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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.

Thunder unload stars for all the right reasons

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NBC Sports’ 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.

So many teams spent this summer trying to create star duos. The Lakers (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Nets (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving) and Rockets (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) certainly succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Thunder already had a star duo in place… and disassembled it.

Oklahoma City became the first team in NBA history to trade two reigning All-NBA players in a single offseason. Why did the Thunder take the unprecedented step to move Paul George and Russell Westbrook?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  • 2021: Most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2021: Second-most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2022: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2023: Heat first-round pick (top-14 protected for three years then unprotected in 2026)
  • 2023: Swap rights with Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)
  • 2025: Swap rights with Rockets first-round pick (top-10 protected) or Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)

That’s an incredible collection of resources. Before anyone even knew a rebuild was underway, Oklahoma City got a huge head start toward its next era.

Not at a bad time, either.

The Thunder had stagnated post-Kevin Durant. They won in the high 40s and lost in the first round the last three years. Westbrook was aging. The supporting cast was expensive, especially considering the luxury-tax repeater bill. There was no clear way forward.

The Clippers offered a lifeboat. To entice Kawhi Leonard to sign, they traded five first-round picks and two first-round swaps for George. L.A.’s desperate was Oklahoma City’s gain. Suddenly, the Thunder had assets and a direction.

They traded Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a top-10-protected first-rounder. Then came the dramatic, era-ending move. Oklahoma City worked with Westbrook to send him to Houston, securing another couple first-rounders and first-round swap rights.

Of course, a large part of the Thunder’s return was taking the burdensome contract of Chris Paul (three years, $124,076,442 remaining). But it’s not as if Westbrook’s contract is desirable, and his runs a year longer with a $47,063,478 salary in 2022-23.

Paul is also still a good player. So is Danilo Gallinari, whom Oklahoma City got from the Clippers to make the salary match in the George deal.

For all their effort to tear build for the future, the Thunder have a team that isn’t much worse presently. Paul, Gallinari and Steven Adams fit well together. More than a few interesting role players could fill the gaps. If everyone stays healthy and if Oklahoma City wants to compete, this group could fight for a playoff spot.

Those are big ifs, though. In their new phase, the Thunder bought out Patrick Patterson and let Alec Burks out of his deal so he could sign with the Warriors. With the same opportunity to back out, Mike Muscala (1+1 minimum) stuck with Oklahoma City. The Thunder also re-signed Nerlens Noel (one year, minimum) before pivoting, but I like that value in any situation.

If Paul and Gallinari avoid injury, Oklahoma City might stay in the race. But it’s easy to see the Thunder wanting to boost the value of their own first-round picks.

Oklahoma City did well to delay the incoming draft picks until years later, when the Clippers and Rockets might not be as good as they are now. That allows a great opportunity to rebuild on someone else’s dime while avoiding dispiriting tanking. Or the Thunder could tank themselves and really stock up on draft capital.

After years of competing, Oklahoma City was short on prime young talent. The Thunder have a few players with potential, including No. 23 pick Darius Bazley, but no real standouts beyond Gilgeous-Alexander, who came from L.A. in the George trade.

The rebuild is just beginning. A step back after a decade of stellar play will be difficult. But considering the chance of maintaining a playoff level next season while securing this influx of assets, Oklahoma City put itself in much stronger position.

Offseason grade: A

Stephen Curry on idea Warriors are not title contenders: ‘I just laugh at it’

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The Golden State Warriors won a title — and had a 73-win regular season — before Kevin Durant walked through that door.

Now that Durant has walked (well, limped) out that door, combined with the facts this is an older and thinner Warriors roster, a lot of people are counting them out of the title chase. Klay Thompson already said do so at your own peril because the dynasty can continue, and the team re-signed Daymond Green to keep the core intact for a few more years.

Stephen Curry‘s reaction to the doubts about this team? Laughter. Via Logan Murdock of NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I just laugh at it,” Curry said during his second annual Warriors All-Girls basketball camp in Oakland on Monday afternoon. “Anybody can say anything about anything nowadays and it can pick up steam. So we’ve had lots of support. We’ve had a lot of criticism on the way that doesn’t change now. Just what they’re saying is different so doesn’t change how we go about our business.”

It’s not just that Durant is gone, but so are trusted role players such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Curry understands they have to build this thing back up.

