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Five teams with the best shot of knocking off Golden State

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Jeff Van Gundy thinks the Warriors are going to run away with this NBA season.

NBA GMs think the Warriors are going to run away with this NBA season.

One of the things we love about sports is — like life — it rarely follows the script. This NBA season may not either. Maybe the Warriors get challenged — during the regular season, during the Finals, but there will be obstacles in their way. Maybe the Warriors fall. I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s possible.

If the Warriors are knocked off, who does the deed? Here are the five teams with the best shot of dethroning the champs.

1) The Cleveland Cavaliers. They top the list for two reasons. First, they are the best team in the East, they are likely to reach the Finals, and that gives them the best shot at the Warriors (who could be beat up and worn down after at least two tough series just to get out of the West). The other reason is LeBron James. He remains the best player on the planet (I will listen to your Kevin Durant arguments but still choose LeBron). He raises his game, and the games of everyone around him, in the playoffs. However, for the Cavaliers to have a real shot at the Warriors a lot of things need to come together. Most importantly, as a team they need to defend better. Isaiah Thomas needs to return and get back to close to 90% of his last-year self. The Jae Crowder/Kevin Love starting front line needs to work. The Derrick Rose, Tristan Thompson, and either Dwyane Wade or J.R. Smith bench rotation (however it shakes out to be) has to give the team quality bench play. Things have to go just about perfectly, but because they likely will get their chance in the Finals the Cavaliers have the best shot at dethroning the Warriors.

2) The Houston Rockets. The Rockets had the second-ranked offense in the NBA last season, and they got there with a style of play that can hang with the Warriors. Throw Chris Paul into the mix — once he and James Harden develop some on-court chemistry — and the Rockets are the one team that can score with Golden State. The challenge will be on defense, which was pedestrian last season. CP3 certainly improves the defense out top, plus GM Daryl Morey added quality veteran wing defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to the roster. Those wings are all about matching up with the Warriors firepower. On paper, Houston may be the team best positioned to beat the Warriors, but we need to see all of it work over the course of a season before we give them much hope.

3) The Oklahoma City Thunder. Like the Rockets, if this team comes together maybe they have a shot at the Warriors. For the Thunder, everything starts on defense — they were 10th in the NBA last season, they brought back their core guys (Andre Roberson and Steven Adams), and they added an excellent wing defender in Paul George. Nobody stops the Warriors, but the Thunder have the players to make them work more for their points. On offense, if George and Russell Westbrook can integrate with Carmelo Anthony and figure out how to make the needed sacrifices and play well off each other — making this team a Top 10 offensive squad, too — they have a shot. We need to see the team in action, but maybe.

4) The San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had the best defense in the NBA last season, and they have an MVP-level player in Kawhi Leonard. We know how this is going to go, the Spurs are going to defend, execute and make plays. Pau Gasol will impress. They will miss the depth that Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons brought, but they added the scoring punch of Rudy Gay off the bench (once he gets healthy), plus we know Gregg Popovich will throw guys we don’t know out there and they will shine. What we know is the Spurs will not beat themselves, and because of that for years the Spurs have set the bar in the West. They will be that again, but the Warriors and maybe another team or two can clear that bar.

5) The Boston Celtics. I think Boston will be a bigger threat next season and beyond, but maybe things come together faster than expected. Plus, they are in the East, so get past the Cavaliers and they get to take a swing at the Warriors. The Celtics have quality players all over the floor, Kyrie Irving at the point, Gordon Hayward on the wing, and Al Horford in the paint, plus good role players such as Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and now Jayson Tatum. Boston also has one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, who will put Irving in better situations than he has seen in the past. The question in Boston is defense — they are not going to be terrible, but after trading away Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder this summer they will not be as good. Can the Celtics get enough stops to stick on this list?

Report: Celtics “most likely” offer Jayson Tatum a max contract after season

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This should not be a surprise.

Jayson Tatum is a cornerstone of the Celtics now and going forward: 23.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, an efficient 56.2 true shooting percentage, a shot creator, an athletic finisher at the rim, and a guy who shot 39.8 percent from three. Tatum was an All-Star in his third season and will draw third-team All-NBA votes (whenever those votes happen).

Tatum is eligible for an extension to his rookie contract after this season. Is he worth a full max contract? Yes, especially considering he is 22 and still improving by leaps each season.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on SportsCenter the Celtics are expected to offer Tatum the max (hat tip Bleacher Report).

“If Jayson Tatum is the superstar that they envisioned when they began this whole rebuilding process when they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for all of those draft picks hoping to land a player like this, we could see ‘Glory Days’ for the Celtics again. But it’s very much up in the air, and I’m gonna tell ya, they’re gonna have to pay him like it because after this season ends, he is going to get most likely a max contract. They’re going to bet that he becomes that player.”

