There’s no mystery or range of expectations whatsoever for the Golden State Warriors this year. A team already in the conversation for best of all time before a few crazy weeks in May and June went out and added one of the best players of a generation squarely in his prime, instantly transforming the letdown of history slipping through their fingers into a whirlwind of excitement at fielding the most dominant on-paper squad ever assembled.
Even if title-or-bust is the obvious mantra surrounding this team, the path toward glory will have plenty of intrigue along the way. Which lessons, if any, should be drawn from last year’s eventual shortcomings? How will a combination of offensive talent never before seen on a single roster coalesce and adjust to the Xs and Os of a virtual All-Star team? Will defense or depth in certain areas be a realistic problem minus a couple key contributors, or will the overall skill level simply overwhelm these kinds of concerns?
With all this and more, Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The Warriors are super good. What else really needs to be said? They’re basically an All-Star team set to play against a field of proles all season long. Kevin Durant was a huge acquisition, Stephen Curry is so in the zone and Klay Thompson is the best shooting guard in the league. Draymond Green can guard all five positions at an elite level, the bench is still stacked and Steve Kerr is a great coach. We expect big things, but that’s only because big things seem inevitable. Anything can happen (just ask the 2003-2004 L.A. Lakers), but “anything” also can include a championship.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Joel Brigham
Adversity builds character. The heart of a champion is often determined by how well they respond to challenges that would break normal spirits. The Warriors were within one victory of capping off a historic 73-win regular season with a repeat championship, but the club dropped three straight games in the Finals and watched the Cavaliers celebrate on their own court. In many ways that setback was the first true test for the Warriors who had begun to run roughshod on the league with little resistance. The club was already built to make another trip to the Finals in 2017, but the addition of All-Star Kevin Durant essentially makes this a lock – barring major injury. See you in June.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Lang Greene
The Golden State Warriors were already elite and then they added Kevin Durant. And this isn’t the same as when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami. The Warriors already have really good chemistry and Durant is going to fill in the starting position that Harrison Barnes held. The dynamic will have to change on offense somewhat since Durant and Stephen Curry both need the ball in their hands, so it will be up to Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to adjust accordingly. Another scary part about this team is that Durant flashed defensive versatility in the postseason that reminds us of Draymond Green. If Durant can continue defending at that level, this Warriors team will basically be unstoppable. It should be noted that some key contributors from the last few seasons are now gone, but the Warriors did a nice job of plugging in the holes that were left after adding Durant. This team is stacked and should make it back to the NBA Finals this season.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the Warriors aren’t the favorites to win their division, their conference and the 2017 NBA Finals. What I will say, though, is that it’s not every day that you see a team that wins 73 games and take a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals radically redesign itself. Of course, adding Kevin Durant to the already big three of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green seems worth it, but let’s take a moment to recognize that Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush and Marreese Speights are all gone. Those six guys were among their top 11 rotation players last season, and they have effectively been replaced by Durant, Zaza Pachulia, David West, Phil Pressey and (perhaps) JaVale McGee. I obviously like the Warriors to win the Pacific Division, but for me, there is enough intrigue with the new core in Oakland to keep me watching all season long. I doubt Steve Kerr even entertains the idea of allowing his team to chase down 70 wins again, because losing the Finals last year probably changed the perspective of everyone associated with the team. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about these guys this coming season, so I’ll end this here and just state the obvious: they’re the clear favorite.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Moke Hamilton
Anything less than a championship will obviously be a disappointment for this Warriors squad. I know a lot of NBA fans were upset about the Kevin Durant addition because they believe the 2016-17 season will now be pretty anticlimactic. However, as we saw in last year’s NBA Finals, nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. Injuries, chemistry issues and more can change the landscape of the NBA in an instant. We’ll see if the Warriors can live up to the ridiculously high expectations. My guess is that they will – mainly because their star-studded squad is full of unselfish players who are versatile and complement each other well. But titles aren’t won in the offseason, so we’ll have to see how they come together.
