Well, it’s finally here.
For months, fans and analysts alike have debated a hotly contested MVP race led by this series’ two biggest stars: James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Now facing off in the first round of the playoffs, the two superstars will look to extend their historically great seasons for a few more weeks. While the regular season saw the third-seeded Houston Rockets take three of four games from the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’d be nearly impossible to count out Westbrook and his never-say-die attitude. The pair of former teammates could combine for a double-digit triple-double total, but this series will swing on the contrasting styles of play around them.
#3 — Houston Rockets
In one corner, there’s James Harden, the inventive left-handed assassin that’s a threat from every spot on the court. Despite being somewhat overshadowed by Westbrook’s tidy triple-double count, Harden still managed to stuff the box score all season, averaging 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and a staggering 11.2 assists per contest, a league-high. Sporting a record of 55-27, however, it’s hard to pin the Rockets’ success on just Harden’s MVP-worthy campaign. Firing with reckless abandon alongside Harden are Sixth Man of the Year candidates Eric Gordon and Louis Williams, the perennially great sharpshooter Ryan Anderson and the defensively stout Patrick Beverley.
Orchestrated by Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets surrounded Harden with some of the league’s most lethal shooters after letting Dwight Howard walk in unrestricted free agency last summer. Almost immediately, the previously underwhelming roster blossomed. Under D’Antoni, the Rockets have embraced their long range inclinations and attempted an otherworldly 40.3 three-pointers a game, an NBA record, en route to becoming one of the best offenses in league history.
In fact, the Rockets led the league with 14.1 three-pointers made per game, a mark that blows the Thunder’s 26th-ranked average of 8.4 out of the water. Should Houston take care of business from deep, that alone may bury the lower-seeded team in this series.
And yet, for all that scoring firepower, the defense was often an entirely different story. Middling at best, the Rockets’ defensive rating came in at 106.4, good for 18th in the NBA and even with the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. For a team that has championship aspirations, their defensive shortcomings should certainly be a cause for concern.
But first, a Westbrook-sized obstacle lies ahead of the Rockets. This is a defensive assignment that’ll fall squarely on the shoulders of Beverley, a tough-nosed guard willing step up to the Thunder’s out-of-this-world floor general.
For the Rockets, their gameplan should be simple enough: let Westbrook get his. It sounds silly, perhaps, but even during some of Westbrook’s most heroic regular season performances, he couldn’t always pull it off against some of the league’s elite franchises. Of Westbrook’s 42 triple-doubles, nine of them came in a loss. So, if Houston takes care of business from behind the arc, the Rockets will only need to outlast Westbrook, not drive a wooden stake through his heart.
#6 — Oklahoma City Thunder
For the Oklahoma City Thunder and the enigmatic Westbrook, the plan is far simpler: get Russell the ball and get out of the way. From game-winning buzzer-beaters to legendary triple-doubles, Westbrook has undeniably achieved one of the best individual seasons in NBA history. Usually overpowered and outgunned, the Thunder often needed every point, rebound and assist from Westbrook to stay within striking range on most nights.
In return, of course, Westbrook averaged the first triple-double in league history since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson did in 1961-62.
After Kevin Durant’s unceremonious departure last summer, a new ruthless Westbrook emerged from the ashes of a broken-hearted franchise to lead the Thunder to a better-than-anticipated 47-35 record. Without the services of long-time shot-blocking stalwart Serge Ibaka, the Thunder relied on the talents of Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Victor Oladipo to buoy Westbrook’s one-of-a-kind efforts — something that often ran in hot and cold streaks.
Jumpstarted by the trade deadline acquisitions of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott from the Chicago Bulls, the Thunder finished the season 14-10 and should feel confident heading into the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years. If Westbrook’s unmovable mass can help the Thunder steal a game on the road, all bets are off in what should be one of the playoffs’ highest scoring series.
Similarly to Beverley, the Thunder have a defensive answer for Harden and his name is Andre Roberson, a legitimate candidate to be selected to his first-ever All-Defensive team this awards season. Roberson is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and if he can impact some of Harden’s fluid effortlessness, the series has potential to go down as a classic.
Elsewhere, the banging bodies of Adams and Kanter will need to take advantage of their opportunities against Clint Capela, Nene and Anderson in the paint, but most of the Thunder defenders will also struggle to chase the latter around the arc — setting up nicely for a clash of opposing frontcourt strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the Thunder will need a major sidekick to step up consistently throughout the series if they want a chance of upsetting one of the league’s elite offenses — we’re looking at you, Oladipo.
