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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors remind everyone why they should finish on top

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Golden State’s thrashing of Denver Tuesday night was the latest reminder that when the Warriors care and flip the switch they have gears no other team in the NBA has. They move back into the top spot in this penultimate power rankings of the season, and they should probably finish on top for good reason.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (52-24, Last Week No. 2). Golden State flipped the switch and dominated the Nuggets (behind DeMarcus Cousins’ best game as a Warrior), reminding everyone what they can do when they care. With the win, the Warriors are all but assured to have home court through the West playoffs (and in the Finals, unless they face Milwaukee or Toronto). As Mark Medina told me in this week’s PBT Podcast, the Warriors don’t feel all that threatened by anyone in the West this season. The biggest problem for Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry is having to listen to Draymond Green crow about that Michigan State win all week.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (58-20, LW 1). Milwaukee has been the best regular season team in the NBA, but the questions linger: Can they execute like this in the playoffs? Can Eric Bledsoe/Kris Middleton/Brook Lopez keep up this level of production deep into the playoffs and the pressure mounts? What happens when they run into a team with a stretch big that pulls Lopez out of the paint? Fair questions. The counter: Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing less than 33 minutes a night, what happens when that jumps to 40? I will tell you, a lot more of what he did to the Nets:

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (55-23, LW 5). It was kind of the ideal week for Toronto — four wins and Kawhi Leonard got his “load management” rest in two of them. With little to play for, expect more rest for a lot of Toronto players this week. The Raptors are locked into the two seed, which doesn’t tell them who they will face in the first round yet but does set up a second-round showdown with the Sixers that will be an amazing series.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (49-28, LW 4). To help bolster James Harden’s MVP case, here’s a fun stat from our old friend Matt Moore of The Action Network: Harden scored more points this past January than any player had in January during the last 50 years. Harden’s scoring alone is not going to win them playoff games, the fact the Rockets have the second-best defense in the NBA in the last 15 games will. The Rockets have a relatively easy last 5 games (just two playoff teams) but they need wins to beat Portland to the three seed and avoid Utah in the first round and being on the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (51-25, LW 3). Denver is not a good matchup with Golden State (but who is?), and combine that with a Denver offense stumbling down the stretch and you get one ugly loss. That loss, however, does not define their season. The Nuggets should finish as the No. 2 seed (although Houston is just 1.5 games back in third) and this team should be able to advance to the second round in its first playoff appearance. That’s the goal, and that’s a strong season for one of the youngest teams in the league. However, like in that Warriors’ game, there are some tough lessons to learn ahead.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (49-28, LW 6). Philadelphia is becoming an increasingly trendy pick among league watchers to come out of the East, because the ceiling is so high with that starting five (and they get more minutes together in the postseason). That lineup — Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid — is +17.6 per 100 this season, with strong play on both ends of the court. Hopefully all this rest for Embiid has him ready to go for the playoffs (he is sitting out this three-game road trip), they need him. Big showdown with the Bucks on Thursday.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (47-30, LW 8). The hottest team in the NBA, they have won 10-of-11 and in that stretch have a +16.3 net rating. However, before you get too high on the Jazz, in those 11 games the Jazz have played just one playoff team (Brooklyn). Utah has three more games against non-playoff teams before closing with the Nuggets and Clippers. The Jazz would love to hang on to the five seed and (potentially) get the banged-up Trail Blazers in the first round (although that 4/5 seeding means the Warriors in the second round).

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (49-28, LW 7). Who is fading? Portland is 3-1 in the games since Jusuf Nurkic went down injured, and every one of those games was without C.J. McCollum, too. Portland is just half a game back of the Rockets in the race for the 3/4 seed, and the Blazers only have two of their remaining games against playoff teams (a home-and-home with Denver Friday and Sunday). Getting the three seed means avoiding a surging Utah team in the first round, plus it keeps them on the other side of the bracket from the Warriors.

 
Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (47-31, LW 9). Part of what makes the Clippers a tough regular season matchup for teams is they bring two of their three best players off the bench. “You want to find your best defenders on Lou (Williams) as much as you can, but your rotation has to change for that to happen,” Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff said last week. “You’re getting guys out quicker so they can get back in and find that matchup. That’s the pressure that they put on you and I think is brilliant by Doc.”

