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2017 Free Agent Rankings: Point Guards

Buddy Grizzard breaks down the tiers of a deep point guard free agency class.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the final weeks of the 2016-17 regular season upon us, the looming playoffs will have major implications for this summer’s impressive free agent class. While many observers expect the major stars to stay put, an early playoff exit could be the first domino to fall in a series of events that reshapes multiple NBA franchises. With so much at stake in the coming days, Basketball Insiders is getting an early jump on 2017 free agency, starting with today’s look at a deep point guard class.

A common theme throughout is that players, in most cases, will exert major leverage on the teams that will bid for their services. The available players are divided into four tiers, two for starters and two for the reserves.

Tier 1: Top Shelf Starters

1. Stephen Curry, Warriors

The Golden State Warriors, despite Kevin Durant’s injury and an off year from Stephen Curry — by his standards — are still the best team in basketball. And it is the two-time defending MVP who is leading the way, despite shooting a career-low from three-point range and his worst overall field goal percentage since 2012-13. After posting a 31.5 Player Efficiency Rating during last year’s back-to-back and unanimous MVP season, Curry is currently posting his lowest PER in four seasons (23.7).

Despite any struggles, the Warriors are performing better as a team with Curry on court than any other player. Golden State outscores opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions with Curry on court. That isn’t a team-high, but his off-court net is by a wide margin. The Warriors are 14.9 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on court than on the bench. Draymond Green is second in on/off net differential (+10.5), Klay Thompson is third (+9.8), and Durant fourth (+9.1). Even with Curry struggling from three-point range as he never has in his career, he makes the best team in the world better through his presence on the court.

As such, anything other than a super-max contract for Curry this summer is impossible to imagine. Durant also has a player option, but with Thompson and Green each signed for 2+ seasons at relative bargains, he’s likely to stay the course as well. That may mean departures for unrestricted free agents Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Zaza Pachulia, but that’s the price of having a Big Four.

2. Chris Paul, Clippers

Advanced stats actually favor Chris Paul over Curry. The Clippers’ floor general has a +18.4 on/off differential that leads the NBA. Paul is third among point guards in Box Plus-Minus per Basketball Reference and fourth in PER compared to a rank of fifth in both categories for Curry. This likely results from the additional burden on Paul due to a top-heavy roster that isn’t getting as much from its bench as the Warriors.

While the Clippers dominate with Paul on court, the team is 9.3 points per 100 worse with Austin Rivers on court compared to off, while Raymond Felton’s differential is a disastrous -12.8. Perhaps if Paul and Curry switched teams, Curry would struggle more while Paul led the Warriors to even greater heights. But in the real world, the tie goes to the player that produces in the standings, and ultimately in the playoffs. With the Clippers now only a game ahead of the seventh-place Grizzlies, Curry has a clear edge as the best point guard available in the coming offseason.

Barring health concerns, Paul will almost certainly exercise his early termination option to enter unrestricted free agency this summer. It’s a tricky situation for the Clippers as Blake Griffin has the same option while J.J. Redick is on an expiring contract. Luc Mbah a Moute — who has become an important piece — has a player option for $2.3 million he will almost certainly decline. DeAndre Jordan is the only player in the top five of the Clippers’ rotation who is under contract for next season with no options.

Is the Clippers’ late-season swoon a sign of fractured chemistry, or a consequence of lingering effects from the thumb injury Paul suffered earlier in the season? It’s hard to say, but an early playoff exit could ignite a chain reaction with one or more starters defecting in free agency. If Griffin leaves, there’s no telling where Paul could end up. And if the Clippers go deep into the luxury tax to sign Griffin and Paul to massive new contracts, would Redick — easily among the league’s best shooters — compromise his career earnings to stick around on a bargain contract? Anything less than a Western Conference Finals appearance could have disastrous consequences for L.A.

3. Kyle Lowry, Raptors

Among NBA point guards, only Kemba Walker, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Curry and Paul have a better on/off differential than Kyle Lowry. His +10.1 trails only Patrick Patterson’s +10.9 for Toronto. With Terrence Ross departed to Orlando via the trade that brought back Serge Ibaka, Lucas Nogueira (+8.1) is currently the only other Raptor with a positive differential (minimum 300 minutes). The rest of the roster ranges from DeMarre Carroll’s -1.2 to Jakob Poeltl’s -8.8. The positive differentials for Patterson and Nogueira are almost certainly a consequence of spending the bulk of their minutes on court with Lowry (846 of 1328 minutes this season for Patterson, 734 of 1067 for Nogueira).