Who Wins Game 1?
Although the Thunder certainly have the ability to cause a disruptive series, it won’t be on Sunday. With the aforementioned Anderson finally back in the swing of things after missing six games toward the end of the regular season, the Rockets’ second-highest paid player could be a difference maker in Game 1. As exhibited throughout the season, it’s tough to bet against Westbrook in these high-intensity moments, but the series will still swing on the help he receives and Roberson’s cagey defense on Harden.
The two superstars will both notch triple-doubles, but the discrepancy in the three-point shooting may be too much to overcome on the road for Oklahoma City. Look for the Rockets to capitalize on their homecourt advantage in an emotional (and tight) series opener.
New Orleans Pelicans and Cliff Alexander Agree To Deal
The New Orleans Pelicans and free agent forward Cliff Alexander have agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.
The addition of Alexander will give New Orleans 20 players heading into training camp.
Alexander spent last season playing 40 combined games with the Erie Bayhawks and Long Island Nets in the G-League, where he averaged 15.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game. Alexander also shot 52 percent from the field and blocked one shot per game.
The 21-year-old forward was a McDonald’s All-American and won MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic in 2014 before attending Kansas University. Alexander played 28 games as a Jayhawk and averaged 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 17.6 minutes per game before declaring for the draft.
After going undrafted, Alexander played in eight games for Portland during the 2015-16 season and received a 10-day contract from the Brooklyn Nets in April.
For more information on the salary cap and roster situation for the New Orleans Pelicans, click here.
New Orleans Pelicans and free agent forward Cliff Alexander have agreed to a 1-year, non-guaranteed deal, league source told @BBallInsiders.
— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) September 24, 2017
Atlanta Hawks and John Jenkins Agree To Deal
The Atlanta Hawks and free agent guard John Jenkins have agreed to a training camp deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.
The addition of Jenkins will give Atlanta 20 players heading into training camp.
Jenkins drew interest from several other teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks.
The 26-year-old guard began his career in Atlanta after the Hawks selected him 23rd overall out of Vanderbilt in the 2012 draft. For his career, Jenkins has averaged 5.1 points in 12.8 minutes per game while shooting 45 percent from the field overall and 36 percent from beyond the arc.
For more information on Atlanta’s salary cap and roster situation, click here.
Atlanta Hawks and free agent guard John Jenkins have agreed to a training camp deal, a league source told @BBallInsiders.
— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) September 24, 2017
Golden State Warriors 2017-18 Season Preview
The Golden State Warriors remain the cream of the NBA crop, even after several franchises went all in this offseason. Can anyone really beat the Warriors in a seven-game series? We look at the Warriors in this final NBA season preview.
After losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors were highly favored to win the 2016-17 championship with the offseason addition of Kevin Durant. In the Warriors’ third straight Finals match up with Cavaliers, Golden State, with plenty of help from Durant, over-matched Cleveland in last season’s NBA Finals. This year, with Durant taking a pay cut, the team did a masterful job of bringing back just about all of the key players from last year’s championship run. Now the team is primed to wreak havoc on the league once again.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s almost comical at this point how the best team in basketball keeps getting better.
After adding Kevin Durant last summer, and then completely decimating the entire NBA, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, all the Golden State Warriors did was go out and add two players in Omri Casspi and Nick Young who almost perfectly fit their brand of “you’re not out-shooting us” basketball.
The powers of the NBA all shuffled around their rosters this season in hopes of trying to assemble some type of “anti-Warriors” remedy, and when it’s all said and done, those moves will be all for naught. Expect Golden State to ride their legendary roster to another NBA title.
1st place – Pacific Division
– Dennis Chambers
What do you need me to say about the Warriors that you don’t already know? Two of the best five players in the league are on the roster, as well as arguably the top defensive player in the league and a cast of reserves that fit perfectly with the superstars running the show. Even JaVale McGee is shooting three pointers now. The Warriors are unstoppable and in some ways even better than the team that won a championship a few months ago. It’s going to be a long season for every other team in the league. They’re all playing for second place.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
The road to the NBA Finals obviously goes through Oakland, especially after the club managed to re-sign JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Nick Young will give the team some additional firepower, but they probably don’t even need it.
