Last July, Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors in free agency set in motion an NBA landscape that always seemed destined to end in this exact fashion. For the third consecutive season, the Warriors will face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, a grudge match between two franchises that boasted an insane seven All-Stars in 2016-17. Following in the footsteps of Stephen Curry’s rise to stardom and then LeBron James’ legendary comeback down 3-1 will no doubt be difficult, but these powerhouses have enough fireworks to put on a championship-worthy show one more time.
Many have suggested that the addition of Durant will push this series heavily in the Warriors’ favor, but can you really count out the machine-like playoff versions of James and Kyrie Irving? They split their season series at 1-1, but, as if it needs mentioning, the Cavaliers are on a three-game Finals winning streak against the Warriors.
#1 — Golden State Warriors
Naturally, the Warriors followed up their record-breaking 73-win (but ultimately just short) season by adding Durant and learned how to decimate the Western Conference in an entirely new way. Outside of Durant’s month-long absence in March, the Warriors cruised once again to the No. 1 seed in the conference. Even with head coach Steve Kerr still forced to watch from afar, the Warriors are 12-0 in the postseason to this point, easily disposing of the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs (albeit without Kawhi Leonard) en route to their date with destiny.
On their unbeaten jaunt through the conference, the Warriors racked up the postseason’s highest average in points (118.3), assists (27.8) and steals (9.2) per game, doing so with a struggling Klay Thompson in tow. Thompson averaged 24.3 points per game in the playoffs last year, but he’s only reached that mark once in this season’s iteration, even scoring as low as six points on two separate occasions.
Anchored by Stephen Curry, averaging a playoff career-high of 28.6 points per game, and Draymond Green, who should avoid another series-defining suspension, will ask some difficult questions about Cleveland’s suspect-at-times defense. Green can take advantage of his offensive matchup with Kevin Love too — don’t forget the former’s huge 32-point, 15-rebound performance in Game 7’s losing effort last summer.
Once again, the Warriors will call upon Andre Iguodala to shoulder much of the load defensively against James. Durant and Green will spend plenty of time guarding the 13-time All-Star as well, but Iguodala’s steady hand could be a difference-maker off the bench. Even JaVale McGee has proven to be a useful tool in doses for the Warriors, so look for him to be aggressive during his minutes against the Cavaliers’ second unit.
At the end of the day, there’s too much shooting, balance and game-changing bench pieces to doubt the Warriors’ eventual victory in this series. Yes, James is one of the greatest players in league history, but asking him to perform the basketball equivalent of walking on water two Junes in a row is too much.
When you take a 73-win team and add Durant (25 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 55.6 percent from the floor), it’s best not to overcomplicate things.
#2 — Cleveland Cavaliers
In April, as the Cavaliers willingly appeared to cede the top spot in the Eastern Conference to the Boston Celtics, two key buzzwords entered the NBA lexicon: Flip and switch. Could a team go from having a below average defense in the regular season — tied for the 8th-worst defensive rating with the Brooklyn Nets at 108 — to a playoff-ready version at the snap of a finger? Well, as it typically goes with James, nearly anything is plausible.
No franchise in recent memory had been so outwardly disinterested in holding homecourt advantage than the Cavaliers. They frequently slept walked through entire games and committed to entering the postseason as healthy as possible. While the Celtics pulled off their impressive finish as the No. 1 seed, the Cavaliers shrugged and swept their way through eight straight games against the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors, all before taking back that precious advantage in Boston during the first 24 minutes of the conference finals. Make no mistake, despite letting a sloppy effort slip through their hands at home in Game 3 versus the Celtics, the Cavaliers have been just as dominant as their undefeated opposition.
That previously gag-inducing defensive rating now stands at 104.6, a mark that would put Cavaliers among a smattering of the league’s top units during the regular season. Just as important, the offense has been prolific too, and the Cavaliers enter the Finals with the highest averages in field goal percentage (50.7 percent to the Warriors’ 50.2), three-pointers made per game (14.6) and three-point percentage (43.5 percent) in the postseason. Take that red-hot shooting and combine it with the irrational confidence of a roster that already achieved the impossible against this team, and you’ve likely found yourself a competitive series.
The Cavaliers will certainly look to lean on the James and Irving pick-and-roll as Curry struggled with them, albeit while injured, for most of the Finals last year. Of course, the Warriors now have a rangy beast in Durant that’s able (and, more crucially, willing) to play his part defensively — but Cleveland will need to do damage there again to keep pace. In 2016, the Cavaliers focused on denying Curry as much as possible, opting instead to give Harrison Barnes a slew of wide-open attempts. While that strategy largely worked, again, the addition of Durant will complicate Cleveland’s ability to influence the game defensively. The Warriors often live and die by the three-pointer, but having the option to dump it into Durant for an isolation is a wrinkle the Cavaliers may not be equipped to handle.
After James, the defensive abilities on the roster decline quickly, so finding any way to paper mache over those cracks will be key throughout the series. Additionally, the Cavaliers will certainly worry about their lack of size in the paint — should Tristan Thompson get injured or find himself in foul trouble, Cleveland will need to rely on some combination of Love, James, Derrick Williams and Channing Frye to quell the tide at center.
But for all the Cavaliers’ glaring weaknesses, at some point, maybe onlookers should just learn to stop betting against James. The reigning NBA Finals MVP passed Michael Jordan for first place on the all-time postseason scorers list against the Celtics and has shown no signs of slowing down. Frankly, with James on the court, anything is possible — but can it reasonably happen against Golden State four times in seven games?
Who Wins Game 1?
Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine the Warriors losing this series in the long run — they’re just the better team across the board. Still, it’s equally difficult to predict the James-led Cavaliers to go down without snagging a few victories of their own, no matter how fleeting. So, backing the Warriors in six games does two things: It doesn’t bet against the vengeful firepower of Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green, but it also doesn’t make the mistake of counting out James on the sport’s biggest stage.
Either way, Game 1 won’t be one of the contests that Cleveland grabs. After plenty of rest, the Warriors will be energized at home and Durant should be eager to set the stage for a potential legacy-changing series. Irving may outplay Curry in this opener, but don’t expect Thompson to continue shooting this poorly either. At home, the Warriors will open up this NBA Finals grudge match with an important 1-0 lead.
NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role
The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.
The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.
On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.
Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.
“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .
Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.
Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.
“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.
In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.
Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.
“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”
If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.
Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.
“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”
After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.
Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.
Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd
The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Bucks assistant coach Joe Prunty will be installed as interim coach, league sources tell ESPN. He will coach Bucks against Phoenix tonight.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 22, 2018
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17
Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.
It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.
There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
6. Hassan Whiteside
After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.
5. Anthony Davis
Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.
4. Josh Richardson
Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.
Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.
3. Kevin Durant
This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.
In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.
2. Joel Embiid
Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.
Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.
Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.
Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.
He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.
1. Paul George
Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.
Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.
“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”
Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.
“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”
Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.
“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”
That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.
Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.