Lowry may not be in the same conversation with Curry and Paul, but these numbers show that he’s a difference maker that deserves to be on the highest tier of pending free agent point guards. One need look no further than the near-max contract the Magic gave Bismack Biyombo after his heroics in the playoffs to see the Lowry effect. A stout rebounder, defender and shot blocker, Biyombo has looked like a shell of himself this season without Lowry to set him up for attacks on the rim. Basketball Insiders editor and publisher Steve Kyler spoke to sources close to the Raptors during All-Star festivities in New Orleans, who said there is almost no scenario in which Toronto wouldn’t pay whatever it takes to keep Lowry, despite the wrist injury that has cost him extended time.

Simply put, the Raptors without Lowry are in danger of falling into the dreaded NBA purgatory. A healthy Toronto squad can compete for a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. If Lowry departs in the summer, the Raptors lack the cap space to replace him with anything close to equal talent. In that scenario, the Raptors would be too good to tank for high draft picks, but not good enough to contend. Toronto must do everything within its power to keep Lowry long term. Trading for Ibaka was almost certainly part of that equation.

4. George Hill, Jazz

The Jazz emerged as clear winners of the draft-day, three-team trade that brought George Hill from Indiana, sent Utah’s lottery pick (12, became Taurean Prince) to the Hawks and delivered Jeff Teague to his hometown Pacers. Hill has vastly outperformed Teague and newly-minted Hawks starting point guard Dennis Schroder this season, as evidenced by the Jazz’s current fourth seed in the brutal Western Conference. Hill’s +9.1 net differential ranks seventh among NBA point guards behind Lowry. He’s eighth in BPM and 14th in PER, placing him a step below Lowry but firmly in the upper echelon of free agent point guards.

Although Hill has only appeared in 43 games due to injury, he has emerged from Paul George’s shadow in Indiana and come into his own in Utah. It’s much easier now to see why San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich agonized over trading Hill for the pick the Spurs used to draft Kawhi Leonard. As with Lowry, the Jazz are left with no choice but to pay whatever the market demands to keep Hill. Trading a lottery pick made sense — even with Hill entering the season on an expiring contract — because Utah had plenty of young talent on the roster but lacked a frontline point guard. The Jazz’ situation was so dire last season that the team started Shelvin Mack in 27 games. That may be the fate that awaits Utah again if the organization can’t convince Hill to commit long-term. Any player that can elevate a lottery team to the brink of home-court advantage in the West deserves a spot this high on the list.

Tier 2: Serviceable Starters

5. Patty Mills, Spurs

While teams like the Warriors and Clippers are extremely top-heavy in terms of net rating differential, the Spurs are an anomaly. Patty Mills is nominally a bench player who leads San Antonio in net differential (+7.7) followed by fellow reserves David Lee (+4.7) and Manu Ginobili (+4.3). None of the trio has started more than 10 games this season. Meanwhile, the entire starting lineup is in the bottom six. This is likely due to Popovich starting Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, two players in the twilight of their career. Parker ranks no higher than 40th among NBA point guards in net differential, BPM and PER.

The upshot is that Mills may be a reserve for the second-best basketball team on Earth, but he could easily start for half the league’s teams. Mills will be paid as such this summer, and San Antonio shouldn’t think the rest of the league has failed to notice how good he is. Fortunately, the Spurs have LaMarcus Aldridge and Leonard signed through next season on reasonable contracts. Parker has one year left at $15.5 million and Gasol has a player option for $16 million, but the Spurs have full Bird rights for Mills. As such, San Antonio can spend into the luxury tax to keep Mills if that’s what is required. With the number of teams that will be after him, it almost certainly is. Mills’ piddling $3.6 million contract that expires at season’s end will have the old timers pining for the days when you could go to the movies for a nickel.

6. Jrue Holiday, Pelicans

Jrue Holiday is statistically very similar to Mills and Teague in terms of the stats used above. Mills obviously distinguishes himself by playing a major role on a true contender. But Holiday has another similarity to some of the point guards already discussed. Like Lowry and Hill, Holiday will have an unbelievable amount of leverage with his incumbent team when his final year at $11.3 million expires in a few short months.

Statistically, Holiday is around average for an NBA starter. Just don’t expect him to ask for an average salary July 1. If Holiday leaves New Orleans this summer, the Pelicans would only have as much as $15 million in cap space to find a replacement. That won’t get you any of the point guards listed above, nor some listed below. Teague will certainly be out of that price range after the Pacers gave up Hill to get him.

