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Cheap Seats: Next Year’s NBA MVP

Who will win next season’s NBA MVP award? Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor weigh in.

Basketball Insiders

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Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant took home this year’s Most Valuable Player award, totaling 1,232 points, including 119 of 125 first-place votes. The runner-up, LeBron James, had just 891 points and six first-place votes. James had won the MVP trophy for the last two years, and four times in the last five seasons.

Who will win next season’s MVP award? Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor weighed in:

LeBron James

James finished second in the MVP voting this year behind Kevin Durant. Durant and James both had fantastic seasons; Durant scored at a remarkable clip and stepped up big time in Russell Westbrook’s absence, while LeBron was his usual dominant self scoring, passing, rebounding and defending at an elite level. Look for LeBron to come out hungry next year and make strong case to bring home his fifth MVP award.

James will first have decide whether or not he wants to remain a member of the Miami HEAT. Along with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, James has an early termination option on his contract that, if exercised, would make him an unrestricted free agent this offseason. It would be a surprising a move if LeBron did decide to take his talents elsewhere, especially considering his success with the HEAT, but you never know.

On the court this year LeBron was his usual exceptional self. He averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals a night. He shot a jaw dropping 62.2% on two-point shots, an absolutely incredible number for a player who spends a fair amount of time handling the ball and out on the perimeter. He is truly in a class of his own in that regard. When you take a look at other players who finished with a similar field goal percentage from two, they are all big men who tend to camp around the rim, Andre Drummond shot 62.5%, Tyson Chandler shot 59.5% and Dwight Howard shot 59.4%. Also, those guys all took significantly fewer shots per game than the 17.6 attempts LeBron was putting up; Howard was the “closest” to James with 11.3 attempts per game. The improvement James has made in his field goal percentage is hard to believe, since as a rookie he shot 41.7%. He has improved that number every year but one (in 2005-06 he shot 48% from the field, and that dipped to 47.6% in 2006-07) and this season he shot 56.7% from the field. This is a testament to the hard work James puts in every offseason and his commitment to getting better. You would have to imagine that he would plateau and level off at some point like most guys tend to do, but LeBron is not most players so don’t be surprised if his field goal percentage inches closer to 60% next year.

What really separate’s James from other great players is his ability to impact a game in so many different ways. You would think a guy that scores at the rate LeBron does is a shoot-first type player, but maybe to a fault LeBron isn’t. He is one of the best passers ever for a player of his size and is often mentioned in the same breath as greats like Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson in terms of his ability to share the sugar.

Not only is James an incredibly skilled passer, he does a great job helping out on the glass, averaging over seven rebounds a game for his career. When you compare his stats historically against some of the greats, LeBron not only measures up but stands out. Among all players who have averaged over 25 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, no player shot a higher field goal percentage than LeBron this year. Coming in second? LeBron in 2012-13. These are remarkable numbers and it gives you a sense of how special a player LeBron really is. We really are in the presence of one best players to ever take the hardwood.

LeBron continues to show why he is the best player on the planet. His desire to be great fuels him every offseason and he will inevitably come back an even better player in 2014-15 after a having another few months to fine tune his game, a very scary thought for the rest of the league. Defensively he has the ability to cover multiple spots and compared to Durant has the edge on that end. It will certainly be another close race between the two and with Blake Griffin improving, he may be in the mix as well. In terms of overall impact on the game there is really no equal to James. It’s the obvious pick but barring injury James should be considered the favorite to bring home the MVP award in 2014-15.

– John Zitzler

Blake Griffin

Kevin Durant was recently voted the NBA’s MVP after two years of LeBron James winning the award. Durant earned the award by carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to the second-best record in the Western Conference as Russell Westbrook battled through multiple knee surgeries. However, Durant will face stiff competition next season from someone other than James. Considering his improvement this season, strong work ethic and overall skillset, Blake Griffin has as good of a chance as anyone to win MVP next season.

Griffin had a breakout season this year, finishing third in MVP balloting behind Durant and James. He averaged 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals and got to the free throw line 8.4 times a game, where he shot 71.5 percent (up from 66 percent last season). In addition, he shot 52.8 percent from the field and improved his midrange jump shot significantly. Yet, these numbers seem somewhat mundane when compared to Durant, who averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists a game, and shot 50.3 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. In addition, Durant got to the free throw line 9.9 times a game and shot 87.3 percent.

However, there are several reasons to believe that Griffin will build off the momentum he generated this season and come back even better next season. First, Griffin is one of the hardest working players in the league. For several seasons now Griffin has worked with shooting guru Bob Thate, who told the Orange County Register in April 2013, “When he becomes a face-up guy and takes the shot that’s there, he’ll be incredible. When you look at Blake and LeBron James, they’re equal in physical gifts. In time they’ll be the best two players in the league every year.” This may seem far-fetched, but Thate works more with Griffin than anyone, and even told Clippers’ broadcaster Mike Smith that he believes Griffin will be one the best shooters in the league at some point. Not one of the best shooting big men, but one of the best shooters in the league overall.