“It’s just a matter of really trying to get guys comfortable with the system, be able to highlight the different skill sets that we have and different strengths and the chemistry,” Curry said. “It will take a little bit of time and a lot of hard work, but like I said, we have a lot of high IQ guys from our core and a lot of leadership and commitment to what we do, so starting in the training camp and beyond, you have to have a mindset that you will continue to get better as the season goes on.”

The last three seasons the Warriors started off with a massive margin for error and they went on to win two titles (and it took an avalanche of injuries to stop a three-peat). This year that is gone. This season the Warriors are going to be good, but they are just one of five or six teams in the West that enter the season with legitimate reasons to believe they can come out of it all and take a title.

For the Warriors, everything has to go right. Curry and Green have to stay healthy, Thompson has to return and be close to his elite self on both ends (he likely is not back until after the All-Star break), D'Angelo Russell needs to fit in next to Curry (or be traded for a player/players who do), big men Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein need to form a strong front line, and role players such as Alfonzo McKinnie and Alec Burks have to thrive in their roles.

It’s a lot of things that have to go right in Golden State next season.

It also all could happen, and we know how good the Curry/Thompson/Green combo can be when they are clicking.

Reports: Thunder signing Nerlens Noel, Mike Muscala, Alec Burks

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Facing another larger repeater-tax bill, the Thunder reportedly want to trim salary.

That’s why Oklahoma City appears to be just picking around the edges of free agency – with Nerlens Noel, Mike Muscala and Alec Burks.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Royce Young of ESPN:

Leave it to the tight-lipped Thunder not to reveal salaries. But given their tax situation, don’t expect large figures.

Noel played very well for Oklahoma City in a limited role last season. It’s possible he parlayed that into a somewhat substantial deal. I would have guessed a larger contract if he signed elsewhere.

Muscala is a decent stretch big. After landing him the Thunder could try to unload Patrick Patterson and his $5,711,200 salary.

Burks hasn’t had a good season in a half decade. The shooting guard looked promising with the Jazz, but injuries have sidetracked his career. Maybe he’ll contribute off the bench if healthy. I’d be surprised if he got more than the minimum.

Report: Rockets trading first-rounder to dump salary in three-way deal with Cavaliers and Kings

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Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta called the luxury tax a “horrible hindrance.”

So, Houston will do something about it.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Houston Rockets are acquiring guard Iman Shumpert in a three-way deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings, league sources told ESPN.

The Rockets will send guard Brandon Knight, forward Marquese Chriss and a 2019 lottery protected first-round pick to the Cavaliers, league sources said.

The Cavaliers will send guard Alec Burks to the Kings, and guards Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin to the Rockets, league sources said.

Sacramento also got a second-round pick from Cleveland, according to James Ham of NBC Sports California. (Update: The pick will come from Houston.)

This trade puts the Rockets in line to save $7,780,376 – $6,417,710 in luxury tax and $1,362,666 salary – this season. The bigger savings come next season, when Knight – who hasn’t been good in years – is guaranteed $15,643,750. Everyone Houston got is on an expiring contract.

The Rockets are now just $4,290,472 over the tax line and could still try to dodge the tax altogether. But they will likely be active on the buyout market, which would only add to their payroll. Maybe Houston will try to flip Stauskas and/or Baldwin before tomorrow’s trade deadline to make an eventual post-buyout signing less costly. Escaping the tax entirely seems less likely.

At least this trade also helps the Rockets on the court, unlike their money-saving decisions last offseason. Knight and Chriss were non-factors. Shumpert isn’t great, but he’s a reasonable two-way wing with deep-playoff experience. Teams can’t get enough of those.

Still, Shumpert is a minor upgrade relative to what Houston could’ve gotten for a first-rounder if that pick weren’t doing the heavy lifting of unloading bad salary.

That pick is why Cleveland took Knight and Chriss. The Cavs aren’t going anywhere quickly, anyway. Better to stock up on long-term assets like draft picks in exchange for taking negative-value contracts now. Maybe even Chriss is worth a flier. He gets his desired trade. The first-rounder is the real prize, though.

Swapping Shumpert for Burks, who’s also on an expiring contract, seems like a parallel move for the Kings. Burks is an inch taller, and Sacramento needs a bigger wing. But Shumpert had done a nice job of competing at small forward. I’m not convinced Burks will match that. At least the second-round pick offers buffer. But in a season where the Kings could end a 12-year playoff drought, they should focus primarily on the players involved. Maybe they just like Burks.