 
Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (46-32, LW 11). Gordon Hayward has looked better the last couple of weeks, his best stretch as a Celtic. Hayward is averaging 13.8 points per game of 53.1% shooting in his last five games and grabbing 6.2 rebounds a game, although he is still not shooting well from three (25% in those games). The Celtics remain tied with the Pacers in the battle for home court in the first round when those two teams meet, they go head-to-head Friday and that could go a long way to deciding where the playoffs start for Boston.

 
Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (44-33, LW 10). The Spurs have stumbled of late — losing 4-of-7, with Derrick White coming back to earth — and that has them in a tie with the Thunder for the 7/8 seed, and neither of those teams wants the Warriors in the first round. San Antonio’s toughest remaining game is Wednesday night (in Denver on a back-to-back) then after that they have three non-playoff teams. The Spurs can’t afford let-down losses like the recent ones to the Kings and Hornets if they are going to get the seven seed.

 
Thunder small icon 12. Thunder (44-33, LW 13). Russell Westbrook’s 20-20-20 game was extraordinary, even by his standards, and it came when the Thunder needed it as they had lost 7-of-9 and found themselves in a battle with the Spurs to avoid the eight seed (and the Warriors in the first round). OKC has a tougher closing stretch than San Antonio and they could use more Westbrook (and a more efficient Westbrook at that), but what they really miss is pre-All-Star Game, MVP level Paul George. The Thunder are essentially in the playoffs the rest of the way.

 
Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (46-32, LW 12). Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis has a strong case for Sixth Man of the year, as evidenced by this stat (hat tip Justin Kubatko): Sabonis has 25 double-doubles coming off the bench this season, the most by a reserve since Detlef Schrempf in 1991-92. The Pacers and Celtics will face off in the first round and the only question remaining is home court for the 4/5 series — the teams are tied and face each other Friday night.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (39-38, LW 18). Blake Griffin deservedly gets a lot of credit for making Detroit’s offense work this season, and while Andre Drummond hasn’t always been a comfortable fit next to Drummond he has been steady. Another stat from Justin Kubatko: Drummond has 37 games with at least 15 points and 15 rebounds this game, putting him in a select company of players who have done this (Moses Malone did it four times, most recently Kevin Love did it). While not completely safely in the playoffs (Detroit is 1.5 games up on nine-seed Orlando), the Pistons look like a playoff team this year under Dwane Casey. Probably as the six seed.

 
Magic small icon 15. Magic (38-40, LW 14). Fivethirtyeight.com projects the next three teams in this ranking (Orlando, Miami, and Brooklyn) all to finish at 40-42, bringing it down to tiebreakers to see who gets into the playoffs and which one of those teams stays home. Orlando went 2-2 on its recent road trip, including beating Miami (and Indiana), but with the tough-out Hawks and Celtics on the schedule this week, Orlando needs to win at least one of those to make sure they have a chair when the music stops.

 
Heat small icon 16. Heat (38-39, LW 15). Miami has struggled at home more than it should all season (18-21, and their two games left there are the Celtics and 76ers), and in recent weeks the Miami offense has sputtered. The Heat have scrapped and clawed to stay in the playoffs, but now they need some upset wins with Boston, Toronto, and Philly on the schedule in the next week. It’s the ultimate test of a scrappy team.

 
Nets small icon 17. Nets (39-39, LW 16). Caris LeVert started the season so hot he got far-too-early most improved player buzz, but his severe leg injury set his season back. Of late he has started to find that form again, including having 24 points and 6 assists in a loss to the Bucks. “From a confidence level and a physical level, that was the Caris from the beginning of the year,” Coach Kenny Atkinson said after that Bucks game. Smart move by the Nets locking up Atkinson and his staff with new contracts.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (38-39, LW 17). This will be the 13th consecutive season the Kings miss the playoffs, the longest active streak in the NBA and tied for the second longest all-time — yet this season has to be considered a success. Sacramento was expected to be high up in the lottery, instead they are pushing .500, found a style of play and identity, and found a future star in De’Aaron Fox. This is a team heading in the right direction and it has been a season to build on. The playoff streak will be in danger of ending next season.

 
Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (35-43, LW 21). The Lakers finally decided to shut LeBron James down for the season with six games left, which was probably later than it should have been considering his groin injury was clearly not fully healed. The Laker defense was middle-of-the-pack for the NBA season, but strangely for a LeBron team it was the offensive end that was the problem — the Lakers were bottom 10 and the pieces did not fit. Turns out, shooting matters. Who knew?

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (35-42, LW 19). Reality caught up with Charlotte on the road, where they have dropped three straight and in practice have fallen out of the playoff chase in the East (three games back with five to play). Kemba Walker is still in the mix for one of the final All-NBA guard slots, but missing the playoffs doesn’t help his cause (if he makes it and the Hornets can offer a super-max contract it makes it more likely he sticks around this July).