It is hard to imagine Griffin as a top shooter in the league, until you hear quotes from newcomers J.J. Redick and Doc Rivers, who have said they were caught off guard by how dedicated and diligent Griffin is with his workout routines. Jamal Crawford even described Griffin as the “hardest worker” on the team. In addition, Griffin takes elite care of his body, working with trainer Robbie Davis, who earlier this year told Bleacher Report, “He has an incredible understanding of his body now… He’s educated himself on how to train properly, eat properly and recover properly. He’s more knowledgeable than any other athlete I’ve had.” At just age 25, Griffin displays the same work ethic that made Karl Malone one of the best power forwards of all time. Entering the NBA, Malone was an average shooter, but continued to improve and eventually became one of the most dominant power forwards of all time. It is not hard to imagine Griffin following the same career arc. If Griffin manages to further improve his shooting, he will truly become unstoppable on offense, and will open up more opportunities for him to set up his teammates, which he is already very good at.

Also, much of Griffin’s improvement this season comes from being a moving piece within Rivers and Alvin Gentry’s offense. Under former head coach Vinny Del Negro, Griffin was used primarily as a screener for Chris Paul. It was up to Paul to improvise after the screen to score himself, generate an open shot for Griffin or pass the ball out to the perimeter and reset. The other major set was simply isolating Griffin in the post and spreading the other four players out on the opposite end of the court. These sets were effective because of the individual talents of Paul and Griffin, rather than the effectiveness of the sets themselves.

Now, Griffin is often the beneficiary of teammates running backdoor screens for him, and pin-downs that often end up with Griffin receiving the ball against one defender on the elbows or one-on-one with deep position under the basket. Teams can no longer run aggressive traps at Griffin in the post, or during pick and rolls because there is so much movement being generated from other players like Redick, Crawford, Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan. Defenses can still take away certain options, such as packing in defenders in the paint and forcing Griffin to shoot a midrange jumper or make a play for teammates, but the point is that the offense is not predictable anymore, which makes Griffin even more dangerous.

Lastly, this was Doc’s first year with the Clippers, and the team spent the better part of the season learning how to play within his system. It stands to reason that next season, with more familiarity with the system and one another, Griffin will be even more effective. He has found a balance between attacking the basket in transition, positing up opposing big men, rolling to the basket off of pick and rolls with Paul, and setting up teammates like Jordan for easy scores at the rim. It will be interesting to see what other niches Griffin can find next season, and how his game will improve overall. This includes the defensive side of the ball as well. Griffin will never be an elite defensive player like James, but under Rivers’ structured, disciplined defensive system, Griffin can continue to improve as a team defender. The improvement from his rookie season to this season is apparent, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Durant may still have the edge next season because of his unbelievable ability to score the ball, and LeBron will have a say in the matter as well, as he is currently the best overall player on the planet. However, with his work ethic, improving skill set, elite athleticism and increased familiarity with Rivers’ system, Griffin will make it tough for Durant and James.

– Jesse Blancarte

Kevin Durant

As the reigning Most Valuable Player, it wouldn’t be entirely crazy to think that Durant could do it again. This season, Durant proved that he was finally able to get over the hump of three second-place finishes in the MVP race by winning his first award. Now that he finally won the trophy, he should be the favorite heading into next season to repeat as MVP.

Durant is so much more than an individual basketball player. He plays for his teammates and for the opportunity to win a championship. During Durant’s MVP speech on Tuesday, he spent the majority of the time thanking his teammates and singling them out individually for putting him in the position to win the award.

Durant is not influenced by off-court ventures; he is a basketball player, as teammate Nick Collison said. “Some guys come into the league and have these ideas about what they want to do off the court — to be businessmen and all that,” Collison wrote in a piece for Sports Illustrated. “Kevin was all about basketball. He was most comfortable in the gym. He just loved to play ball.”

Durant won the award this season after averaging a career-high 32 points per game. His 32 points were over four-and-a-half more than Carmelo Anthony’s 27.4 points per game, and nearly five more points than LeBron James’ 27.1 points per game. Standing at 6’9, Durant presents a challenge for teams night in and night out. His ability to handle the ball is well-documented and that skill makes him one of the most unique players in league history. It’s not even that Durant can handle the ball well for a player his size, its that Durant can handle the ball and make everyone miss. A perfect example is the move Durant put on Jared Dudley in Game 3 on Friday night.

Even when Durant is having an off night, he is still making his teammates better. Collison broke it down and said that by just having him on the court, defenses are drastically changed. On any given play there is one player defending Durant, another shifting over on help defense and three other guys all watching him. If one of those levels of defense breaks down, Durant will find the open man cutting toward the basketball or for the open shot.

