Is a championship enough for Warriors to impress this season?

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The day after Cleveland won the 2016 NBA title, the Warriors were favored to win in 2017.

And then they signed Kevin Durant.

Golden State became favored against the field, a recognition not bestowed on any team since Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

Durant leaving the Western Conference’s second-best team for a 73-win juggernaut tipped the scales in a way that made many uncomfortable. A Warriors title felt preordained before the season began.

This wasn’t the first time people felt a super team would destroy competitive balance. But the howling about Golden State might have been the loudest. Warriors fatigue was just setting in with every Draymond Green nut kick, every brag. And then Durant joined a team that already won a title, reached consecutive Finals and set the regular-season wins record with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green.

Expectations were so high, fans – and maybe even some owners – resented Golden State for tipping the scales too greatly. The Warriors, especially Durant, became villains.

Now, Golden State enters the Finals on the verge of winning a championship, usually the final step to silencing critics. But in this case, that might prove them right.

The Warriors are in a no-win situation. If they lose to Cleveland in the Finals, many will dance on their grave. If they win, many will dismiss their title as product of a stacked deck.

Personally, I find the latter criticism unfair. Every championship is earned – some more than others, but no team is just handed a title. Golden State drafted and developed Curry, Green and Thompson. The Warriors earned Durant’s services by creating such an appealing environment, he chose it despite knowing he’d receive immense backlash. Even with this loaded roster, a championship wasn’t guaranteed. It can be difficult for multiple stars to mesh, and Golden State had major financial constraints to add supporting centers. Credit the Warriors for luring Zaza Pachulia and David West and rehabilitating JaVale McGee.

Really, credit the Warriors for making this look so easy when it’s really not.

But I know that argument won’t convince many – especially considering how the playoffs have gone.

Golden State beat the Trail Blazers without Jusuf Nurkic, the Jazz mostly without George Hill and, in the biggest “what if?”, the Spurs only after Kawhi Leonard got hurt. Everything aligned for the Warriors to cruise through the Western Conference, which never looked like the stiffest challenge in the first place.

Yet, is there a way they can dominate enough to offset the competition imbalance and convince the masses of their greatness?

Golden State went 67-15 in the regular season, ranking No. 1 offensively and No. 2 defensively. The Warriors’ playoff run to the Finals set records for record (12-0) and point difference per game (+16.3).

Golden State’s combined winning percentage between the regular season and playoffs (84%) ranks second all time behind only the 1995-96 Bulls (87%). The Warriors would remain No. 2 by sweeping the Cavaliers or winning in five.

Here are the top teams by combined winning percentage (regular-season, playoff records in parentheses), with Golden State’s current place and possible finishes based on Finals record:

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Obviously, nobody would hail the Warriors as an all-time team if they lose in the Finals, but their combined record would still be elite if they got swept. That says something about their greatness to this point.

Golden State is also in striking distance of the best point difference, regular season and playoffs combined, of all-time. The Warriors (+12.23) rank second to the 1970-71 Bucks (+12.58).

Here are the all-time leaders in combined point difference (regular-season, playoff records in parentheses):

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Here’s how many points the Warriors would need to outscore the Cavs by to pass the 1970-71 Bucks, by series length:

  • Four games: 84 (21.0 per game)
  • Five games: 96 (19.2 per game)
  • Six games: 109 (18.2 per game)
  • Seven games: 121 (17.3 per game)

The odds are against dominating Cleveland that way, but if the Warriors do it, how could we deny them?

Golden State could drop a game to the Cavs, and 16-1 would still be the best postseason record of all-time. Maybe the 2001 Lakers (15-1) and/or 1983 76ers (12-1) could have done that in the current playoff format. But the Warriors have an opportunity to actually do it (as do the 12-1 Cavs, for what it’s worth).

The question remains: Would anyone outside Golden State’s own fans appreciate it?

The best thing that happened to LeBron James‘ reputation was losing his first year in Miami and of his second stint in Cleveland. That showed his titles were earned, not the forgone conclusion of manipulated super teams.

Perhaps, consecutive championships, including one this year, would achieve similar recognition. But that wouldn’t persuade those who view the Warriors as invincible.

Oddly, and I’d argue unfairly, the best thing for the Warriors legacy might be losing this season then winning a future season. We need proof they’re fallible before we can treasure their accomplishments.

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.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.

Wembanyama scores 37, Scoot Henderson 28, as both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who watched the Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France) knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, showed why he is a true 7’4″ unicorn who can do seemingly anything. He finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks, showed off some handles and even brought the ball up court a couple of times.

This play sums him up well: at 7’4″ Wembanyama is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, looks smooth, and when the defender goes under the pick casually drains a 3.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in the next draft, flashed his explosive athleticism to the tune of 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans, scouts, and GMs to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets
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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?