After Kyrie Irving trade, here are five biggest threats to Warriors

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Let’s be honest: The blockbuster Kyrie Irving trade to the Boston Celtics likely means the NBA Finals goes five games instead of four.

The Golden State Warriors can be that good. They won 67 games last season with the NBA’s top offense and second-ranked defense, now they have been in the system for a year as a unit, know each other better, and made some good offseason additions. The Warriors will be better. And they still have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. The Warriors are the clear favorites to repeat as NBA champions.

But life rarely follows the script. So who are the biggest threats to the Warriors? Here are the top five.

1) The Houston Rockets. Houston won 55 games last season with the NBA’s second-ranked offense and a style of play that can hang with the Warriors — then they added Chris Paul to the mix. Plus GM Daryl Morey added quality veteran wing defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, guys picked up in part to match up with the Warriors firepower. On paper, Houston is the NBA’s second best team and the one best poised to challenge the Warriors. It’s fair to wonder if Chris Paul and James Harden can share the backcourt and the ball — and if they can find a tempo that works for them — but coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t worried. It’s also fair to question if this team can be good enough defensively, even though they added good defenders. Still, the Rockets are a threat and a contender.

2) The Cleveland Cavaliers. The reason they are here is not the trade, it’s LeBron James. He remains the best player on the planet (although Durant is close). But the trade helps. In terms of pure offensive production, Isaiah Thomas matched or even bested Irving last season, IT is an All-NBA player for a reason. Also, the Cavaliers pick up the kind of “3&D” wing they have desperately needed in Jae Crowder. And if another player they really want/need comes available, they have assets in Ante Zizic and that Brooklyn first round pick to get him. Cleveland gets this spot because they are the clear favorite to win the East again, and if they are back in the Finals they have a shot despite an aging roster. The Cavs have beaten the Warriors in the Finals before.

3) The Boston Celtics. Admittedly, there is a bit of a drop off after those first two. I see Boston as more of a threat in two seasons (2018-19) and beyond, but after this trade they have quality players at key positions — Irving at the point, Gordon Hayward on the wing, and Al Horford in the paint. Boston also has one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, who will put Irving in better situations (so long as Irving buys in and doesn’t just force isolation action, as he did at times in Cleveland). What Boston needs is guys like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to develop, and Marcus Smart to step up, to become real contenders. They also need to show they can defend, they traded away some of their best defenders this summer. That and a stronger defensive presence in the paint. All that said, Boston has a legitimate shot to beat Cleveland and come out of the East, and if they reach the Finals, then the Celtics at least have a puncher’s chance against the Warriors.

4) The San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs won 55 games last season, had the best defense in the NBA, and with Kawhi Leonard they have their own superstar. The Spurs are going to execute and make plays. They will miss the depth that Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons brought, but they added the scoring punch of Rudy Gay off the bench. What we know is the Spurs will not beat themselves, that they will be in the hunt, and we should know by now not to sleep on them.

5) The Oklahoma City Thunder. I think this is a dark horse contender. What we know is that the Thunder should be a top five defensive team — they were 10th in the NBA last season, they brought back their core guys (Andre Roberson and Steven Adams are key here), and they added an excellent wing defender to the mix in Paul George. The Thunder will get stops. If George and Russell Westbrook can figure out how to play well together on the offensive end — last season the Thunder were middle of the pack offensively with the Westbrook show — and get in the top 10, they become a team that could surprise some people.

Adam Silver hopes lottery changes, recent results will slow down tanking

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The NBA league office HATES tanking.

The league hates that teams see it as a strategy, and they hate the idea that there are fan bases actively rooting for their team to lose. The league sees that as a destructive force. What the fans see is a shot at Zion Williamson (or, the next great player). So the league changed around the lottery odds this season, and the Pelicans (with just a six percent chance at it) jumped up to the No. 1 spot, while the teams with the three worst records will pick third, fifth, and sixth.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Rachel Nichols of ESPN he hopes the lottery changes, and the most recent results, end the worst of tanking (via Royce Young at ESPN).

“Where I think it’s the greatest success is, hopefully it’ll stop fans in those markets from rooting for their teams to perform poorly,” Silver said prior to Game 6 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. “Because that race to the bottom is just destructive, I think, for everyone. Corrosive for players and franchises, and I think, in some cases, even some executives who knew better felt they couldn’t withstand the pressure from the communities, from the media in some cases, saying, ‘Why are you operating at this level when you should either get much better or much worse?’…

“I think in this case now with the change in the lottery, people are going to realize that there’s only one way to build a franchise,” Silver said. “Of course, you need to get great players, but at the same time you need to build culture, you need strong management, you need strong coaching. And players incrementally get better year after year. I mean, look at these two great franchises. It’s wonderful from a league standpoint to see the Warriors and the Raptors, two incredibly well-run franchises from top to bottom, here representing the league.”

The Warriors and Raptors are certainly well run, but lottery luck is still going to shape franchises as long as there is an NBA Draft. It’s the nature of a sport where you need at least one and probably two of the top 15-20 players in the world to win a title, for a lot of cities getting that player will only happen via the Draft.

What the change in lottery rules does is just move the inflection point. There may be reduced value in having the very worst record, but for a team that looks like it is on the playoff bubble at Christmas, the calculus changes: Tank the rest of the way, get maybe a six percent chance a the No. 1 pick and look what can happen. Some teams will still chase the playoff berth (and the gate revenue that comes with it), but not all. Teams will make different choices in the middle of the pack now because their lottery odds are better with this system.

It will be a few years before we fully see and understand the impact of the new lottery odds, but tanking on some level will be part of the NBA so long as there is a draft. And some fans will want their team to do it.

