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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.

Hawks progressing nicely in rebuild

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

It seems as if the Hawks have been rebuilding for ages.

Really, they’re only one season removed from a decade-long playoff streak, the NBA’s second-longest at the time.

General manager Travis Schlenk has swiftly done what his predecessors didn’t – dismantle a team that won 60 games and commit to rebuilding. In fact, Schlenk has advanced far enough that he’s already well into building Atlanta back up.

Only Kent Bazemore remains the playoff-series-winning team in 2016, let alone the 60-win squad in 2015. Heck, only Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry and Bazemore remain from the team Schlenk inherited just last year.

The Hawks aren’t done dismantling. They’re poised to tank another season. But their rebuild has already seen a defining move.

On draft night, Atlanta traded the rights to No. 3 pick Luka Doncic to the Mavericks for the rights to No. 5 pick Trae Young and a future first-round pick. That decision will take year to evaluate and will linger over both franchises far longer.

For now, it seems about fair. I rated Doncic ahead of Young and both above their draft slots. The Dallas pick – top-five protected the next two years, top-three protected the following two years and unprotected in 2023 – roughly bridges the gap between the players.

If the Hawks preferred Young anyway, they did a great job leveraging an extra first-rounder and still getting their man.

Atlanta’s other first-round picks – Kevin Huerter (No. 19) and Omari Spellman (No. 30) – were also sound. Squint hard enough, and Young and Huerter comprise a backcourt that somewhat resembles Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. That’s the easy comparison considering Schlenk came from the Warriors’ front office, though that’d probably make Spellman the next Marreese Speights.

And that’s make Dennis Schroder the next Monta Ellis, a talented player it was time to move. Though Schroder is just 24, he’s too combustible with and away from the team. Young is the Hawks’ future at point guard.

Rather than pay Schroder $46.5 million over the next three years, Atlanta is better off sinking $25,534,253 into a waived Carmelo Anthony this season. And the Hawks got a potential first-rounder in the deal!

The Thunder pick is lottery-protected in 2022. Otherwise, it converts into two second-rounders. So, there’s a decent chance Atlanta never receives a first-rounder. But unloading Schroder, who had negative value to many teams around the league, was enough. Getting a pick or two – who knows how good Oklahoma City will be in four years? – is gravy.

The Hawks also swapped Mike Muscala for Justin Anderson in the three-way trade with the Thunder and 76ers. For this team in this league, going from the 27-year-old center to a 24-year-old small forward  is an upgrade. Anderson must gain traction in his career, but it’s worth the bet he does so in Atlanta.

Alex Len makes sense as another flier. The former No. 5 pick had moments in five years with the Suns, and he took major strides forward last season. Perhaps, the 25-year-old is on the verge of emerging as capable of being in a good team’s rotation. I’m surprised the price (guaranteed $8.51 million over two years) was so high, but the Hawks had cap space to burn. Better to get their preferred project center.

To that end, Atlanta splurged a lot of its cap room on Jeremy Lin, getting the point guard with just a smattering of second-round considerations going between Atlanta and Brooklyn. Could that cap space have been put to better use, like a salary dump or even just saving ownership money? Did the Hawks acquire Lin as a fan draw? Will Lin generate more revenue than his $13,768,421 salary? He could work well as a veteran mentor, but that’s a lot to pay a veteran mentor.

With Young, John Collins and Taurean Prince at the forefront and Spellman, Anderson and Len diversifying the portfolio, the Hawks have a nice core to build around. They’ll add to it with their own first-rounder, the extra first-rounder from Dallas and a potential first-rounder from Cleveland (top-10 protected the next two years or else it becomes two second-rounders).

Atlanta lost a good coach in Mike Budenholzer, but he didn’t seem eager to oversee a rebuild. Lloyd Pierce, known for player development and teaching defense, takes over. Like practically every first-time NBA head coach, Pierce is a roll of a dice. Maybe the Hawks could have leveraged Budenholzer into securing compensation from another team for letting him leave or even just paying off less of contract. Instead, they just sent him packing.

Sometimes, it’s best to make a clean break and move on.

Offseason grade: B-

Rockets GM Daryl Morey on Warriors signing DeMarcus Cousins: ‘It’s a little bit hard on paper to figure out how to make it work’

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DeMarcus Cousins picking the Warriors sent shockwaves through the NBA. You know they were felt in Houston, where Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is admittedly obsessed with beating Golden State.

Morey on The Dan Patrick Show:

I was really curious. Bob is really good at his job, and he likes to take smart gambles like I do. So, I understood the move. But it’s gonna be interesting. Coach Kerr is one of the best, too. So, it’s a little scary. They’ll probably figure out how to make it work, but it’s a little bit hard on paper to figure out how to make it work. But we do that well and so do they, obviously. They’re gonna be a tough out again, obviously. They’re arguably the best team in NBA history. They’re on their path to maybe be able to make that argument.

