Leicester City ‘s NBA version: “We believe” Warriors of 2007

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The NBA doesn’t do upsets well.

Don’t take my word for it, here’s what baseball and analytics guru Bill James once said about the league:

That’s the real problem with the NBA … the best team is going to win in the long run, and everybody knows it. The season becomes a long, crushing battle in which, ultimately, you have no chance to escape justice … as opposed to college basketball, which is vastly more exciting.

He’s not wrong in the big picture — in the NBA favorite wins most of the time. That’s particularly true in the playoffs. That the best team wins may sound like the goal of any league, in reality we want random upsets, we like vulnerability.

We love seeing a Leicester City rise from obscurity to take the Barclay’s Premiere League and knock off the big money, big name clubs (you can watch them go for the title Sunday at 7:30 am ET on NBCSN when they face West Ham). Had you bet Leicester before the season you would have gotten 5000-1 odds they would take the Premiere League title. Now Leicester City on the doorstep of soccer history — arguably the greatest upset in sports history.

It’s not the same, but, the NBA has had a few great upsets.

The biggest playoff upset — the closest thing the NBA has to its own Leicester City — was the 2007 “We Believe” Golden State Warriors knocking off the Dallas Mavericks.

While Golden State is on top of the NBA world now, the Warriors of 2007 were in a very different place. Golden State had missed the playoffs for a dozen years before the 2006-07 season — they hadn’t made the playoffs since Chris Webber’s rookie season. That’s not easy to do in a league where more than half the teams make the postseason annually. Golden State had in Chris Cohan a man who would have been seen as the worst owner in the NBA and probably the worst owner in professional sports at the time had the Clippers’ Donald Sterling not been Secretariat at the Belmont with that title. Cohen had brought in the respected mad genius Don Nelson to coach his team that season, but he coached a team led by the mercurial Baron Davis and the unrepentant gunner that was young Monta Ellis. Midseason the Warriors made a big trade with the Pacers that brought in Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and Josh Powell.

Despite the new players the Warriors fell to eight games below .500 before a run the last six weeks of the season saw them finish 42-40. The Warriors scraped into the playoffs as the eighth seed that season, playing at the fastest pace in the league. Their offense was good; their defense was not impressing anyone.

Going into the playoffs, the team’s marketing department adopted the slogan “we believe” and it was on T-shirts and banners that filled the building. The loyal and starved fans in the Bay Area did beleive.

The Warriors were matched against the Dallas Mavericks — a 67-win team led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki (he had a 50-40-90 season), a team that had lost just five games at home throughout the campaign. They were serious title contenders expected to roll through the first round… like Manchester United through Leicester.

In a move that now seems like foreshadowing of the current Warriors, Nelson unleashed a physical small-ball lineup on Dallas featuring Davis, Ellis, Jason Richardson, Jackson, and Harrington — their tallest player was 6’9″. The Warriors put five guys on the floor who could handle the ball, five guys who could space the floor and shoot the three. They overwhelmed the Mavericks — the Warriors ran off Dallas makes, they were feisty with Jackson and Matt Barnes off the bench, and Dallas couldn’t deal.

People also can forget how good — and how much fun to watch — a focused and in shape Baron Davis could be. He had 33 points, 14 rebounds, and 8 assists in a Game 1 Golden State win. When the series returned to Oakland for game three of the series, the long-starved and passionate Warriors fans unleashed the full fury of Oracle Arena on Dallas. Golden State won games three and four at home and led the series 3-1. Dallas took game five of the best-of-seven at home.

Game six at Oracle is still talked about as one of the great moments in Warrior’s history. Jackson drained seven threes on his way to 33 points, and during a 24-3 Golden State run in the third he was draining long balls and the crowd was raising the roof off that building. More importantly, Jackson was physical and had gotten in Nowitzki’s head (he was just 2-of-13 shooting that game).

Golden State won — the first eight seed to beat a one seed in a seven-game series in NBA history. We Believe worked and was etched into the history of the franchise.

This is the NBA, upsets don’t last long — the Warriors were manhandled by the Jazz in the second round, and that was the end of that run.

But not before the Warriors gave us the most improbable upset in NBA history.

Wizards’ Kispert likely to miss start of season due to sprained ankle

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The Washington Wizards made fewer 3-pointers than any other team in the league last season. They didn’t take a lot (second fewest) and didn’t make the ones they took (fifth lowest percentage). One goal for Wes Unlseld Jr. this season was to change that dynamic, and second-year player Corey Kispert was a big part of that plan.

Now Kispert is out through at least the start of the season, sidelined 4-6 weeks by a sprained ankle, the team announced Wednesday.

The injury happened on a fluke play in Japan against the Warriors, but Kispert shouldn’t miss much time once the real games start. The Wizards are a little short on the wing right now with Kispert joining Deni Avdija (groin injury) in the training room.

Kispert took 62% of his shots from beyond the arc last season and hit 35% of them, both solid numbers but ones Wizards hoped would improve for the 6’6″ wing this season.

Scoot Henderson says he has skills to be No.1 pick but not hung up on it

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Scoot Henderson came out like a man on a mission Tuesday night against the Metropolitans 92 and Victor Wembanyama — he was in attack mode. He used his explosive athleticism to get to the rim, his impressive body control to get off good shots, and his strength to finish with authority. And if the defender played back, he would drain the jumper over him.

A year ago, Jaylen Brown called him the best 17-year-old he’d ever seen. Scoot is better than that now.

Many years, Henderson would be a clear No.1 overall pick. But, not this year, Wembanyama has that crown because he breaks the mold with his size and skill set (in the NBA, height still wins out).

Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer asked Henderson why he should be the top prospect and got a confident answer.

There will be a lot of people making the Henderson case this season — and with good reason. He could be a franchise cornerstone player for the next decade.

Henderson, however, is trying not to get hung up on No.1 vs. No.2.

There’s a long list of legendary players selected No.2: Bill Russell, Kevin Durant, Jerry West, Jason Kidd, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Henderson can be one of them.

Unless Wembanyama’s medicals come back with red flags, he is destined to be the No.1 pick next June. That, however, will not be the end of Henderson’s story. Instead, it will be just the beginning.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.