Report: If Brooklyn signs Kyrie Irving then D’Angelo Russell will leave

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Rumors have been flying around for weeks that Kyrie Irving is leaning towards signing in Brooklyn as a free agent. Things can still change, the Irving/Kevin Durant pairing with the Knicks is not off the table (or with the Nets), but there is, at the very least, strong mutual interest between Irving and the Nets.

Last season, Brooklyn extended Spencer Dinwiddie, giving them a quality reserve point guard at a reasonable price.

Where does that leave All-Star D'Angelo Russell? Out the door if Irving signs, reports Ian Bagley at SNY.com.

If Irving signs with the Nets, SNY sources familiar with the matter say it is highly unlikely that Russell remains with the Nets. Members of the Nets organization have communicated that idea in recent days, per sources.

Russell will have no shortage of suitors, including good teams looking for another shot creator in Indiana and Utah.

Russell is a restricted free agent and if Irving does not sign the Nets likely want Russell back. One interesting thing to watch, if the Nets rescind their rights to Russell, it would mean they are about to sign two max guys (they would need to get Russell’s cap hold off the books to get that done).

Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7 assists a game last season, shooting 36.9 percent from three. His shots started falling at a higher rate, he improved as a floor general, and his game took a leap forward to All-Star level last season.

How much did five Finals runs, fatigue factor into Durant, Thompson injuries?

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Klay Thompson ran more than 60 miles on the court during these NBA playoffs, that coming off a season where he ran nearly 198 miles during games.

Kevin Durant, even after missing a month with a calf injury, ran 29.5 playoff miles during these playoffs.

And that was just this season. In the past five seasons, the Golden State Warriors have played 105 playoff games. That means they essentially packed six seasons — including a playoff run — into five seasons of time.

The sports science on this is clear: Catastrophic injuries — such as a ruptured Achilles or ACL tear — are far more likely to happen when the player is fatigued.

With many trying to assign blame for the Warriors two devastating injuries in their final two games, part of that needs to fall on the Warriors’ own success. “Blame” may be the wrong word here because it’s not like the Warriors would give back a title, but becoming the first team since the Bill Russell Celtics to make it to five straight finals added to the fatigue for the team and likely played a role in what happened.

“I don’t know if it’s related to five straight seasons of playing a hundred plus games and just all the wear and tear, but it’s devastating,” an emotional Steve Kerr said after Game 6 discussing Durant’s ruptured Achilles and Thompson’s torn ACL.

Kerr is not alone. Twitter doctors and Charles Barkley aside, nobody knows how significant a role the extra games played in the injuries because there is seldom a straight line to draw between cause and effect on major injuries. Human nature is to want simple, clean answers, but life rarely presents those. It’s a complex stew of factors. LeBron James can go to eight straight Finals and not have this issue (although he is a physical outlier in the NBA in many ways).

Fatigue, however, appears to play a role.

In Durant’s case, his exertion may correlate with his injuries. His initial calf strain — and the Warriors insist that is all it ever was — happened against the Rockets, a series where Durant saw a jump in playing time of about five minutes a night because Kerr leaned heavily on his core in a series where the Warriors realized the threat. Studies have shown that injuries are more likely to occur when a player sees a sudden jump in minutes played and load carried, in part because that players’ body becomes more fatigued.

When Durant returned to the court for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the plan was to play him in “short bursts,” meaning four- or five-minute stints. After the first five minute stint (there was a timeout at 7:11 in the first quarter), Durant said he felt good and asked to stay in, so he remained on the court until 5:50. He rested for about two and a half minutes, then was back on the court — and playing well. Durant had 11 points and the Warriors offense flowed far more smoothly again. Kerr left Durant in to start the second quarter, and at the 9:46 mark we all know what happened.

After missing 32 days of basketball, Durant played 12 of the first 14 minutes in Game 5. How much did that play a role in his torn Achilles?

Thompson missed Game 3 of the NBA Finals with a strained hamstring and was not 100 percent the remainder of the way. If that hamstring was healthier would he have landed differently or been able to withstand it better, not tearing his ACL after being fouled on a dunk attempt? We will never know, but it’s possible.

Meanwhile, across the way, the Toronto Raptors took heat in some quarters for the “load management” of Kawhi Leonard, having him miss 22 regular season games to rest his body and keep his quad tendon healthy. Leonard played through a sore right knee — suffered compensating for that left quad tendon — but was out there for every game and was Finals MVP.

Players, agents, and teams all took note of that. The next time a player is coming back from injury, Durant in particular (but also Thompson) will be seen as a cautionary tale. Expect guys to make sure they are 100 percent (or close to it) before getting back on the court, not wanting to risk a greater injury. Most guys are not still going to get the same contract offers after a catastrophic injury. Also, “load management” will become even more of a thing.

The NBA is a recovery league where fatigue is a constant issue. Maybe this is all another baby step toward shortening the NBA regular season schedule, but we all know the financial complexities of that make it a long way off. At best.

But for those that need to assign blame for the injuries to Durant and Thompson, starting with the Warriors own success is a good idea.

NBC Sports/Rotoworld NBA Draft preview show and mock draft

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With the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the New Orleans Pelicans’ select…

Zion Williamson. That’s just obvious. Then the Grizzlies will take Ja Morant second, and the Knicks — or whoever has the pick by draft night — will take R.J. Barrett.

Then things get interesting.

I joined Rotoworld’s Tommy Beer and Steve Alexander to do a mock draft of the first round, from Zion through… you’ll just have to watch. The full video is above, and we also talk a little about potential trades and fantasy impact.

If you can’t get enough mock drafts, CollegeBasketballTalk’s Rob Dauster and I did a mock draft podcast of the first round a couple of weeks ago. You can check out the list and listen to picks 1-10 here, and then the rest of the first round at this link.