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Three Things to Know: Just how vulnerable are Warriors without Stephen Curry?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Just how vulnerable are the Warriors without Stephen Curry? We know how this may well play out because we saw this movie last year. Kevin Durant got injured in Game 60 last season and was not 100 percent going into the playoffs, yet the Warriors went 16-1 through the postseason on their way to the title. This season it’s easy to envision all the Warriors All-Stars getting healthy — Durant and Draymond Green should return this week, Klay Thompson before the playoffs, and Stephen Curry somewhere late in the first round or early in the second — and they all will be rested and healthy. The Warriors will flip the switch and blow everyone out of the water. They have the talent, this could be their reality.

However, this year feels different.

This year the Warriors look vulnerable. We came into this season and went through much of it thinking they would run away with another title, but as the playoffs near it doesn’t look that way at all.

In part because Curry will not be back for the first round of the postseason, according to Steve Kerr. Also, even when he does return he will not be 100 percent — and we saw in the 2016 Finals what it looks like when Curry’s knee is not 100 percent. He was not the same when he doesn’t move as well laterally and can’t lose guys — with a ring on the line he could not shake Kevin Love on the perimeter — and the Warriors fell. Curry has already missed more games this season (22) than he had the past five seasons combined (16).

The Warriors offense is built around Curry and his style — it’s not just his points, it’s his ball movement and movement off the ball. Other teams can’t ignore him, even if he’s 28 feet from the rim on the weak side, and that off-ball gravity pulling defenders toward him opens up everything in the Warriors offense. Golden State’s offense is 14.4 points per 100 possessions better when Curry is on the court this season.

Remove Curry and the Warriors are still dangerous because they have elite scorers in Durant and Thompson, but the style changes some. Durant uses a lot more isolations and post ups, the ball doesn’t move as well. The Warriors are still good, because Durant is an isolation beast and can post up a lot of defenders, but without the ball movement they are a little more predictable, they take more midrange jumpers (29 percent of their shot attempts are midrangers when Curry is on the court, that jumps to 43 percent when he’s is out, stat via Cleaning The Glass).

Put simply, the Warriors without Curry have a point differential in the Portland/Utah/Minnesota range, not NBA champion level.

The questions are, who will the Warriors face in the first round and can that team pull off the upset? Golden State is all but officially locked in as the two seed. The West is still a jumbled mess, but most likely the Warriors will face one of the Pelicans, Spurs, Timberwolves or Jazz, in a 2-7 matchup. There are teams in there that will be tough outs and have, at least, a puncher’s chance at the upset. Utah is a team other West teams talk about wanting to avoid — they are physical, defensive, and with the emergence of Donovan Mitchell have enough offense to win. The Spurs may have Kawhi Leonard back and that would change everything for them. The Timberwolves expect to have Jimmy Butler back, and that makes them much better defensively and far more dangerous.

There are no pushovers in the West (and we’re not even getting into Houston in the potential conference finals matchup, they could beat a healthy Warriors team). Still, the Durant-led Warriors very likely win a tough first-round matchup. Then they will almost certainly face Portland in the second round — and if Curry is not back that would be a tough ask. Portland is a top-10 defensive team in the league this season who can get buckets with that backcourt. Damian Lillard we know is clutch and is having an All-NBA level season. And that brings us to their other guard…

2) C.J. McCollum drops 34 and drains game-winner as Trail Blazers beat Thunder. We are not going to focus on Carmelo Anthony‘s rough night (but when you think about OKC in the playoffs you have to factor that in), but rather on what the Trail Blazers did right to put a lock on the three seed in the West.

One thing they almost always get right — feed the hot hand. Often in recent weeks that has been Lillard, but on Sunday it was McCollum’s turn to put up the numbers, then hit the game-winner against the Thunder.

Portland is legit. There are no easy first-round matchups in the West, nothing is a given. However, with this team’s defense and scoring they should be able to get to that second-round matchup in the playoffs with the Warriors — and if Curry is not right they have a shot. It would take an almost perfect series, with Lillard making big plays late and Jusuf Nurkic being a force in the paint and being able to stay on the floor, not to mention role players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, and Ed Davis having to step up, but it could happen. There is a confidence and optimism around this Portland team that it has earned.