New Orleans’ best hope might be convincing Jrue’s older brother Justin Holiday, currently enjoying a breakout season with the Knicks, to join the team via an exception or cap space. The elder Holiday recently discussed his desire to play next season on the same team with his brother with Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto. The two may be a package deal for next season, which could work out well for a Pelicans team in desperate need of aid on the wing. Since New Orleans holds full Bird rights for Jrue, the team could potentially sign Justin with cap space then exceed the cap to sign his brother. This scenario becomes even more workable if Dante Cunningham declines his player option for $3.1 million to seek a longer-term deal.

7. Jeff Teague, Pacers

Theme warning: Market economics for NBA point guards will favor the supply side this summer, and that means suppliers of spin dribbles, assists and three-pointers like Jeffrey Demarco Teague. Back in 2013, then-Hawks GM Danny Ferry decided to play hardball with Teague, a restricted free agent. Rather than make an offer, the team waited for Teague to sign a dirt-cheap, four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks where he would have reunited with recently-departed Hawks coach Larry Drew. Ferry and newly-hired coach Mike Budenholzer likely made many a toast to their bargaining acumen.

But then, a few years later, Budenholzer learned the downside of such tactics. With the Hawks organization showing so little commitment to him, Teague apparently wasn’t too enthusiastic about spending the final year of his contract in Atlanta. Early last season, Teague put his condo in Buckhead on the market. Shortly after the Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers in the Conference Semifinals, Teague removed all Hawks-related images from his Instagram account. Teague then made and deleted a post on Instagram claiming that he played the entire 2015-16 season with a torn patellar tendon.

Perhaps it was the Hawks’ bargaining tactics, or perhaps it was fractured chemistry after his backup Schroder was quoted by German magazine Bild saying that he would seek greener pastures if he had not secured the starting job by the end of his current contract (Schroder insisted before a road game in Charlotte last season that he was misquoted and taken out of context by Bild). Whatever the reasons, Budenholzer made the decision to accelerate Schroder’s timeline by shipping Teague to the Pacers for the lottery pick Atlanta would use on promising small forward Taurean Prince. As mentioned, with Utah easily getting the best point guard out of the deal, Larry Bird’s back will be against the wall when it comes time to negotiate with Teague. There probably won’t be as many congratulatory slaps on the back as there were in Atlanta.

8. Darren Collison, Kings

Darren Collison has been a nomadic NBA starter who hasn’t won a lot. This is likely as much the fault of roster construction as Collison’s inability to elevate his teams. That could all change this summer after his contract expires with a final year at $5.2 million. One of those hard-bargaining point guards mentioned above could very well change teams, which would leave the incumbent team scrambling for an affordable replacement. Of all the players mentioned so far, Collison is the most likely — but by no means certain — to be available for a reasonable price. For example, if Holiday bolts from New Orleans, Collison could rejoin Cousins with the Pelicans and have the opportunity to play with a superstar in Anthony Davis. That has a much better ring to it than sticking around for an excruciating rebuild in Sacramento. Collison is at the lower end of starting NBA point guards, but he’s definitely a starter. He ranks in the 26-35 range in net differential, BPM and PER.

9. Derrick Rose, Knicks

Ranking Derrick Rose with the second tier probably counts as flattery. Rose will no doubt be seeking a max contract from his next super team, but the reality is that he’s 41st among NBA point guards in net differential and 48th in BPM. He’s somehow 21st in PER, a stat which is known to inflate the value of inefficient volume scorers. For the Knicks, Rose is right in the middle, neither elevating the team nor dragging it down from a net rating perspective. A bigger issue is probably Carmelo Anthony checking out on the organization with a -4.3 net differential that is worse than every Knick except Lance Thomas (-8). Rose has certainly been a workhorse, soaking up nearly 2000 minutes through 60 games, the third-highest total on the team.

Has Rose done enough to justify the kind of payday he doubtless believes he’s in line for after his deal expires July 1? With so many teams with their back against the wall, it only takes one. But if the Knicks double down on a failed personnel mix, it could be another wasted opportunity to begin building around Kristaps Porzingis.

Tier 3: Quality Reserves

10. Devin Harris, Mavericks

Devin Harris grades out better than Rose in the above-referenced metrics but he’s only played 867 minutes this season. Harris has battled injury issues throughout his career and been highly effective in stretches when injuries haven’t held him back. He’s a borderline starter when healthy but he’s getting toward the end of his career.

