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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.

Report: DeMar DeRozan unhappy with Spurs

Spurs wing DeMar DeRozan
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Facing the Kawhi Leonard trade saga, the Spurs had a clear objective: Remain competitive. That’s why they traded Leonard to the Raptors for veteran star DeMar DeRozan rather than accepting a pick-heavy offer. That wasn’t optimal for the franchise’s long-term health, but it at least paid short-term dividends. San Antonio made the playoffs last year, qualifying for a record 22nd straight season.

Now, the bottom has fallen out.

The Spurs are just 27-36 and will almost certainly miss the playoffs. DeRozan has a $27,739,975 player option that he’ll reportedly decline if the Spurs don’t sign him to a contract extension.

Jabari Young of CNBC on ESPN San Antonio:

Listen, I don’t have to sugarcoat anything. DeMar DeRozan is not happy in San Antonio, OK? The offense is not running as smoothly as one should think with a guy like him in the lineup, and there are problems are there, right? And so you have to decide if you’re going to take that money of if you’re going to come back to a situation that’s just not suitable. I mean, it didn’t work. They got the deal done. It’s over. I mean, the experiment is not working.

This report came before the NBA’s coronavirus shutdown, which could significantly decrease next season’s salary cap. That makes DeRozan (and everyone else with a player option) more likely to opt in. Base on the prior report, DeRozan is willing to stay in San Antonio for the right price. It’s increasingly likely that option-year salary is the right price.

DeRozan is a good player whose scoring – and, at times, passing – can be central in building decent offense. But he has a tandem of deficiencies that make it difficult to fit him onto a good team:

1. He doesn’t shoot 3-pointers to space the floor.

2. He doesn’t defend adequately.

That means his team must surround him offensively with other outside shooters. That’s doable.

His team must also surround defensively with other sound defenders. Again, that’s doable.

But it’s difficult to do both. Players who both shoot 3s well enough to attract attention AND defend well are obviously scarce.

Though DeRozan definitely has fans around the league, it’s another thing for him to expect an offer next offseason that justifies declining his player option. He and the Spurs could be stuck in this imperfect arrangement another year.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri worried about coronavirus in Africa

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Raptors president Masai Ujiri
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Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri is worried about the places currently hardest-hit by the pandemic, and especially worried about the places that haven’t been hit yet.

Ujiri told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that he’s been in contact with some leaders in Africa, plus has spoken with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his talks with other African heads of state about their level of preparation for the new coronavirus .

“I think a lot of leaders are ahead of it, and the ones that aren’t are starting to pay attention because this is an unknown, this is an unseen enemy, and we have to really, really pay attention,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri is of Nigerian descent and founded Giants of Africa, a group that organizes camps and other events to use basketball as a way to promote education and growth for children on the continent. He says he’s unsure yet if his programs will go on this summer as planned.

“We’re just concerned about people, about health, about listening to what the directions are going to be moving forward,” Ujiri said.

When it comes to the NBA season, Ujiri said he’s hopeful play can resume. The Raptors won their first NBA title last season.

Report: Knicks interested in hiring 76ers’ Elton Brand as GM

76ers general manager Elton Brand
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The 76ers’ eventful offseason has fallen flat so far.

Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) has generally underwhelmed and especially struggled to fit with franchise player Joel Embiid. At 33, Horford faces even more issues as he ages.

Though Tobias Harris has been fine, it’s hard to feel good about his five-year, $180 million deal. That contract makes it difficult to build a quality bench, even if ownership is willing to pay the luxury tax. Every team has spending limits, and Philadelphia has tied significant capital to a merely solid forward.

Josh Richardson isn’t shooting as well as he did while looking like a burgeoning star with the Heat. It’s also hard not to notice Jimmy Butler thriving in Miami.

The cumulative results are also concerning. Creating enough spacing around Embiid and Simmons was always challenging. This group isn’t coming close to answering that call. That has produced some strain throughout the season.

Will 76ers general manager Elton Brand take the fall for Philadelphia’s problems?

If so, he could have a fallback job under new Knicks president Leon Rose.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

According to a league source, Elton Brand has been targeted by Rose as a candidate for Knicks GM. Brand, 41, is currently the Sixers GM and is under contract next season, complicating any designs of bringing him to New York. The source said Rose wanted to see if Brand was dismissed after the playoffs.

It’s nearly impossible to see Brand going to New York unless the 76ers fire him. Though the titles in each franchise would be the same, they’re very different roles. He holds the top position in Philadelphia’s front office. With the Knicks, Brand would work under Rose.

Would the 76ers fire Brand? Maybe. It could depend how they do in the playoffs, and this team still has a championship upside this season.

Even with an early-round loss, Philadelphia seems more likely to fire coach Brett Brown than make a larger change. But it’s not as if Brand – who held minimal front-office experience when hired in 2018 – has done much to instill confidence. There’s not a great affirmative case for keeping him.

The Knicks have Scott Perry as general manager, but he’s a holdover from the Steve Mills regime. After all the handwringing about Steve Stoute saying the Knicks will hire a new coach while they still had Mike Miller as interim coach, this more reflects reality. Professional sports are a cutthroat business. It’s perfectly fine for the Knicks to seek a new general manager while still having someone in that position running out the clock.

Could that be Brand? He’s smart and connects well with people. His long playing career provides invaluable experience. He’d fit well as No. 2 in an NBA front office.

But, right now, he has an even better job.

Carmelo Anthony: Nuggets should have won 2009 championship

Carmelo Anthony in 2009 Lakers-Nuggets Western Conference finals
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Carmelo Anthony said he would’ve won multiple championships if the Pistons drafted him in 2003.

Of course, Detroit picked Darko Milicic No. 2. Anthony went to the Nuggets No. 3.

But Anthony still had a big opportunity to win a title.

Denver – led by Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Nene, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin – reached the 2009 Western Conference finals. Facing the Lakers, the Nuggets lost Game 1 by two points then won Game 2 by three points in Los Angeles. The Lakers then won Games 3, 5 and 6 to take the series.

Anthony on Instagram with Dwyane Wade:

I was sick, because we were supposed to beat them that year. I don’t like saying “We should have.” I don’t like saying all that. But when you re-evaluate everything. We really wanted Orlando in that Finals that year. We was like, “If we get Game 1 in L.A. or Game 2, we’re going back to Denver, we’re sweeping them.” We was going to beat them. We was going to beat them that year if we would’ve won in L.A. If we would’ve won both games, we would’ve beat them. And we would’ve swept Orlando that year.

Wade:

Orlando was alright, but they weren’t –

Anthony:

No, would’ve swept them. We would’ve swept them that year.

Yes, Denver would have likely won the series if taking the first two games in Los Angeles. The Nuggets also would’ve had a strong chance against the Magic, whom the Lakers beat in five in the Finals.

But it’s a major leap just to give Denver another win in Los Angeles. The Lakers were better than the Nuggets throughout the season. The Lakers were better than the Nuggets in that series. The Lakers were better than everyone. They had just reached the NBA Finals the prior season and were on their way to winning consecutive titles. This wasn’t some unfortunate break for Denver.

And even if the Nuggets won Game 2, the series wouldn’t have been over as Anthony says. The Lakers were led by Kobe Bryant and had savvy veterans like Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher. They wouldn’t have just folded with a 2-0 deficit.

Sometimes, lesser teams beat better teams. The Nuggets COULD have beaten the Lakers.

But SHOULD have? Nah. Not even close.