They are going to get their shot in the playoffs. We’ll see if that’s enough.

3) Jazz beat Warriors, Clippers win and Spurs lose, so where does the West playoff chase stand? As noted above, the West is a jumbled mess, so let’s break it down quickly with just more than a couple weeks left in the season.

Houston is going to be the top seed, and Golden State second. Lock that in.

Portland is currently the three seed with a two-game lead over the Thunder — and now three games in the loss column over the four seed Oklahoma City. Don’t use ink yet, but you can pencil in the Trail Blazers as the three seed.

Then anything can happen. Just 1.5 games separate fourth-seeded Oklahoma City and eighth-seeded Utah — and all five of those teams are within one game of each other in the loss column (Minnesota, San Antonio, and New Orleans are the other three). Things will change. Minnesota is currently the seven seed but they have the easiest schedule the rest of the way — a game against Utah is the only one they have against a playoff-bound team, but they play the Grizzlies twice, and the Hawks and Mavericks once. On the other hand, Oklahoma City and San Antonio still have relatively tough schedules the rest of the way and could pick up a few more losses, sliding them down the standings.

Denver is currently the nine seed, and even with an upset win over Toronto the L.A. Clippers are the 10 seed.  Those teams will need help — and a lot of wins. The Nuggets are 1.5 games back of the Jazz (just one game back in the loss column) and the Clippers two games. The Nuggets have one of the toughest schedules in the league the rest of the way and will need wins against Portland, Oklahoma City and Minnesota to climb back in. For the Nuggets and Clippers, the playoffs have started and they can’t afford many more losses.

Report: Pacers to target Ricky Rubio, also talking to Pelicans about No. 4 pick

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Indiana would have been a tough out come the East playoffs, that is until Victor Oladipo went down (ruptured right quadriceps tendon). They still believe with a healthy Oladipo this coming season they can move into the upper echelon of the East. But they need some roster upgrades.

Specifically at the point guard spot. D'Angelo Russell‘s name has come up, but target, but Ricky Rubio seems to be their top target, reports Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.

Unrestricted free-agent point guard Ricky Rubio will be a top target of the Pacers, according to multiple league sources. Rubio would replace point guards Darren Collison and Cory Joseph—both unrestricted free agents—and share the backcourt with Victor Oladipo, who ruptured his right quadriceps tendon this past season. Rubio is a worse shooter than Collison and Joseph, but would provide a significant defensive and playmaking upgrade to better complement Oladipo’s score-first style.

Rubio gets a bad rap from some fans because he’s not a great shooter. However, he’s developed into a good floor general who runs a team well, can defend his position, and still throws some stunning passes. He could help a lot of teams, the Pacers being one.

The Pacers also might try to move up in the draft.

The Pacers have also discussed a trade with the Pelicans for the no. 4 pick in the draft, according to league sources.

You could remove the phrase “the Pacers” from that last sentence and put 27 team names in there and it would be accurate. The Pelicans have shopped that pick all over the league.

One way or another, expect the Pacers to be aggressive this summer. They are a team that believes they are one player away and they have both the cap space and trade assets to get something done. They want to open their championship window.

 

Report: Chris Paul demanded trade after Rockets’ second round loss

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Things apparently aren’t as bad as they have seemed recently between James Harden and Chris Paul.

They’re worse.

Paul demanded a trade after the Rockets’ playoff exit because that relationship couldn’t be salvaged, Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports reports.

Paul went to Rockets management and demanded a trade, and Harden issued a “him or me” edict following the Rockets’ second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors, sources said.

The backcourt mates went nearly two months without speaking to each other during the season, sources said, creating a tenuous environment for teammates and everyone involved with the franchise…

“There’s no respect at all, on either side,” a source told Yahoo Sports. “They need to get away from one another. Chris doesn’t respect James’ standing in the league, and James doesn’t respect the work Chris has put in to this point.”

Rockets GM Daryl Morey denied that Paul is available in an interview on the Dan Patrick Show today.