It’s fair to argue that max contracts should be reserved for true alphas, true No. 1s and maybe a few No. 2 players on a team, and that Tatum has yet to prove he is one of those. Boston would be betting he becomes that player — but right now that looks like a good bet. More importantly, last summer the Celtics locked up Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown on four-year contracts, sign Tatum and the Celtics have a core that will have them at or near the top of the East for years.

Exactly what a max contract will look like this coming off-season after the coronavirus hit to the league’s finances is another question, one nobody has an answer to right now. Under the old cap, it would have been $181 million over five years (and if he made All-NBA teams it could jump to $218 million), but those numbers don’t apply to the new reality. Even if Tatum signs the max offer this summer, he will make his $9.9 million next season then be paid whatever the max is for him starting in the 2021-22 season (and again, it’s impossible to say what the league’s finances will be at that point).

Pay the man his money.  Expect Boston to make the offer whenever the offseason arrives.

Zion Williamson’s attorneys work to avoid him answering questions about improper benefits at Duke

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MIAMI (AP) — Attorneys for NBA rookie Zion Williamson seek to block his former marketing agent’s effort to have the ex-Duke star answer questions about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils.

In a Florida court filing last week, Williamson’s attorneys say those questions are “nothing more than a fishing expedition aimed at tarnishing Williamson’s reputation” and designed to “maximize potential embarrassment and media coverage in an attempt to improperly gain settlement leverage.”

“Plaintiffs’ irrelevant and invasive requests are designed to harass and not calculated to lead to discovery of relevant evidence,” Friday’s filing states.

It is the latest exchange in the fight over the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick’s endorsement potential.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed her lawsuit last summer in Florida, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. Williamson filed his own lawsuit a week earlier in North Carolina to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

Ford’s attorneys had submitted questions this month asking whether the New Orleans Pelicans rookie or anyone on his behalf sought or accepted “money, benefits, favors or things of value” to sign with Duke. Those filings – offering no evidence of wrongdoing by Williamson or his family – sought answers within 30 days to establish facts under oath in the pretrial discovery process.

Williamson’s attorneys seek a stay while appealing the December denial of their motion to dismiss the Florida case based on lack of jurisdiction, or a protective order as an alternative.

At the heart of the dueling lawsuits over Williamson’s marketing rights is this: Williamson says the contract he signed with Prime Sports is illegal under North Carolina’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act (UAAA) because Ford was not registered with North Carolina to negotiate with amateur athletes (which Zion was at the time, having just played for Duke). Ford and Prime dispute that, saying this was a legal and binding negotiation.

One key reason NBA may return with 22 teams: Players want regular-season games

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Nothing is set in stone about an NBA return — at least not until next Thursday — but momentum seems to be building behind a plan that would bring 22 teams to the Orlando bubble.

That plan brings every team within six games of the playoffs when the season was halted into the competition, a total of 22 teams (13 from the West and nine from the East, the playoff teams plus Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Washington). There would be some regular-season games played, likely five to eight, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff seeds, then the playoffs with full seven-game series each round. Exactly what that play-in tournament would look and if the NBA would stick with the conference playoff alignment or seed 1-16 is up in the air (although the conference alignment seems to have more backing).

Why that plan? For one, it gets more cities and more fan bases involved — and it happens to bring Zion Williamson and the Pelicans into the mix, a big television draw. It also could help a few teams reach a 70-game broadcast threshold with local broadcasters.

Mostly, however, the players want it because they get some games under them before the playoffs start, something Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported on at ESPN.

Regardless of how many teams are ultimately included in the playoffs, the National Basketball Players Association has consistently stressed that it wants several regular-season games to be played prior to the start of the playoffs, sources said. That has been a prevailing sentiment among several contending teams that prefer a tuneup before beginning the postseason, sources said.

A lot of players — influential players — have pushed for some regular season or meaningful games before the playoffs start. It’s about health, as trainers told us at NBC Sports, go from zero to 100 jumping straight into the playoffs and teams are asking for injuries. Players understand that.

Maybe only 20 teams end up in Orlando, that plan is on the table as well, but either way expect some regular-season games before the playoffs start. If the powerful players want it to happen, it will.

PBT Podcast: 2020 NBA Mock Draft crossover podcast, Part Deux

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We’re back at it… and not just drinking beer during a podcast. Although we do that, too.

For the third consecutive season, Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk and I collaborated for a first-round mock draft. Rob knows the prospects better than anyone; I provide some knowledge about what the teams might be looking for. The result is a unique listening experience breaking down who will be picked where based on fit.

The first ten picks can be found over on the College Basketball Talk feed.

Here we finish off the lottery and run through the entire rest of the first round.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.