So long as these guys stay healthy, they’ll probably find their way to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, and with the Clippers having lost Chris Paul, the Warriors should have a relatively easy time winning the Pacific Division for the fourth straight year.
I’m usually longer-winded than that, but I’m not sure much else needs to be said about the Warriors.
1st place – Pacific Division
– Moke Hamilton
At this point, what’s really left to say? The Warriors had arguably the best basketball team ever assembled last season, and that was while dealing with minor role concerns and dealing with Kevin Durant’s midseason injury. Then they went out and improved this offseason, adding the likes of Omri Casspi and Nick Young as perfect end-of-roster pieces. Combine that with what most would expect will be even better fit and chemistry across the roster this season, and the Warriors stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league even with several squads making big power moves to try and bridge the gap. Anything but a third title in four years will fail to do justice to the incredible, historical talent on this roster.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Ben Dowsett
The best team in the NBA went out and retained key players and signed Omri Casspi and Nick Young to round out the roster. As has been the case for several years now, the Warriors enter the upcoming season with the most overall talent, improved chemistry, good health and every ingredient necessary to win an NBA championship. Several other contenders pulled off some impressive moves to try and bridge the gap between themselves and the Warriors, but Golden State still holds the advantage against every other team in the league. So long as the Warriors are playing up to their potential, or anywhere near it, the other contenders are out of luck. Unless the Warriors face some serious injuries this upcoming season or some internal discord, we should expect them to win their third championship in four seasons.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant
Don’t knock me for not clearly choosing a single player here. The individual excellence of both Stephen Curry and Durant cannot be stated enough. While Curry’s statistics did take a bit of a step back from the year prior, he still led the way for the Warriors last season. Last year, Curry led the team in points per game (by a slim margin), three-pointers made, assists and usage percentage. Keep in mind, Durant was excellent but Curry still commanded the offense for the most part. However, Durant was right on Curry’s heels and in the playoffs actually slightly surpassed Curry in points per game. In addition, Durant remains as tough to cover one-on-one as anyone in the league. Regardless, both players are unbelievable individual talents and would easily be the top offensive player on just about any other team.
Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green
For the foreseeable future, Draymond Green has this category on lockdown for the Warriors. Green uses a combination of length, strength, timing and sneaky athleticism to smother his opponents. Green’s versatility allows him to guard a range of positions in the post and switch to guard guards and forwards on the wing effectively as well. His versatility is the lynchpin of the Warrior’s vaunted death line up that uses Green at center and brings Iguodala off the bench to close games. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year race came down to Green and Utah center Rudy Gobert. In the end, Green’s versatility as well as his ability to guard the rim effectively made him the top choice in voters’ minds. Expect Green to be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year this upcoming season as well.
Top Playmaker: Stephen Curry
When the Warriors added Durant to the roster, many wondered, even for a team as unselfish as the Warriors, how would Stephen Curry and Durant manage to share the ball? That question was answered when Curry took a step back and allowed Durant’s individual offensive brilliance to shine. Curry’s points per game dropped (30.1 to 25.3) as did his usage percentage (32.0 to 29.2). Curry’s individual excellence continued regardless as he remained the Warriors’ top distributor (followed closely by Draymond Green). In addition, Curry garners so much attention that his simple presence on the court creates more room for teammates to operate. Curry’s ability to pull up from virtually anywhere on the court and willingness to make the extra pass to teammates makes him a nightmare to cover and the Warriors’ top playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry
Once again, you could give this award to either of the Warrior’s two best offensive players. Curry dominates most of the advanced statistics when breaking down clutch play, defined as the last minutes of a game within 5 point or less, per nba.com. However, based on Durant’s size, length and ability to get off a shot in isolation, he makes for an excellent clutch player in just about any situation. Either is an extraordinary option and their play in crunch time continues to be critical to their championship fortunes.
The Unheralded Player: Klay Thompson
Klay Thompson is a phenomenal talent who does a number of things well. He’s an unbelievable three-point shooter and defends elite point guards to alleviate the pressure on Curry. For a team with two elite offensive players, having Thompson as your third option on offense is just unfair to the rest of the league. Thompson lights up the league with his ability to hit outside shots without needing to dominate the ball. Don’t just count on Thompson to score as he takes pride in his defense and his ability to lockdown on defense.
