How the Warriors and Cavaliers built championship contenders so quickly

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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.

Annual GM survey predicts Bucks vs. Warriors Finals, Doncic MVP

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The NBA’s annual GM survey is more of a snapshot of the conventional wisdom around the league than a good predictive tool — last season the GMs overwhelmingly picked the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals and Kevin Durant as MVP. Didn’t exactly work out that way.

Still, it’s an interesting view into where things stand — and where it stands is a Bucks vs. Warriors NBA Finals. When asked who would win the NBA title, 43% predicted the Bucks, 25% the Warriors, 21% the Clippers and 11% the Celtics (a number that unquestionably fell since the news of Ime Udoka’s suspension came out).

Here’s how the GMs see the top six in each conference, courtesy of Jon Schuhmann and NBA.com who did the survey:

EAST
1. Bucks
2. Celtics
3. 76ers
4. Nets
5. Heat
6. Cavaliers

WEST
1. Clippers
2. Warriors
3. Suns
4. Nuggets
5. Grizzlies
6-T: Mavericks and Timberwolves

Here are some other highlights from the survey:

• Luka Doncic is the betting favorite to win MVP and the choice of the GMs, with 48% of them picking the Dallas star to win the award. Second was Giannis Antetokounmpo (34%) followed by Joel Embiid (14%).

• But ask GMs if they were starting a franchise today and could sign anyone, and they take Antetokounmpo (55%) over Doncic (45%). Those are the only two names on the list.

• Asked the player most likely to have a breakout season and the Cavaliers Evan Mobley led the way with 21% of the vote, followed by Cade Cunningham and Anthony Edwards tied for second (17%).

• The most athletic player in the league? The GMs voted for Ja Morant (38%) over Antetokounmpo (31%) and Anthony Edwards (24%).

• When asked which team had the best offseason, 41% of the GMs picked the Cavaliers, with Donovan Mitchell being named the player changing teams who would have the biggest impact this season.

• The most underrated offseason pickup: Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics, according to the GMs (28%).

• Most surprising move of the offseason for the GMs was Rudy Gobert to Cleveland (47% of the vote), but Mitchell to the Cavaliers was a close second (43%).

Paolo Banchero is the runaway pick for Rookie of the Year (79%).

• Antetokounmpo was voted the best defensive player in the NBA (45%), with Draymond Green a distant second (24%).

• Gobert, however, was the runaway winner of the best interior defender (83%).

• Best coach in the NBA? Erik Spoelstra led the way with 52% of the vote, followed by Steve Kerr at 22%. The Clippers’ Tyronne Lue, however, won the vote for best in-game adjustments by a coach.

• The Toronto Raptors were voted the team with the best home court advantage (21%), with Boston and Denver tied for second (17%).

Five teams ready — or desperate — to break through into the playoffs

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Making the playoffs in the NBA has always seemed a low bar — more than half the teams in the league get in — but it may never be harder than this season. Right now, the league is stacked with quality teams. There may be only a handful of Warriors or Bucks level teams on a contending tier, but both conferences enter the season 11 or 12 deep with teams that have the talent to make the playoffs. Strong teams are going to be in the play-in this year, and a couple will miss the postseason altogether.

Here are five teams ready and expecting to make the leap into the playoffs next season — or desperate to do so.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland probably should have made the playoffs last season — the Cavaliers finished as the No. 8 seed in the East but dropped a couple of play-in games and were on vacation when the playoffs actually started.

Then this summer they traded for Donovan Mitchell.

The biggest trade that actually happened this offseason gives the Cavaliers four potential All-Stars: Three who made the game last season in Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, plus second-year star Evan Mobley, who could be the best of them all within a couple of years. Cleveland has questions about who plays the three and if they have enough defense to threaten the teams at the top, but the Cavaliers don’t have to answer all those questions this season.

This season, they are good enough to make the playoffs. It would be a major disappointment if they did not.

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s boring to put the Lakers on here. Sure, they missed the playoffs last season but they won the title in 2020, and have LeBron James and Anthony Davis — this is not a team coming out of nowhere and surprising anyone. That said, this team has playoff talent and expectations.

Along those lines, new coach Darvin Ham said Monday before the team’s first preseason game that fulfilling that goal is all about Anthony Davis.

“None of this works if he’s not available and he’s not hitting on all cylinders,” Ham said. “He’s a big piece. The biggest piece of our success.”

There are plenty of Russell Westbrook questions — how long will he buy into Ham’s system? Will they trade him? — as well as how much better the defense will be this season (it can’t be worse… can it?). In a deep West the Lakers could be a play-in team, but they should come out of that and make the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings

When you miss the playoffs 16 seasons in a row, there needs to be a culture change in an organization. New coach Mike Brown gets that.

“This is gonna be a process for us, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Brown said before the Kings’ first preseason game Monday. “There’s some things that need to change.”

Those changes may not happen overnight but they can’t take long, not when the goal is to make the playoffs in a deep conference. Potential Kings head coaches interviewed this summer reportedly were told the organization expects a Timberwolves-like turnaround.

“We want to be in the playoffs,” said Brown, the guy who got the job. “We’re not saying this is a rebuild. We’re playing for [the playoffs] and we feel confident we can get there.”

The Kings have their most talented roster in years led by All-Star Domantas Sabonis, with De'Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, and solid role players such as Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter, and the potential of youngsters Keegan Murray and Davion Mitchell.

