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Chance (and maybe the Celtics) are biggest roadblock to Warriors this season

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I would like to tell you that the Houston Rockets adding Carmelo Anthony is a major threat to the Golden State Warriors.

I could tell you that the Oklahoma City Thunder, back in full health and with a former MVP on its roster, could create significant matchup problems for the reigning NBA champions.

It would be helpful to write that LeBron James and his Island of Misfit Boys will be a Western Conference Finals foe for Steve Kerr’s squad.

The problem is that I don’t think any of that is true.

The reality of the situation is that the only real thing standing in the way of the Warriors grabbing another title is health. Specifically, the health of the two players who are clearly the most important for them when it comes to the playoffs, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala.

But writing a season preview for the Warriors focused on the anxiety of a potential major injury to a star player delves too far into the macabre even for yours truly. That’s not to say that a catastrophic injury couldn’t derail Golden State’s season, it’s just that writing about such a thing in September seems a bit fatalistic.

From a basketball standpoint, it is true the Rockets are a top contender to at least cause problems for the Warriors come playoff time. Before Chris Paul‘s injury last year, Houston took Golden State right to the wire in a thrilling Western Conference Finals matchup that resulted in yet another win for a Paul foe by TKO. And as much of a CP3 fan as I am, it’s damn near impossible to try and count on him being a major player deep into the playoffs at this juncture in his career.

The Thunder are a contrarian’s pick against Golden State, although even with Andre Roberson back it’s not clear how Oklahoma City is better than the Warriors. Russell Westbrook is a machine, and the Thunder are more sorted out as ever as they return Paul George. But where the Thunder could take advantage of Golden State, so too are there too many options available for the Warriors to take advantage of Oklahoma City.

This goes the same, on down the list, for just about every team when trying to pick an upset in Oakland. The problem with the Warriors is that they have too many counters to any kind of matchup problems or schematic Molotov cocktails opponents might throw at them in the playoffs.

The West is an absolute gauntlet, but the real answer for who might be able to create problems for the Warriors could lie in the East. The Boston Celtics seem most rotationally appropriate as foils for the Warriors’ cornucopia of basketball talent. Gordon Hayward returns to a team that won 55 games last season before finally looking outmatched by LeBron and the Cavaliers for lack of veteran leadership in the postseason.

The Celtics will get that back in spades as Hayward returns from a broken tibia and as Kyrie Irving, who sat out the entire playoffs, brings more firepower to the starting lineup. Boston is one of the deepest teams in the NBA, and if Jayson Tatum doesn’t hit a sophomore wall it’s possible the Celtics waiver only slightly as they move through their bench rotation. Al Horford was stellar last year. Marcus Smart is coming back. Jaylen Brown was far more valuable than many thought he would be at this stage in his career. There is no way around it, Boston is good.

This is not to lend any kind of confidence to the idea that the Warriors will have a real challenger in the Finals this season. The reality is that at full force, Golden State is better than any team in the NBA. That holds true even if Kevin Durant decides to leave next season, at least for the time being. The true enemy of the Warriors will be cap space and the aging of their core, both in terms of miles on Curry’s ankles, Iguodala’s everything, and Draymond Green’s upcoming contract. Klay Thompson has said that he wants to stay put, but anything is possible when money comes into play in the NBA.

For now, it seems as though the Warriors will continue their dominance at least through this season. Over the next three to four years, that will change. Golden State will waver, even if ever so slightly. Options will be available for teams to take over that top spot in the NBA, and someone else will win a championship.

Whether it’s the Celtics, or the Rockets, or some other team, opponents will need to pounce if Golden State shows the slightest sign of weakness, this year or next. No doubt many are prepping for that very thing.

Report: Pelicans, Pistons, Kings NBA’s most active buyers in trade market

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The Pelicans are likely in a make-or-break season.

They can offer Anthony Davis a super-max extension next off season. If he signs it, he’d be locked up for five more years. If not, he’d head toward 2020 unrestricted free agency. New Orleans could keep an un-extended Davis through the 2019-20 season and hope for the best, but a trade seems inevitable if he’s not willing to sign the largest-possible extension next summer.

So, this season is the last before that moment of truth. And the Pelicans are just 15-15, tied for 10th in the Western Conference.

That’s why they’re on the far end of the trade spectrum.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

But what about the buyers? League executives report the New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings lead the list of teams calling around looking for ways to upgrade their rosters in recent weeks.

All three of these teams are understandable buyers:

Pelicans

New Orleans needs to upgrade around Davis before it’s too late. He has set high standards and placed the burden on himself, but he might eventually look around and realize it shouldn’t be this hard.

The Pelicans have drafted in the first round only once since 2012 (when they picked Davis), and they traded that pick – Buddy Hield – during his rookie year. They have all their future first-round picks and could again use one to get immediate help.

New Orleans could also move Solomon Hill (making $12,252,928 this season, $12,758,781 next season) to match salary, though he holds negative value on that contract. Several smaller expiring contracts could also prove useful.

