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NBA Power Rankings: Familiar faces from Bay Area back on top

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A familiar face is back on top of the power rankings, the Golden State Warriors, who flipped the switch in a couple of key games (Houston, Oklahoma City) to remind us of their status as the team to beat. The Bucks only slide down one spot.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (48-22, last week No. 4). Steve Kerr called last week’s loss to the Suns “a wake up call” for Golden State, and the team responded with wins against Houston and Oklahoma City, holding each of them to less than 40% shooting. All without Durant. Andrew Bogut is back and in his debut showed he can give the Warriors a few quality minutes behind DeMarcus Cousins (once Boogie gets back from his mild ankle injury) and that’s all they need from the Australian.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (53-18, LW 1). Malcolm Brogdon is going to be out for a while, likely into the first round of the playoffs (at least), and the loss to Philadelphia on Sunday showed how much the Bucks will miss him. Brogdon is both a threat to shoot the three (he’s shooting 42.6% from deep but takes fewer than four per game) and his straight line drives to the rim to create shots. The loss to the Sixers may be an anomaly but it was the realization of the worst playoff fears for the Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo went off for 52 (a chunk of that late) but the other Bucks shot 31% from three and didn’t step up under pressure. That can’t happen in the postseason.

 
Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (47-22, LW 5). The Nuggets still have a shot at the best record in the West (they are just half-a-game back of the Warriors and are tied in the loss column) but they are going to have to get some tough wins on the road to do it — 6 of Denver’s next 8 games are on the road, and the teams left on its schedule have a much higher winning percentage than who Golden State faces (the teams play each other April 2). However, the win in Boston shows the Nuggets can get the needed wins. They just need more plays like this Nikola Jokic game-winner against Dallas.

 
Sixers small icon 4. 76ers (46-25, LW 6). Philadelphia is 6-1 when their dream five start the game. That lineup is besting teams by 17.2 points per 100 possessions when on the court together, dominating on both ends. However, the key in the postseason will be finding lineups with bench players that work while starters rest (and are staggered in with the bench). Against the Bucks Sunday the fivesome of Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic was +12 in just under 11 minutes. The Sixers need more of that.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (45-26, LW 2). Houston has won games where it shot poorly recently (except against the Warriors) because the team is finally defending well again — the Rockets have a defensive rating of 107.7 in their last 15 games, eighth best in the league in that stretch. The Rockets need those wins to hang on to the three seed, Portland is just 1.5 games back and seeds 3-8 in the West are separated by just 3.5 games. Winners of 11-of-12, the Rockets have 4-of-5 coming up on the road, but only two of those games are against playoff teams.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (50-21, LW 3). Toronto is 12.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Kyle Lowry sits and the Raptors offense falls apart (the offense scores less than a point per possession when Jeremy Lin is on the court). It was evident in the loss to Detroit, but the Raptors thought Lowry would only be out two games until Michell Robinson fell on his ankle Monday, now he’s out for a while longer, although it doesn’t look to be a severe ankle injury. Toronto could use him in the upcoming home-and-home against Oklahoma City. The Raptors remain pretty much locked in as the two seed in the East, injury or no.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (43-28, LW 7). Boston GM Danny Ainge called his team “inconsistent” right now, and that’s pretty spot on. They have won 5-of-7 including thrashing the Warriors, but losses to the Clippers and Nuggets raised questions about how far they can really go. Another concern is the struggles of the starting lineup in recent weeks. With plans to rest Al Horford a few games as well as other starters down the stretch (with an eye toward having them fresh for the playoffs), will Boston make up the half game it is behind Indiana and get home court in the first round?

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (42-29, LW 11). After that dreadful rodeo road trip, we kind of wrote the Spurs off, but that’s always a mistake. San Antonio has won nine in a row and the Spurs have a shot at home court in the first round of the playoffs (San Antonio is the five seed, just 1.5 games back of Portland and home court). In the last 9 games the Spurs have a +9.1 net rating. While the offense has been good during the streak (top 10) it is the defense — which has struggled much of the season — returning to elite status that has made the big difference (103.1 defensive net rating in those 9 games, third best in the league).

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (43-27, LW 9). Not having C.J. McCollum for at least a week — and likely longer, McCollum told NBC Sports he’s taking it week by week but he doesn’t have a timeline — will make it challenging for Portland to hang on to the four seed and home court in the first round. San Antonio, OKC, Utah, and the LA Clippers are all within two games of the Blazers. Portland leaned heavily on its starting five to win games, now it needs more out of Jake Layman and Rodney Hood to win enough to keep home court.

