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Until they show otherwise, it’s too early to write off the Golden State Warriors

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

The Golden State Warriors will be without Klay Thompson to start the 2019-20 NBA season. They will also be without Kevin Durant in perpetuity. Which will be a bigger issue is cause for much debate.

Indeed, the Warriors won a record 73 regular season games before Durant arrived in 2016. Golden State was a budding dynasty before Durant arrived, and was thought to be a lock for the best team of all-time once he did.

Now things have changed.

Thompson, who tore his ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals, will not be with the team until 2020. He’s taking it slow, and he knows how important that is for his longevity. Meanwhile, there was some debate about Golden State’s fate without Thompson and without Durant. Will they be able to survive with just Curry? What is the athletic status of Draymond Green? And can a stable of below replacement-level players keep the Warriors in the championship hunt in 2020?

For starters, this team has proven time and time again they are not to be trifled with. Organizationally, the Warriors are the class of the league. Much like the San Antonio Spurs, it’s only smart to write them off once they actually miss the playoffs. We’ve been waiting for that from the Spurs since 1997; the Warriors since 2012.

And so here we are, with many hoping that Golden State’s maladies will prove fruitful for their teams in the Western Conference. That, dear reader, may very well be wise. While the road to the Finals may not be settled thanks to the Warriors’ injuries, the road to the playoffs looks much different.

Golden State will win less games this year than perhaps they ever have under Steve Kerr’s guidance. Westgate’s current win total for Golden State is set at 48.5. That would have been good enough to battle for the 8th seed out West last season. This year, without a singularly dominant team, it’s more reasonable for wins to be spread around. It’s also possible that the bottom of the playoff bracket in the Western Conference dips a bit, too.

So when we talk about writing off the Warriors, we have to talk about what “writing off” really means. The NBA is a league where narratives and motivation matters. The Warriors, banged up as they are, are a team that wants to prove that they can still win the way they did before, and without Durant.

Green will be leading that charge, but there will also be a strong push from Curry. Offensively, D’Angelo Russell should slot right into what they need. You should still expect to see those third quarter offensive onslaughts in 2019-20.

The only problem is that Golden State is working with a rotation that is also perhaps thinner than it’s ever been. The Warriors will be relying on guys like Willie Cauley-Stein, Alec Burks, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Glenn Robinson III.

That presents a real problem defensively, where the Warriors have shined. Yes, they returned players like Kevon Looney, and it’s really a system that works off of what green brings to the table. But there is an asymptote, we think, that Golden State will reach when it comes to plugging in just any old player. The Warriors won’t be as dominant on defense this season, and so scores may not be so disperate.

The system in San Francisco works. The culture works. And, let’s be honest, the veteran buyout market works. The talent on the Golden State Warriors is still largely made up of Hall of Famers. Those Hall of Famers are in their primes, and until we see them falter — or until some horror ethic injury befalls them — it’s unreasonable to write them off entirely.

Health, by the way, is a funny thing. We don’t know when this Golden State roster will have it. It’s almost guaranteed that Green will need to come in to the season in October in the kind of shape he left it in June. He can’t drag himself up and down the floor 25 pounds overweight the way he did all last year.

But if the Warriors have a modicum of good luck when it comes to the training room, they should be able to keep their heads above water. The rest of the NBA out West still has a lot of question marks. There are no guarantees for teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, or Utah Jazz. That works to the Warriors’ advantage in the absence of both Thompson and Durant.

For now, in September, it’s much too early to write off Golden State. They may not be who they were in the past, but until they show us otherwise, they’re still the Warriors.

Khris Middleton drops career-best 51 on Wizards, Bucks win without Antetokounmpo

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored a career-high 51 points in the absence of injured teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 151-131 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night.

Middleton, hoping to be chosen an All-Star reserve for the second straight year on Thursday, helped the Bucks hold off a second-half Wizards rally. Middleton also had 10 rebounds and six assists while hitting 16 of 26 shots and 7 of 10 3-pointers.

Milwaukee (41-6) scored a franchise-record 88 points in the first half, finished with its highest total of the season and won its ninth straight game despite the absence of Antetokounmpo, who sat out with a right shoulder injury.