11. Yogi Ferrell, Mavericks

Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds. How painful must Yogi Farrell’s breakout for the Mavericks but for Brooklyn fans starving for talent? Sean Marks is a young, inexperienced GM, and this was a sharp lesson in the value of taking a longer look at guys before cutting them loose. It’s a sample of fewer than 800 minutes, but Ferrell has a very respectable +1.8 net differential that’s in the top half of the Mavericks’ roster. He’s also 30th among point guards in BPM and 38th in PER, giving him stats that verge on lower-end NBA starter. There’s a less than zero chance the Mavericks decline the team option to make Ferrell a free agent. He’s only mentioned here in the interest of piling on.

12. T.J. McConnell, 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers are within a game of the Knicks and the metrics say T.J. McConnell is a better player than Derrick Rose. Shouldn’t he be ranked higher? It’s actually a fair question. McConnell has started 38 games this year with Sergio Rodriguez starting 30. The 76ers will likely target a point guard in the upcoming draft, which is rich with them. But the numbers say McConnell rates as a very competent reserve. Philly would be quite foolish not to guarantee his 2017-18 salary.

13. Ty Lawson, Kings

Although his stats can be dismissed as having been compiled on a bad team, Lawson ranks between 30th in PER and 40th in BPM. That indicates quite a bit of value for a reserve as long as you’re confident that Lawson has put his past off-court issues behind him. The one-year veteran’s minimum deal he signed with Sacramento may have served as a good rehab stop for him and a better situation could await in free agency.

14. Deron Williams, Cavaliers

The Mavericks were outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions in Deron Williams’ 1171 minutes on the court this season, so it was understandable for the team to take a shot on some younger talent. Nevertheless, he represents a significant upgrade at backup point guard for the Cavaliers, who had relied on Kay Felder previously. One of the more favorable stats for Williams is PER, where he ranks 28th among NBA point guards. As with Collison, he could be a viable Plan B for a number of teams if they miss out on their primary target in free agency.

15. Rajon Rondo, Bulls

It just hasn’t been all that the Bulls’ collection of veterans hoped at the beginning of the season. After Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler cracked down on the rookies, Rondo stood up for them. It wasn’t any one player’s fault, but the net result was fractured leadership and disunity. Only $3 million of next season’s $13.4 million is guaranteed, and there may be no front office less predictable than Chicago’s. Rondo could be sent on his way as a scapegoat for this season’s shortcomings, or he could be back with the Bulls providing quality minutes. Rondo is definitely in decline but there’s still something left in the tank.

Tier 4: The rest

Beno Udrih and Toney Douglas, two NBA nomads, along with Spencer Dinwiddie, are the closest players in this tier to making a move up. Brandon Jennings, like Rose, has some cache as a longtime starter, but the numbers in New York were brutal. Hopefully, he can have a good run with the Wizards and move up a tier ahead of this summer’s unrestricted free agency. Felton, as mentioned above with Paul, has also underperformed. Chicago’s Michael Carter-Williams, a pending restricted free agent, is statistically similar to Felton. The Bulls gave up a rotation player in Tony Snell to get him, so Chicago will almost certainly extend a qualifying offer in hopes that he will fulfill the promise he showed as Rookie of the Year. Rodriguez gave way to McConnell in Philly, and rightly so. He grades out worse than Felton.

Mack enjoyed a brief moment in the sun as the Jazz’ starter last season. His on/off numbers improved dramatically as opportunity and role often allow. But as soon as he went back to the bench, his efficiency numbers went back to their accustomed place south of the Felton Line. C.J. Watson, Ramon Sessions, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks, Brian Roberts, Jose Calderon, Shaun Livingston and Isaiah Canaan have all lived further south this season. Felder, Trey Burke and Semaj Christon have been at the farthest fringes among NBA point guards with enough minutes to draw any conclusions about.

 

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA

NBA AM: Most Likely All-Star Snubs

Damian Lillard seems to top the All-Star snub list every season. It couldn’t happen again, could it?

Joel Brigham

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This year the NBA has famously decided to mix up the way the All-Star rosters work, while rather infamously deciding against televising the draft that will organize those players into teams, but even as some things change, some things remain the same.

Just like every year, there will be snubs when the All-Star reserves are announced on Tuesday night. Oh, there will be snubs.