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (41-29, LW 13). Winners of four in a row and with the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, as long as the Jazz take care of business they will climb higher than the seven seed, and home court is not out of the question (although it’s a long shot at two games back with 11 to play). The Jazz are doing it with their old formula: They have the best defense in the NBA over the last 10 games and held a few teams to less than a point per possession, then they are getting just enough offense from Donovan Mitchell and company. But that pedestrian offense remains the thing holding them back.

 
Clippers small icon 11. Clippers (42-30, LW 10). Doc Rivers is deservedly going to get a lot of Coach of the Year votes, and Steve Ballmer and the Clippers understand when you have something good you don’t let it go, so he locked Rivers up (no Lakers in Rivers’ future). The Clippers have been a well-run basketball operation for a few years now and extending Rivers fits with that. Another something that works in L.A.? Lou Williams. He has made a strong Sixth Man of the Year push and shots like this help.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (44-28, LW 12). The Pacers keep playing great defense to stay in games, then getting spurts of offense that spark dramatic comeback wins. Any fan of basketball has to admire the grit and tenacity with which this team plays. Nothing speaks to the fight in these Pacers like coming from 19 down against the Thunder, setting up the Wesley Matthews game winner.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (42-29, LW 8). Oklahoma City has lost three in a row — because their offense has gone missing, having the second-worst net rating in the league during the last 10 games — and is now tied with San Antonio for the 5/6 seed in the West, with the 7/8 seeds (Jazz, Clippers) both just half a game back. Why should those four bunched-up teams concern Thunder fans? Because OKC has the toughest remaining schedule of any West playoff team (starting with a home-and-home against Toronto starting on Wednesday) and the Thunder could fall farther down the standings in the West.

 
Heat small icon 14. Heat (34-36, LW 17). They have won 7-of-9 against a tough schedule, including beating the Pistons and Hornets in the past week. The wins have come in bunches with Bam Adebayo starting and Hasaan Whiteside coming in with energy off the bench, that rotation has helped the Heat defense. All those wins has kept Miami 1.5 games clear of Orlando for the final playoff slot in the East, but the Heat are on the road this week (and the Magic have a very soft schedule the rest of the way).

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (36-34, LW 15). Would the real Detroit Pistons please stand up? Please stand up? Is it the team that got blown out by the Nets and Heat, and Monday lost to the Cavaliers? Or, is it the team that beat Raptors twice this month (Dwane Casey revenge games)? The Pistons are inconsistent because Reggie Jackson has been off his game (Blake Griffin has struggled with his shot of late, too). That loss Monday in Cleveland was the first of a five-game road trip for Detroit.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (37-36, LW 14). The Nets have gone 1-3 to start a seven-game road trip (although the win was a dramatic comeback against the Kings that could turn the trip around). The blame for the stumbles falls on the team’s offense, third worst in the NBA over the last 10 games. Specifically, it falls on their guards — D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and company have gone cold of late — at least until Russell in the fourth quarter against the Kings Tuesday. The Nets have slid down to the seven seed and are just three games away from falling out of the playoffs entirely. Add to that they have the toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and Brooklyn needs to find some wins to stay in the dance.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (34-36, LW 16). Sacramento’s long-shot bid to make a run to the playoffs took a punch to the gut Tuesday night with the worst loss of the team’s season: blowing a 25-point fourth quarter lead to the Nets. Sacramento’s playoff dreams were put on their death by a recent 1-3 road trip where all the losses were in games the Kings were within five points in the final five minutes but couldn’t close it out. The Kings’ goal now should be to finish the season 8-4 and be above .500 for the campaign for the first time since 2006 (or at least 7-5 and get to .500).

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (33-38, LW 19). The Magic have the softest schedule of any team fighting for a playoff spot in the East, but that only helps if the team wins games — Orlando is 3-4 in its last seven with losses to Cleveland, Memphis, and Washington. The Magic are still just 1.5 games back of the heat and have won the first two of a five-game homestand, but that has to be just the start. Orlando needs more out of Terrence Ross and the bench to make this run.

 
19. Timberwolves (32-39, LW 18). Minnesota is turning heads with the amazing play of Karl-Anthony Towns sparking an offensive resurgence, but the team is 3-7 in its last 10 because it has the worst defense in the NBA by far in that stretch, a defensive net rating of 121.2. On the bright side, rookie forward Keita Bates-Diop is looking like he could be a rotation player.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (31-42, LW 20). Elfrid Payton has had a triple-double in five straight games. The only other players in NBA history to do that? Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan. That’s elite company. Of course, the Pelicans lost the first four of those, in part because they are one of the worst clutch teams in the NBA (15-26 in games within five points in the final five minutes). Which is why the win over Dallas in OT Monday was a nice change of pace.

