 10 defense in the league.

Adding Leonard and George to that mix is why the Clippers are considered title contenders out West. Monday night against the Blazers we should get our first look at the real Clippers team for this season. But Los Angeles is 1-0 this preseason.