 
21. Timberwolves (34-43, LW 20). Ryan Saunders seems likely to keep the Timberwolves head coaching job — Karl-Anthony Towns and other players love him — but it might be wise to get an experienced defensive coach next to him. Under Saunders, the Timberwolves have struggled on that end, starting with KAT and his level of interest. Since the All-Star break, Minnesota has the worst defense in the NBA, and that can’t continue into next season if this team wants to get back into the playoff mix.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (32-46, LW 24). And there was much rejoicing in Washington, for Ernie Grunfeld is out as the Washington GM. Fans had been calling for his head for years. But whoever takes this job has got an Everest of challenges to climb, starting with: Do you trade Bradley Beal and start a rebuild, or re-sign him (possibly to a supermax extension if he makes All-NBA) and build around him? You get to make that call while managing the ego and expectations of owner Ted Leonsis. Plus, the anchor of the John Wall contract will hang around the new GM’s neck for four years.

 
Hawks small icon 23. Hawks (28-49, LW 25). Atlanta is making an impressive surge late in the season, and for playoff teams needing wins for seeding (or just to get in) this is not the team they want to see on the schedule right now. Trae Young 24.2 points and 8.9 assists per game in March, with a solid 55.8 true shooting percentage — the kid is special (but now Hawks fans, he’s not winning Rookie of the Year, sorry).

 
Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (31-46, LW 23). The trio of Mike Conley, Jonas Valanciunas, and Avery Bradley pass the eye test for me — together they look like they could do some damage. On the season the Grizzlies are -3.6 per 100 possessions when those three are on the court together (less than 200 minutes, so small sample size), but you have to wonder what they might have been able to do under different circumstances. Once the season ends the Mike Conley trade rumors will start to ramp up as we head toward the draft.

Pelicans small icon 25. Pelicans (32-46, LW 22). Was their an uglier, more disappointing season in the NBA than the one in the Big Easy? The breaks did not go their way, and then Anthony Davis torpedoed the second half of the season. In their last 10 games, the Pelicans have a -11.3 net rating, which puts them in the neighborhood of the Bulls and Cavaliers in that stretch (not the company they want to keep). The GM search is underway and that person will sit down at his new desk and find a massive to-do list.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (31-46, LW 26). Dallas’ first-round pick in the upcoming draft belongs to Atlanta but is top-five protected. Currently, the Mavericks are tied for the 6/7th worst record in the NBA. Dallas currently has an 8.2% chance of jumping up to the No. 1 pick, and a 34.2% chance of landing in the top four and keeping the pick. Which means basically a two-thirds chance of losing it. With Luka Doncic a year older and Kristaps Porzingis joining him on the court next season, this might be the Mavericks’ last shot at a high pick for a while.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (21-57, LW 27). Chicago heads into the NBA Draft Lottery with at least 12.5 shot at landing Zion Williamson (the Bulls will have at best the fourth worst record in the NBA). The Bulls have a lot of needs heading into the draft, but there are things to be positive about: I am curious what a Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. front line looks like. Put Zach LaVine and Otto Porter on the wings around them and this becomes an interesting squad next season.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (18-60, LW 29). Devin Booker is putting up insane numbers recently, scoring 59 against Utah, 50 against Washington, and 48 against Memphis — but Phoenix lost all three of those games. Mostly because their defense remains dreadful. That certainly is a team problem, but it will fall more on Deandre Ayton to become a good rim protection and stop some of those buckets in the paint. The No. 1 pick had an impressive rookie season on offensive end, but we know what he needs to work on this summer.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-59, LW 28). The interesting question heading into the draft for Cleveland: What to do if the Cavs land the No. 2 pick? Ja Morant is the second best player on the board, but the Cavaliers have been very happy with how Collin Sexton and how he has found his game the second half of the season. Do they draft Morant and try to get the two guards to mesh? Draft R.J. Barrett or another wing? Trade the pick? It may be a moot issue, but it’s the kind of thing a GMs need to be prepared for.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (15-62, LW 30). Mitchell Robinson’s potential as a defensive force in the paint is the one good thing about the grinding end of the season in New York. As Justin Kubatko noted on Twitter, Robinson is averaging one block every eight minutes he is on the court, which is the third highest block rate by a rookie ever. Whatever is getting built in New York in the coming years, he can be key part of it in the paint.

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.