 
Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (30-41, LW 23). Bradley Beal has thrived without John Wall next to him and, barring a collapse, will be just the 12th guard in NBA history to average 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. Beal is averaging 29.9 points per game since the All-Star break and had a pair of 40-point games last weekend. Beal could make the All-NBA team, which shows how impressive he’s been in spite of the team’s struggles.

 
Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (31-39, LW 21). Charlotte’s playoff chances are not dead yet, but the prognosis is not good. Sunday’s loss to Miami, where Charlotte scored just 75 points, likely did them in. The Hornets are three games back of he Heat with 12 to play and likely need to go at least 8-4, maybe 9-3, the rest of the way to get an invite to the dance. Not impossible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (28-42, LW 22). Given some extra run since coming over in the Marc Gaol trade, Jonas Valanciunas has reminded teams he can get them some points. Valanciunas has averaged 17.9 points on 58.2% shooting plus is grabbing 8 rebounds a game since joining the Grizzlies. He has a player option on his contract for next season for $17.6 million and it seems likely he will pick that up (unless he’s looking for a longer deal with more security, which is not likely out there). Expect his name to come up in trade talks, but wherever he plays next season he has value.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-40, LW 24). Los Angeles has clearly let go of the rope on the rest of this season — they are bottom 10 in the league in both offense and defense in their last 10 games, with an -8.1 net rating over that stretch. That’s why the focus in Los Angeles has already shifted to the off-the-court moves from the team this summer, starting with who the next head coach will be. That’s not decided, the only thing we know is it will not be Doc Rivers. By the way, LeBron James can still do this.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (24-48, LW 25). Despite the losses piling up and Hawks fans watching NCAA Tournament games this weekend on scouting expeditions, the Hawks remain one of the most entertaining teams to watch down the stretch. Trae Young is shooting from anywhere in the building and is electric to watch, John Collins is going to be a stud, but maybe the most fun part is 42-year Vince Carter still making plays and being a part of the action.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (28-42, LW 26). Luka Doncic is going to win Rookie of the Year and continues to impress, but his game has slipped a little as the long season has ground him down. It has been most evident his high 13.4 turnover ratio in his last 10 games (his assist ratio is still at 20%). Congrats to Dirk Nowitzki for passing Wilt Chamberlain for sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (20-52, LW 28). Chicago has played poorly of late, even for them. On one end their defense has been one of the worst in the NBA, while on the other end Lauri Markkanen has gone into a scoring slump. The only time that changed was the one game the Bulls could have stood to lose, their defense showed up in a win over the Suns, meaning the Bulls almost certainly will enter the draft lottery in the No. 4 slot.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (17-55, LW 27). The Suns picked up a key loss Monday in Chicago. Going into that game the Suns had the third worst record in the NBA but had won 6-of-10, while the Bulls were the fourth worst record. If the Suns won that game the Bulls would have had a real shot at one of the three worst records in the league, with each of those teams getting a 14% chance of Zion Williamson, er, the top pick in the draft at the lottery. The Bulls won and now are three games better than the Suns and will not make that up, meaning the Bulls will have a 12.5% shot at Zion. Not a huge difference, but when you’re talking about a franchise player every little bit helps.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (18-53, LW 29). Maybe Monday is the Cavaliers’ night. This past Monday Cleveland beat playoff-bound Detroit, the Monday before that they beat Toronto, but they lost the three games in between those contests. Collin Sexton has come on as a scorer lately, having scored at least 23 points in six straight games as he starts to feel more comfortable with the NBA three (and that means fewer midranges).

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (14-57, LW 30). Knicks fans, don’t just watch Duke and drool at the possibilities in the NBA draft, don’t forget to check out Ja Morant from Murray State, the kind of scoring point guard New York might want. Also, D’Andre Hunter from Virginia is the kind of defensive wing who can get out in transition and hit threes who would look good with the Knicks next season. Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech also would be a good fit.

Team USA keeps top spot in FIBA men’s world rankings, Spain No. 2

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USA Basketball has kept its No. 1 spot in the FIBA world men’s rankings, even after a disappointing seventh-place showing in the World Cup that ended earlier this week.

It’s now nine-years-and-counting in the top spot for the U.S., which has held the No. 1 ranking since winning the 2010 world championship. World Cup champion Spain stayed No. 2, Australia leaped eight spots to No. 3, World Cup finalist Argentina rose one spot to No. 4 and World Cup bronze-medalist France fell two slots to No. 5.

FIBA’s rankings take results from the most recent eight years into account – which means the U.S. is still reaping point benefits from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medals and the 2014 World Cup title.

“In this day and age, basketball in other countries is not a secret,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said after the Americans completed their run in the World Cup. “So it’s not like there’s an epiphany or a revelation to be made. There are wonderful teams and wonderful coaches all over the world. You go compete and the best teams win.”