The starters already have been selected, chosen by a combination of fan votes, media votes and player votes, the latter of which were taken so seriously that Summer League legend Jack Cooley even earned a single nomination from one especially ornery player voter.

For those that missed the starters, they include LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, and Joel Embiid from the Eastern Conference and Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and James Harden from the Western Conference.

That leaves seven more reserves from each conference and way more deserving players than that from which to choose. These will be selected by the coaches, per tradition, but it’s anybody’s guess who ends up making the team. There absolutely are going to be some massive snubs this year, so let’s take a quick look at the most likely candidates to earn roster spots this winter, as well as who that might leave out of this year’s event in Los Angeles.

The Eastern Conference

Let’s start with the “sure things,” which almost certainly will include with Indian Pacers guard Victor Oladipo. Not only is he putting up a career-best 24/5/4 line, but he’s also averaging two steals per night for an Indiana team that currently lives in the playoff picture despite dismal expectations. That’s almost entirely because of Oladipo.

In the frontcourt, there was plenty of healthy debate when Embiid was voted the starter over Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis, so there’s a very good chance that those two guys find their way to the roster, as well.

Kevin Love, who also is having a monster statistical season, seems like the most obvious third frontcourt guy, but his defense stinks and the Cavs haven’t exactly proven themselves worthy of two All-Stars. Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris both are having borderline All-Star seasons for a borderline playoff team, but they are the closest contenders to stealing away that third frontcourt reserve slot from Love.

Beyond that, Bradley Beal or John Wall likely will be the “other” guard reserve, but choosing which one is dicey. Wall’s the four-time All-Star, but Beal arguably is having the better year and has been snubbed for this event entirely too many times already. It doesn’t seem likely that both guys will make the team.

The wild cards could be that “other” Wizards guard among Beal and Wall, one of those two Pistons players, Miami’s Goran Dragic (they are fourth in the conference, rather surprisingly), Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, or Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons.

What seems most probable is that Oladipo and Beal earn the Eastern Conference reserve slots, with Horford, Porzingis and Love earning the backup frontcourt positions. Lowry and Wall feel most likely as reserves.

That means the most likely Eastern Conference snubs will be: Goran Dragic, Ben Simmons, Andre Drummod, Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton.

The level of controversy with this group feels fairly low, though if Dragic or Drummond were to make the team over Wall or Love, the conversation would be a lot feistier.

The Western Conference

Choosing the reserve guards in the Western Conference is a no-brainer. It will be MVP candidates Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook, which immediately means that if Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Paul George are not named as Wild Card players, they will be left off of the team. That’s about as “yikes” as “yikes” gets.

The battle for the frontcourt spots are going to be no less brutal, even with Kawhi Leonard effectively out of consideration having missed so much time at the beginning of the season. The Spurs will have an All-Star anyway, though, which makes LaMarcus Aldridge all but a lock.

Towns, who is averaging a 20/12 with over two assists and 1.5 blocks per game on one of the West’s top teams, also feels likely to get in. That means Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic are the two guys expected to battle over that last frontcourt spot, and both deserve real consideration. Green’s importance is less obvious to this Warriors team with Durant on the roster, but he’s no less essential even if his offensive numbers are down. Jokic, meanwhile, has kept Denver in the playoff hunt even without Paul Millsap, and is the best passing big man in the game.

The most likely scenario in terms of Western Conference reserves has Butler and Westbrook getting voted in at guard, Aldridge, Towns and Green voted in as frontcourt players, and Thompson and Lillard voted in as the wild cards.

That means the most likely Western Conference snubs will be: Chris Paul, Paul George, and Nikola Jokic.

Paul has missed 17 games this season, which is just too many when there are so many other great guards from which to choose, and George’s usage has dropped massively in Oklahoma City. As for Jokic, somebody has to get snubbed, and the other reasonable possibility is that he be named a wild card player at the expense of Lillard, and no NBA fan should have to see that happen yet again.

The 2018 NBA All-Star Reserves will be announced at 7:00 p.m. EST on January 23 on TNT.

Tune in Tuesday night to see which players will make the team, and which will inevitably be snubbed.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Rockets Might Be Formidable Challenge For Warriors

If nothing else, the Rockets gave everyone, including the Warriors, something to think about by beating the champs.

Moke Hamilton

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For those that had any lingering doubt as to the authenticity of the Houston Rockets, Saturday afternoon’s win over the Golden State Warriors should serve as a bit of a wakeup call.

Sure, championships aren’t won in mid-January, but by virtue of the win, the Rockets won their season series against the Warriors, 2-1.

Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season—the year the Warriors won the first of three consecutive Western Conference Finals—they’ve lost a season series to just one other team: the San Antonio Spurs.

A review of the tape suggests that those that believe that Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard are truly the team that has the best shot of beating the Warriors is founded in some fact. In the last three seasons, the Warriors have lost a total of 39 games.

In total, during that span, seven teams have failed to beat the Warriors even once, while 12 teams have beaten them one time. Four teams have beaten the Warriors twice and only the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies have beaten them thrice.

The Spurs, though, have managed to beat the Warriors five times, with Popovich leading his team to a 2-1 regular season series win over the Warriors during the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.

It’s safe to say that they have been the only team worthy of calling themselves anything near a worthy adversary to Stephen Curry and company.

At least, that was the case until Saturday night.

* * * * * *

With all due respect to Michael Jordan, if the Warriors win the NBA Finals this season, they can legitimately claim to be the best team in NBA history.

Two titles in three years is nothing to sneeze at, but the claim holds no weight whatsoever without ever having won two in a row, especially when scores of other teams have been able to accomplish the feat.

Aside from the two championships, the Warriors can claim the best regular season record in the league’s history and the distinction of being the only team to ever win 67 or more games for three consecutive seasons.

It is true that the Warriors have been almost invincible since the 2014-15 season, but things have changed now that Chris Paul has joined forces with James Harden.

This season, the Mike D’Antoni coached team ranks 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions, a marked improvement over last season’s rank of 18th.

With Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, Luc Mbah a Moute, they have four defensive stalwarts, one of whom (Ariza) who wasn’t able to suit up due to being suspended.

At the end of the day, beating a team in the regular season doesn’t really count for much, especially when you consider the greatest irony: in each of the seasons the Spurs beat the Warriors in their season series, the Warriors won the NBA Finals. The obvious asterisk there is that the Warriors didn’t play the Spurs in the 2015 NBA Playoffs and only managed to sweep them once the Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard in 2017.

Still, beating the defending champs in any game, much less a season series, has got to feel good. Whether they want to admit it or not, Saturday’s game against the Warriors was one that the Rockets wanted to get, that’s probably why Mike D’Antoni opted to reinsert James Harden into the game after he surpassed his 30-minute playing restriction.

In the end, Harden logged 35 minutes and ended up making what was the game’s clinching three-pointer.

Poetic, indeed.

* * * * * *

With the season a little more than halfway over, the Warriors still appear to be head and shoulders above those competing for their throne. Of the other contenders, the Rockets and Boston Celtics, at least for now, appear most formidable.

At the end of the day, what the Warriors have to fear more than anything is their own arrogance. As a unit, the team believes that it’s the best at playing small ball and that no other team can beat them as their own game. While that may be true, there have been a few instances over the past few years where that belief has ended up costing them.

What the Warriors seem to struggle with is understanding that not every possession can be played the same way, and as some possessions become more and more valuable, it would be wise for the team to play more conservatively and traditionally.

For example, when the Cavaliers beat the Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving made one of the most incredible shots we’ve ever seen, but it was Stephen Curry who helped leave the door open for the Cavs with a pitiful final five minutes of the game.

Among the worst atrocities he committed was an ill-advised turnover that came as a result of an off target behind the back pass to Klay Thompson. In such a situation, any second grader could have and would have known that a simple bounce pass to the flashing Thompson would have sufficed.

Steve Kerr’s message to his team, though, is to play like themselves and not overthink their execution.

While that’s fair, it does at least leave room to wonder if the Warriors will have the humility to play conservatively when the game is on the line.

Curry himself admitted to playing too aggressively and making poor reads and decisions down the stretch versus the Rockets. The team passed up wide-open two-point shots for three-pointers that didn’t fall, and those botched opportunities played a direct role in causing the loss.

Fortunately, for the Warriors, not much was at stake, but their performance and decision-making in those tight minutes leave us to wonder what will happen if and when they find themselves in another tight moment or two…

And by virtue of the Rockets becoming just the second team to take a season series from the Warriors since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, we can also fairly wonder whether they truly have what it takes to take down the Golden Goliath.

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NBA

G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts

David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.

Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.

Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.

With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.

1. Christian Wood

Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.

His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.

2. Jameel Warney

Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.

With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.

3. Melo Trimble

After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.

He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.

4. Joel Bolomboy

Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.

At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.

5. Jeremy Evans

Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.

With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.

Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.

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