Is all that good enough to be a playoff team in the West? The offense should score, but with Sabonis and Fox getting heavy minutes will they get enough stops? The Kings are desperately betting on yes.

Washington Wizards

Wes Unseld Jr. needs to put an offering of rum on the altar to Jobu, a prayer to keep Kristaps Porzingis healthy.

When on the court, Porzingis is an All-Star level big man who competes on both ends, and if you pair him with just re-signed Bradley Beal you’ve got a good two-man core. The Wizards have upgraded the rotation around that duo with Will Barton and Monte Morris joining Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Delon Wright. This roster has decent talent, especially if the stars stay healthy.

That’s a pretty good team. Maybe playoff good, but they will need some help from other good teams above them — the Wizards need to stay healthy and hope some other teams stumble. Make that bet if you want to, Ted Leonsis did.

Portland Trail Blazers

It’s a different conference, but Portland finds itself in the same place as Washington: A good team that may not be good enough.

It’s great to see Damian Lillard back on the court, hopefully he gets his burst back and can return to All-NBA Dame Time (one of the most watchable, entertaining players in the league). Jerami Grant was brought as a two-way wing, and Anfernee Simons was re-signed to be another ball handler and scorer. Around them are, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Payton II, Josh Hart, Justice Winslow and others. Plus whatever talented but raw rookie Shaeden Sharpe can contribute.

Portland is a good team in a conference deep with good teams. Are they good enough? If Lillard is his vintage self and everyone stays healthy… maybe.

Presumptive No.1 pick Wembanyama set to make stateside debut

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LAS VEGAS — Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson have been linked constantly over the last couple years, with just about every prognosticator anointing them as the top two picks in the 2023 NBA draft.

Thing is, they don’t know each other.

That’s about to change. Wembanyama – officially listed at 7-foot-2 but scouts often say more like 7-foot-4 – and the Paris-based club Metropolitans 92 are in Las Vegas to take on Henderson and the G League Ignite in a pair of exhibitions, the first on Tuesday and the second on Thursday.

“We’re playing against an NBA team, with NBA rules, on an NBA court,” Wembanyama said Monday. “This is really going to be a first for me. I’m curious to know how it’s going to go. I know it’s going to go well, but I’m still curious.”

Victor vs. Scoot. Scoot vs. Victor. They’re not playing 1-on-1, but they are the clear headliners and the reasons why these first-of-their-kind games were put together.

Wembanyama is listed as a center but plays all over the floor with guard skills in a big-man frame; Henderson is a point guard who has been getting tons of attention for years.

“Out of all the prospects I’ve heard about in our class, I think he’s my favorite one,” Wembanyama said. “I think he’s the most reliable that I’ve seen. He’s really a great player. If I was never born, I think he would deserve the first spot.”

Henderson – a five-star recruit from Georgia who signed with the Ignite last year and played in 10 games – sees these two games as an opportunity, downplaying the 1-on-1 storyline.

“People always try to compare and contrast whoever. I don’t look at it like that,” Henderson said. “I look at it as two good ballplayers.”

The Ignite program exists to develop young prospects in preparation for the NBA Draft, mixing them with veteran talent to help guide them along the way. It has featured three eventual top-10 picks – Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga last year, Dyson Daniels this year – in its first two seasons.

Henderson is a huge draw for the Ignite this year. The Ignite also have Shareef O'Neal, the son of Shaquille O’Neal. But much of what the Ignite would ordinarily be doing right now would be barely noticed nationally; hence, the games against Wembanyama were put together.

The Los Angeles Lakers are playing in Las Vegas this week, a pair of preseason matchups against Phoenix and Minnesota. Wembanyama is going to those as a fan; he’ll have a slightly different view of NBA games next season.

“He’s one of those type of players, honestly, where you say like there’ll never be like another Shaq or there’ll never be another that,” Ignite coach Jason Hart said. “He’s that. You’ll never see another one of those. The scouting report on him is tough. … I’m honored that I’m getting to play him at 18, because at 24, he’s going to be something different.”

Wembanyama has been a pro for three seasons already, spending last season with ASVEL in France – a club owned by San Antonio Spurs legend Tony Parker. He made the decision this year to join Metropolitans in part to be coached by Vincent Collet, who also coaches the French national team.

Collet is welcoming the chance.

“I think he’s the best prospect we’ve ever had in our league,” Collet said. “He’s amazing, not only by his size, but incredible skills. Despite that, he still needs to learn the game. He’s very young. … We will try to give him this experience. That’s the deal we have together, him and me. We want to give him the experience before he gets to the league. It’s most important to get him ready for what will follow next year.”

Watch Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard score first buckets in returns

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It’s only preseason. But if you’ve sat out an entire season with an ACL injury,  just getting on the court feels like a milestone.

And getting your first bucket back feels memorable.

That happened for the Nuggets Jamal Murray and the Clippers Kawhi Leonard on Monday night.

For Murray, the bucket came on a corner 3 in transition.

Murray also showed flashes he’s getting his handle and wiggle back, something that made him a great fit with Nikola Jokic.

Leonard wasted no time, scoring the Clippers’ first bucket by lulling his defender to sleep and then shooting the pull-up 3.

I feel we’re going to see a lot more of that this season.

The NBA is just better with these two back on the court.