It’s now expected that the U.S. will retain the No. 1 ranking going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Several top NBA players, including Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Damian Lillard have said in recent days that they intend to play for the U.S. in Tokyo, where the Americans will try to win a fourth consecutive gold medal.

Most top U.S. players declined to be part of the World Cup team.

“I’m expecting them to be so strong next year,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.

OLYMPIC UPDATE

The new rankings confirmed that European champion Slovenia, which didn’t earn a spot in the World Cup field after many of its top players couldn’t take part in qualifying since those games conflicted with the NBA and Euroleague schedules, will still have a chance to compete in the Olympics – as will seven other teams that found out they’re headed to playoffs next year.

Angola, Senegal, Mexico, Uruguay, China, Korea and Croatia also still have Olympic hopes. Those last eight playoff spots awarded Thursday went to the top two teams from Africa, Europe, Asia-Oceania and the Americas regions who hadn’t either already clinched Olympic berths or spots in the last-chance playoffs.

Japan is automatically qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament as the host country. The U.S., Argentina, Nigeria, Spain, France, Iran and Australia clinched Olympic spots at the World Cup by finishing as the best teams in their respective FIBA regions – the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

That leaves four unclaimed Olympic berths, and 24 teams to compete for them in playoffs next year. There will be four six-team tournaments held from June 23-28, 2020 – winner-take-all, all in this case meaning an Olympic berth. Bidding for sites is expected to begin shortly, FIBA said.

The other 16 playoff spots were awarded based on World Cup placing. They went to Serbia, Lithuania, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, New Zealand and Tunisia.

MOVING UP

Belize was the top mover in the new rankings, climbing 50 spots to No. 118. Kosovo rose 21 spots to No. 69, Togo went up 21 spots to No. 136, Tunisia climbed 18 spots to No. 33 and Ivory Coast went up 16 spots to No. 48.

STILL SWEEPING

FIBA has four sets of rankings – for men, women, boys and girls. The U.S. holds the No. 1 spot in all four of those rankings, though the race is tightest among the men.

The U.S. men hold a lead of 54.9 points over Spain in those rankings, while the rankings margins held by the U.S. women (310 points over No. 2 Spain), boys (291 points over No. 2 Canada) and girls (155 points over No. 2 Spain) are far more comfortable.

Report: NBA won’t allow Rockets to use Nene’s contract as $10M trade chip

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Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a huge blow to Houston. The Rockets are now stuck with an over-the-hill center they can’t trade for value and can’t play much without triggering bonuses that’ll make him way overpaid.

If they had known how this would turn out, they would’ve signed Nene to a one-year minimum contract at most. At least that’d be partially subsidized by the league. Because this is is a two-year deal, Houston is on the hook for the full base salary.

 

 

The Rockets got a valuable trade chip with Nene’s contract.

At least if the deal goes through.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

Although Nene signed with the Houston Rockets on Sept. 6, the NBA has yet to officially approve the deal. The 10-day delay is a result of the NBA discussing internally whether it should disapprove details in the contract, according to multiple sources.

Nene’s contract includes a low base salary with a massive amount of likely incentives. Houston could count Nene’s full $10 million salary (base plus likely incentives) in a trade. The acquiring team would then owe Nene his base salary plus only the bonuses he actually triggers.

It’s a workaround to the typical salary-matching rules.

The bonuses are tied to individual games played and team games won. Because Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets last season, the bonuses are qualified as likely. Last year’s performance is the default way to determine whether incentives are likely or unlikely.

You can read more about the contract’s structure here.

The NBA’s apprehension is interesting. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies a procedure for challenging incentive classification when the league or union believes the prior season is not a fair predictor. Essentially, that side makes a case to an arbiter that the default assumption is “very likely” to be wrong.

However, in a funny quirk here, that challenge system lays out only how the NBA can challenge to turn unlikely incentives into likely incentives and how the union can challenge to turn likely incentives into unlikely incentives. There’s nothing about the NBA turning likely incentives into unlikely incentives, which the league is apparently considering here (and would make Nene’s contract invalid, as there’s a limit on unlikely incentives).

The CBA also prohibits circumventing the spirit of the rules. The league could rule Houston did that here. However, that’s a tough case considering not only does Nene’s contract meet all stated technicalities, there’s a section specifically on challenging these types of details. It just doesn’t apply.

The Heat opened the door for likely/unlikely-incentive shenanigans a couple years ago. We didn’t hear then about the NBA challenging those contracts, and that’s where the official challenge system would’ve applied.

It seems unfair to punish the Rockets’ creativity now.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

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We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

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After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.