51 Questions: Three things Golden State must do to repeat as champs

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

What do the Warriors need to do to repeat as champs?

Say the Warriors got lucky to win the franchise’s first title in 40 years and they take umbrage. Stephen Curry gets sarcastic, Draymond Green gets testy, and as a team you can see the Warriors have a little chip on their shoulder. Which is a good thing if they are going to repeat as champs — they will need that fire.

Make no mistake, the Warriors certainly can repeat. They should be the favorite.

But if I had to bet on the Warriors or the field in a brutal Western Conference, I’ll take the field. There are just so many things that have to go right in a chase for a title, and in this West there is little margin for error.

What has to go right for the Warriors to win it all again?

1. Stay Healthy.

Sorry Warriors, but you were lucky last season. That’s not a slight — not even Michael Jordan won an NBA title without some luck on the health front — it’s just a fact. The Warriors stayed healthier than any other contender, and that was part of their success.

Now they just have to do it again.

On this front, the Warriors have an advantage over some other contenders (hello San Antonio) in that much of their core is young — Curry is 27, Green and Klay Thompson are 25, Harrison Barnes is 23. But still this team needs to avoid a freak injury to those young players while keeping older guys like Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala rested for the playoffs. The Warriors can survive a regular season injury to anyone and still make the playoffs, but once the postseason arrives they will need all hands on deck to repeat.

2. Keep on sacrificing.

Pat Riley calls it the “disease of more” — where individual players start putting themselves ahead of the team after winning a title — and it tears apart championship teams in every sport. Look at the Seattle Seahawks this season, who had to get their quarterback a new contract, had Kam Chancellor holding out, have had trouble fitting in new pieces, plus the distraction that is Marshawn Lynch’s mother — and they are 2-3 to start the season.

Is Iguodala going to remain happy coming off the bench? Will Barnes’ contract extension talks become a distraction? Will the fact that Curry is the fifth highest paid player on this team become an issue? Does Green try to do too much to live up to his $82 million contract? Will Jason Thompson fit in?

Maybe none of this slows the team down. It is very possible everyone keeps buying in and willingly making sacrifices for the betterment of the whole. Steve Kerr knows how to guide them through these pitfalls. But if the Warriors stumble, they would not be the first team to be undone by the disease of more.

3. Avoid complacency.

So far through the preseason, the Warriors have looked disinterested and a little sloppy. It’s preseason, so nobody should read much into that. The problem is that after the euphoric highs of winning an NBA title the slog of an 82-game regular season can seem even more dreary, and teams get complacent. They lose focus. They stop building good habits during the regular season, thinking they can flip the switch. Then they can’t.

When I asked Curry about staying hungry this coming season, he almost blew the question off.

“That’s going to be easy,” Curry said. “We’re all competitors, we’re all proud of what we did last season, but once you enter a new year, we’ll get our rings on opening night, and that’s the end of the celebrating of what happened and you look forward to the next journey, the next goal, which is to win another one.

“I’m hopefully going to lead that charge, and we have such a great core of guys that are young and hungry and want to relive that intoxicating feeling of winning a championship. You look at the history of the league, you understand how hard it is to win one, but the challenge of winning multiple is something that I’m happy to be gunning for now, that I’ve got one under my belt. But that’s the mission.”

Going from the hunter to the hunted is a transition that trips a lot of teams up.

Maybe the Warriors are the exception ready for every one of these challenges. But it will be harder than they realize. They don’t need just to be as good as last season, they will need to be a little better — because the Spurs, Clippers, Rockets and Thunder are all better than a season ago (at least on paper).

There is no margin for error in the Western Conference. The Warriors need to pick up speed, not just make sure they didn’t lose any.

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

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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)

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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)

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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

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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.