Unloading yet another first-rounder could come back to bite the Pelicans, but they must impress Davis first. Secure him, and worry about everything else later.

Pistons

The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game in 11 years. They’ve missed the postseason entirely the last two seasons. At 13-13, they could fall out again.

Or they could bolster their roster to become more competitive in April.

Detroit is fairly locked into this expensive team, led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. The Pistons are stuck, somewhat by choice, playing for the present. They might as well make it count.

They could dangle Stanley Johnson if they don’t plan to re-sign him in restricted free agency this summer. The 22-year-old could fetch a better, older player.

Detroit has little breathing room below the luxury-tax line, and as much as owner Tom Gores wants to make the playoffs, I doubt he’d pay the tax on this team.

Kings

Sacramento (15-12) is the NBA’s brightest surprise. After missing the playoffs 12 straight seasons – the NBA’s longest active postseason drought – the Kings are eighth in the Western Conference. They also already traded their 2019 first-round pick.

It’s time to go for it.

Sacramento’s priority should be building long-term around a young core led by De'Aaron Fox. But there’s still room to focus on satisfying this season, especially with no first-round-pick fallback if the team slips.

The Kings are the only team still with cap space, and they have $11,024,578 of it. They also have several veterans on expiring contracts – Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234), Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500) and Ben McLemore ($5,460,000). That opens a lot of possibilities.

Maybe Sacramento can get a helpful and not-too-old, but overpaid, player on a multi-year deal from a team looking to shed salary? Prime example: Wizards forward Otto Porter.

Bradley Beal foils Celtics’ foul-up-three plan, forces OT (video)

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Foul or defend?

Though it’s always worth it for teams to consider how they can incrementally improve their odds of winning, the debate over strategy when leading by three points late probably gets too much attention. Teams up by three points late almost always win, regardless.

But the rare cases of a team overcoming a late 3-point deficit are so memorable.

Take last night, when the Celtics – up three – intentionally fouled Bradley Beal with 13 seconds left. Beal made the first free throw, missed the second, grabbed the offensive rebound and scored. It was a heck of a play that forced overtime.

It didn’t pay off for the Wizards, who lost in overtime. But it paid off for us, as the extra period produced this awesome sequence.

Report: Knicks undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier will have higher salary than 20 of 30 2018 first-round picks

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Allonzo Trier took a winding road to the Knicks – grade-school acclaim, failed drug tests at Arizona, going undrafted – but he’s thriving now. Trier is scoring 11.3 points per game, one of the highest marks ever for an undrafted rookie in his first professional season.

About to run out of NBA service days on his two-way contract, Trier is cashing in.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

The most the Knicks had to offer Trier over two years is $6,933,100 through the bi-annual exception – $3,382,000 this season and $3,551,100 next season. It sounds as if Trier got that and Begley is rounding.

That’d put Trier’s 2018-19 salary above 20 of this year’s 30 first-round picks. Not bad for an undrafted player.

Trier gets buckets. I still have questions about the 22-year-old’s all-around game, but he has proven himself an NBA contributor. New York did well to reward him and keep him on the roster the rest of the season.

The Knicks are essentially buying flexibility next summer by paying Trier so much now. They’re gearing up for 2019 free agency – most notably, Kevin Durant – and value cap space.

If Trier plays well enough, New York can always exercise his team option and keep him for next season. If not, the Knicks can decline the team option. At that point, they could make Trier a restricted free agent or renounce him entirely to maximize cap room.

Even if he completes this contract, New York can still make Trier a restricted free agent in 2020. It’s a lot of team control.

This comes at a cost, in addition to Trier’s salary, of waiving potential trade chip Ron Baker. Baker’s $4,544,400 expiring contract could have been useful in a trade, though the Knicks’ reluctance to add future salary limited options for utilizing Baker’s contract.

Baker will be best remembered for New York rushing to give him that absurd deal on the first day of 2017 free agency, breaking his face when Anthony Davis dunked on him and sucking on a contact lens then trying to put it in his eye.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan playfully slaps Malik Monk for premature-celebration technical foul (video)

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Malik Monk ran onto the court to celebrate Jeremy Lamb‘s game-winner last night.

One problem: The game wasn’t over.

Lamb’s jumper put the Hornets up two with 0.3 seconds left, and the Pistons were trying to inbound. Officials called a technical foul, and Detroit made the free throw. But Charlotte still held on for the 108-107 win.

The situation created a few tense moments, though. While officials reviewed the play, Hornets owner Michael Jordan playfully slapped the back of Monk’s head a couple times.

Zach Aldridge of WCCB:

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure those slaps were playful until Jordan and Monk smiled afterward. Jordan is an intense competitor. He once punched then-Bulls teammate Steve Kerr in the face during practice. I bet there was an element of actual warning behind Jordan’s slaps, even if they were mostly joking.

Why did only Monk receive the treatment? He drew the most attention for running onto the court – but just because he stayed at least somewhat near the bench. Bismack Biyombo was practically at halfcourt! Ashley Holder:

It’s amazing Biyombo escaped the owner’s wrath. Does Jordan know how much he’s paying Biyombo?