How the Warriors and Cavaliers built championship contenders so quickly

12 Comments

Kyrie Irving reportedly wanted Harrison Barnes. So did many Cleveland fans. The Cavaliers leaked they did, too.

The Warriors indicated they wanted Dion Waiters.

The Cavaliers drafted Waiters – who shut down workouts (before visiting Cleveland) and then shot up draft boards – No. 4 in the 2012 NBA draft. They either played into Golden State’s gamesmanship or poached the player the Warriors really wanted. Golden State took Barnes No. 7.

Three years later, the Warriors and Cavaliers are no longer sparring in the lottery. They meet in the NBA Finals – hoping to become the first team in seven years to jump from outside the playoffs to a championship so quickly.

Cleveland had the worst-ever four years preceding a conference-finals appearance, let alone the worst lead-up to a conference – or even NBA – title. Before its turnaround that begun in 2012, Golden State made the playoffs just once in 18 years.

How did these downtrodden franchises change their fortunes?

The Warriors have made the most of their opportunities. The Cavaliers have made the most most opportunities.

For Cleveland, everything starts with LeBron James.

When the Cavaliers drafted him in 2003, he immediately set them on a track toward title contention. They never reached the pinnacle, and those hopes exploded in flames of burning jerseys when he left for the Heat in 2010.

But Cleveland immediately began preparing to maximize its next championship window – whenever that might be.

They signed-and-traded LeBron for two first-round picks, the right to swap another first-rounder with Miami and two second-rounders. They accepted Baron Davis’ burdensome contract in exchange for the Clippers’ unprotected first-round pick. They dealt J.J. Hickson to the Kings for Omri Casspi and another first-round pick. They traded Ramon Sessions to the Lakers for a first-rounder and the right to swap future fist-rounders. They helped the Grizzles escape the luxury tax by taking Marreese Speights – and yet another first-round pick as bounty.

Some of those picks have been squandered. The Sacramento pick (which still has not been conveyed) went to Chicago for Luol Deng, who didn’t help Cleveland get anywhere before bolting in free agency.

But others have proven instrumental. The Clippers’ pick won the lottery, sending Kyrie Irving to the Cavaliers. They also had their own pick after a poor season, which resulted in Tristan Thompson.

Infamously, that wasn’t the end of the Cavs’ lottery luck. They won again in 2013 (Anthony Bennett) and 2014 (Andrew Wiggins). In their lone non-lucky lottery since LeBron left, they picked up Waiters.

Essentially, the idea was accumulating assets while the team was bad and then cashing in on them when it became good. The lottery helped immensely, but the underlying plan was sound.

Paying Davis and Speights didn’t bother Cleveland at the time. Spending that money on better players wouldn’t have been enough to make the Cavaliers good, anyway.

Now, every roster upgrade matters, and the Cavaliers have shifted gears.

They sent away Tyler Zeller (acquired with accumulated draft picks in the first place) and another first-rounder to dump Jarrett Jack, clearing the cap space to sign LeBron. They dealt Wiggins, Bennett and a first-rounder acquired in the LeBron sign-and-trade to get Kevin Love. They used Waiters to acquire J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. That deal came with a Thunder first-round pick, which Cleveland packaged with that Memphis first-rounder to get Timofey Mozgov.

The Cavaliers have built a complete team very quickly because they and luck positioned them so strongly entering last summer. I’m sure LeBron wanted to return home, but I doubt he would have signed with Cleveland if its collection of assets weren’t so impressive.

The Cavaliers made plenty of missteps along the way, but they and lottery luck afforded themselves that imperfection.

The Warriors, on the other hand, didn’t have such room for error. They needed to – and did – operate much more shrewdly.

Golden State also relied on fortune – not of lottery luck, but health.

The Warriors traded Monta Ellis for an injured Andrew Bogut in 2012 – a highly controversial deal at the time – and Bogut didn’t play the rest of that season. Curry was also done for the year due to an ankle injury.

Golden State was essentially building around two injured players.

And it couldn’t have worked any better.

Bogut and Curry got healthy, but not before the Warriors tanked their way into keeping their top-seven protected 2012 first-rounder and Curry agreed to a four-year, $44 million contract extension.

Barnes became that pick, and Curry’s bargain extension gave Golden State a ton of flexibility to upgrade the rest of the roster. So did the team’s best 2012 draft pick – second-rounder Draymond Green, who like most second-rounders, signed for near the minimum.

The Warriors used some of that flexibility (necessarily furthered by a salary dump on the Jazz) to sign Andre Iguodala in 2013 and add Shaun Livingston last year.

They also took a huge risk – firing Mark Jackson, who’d helped the team escape its decades-long rut, and hiring first-time coach Steve Kerr. Of course, it has worked beautifully. Green, Barnes and Klay Thompson have blossomed this season, and the team is clicking on both ends of the court.

This is the culmination of Golden State’s plan, but the road gets more difficult from here.

Green becomes a restricted free agent this summer, and he’ll surely command a max contract. That would take the Warriors into the luxury tax, so they’ll have to pay big to keep this group together.

Likewise, the Cavaliers are running out of future assets to trade in for immediate help. They also have the urgent task of keeping Love, who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Both franchises face difficult decisions in the years ahead.

But title windows are difficult to crack ajar, let alone prop open for extend periods of time.

Golden State and Cleveland have done both. Whatever happens in the Finals, these teams should remain in contention for the next few years.

And to think, not long ago, they were trying to misdirect each other about selecting Dion Waiters high in the draft.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

Leave a comment

The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.

Magic reveal orange uniforms

(Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
2 Comments

It’s already difficult enough to flip on an NBA game and quickly determine which team is which. The home team could be wearing any color, so the same is true of road teams. Each team has had so many alternate jerseys in recent years. It’s disorienting.

Now, the Magic – whose primary colors have always been and remain blue, black, white and gray – might be wearing orange?

At least Orlando, because of the fruit (and, I guess, if you want to stretch it, sunshine), has a real connection to orange. That’s why these are the “orange uniforms,” even though they’re mostly gray.

I just beg of the powers that be: Please don’t have the Magic wear these against the Suns. I’ll never figure out which team is which.