Cousins isn’t a seamless fit with the Warriors.

They like to run, and Cousins doesn’t always sprint up court – even before his torn Achilles. Their offense is predicated on quick ball movement, and Cousins likes to survey the floor. They have more efficient scoring options in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, and Cousins is used to being a focal point. They like to switch defensively, and Cousins isn’t as comfortable guarding on the perimeter.

But Cousins is so talented, and the Warriors can afford to be patient as he recovers from his injury. They’re elite already.

I also believe Golden State will slow its tempo and play more traditional defense as its core ages. Cousins might fit better with next season’s Warriors than previous iterations of the team.

So, I think Morey is spot on. Golden State general manager Bob Myers was targeting wings for a reason. The Warriors didn’t exactly need another center – especially a slow-paced, ball-dominant, offensive-minded one. But when Cousins fell into their lap, signing him was well worth the relatively low cost.

Rumor: Pelicans will try to trade for wing help, likely around deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans look like a playoff team (or at least a potential one in the deep West). They have the superstar in Anthony Davis, and he’s part of a well-fitting front line with Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle. The Pelicans also are strong at the point guard spot with Jrue Holiday starting.

Where New Orleans need help is the wing. They had hoped Solomon Hill could be the man there, but he has not stayed healthy or panned out. E’Twaun Moore filled in for him, but was overmatched covering larger players at the three. Darius Miller can give them minutes but is not the answer. Pelicans GM Dell Demps wanted to make a move this summer, but up against the salary cap they didn’t have to room to chase quality free agents.

So look for them to try and pull off an in-season trade, reports Scott Kushner of the New Orleans Advocate.

History (and several league sources) indicates Demps is waiting for a midseason trade to strike. As teams around the league see their postseason prospects dim, and grow eager to exchange a quality player for expiring salaries or the Pelicans’ always-endangered first round pick, there’s opportunity to shore up their most glaring weakness.

It’s exactly what Demps did to acquire Cousins from Sacramento in 2017 and Mirotic a year later from Chicago. Both are impactful veterans who were added without surrendering foundational players.

Various sources and several reports said the Pelicans were active in trade talks this summer, notably with the tanking Atlanta Hawks for Kent Bazemore. But with so few teams eager to dump quality players before opening tip, hoping to make a playoff run of their own, the cost was too steep.

Demps know the Pelicans are on the clock — Davis has this season and one more on his contract (there is a player option for a third season, but he almost certainly will opt out at that point). The Pelicans can offer him the “super max” contract at that point, and Davis has said he wants to stay and win in New Orleans, but if the team struggles and/or he gets a sense that ownership is not all-in on winning, he could choose to look around as a free agent.

Which means Demps and the Pelicans will do what it takes to win now, and a move at the trade deadline is possible. The Hawks still will listen to offers for Bazemore, and other wings will become available. It’s just something to watch as we head into the season.

 

Paul Pierce: ‘There is no loyalty to a franchise anymore … That’s the generation we live in’

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After Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors, Paul Pierce criticized players for changing teams to win.

Now, Pierce is providing an assessment of players just changing teams generally.

Brian Robb of Boston Sports Journal:

To be fair, Pierce doesn’t criticize players for not being loyal to franchises. In fact, he brings up that players are exercising their power.

But it’s still hard not to infer at least some disapproval from Pierce.

Why should players be loyal to franchises, though? Top players are assigned to teams through an anti-labor draft, the least successful teams getting the highest priority of selection. Those players are kept on an artificially low wage for five years can’t unilaterally leave the team for five years. If he plays well enough, his original team has a huge financial advantage in keeping him for up to 14 years. In this system, teams exercise far more control than they earn loyalty.

Players have such short careers. They should chase whatever they want. Money, winning, role, location, even steadiness with a franchise – if they choose.

Pierce spent 15 years with the Celtics, but let’s not forget:

Pierce asked the Mavericks to trade for him in 2005 so he could play with Dirk Nowitzkion a team one star away from contending. In 2007, he reportedly told the Celtics to trade him if they didn’t add a second star. Boston, of course, traded for Ray Allen and then convinced Kevin Garnett to waive his no-trade clause. In 2013, Pierce helped engineer a trade to the Nets. He and Garnett joined Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopezin Brooklyn and Pierce said, “We’re all about winning a championship and Brooklyn, we feel, gives us the best opportunity.” After stints with the Nets and Wizards, Pierce signed with the Clippers, which he described as a super team.