Durant has made tremendous strides in becoming a better overall player. In his early years Durant battled on the defensive side of the ball with his skinny frame, but has since worked at getting better and he has closed the gap with James as the NBA’s most elite player. Durant is using added muscle, quickness, long arms and seven years of experience in the league in helping his transformation on defense. Critics in the past have said that James was so far superior over Durant because of his ability to play on both sides of the ball, but it appears that those critics are now acknowledging Durant’s presence in the conversation.

– Cody Taylor

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NBA AM: Is It Smart To Bet On Yourself In This Market?

Many extension-eligible players opted to bet on themselves and a questionable free agent marketplace next summer.

Steve Kyler

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No Big Surprises On Draft Extensions

The big news yesterday wasn’t a new extension for a 2014 first round draft pick, it was the news that the San Antonio Spurs reached a three-year, $72 million extension with veteran LaMarcus Aldridge.

The news was surprising for a couple of reasons. The biggest being the Spurs had shopped Aldridge in trade scenarios this offseason under the idea that he was a problematic fit for the Spurs.

Ultimately, Aldridge and the Spurs ended up in the same place on his deal. The Spurs were not going to be big free agent players and locking Aldridge in now gives them some security as well as trade leverage later. In Aldridge’s case, his camp saw the marketplace this past summer and all of the mouths that need to be fed in July and realized he wasn’t likely getting more money on the open market come free agency.

One of the things the Spurs found out was that trading a player with a player option is not an easy task as teams that would give up value want to know what comes next, either way. Over the past few years, player options have become almost toxic in trade, mainly because there are two classes of trade partners, one that wants the ending contract and a player for a stretch run in the postseason and teams that want the player for next season. The options make valuing the player sticky at best.

In doing a deal for Aldridge, the Spurs basically lock him into their roster for this season but give themselves a trade chip next summer, if they need it. This was smart for both sides. The Spurs locked in the player and the trade asset, Aldridge locked in money he likely wouldn’t have gotten in the open market.

For those players drafted in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft, yesterday closed the window on the “Early Extension Period.” While there were talks all the way to the wire on several players, the bulk of the deals that didn’t get done didn’t get close enough to seal the deal.

The Boston Celtics and Marcus Smart frequently talked about an extension, and his camp labeled the talks as getting “close” but ultimately, future luxury tax concerns killed a possible deal before the extension deadline, meaning Smart will hit free agency in July.

The Celtics will have a couple of months to see if Smart continues to evolve before they have to make decisions, and they now know what a deal would take for Smart to sign outright. Given the Celtics tax concerns, there is a window for a team with cap space to poach him in July if they come with the right kind of offer sheet. While the Celtics can obtain the right to match Smart with a $6.53 million qualifying offer, the tax issues won’t go away without a cap dump of a trade. Equally, the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, so the C’s have the luxury of seeing what unfolds in the next three months before the February 8 trade deadline.

The Orlando Magic and their pair of 2014 draftees, Aaron Gordon and Elfird Payton, talked about extensions, mostly out of courtesy. The Magic would have done deals if it favored the team, but the new front office in Orlando has been open and honest that they are still very much in evaluation mode on the roster and were not going to pay a premium at this point.

The Magic’s reluctance to do a deal wasn’t about valuing either player as both are said to have been very good so far, this preseason. The Magic don’t have a clear-cut direction yet and inking a long-term deal with either would have been counter to their goal of flexibility. Equally, the Magic also know that both players are unlikely to get huge free agent offers unless they blossom this season, which would make matching an easier decision after seeing how they play this season.

Neither player entered the process expecting to reach a deal, so there is no ill-will about not getting an extension. Both players have said publicly and privately they knew they had to earn their next deal and came into camp with that mindset.

The Utah Jazz and guard Rodney Hood engaged on an extension most of the summer. The Jazz are very committed to Hood, but would not commit to a deal at this point for a bunch of reasons, the biggest being they don’t really know what the team is yet. Hood is going to get a big opportunity this year, and the Jazz want to see if he can handle the increased load and stay healthy. Injuries have ravaged the Jazz lately, and they were reluctant to lock in a big number to a player that hasn’t been durable.

Of the bunch, Hood is the most likely to get a deal without the restricted free agent offer sheet process next summer—the Jazz may simply pony up and pay him if he can fill the void they hope he can for the team.

The Milwaukee Bucks and injured forward Jabari Parker did talk about an extension despite him having torn his ACL for the second time. The Bucks looked at the idea of locking Parker in at a value, but ultimately, neither side got close enough for it to be realistic. Parker is expected to return to action sometime in February, meaning he may log enough games for a big deal in July to be realistic, especially if the Bucks are as good as they project to be this year and land home court in the postseason.

The big hurdle for all of the players that did not get an extension is that the free agent marketplace in July does not project to be as robust as it was even last year. A number of agents urged their clients to take the security of money on the table this summer, and many players opted to bet on themselves, which always sounds like a great idea until the reality of restricted free agency sets in.

Nerlens Noel and JaMychal Green were both causalities of a shrinking marketplace this past summer. It will be interesting to see if some of the players that got close this week get less in the open market in July.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton@jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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