Best New Addition: Omri Casspi
Overall, the Warriors have had an unbelievable stretch of luck when it comes to injuries, which will hopefully rub off on Omri Casspi this season. With his length, versatility and the ability to stretch the floor, he can slide into either forward spot. His addition strengthens the team’s ability to survive the grind of the regular season and lessen the minutes of the starters. Casspi fills a lot of needs for several teams that are looking to challenge the Warriors, so simply keeping him away from those teams is an added benefit to his signing.
– James Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr continues to be the perfect coach for this team. He helps to keep the players focused on their individual roles within the larger team structure and has so far prevented major dissension and discord. Kerr took the team that Mark Jackson previously coached and helped to transform the team into champions. Credit is deserved for his part in successfully orchestrating the move of former All-Star Iguodala to a bench role and meshing Durant’s individual brilliance with the Warriors’ pre-existing, pass-happy offense. Kerr has missed significant time due to his botched spinal surgery, but if he can manage his health, count on Kerr to keep the Warriors a well-oiled machine.
2. Nick Young
Nick Young is a player that has had an up-and-down career. Credit Young for carving out a relatively successful career as a journeyman three-point shooting wing. Keeping Young focused and unlocking his full range of talents has been difficult for many organizations. The Warriors are up next and will give the 11th year pro an opportunity to do what he does best — knocking down three-pointers. As a career 37.6 percentage three-point shooter, Young will have a chance to get more open looks from distance than he has previously in his career. Like JaVale McGee, Young will also have a chance to transform his reputation if he proves to be a disciplined, effective contributor to a championship team.
3. Jordan Bell
What’s the perfect piece for a rebuilding team in need of young talent to build around? Jordan Bell, selected with the 38th pick in this year’s draft), is just that sort of player. The Warriors acquired the pick from the Chicago Bulls for cash consideration. The Bulls loss is the Warriors gain as hopes are high for the young talent from the University of Oregon. The Warriors will take their time with the 6-foot-9 forward and hope that he will build on and develop his defensive talents and one day be a reliable contributor for Golden State.
4. Shaun Livingston
Shaun Livingston is many years removed from the knee injury that nearly ended his professional career. While Livingston has played for nine teams in his career, he continues to be loyal to the Warriors, the team with which he has experienced the most success post-injury. Livingston continues to do whatever the team requires as he slides into either guard slot when needed and provides reliable production from the bench. Opposing backup point guards often get caught being posted up by the lengthy 6-foot-7 guard. Count Livingston as another essential cog who will do whatever it takes to help the Warriors win at all costs.
– James Blancarte
SALARY CAP 101
The Warriors are a major spender at $135.4 million in guaranteed salary, resulting in at least $32 million in luxury taxes. Golden State used its Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to sign Nick Young at $5.2 million for a season. Having re-signed on one-year deals, Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee can block any trades.
Before November, the Warriors need to decide on 2018-19 team options for Kevon Looney and Damian Jones. Next summer, Kevin Durant can opt out again but now the team has his Early Bird Rights and the ability to give him a raise in the $35 million range. The Warriors seem willing to pay for a winner but for how long as luxury taxes grow progressively as the team gradually becomes a repeat offender?
– Eric Pincus
This team continues to have everything you could want in a modern NBA team. An electric point guard who is nearly unstoppable, a 3-and-D wing with a killer three-point shot, an unstoppable one-on-one player who can score from anywhere, a dominant and flexible defensive forward who can play center and a defensive wing who is a great glue guy. That’s just the five players that are normally used to close out games. The rest of the roster has a number of key contributors ready to do whatever the team needs. Oh, and they also have a great coach to keep everyone on the same page. With all the pieces a team could want, expect the Warriors to again push a possible record-breaking pace in the regular season on their way to the playoffs and likely the Finals.
– James Blancarte
The easiest answer here is none. Eventually the injury bug might hit the Warriors but for now they have everything they could want to continue their excellent play. Perhaps some players may lose a sense of urgency in the regular season after breaking records and dominating the last few seasons, though that seems unlikely. On paper, this team is not afflicted by any major weaknesses.
– James Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can anyone stop the Warriors?
Other teams continue to make moves to get better. On September 23, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded agreed to terms on a deal to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. With that move, count the Thunder, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and the Cavaliers as the biggest potential obstacles in the Warriors’ path to repeat. One of these teams may beat them, but the Warriors are the heavy favorites and the team most likely to win the championship next year.
– James Blancarte