“We were the best team down the stretch. We’ve spent a lot of time putting together two superstars. We’re trying to add a third,” Morey said. “Going backward from that doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.”

Paul is not easy to play with, just ask Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. Paul is one of the highest IQ and most competitive players in the league, but that leads him to be relentless on teammates, continually pushing and correcting them, and that led to tension in Los Angeles.

Harden, who is the reigning MVP and finished second two of the previous three years (and that likely will be three-of-four after this year’s results are released), is a guy who is not going to put up with that.

At the heart of the issue is style: James Harden dominates the ball and likes to work in isolation, Chris Paul prefers a more fluid offense. Coach Mike D’Antoni, the guy who does not have a contract beyond next season (extension talks faltered), gives a lot of leeway to Harden. Paul, among other players, complained to D’Antoni about that. Nothing changed.

Still, it’s not going to be easy to split this duo up.

As a tandem they have made the Rockets the second best team in the West for two years running, and if not for CP3’s hamstring injury in 2018 they might both have rings. Do the injuries to Kevin Durant (who might leave the Warriors anyway) and Klay Thompson change their perception and approach to this relationship? Together they are a serious threat to win a title and they know it.

There’s also the practical matter: Trading Paul is going to be very difficult and might require the Rockets to throw a sweetener (a pick or young player) in the deal to get it done. It’s not that CP3 is terrible — he averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 assists per game last season, and he remains the best floor general in the game — but he is 34-years-old, lost a step last season, has an injury history (he played 58 games last season), and most importantly is owed $124 million fully guaranteed over the next three seasons. That’s a lot of money to take on.

The Rockets are rumored to have talked to teams seeking a point guard (Phoenix, for example) but sources have said there has been little traction on any deal. And again, Morey denied he was available (which he would do whether or not that was true).

Just as the door to the Finals through the West swings wide open, the Rockets are stumbling and may not be able to walk through it.

Report: Knicks, who have No. 3 pick, to work out Darius Garland

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Duke forward R.J. Barrett is the consensus No. 3 prospect in the upcoming NBA draft. He wants to join the Knicks. The Knicks have the No. 3 pick.

Perfect match?

Maybe not.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

Maybe this is just New York doing its due diligence. The Knicks could also be trying to drum up trade interest among teams that want Garland.

But this feels a little like 2015, when Jahlil Okafor was the consensus No. 2 prospect for most of the pre-draft process but D'Angelo Russell emerged late as the Lakers’ No. 2 pick.

Barrett is a flawed prospect. He didn’t hit jumpers efficiently at Duke. His decision-making is suspect. He’s too left-handed dominant. He rarely uses his defensive tools. There’s a lot to like, to be sure. Barrett has nice size, athleticism and physicality. He’s a good ball-handler and playmaker. He seems built for a leading role.

But it wouldn’t shock me if a team likes Garland more. The point guard is a knockdown shooter with the ball-handling and footwork to get that shot off. He needs work as a distributor and lacks Barrett’s defensive potential.

Garland might not be as good as Barrett right now. But Garland’s path to success might be a little more projectable.

Harrison Barnes declining $25,102,512 player option with Kings

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Harrison Barnes‘ salary was so high, he became a talking point in the debate about WNBA salaries.

But he’s so confident he’ll get a better deal, he’s leaving $25,102,512 on the table with the Kings.

James Ham of NBC Sports California:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Kings project to have about $60 million in cap space – likely more than they know what do with.

They could re-sign Barnes. By trading for him last year, they indicated they value him more than the rest of the league does.

Even if he settles for a lower salary next season than his player option called for, this could be the 27-year-old Barnes’ opportunity to secure a long-term deal. He’s a solid outside shooter and, even if he’s better at power forward, capable of playing small forward in a league thirsty for wings.

Sacramento could definitely use a player like him.

Can the Kings lure someone better, either this summer or – if they keep their books clean – a future year? Unless way overpaid, free agents have tended to avoid Sacramento. But the rapidly improving De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are leading a turnaround.

Barnes’ free agency could be a good litmus test for the Kings’ reputation now. Can they convince him to continue his role on a rising team? Will they have to pay a premium to keep him? Or does he just want to leave?