Bradley Beal led the Wizards (15-31) with 47 points, his second straight 40-point game and sixth of the season.

Milwaukee led by as many as 32 points but the Wizards rallied in the third quarter, putting up 41 points to cut their deficit to 117-104 entering the fourth. Washington got within seven points in the final period but could not get closer.

Eric Bledsoe had 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds for the Bucks. Donte DiVincenzo added 16 points.

Middleton responded with 13 points in the fourth quarter as he scored the most points by a Bucks player this season. He pounded home a dunk to go over 50 points and give the Bucks a 13-point lead late in the final quarter.

Antetokounmpo had 50 points on Nov. 25 against Utah.

The Bucks came out firing from deep, hitting eight of their first nine attempts from 3-point range. Milwaukee converted 14 of 22 shots in the first quarter on the way to a 42-28 lead.

And they kept going in the second quarter. Middleton hit his fourth 3-pointer of the half to give the Bucks a 69-43 lead with 5:46 left. Middleton nailed two more 3s to finish the half 6 for 6 from 3-point range and with 28 points.

The Bucks sank 14 of 24 3-pointers in the half and established a franchise best for points in a half as they grabbed an 88-63 lead at intermission.

The previous mark for points in a half was 87 set against New Orleans on March 14, 1979.

Joel Embiid’s Kobe tribute: 24 points while wearing uniform No. 24; 76ers’ win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Wearing No. 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant, Joel Embiid scored 24 points in his first game in three weeks, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.

Embiid and the rest of the Sixers wore No. 24 and No. 8 Bryant jerseys in warmups in honor of the Los Angeles Lakers star, who was killed Sunday in a helicopter crash. Embiid was granted permission from Hall of Famer Bobby Jones to wear the retired No. 24 instead of his usual 21 for his first game since he tore a ligament in a finger in his left hand.

The Sixers went 6-3 without Embiid, the first Sixer to be voted to three straight All-Star Games since Allen Iverson.

Embiid had averaged 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds in 31 games this season. Against the Warriors, Embiid played with a splint on his hand that didn’t affect him when he buried a 3 that sent the Sixers into halftime with a 59-54 lead.

Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons had “Mamba Forever” and “RIP Gigi” (for Bryant’s daughter, among the nine killed in the crash) on each sneaker and scored 17 points.

The Sixers were the latest team to honor Bryant in a pregame ceremony. Bryant led suburban Lower Merion High School to the Class AAAA state title at Hersheypark Arena in 1996, the school’s first since 1943. His framed No. 33 Aces jersey was displayed at midcourt and the Sixers held a 33-second moment of silence of Bryant and the other eight victims in Sunday’s crash. The Sixers rang a bell nine times and shone nine lights on the court during the solemn remembrance. The Sixers skipped pregame introductions for both teams and instead played a video of Bryant’s last introduction in Philadelphia in a December 2015 game and images of him with Allen Iverson and Julius Erving.

Yes, all teams have been affected by Bryant’s death, but it struck particularly hard in Philly, where the former NBA star had a turbulent relationship with Philadelphia. His high school coach Gregg Downer spoke to the media for the first time earlier in the day, and wore Bryant’s No. 33 Lower Merion warmup jacket.

The mood in the building also was tempered, in part, because the 10-win Warriors gave the Sixers a serious challenge. The Sixers were 12-point favorites but D'Angelo Russell, who scored a team-high 28 points, kept the Warriors within single digits for most of the fourth quarter.

Al Horford buried a 3 and Shake Milton followed with another to push it to a 16-point lead and send the Sixers on their way to a whopping 22-2 record at home.

 

A tearful Shaquille O’Neal talks about his time, relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Shaquille O’Neal told Justin Tasch of New York Post: “I’m not doing well. I’m sick” about the death of his former teammate Kobe Bryant (along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna).

A lot of people can relate to that, but Shaq pulled it together enough to talk about his former championship teammate.

When it came to what he could no longer tell Kobe, Shaq teared up.

Shaq and Kobe had legendary feuds back in the day, but in later years made up and were friends.

Like many people, Shaq is still trying to process all of it. That’s going to take a long time.

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

A post shared by Chris Paul (@cp3) on

Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.