1st Place – Pacific Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Durant
Honestly, how is one supposed to support a single candidate here for a team that now boasts two of the five most devastating offensive players in the game? There can be absolutely zero argument against either Kevin Durant or Steph Curry here, but the nod goes to KD primarily for this reason: He’s slightly more matchup-proof.
Don’t fly off the handle, Chef Curry fans – no one’s doubting Steph’s ability to bend physics and break defenses on a night-in, night-out basis. He’d have won this category going away over Durant and any other player on earth last season.
But while some of it was surely due to lingering injury issues and other context, we saw smart defenses poke tiny holes in his preferred methods of dominance in the postseason. In particular, opponents began stationing a wing player on Draymond Green and negating the deadly Curry-Green pick-and-roll by switching it between two guys capable of hanging with Steph off the dribble for a possession at a time. Not everyone has the defensive talent or discipline to pull this off – and Curry at his full powers can often abuse these switches himself – but the theme certainly looked primed to become a blueprint for those with the right personnel.
In comes Durant, and out goes that theory.
Want to switch the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll? Fine with them. Go right ahead and switch a smaller guy onto Durant, who shot an unreal 61 percent in the post last year and was the league’s most efficient per-possession volume player on the block, per Synergy Sports. The opponent is clogging the block and denying the entry? Cool, either they’ll rotate to another knockdown shooter for an open three or simply give Durant the ball in isolation, where he was also a top-10 efficiency player last year among volume guys (in a less spacious offense and more commonly against guys closer to his own size, at that).
None of this even gets into KD’s numerous other prodigious skills, most of which fit like a glove within what was already the league’s most dominant offense. With Durant’s ability to rip up the one meager trump card the league had finally managed to conjure against them, this group could be primed to set records.
Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green
Ah, much easier. Green is already among the most versatile elite defenders in the history of the game – seriously, how many other guys ever have been capable of locking down all five positions on the floor individually, from running with jittery guards to protecting the rim against giants and LeBron James? The list of players who have done so at a consistently elite level while also playing a large role on the other end of the floor is probably limited to one hand, maybe even with a couple fingers to spare. Green will have even more defensive responsibility after the departure of guys like Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli in the frontcourt, but he’s proven more than up to the task.
Top Playmaker: Steph Curry
There’s an under-the-radar case to be made here for Green, a fantastic passer who actually averaged more nightly “assist opportunities” (passes which either became an assist or would have if the shooting player had made his resulting shot) than Curry last season, per SportVU data. On a deeper level, though, even Draymond himself would likely admit that many of these were simply a trickle-down result of the way Steph’s magic forces teams to contort themselves. Many of those four-on-three chances where Green is free to rumble down the lane and take his pick of open shooters evaporate with any other ball-handler in the world as his partner.
Curry makes those plays possible while also maintaining his own strong passing numbers. His percentage of passes which led to a positive team event (assists, free-throw assists or secondary “hockey” assists) – a Holy Grail-type category topped consistently by consensus elite creators like Chris Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook – fell in the league’s top 10 last season, decimals behind LeBron James and Ricky Rubio. Curry remains the distributing engine that powers this offensive machine, and could even be in for an uptick with another elite offensive player in the lineup next to him.
Top Clutch Player: Steph Curry
This is another category likely to end up in a split of some sort between Curry, Durant and the general sort of team scheme that the Warriors have generally done well at sticking with during rare clutch moments the last couple seasons. Curry took about a third of the team’s regular season shot attempts during these minutes last year, with Durant right in the same neighborhood with OKC, albeit in a far different team context. Curry was more efficient than KD, particularly from deep (he shot 38.1 percent from three compared to 32.4 percent for Durant in the clutch), and who can forget that legendary game-winner on Durant’s own floor?
The Unheralded Player: Andre Iguodala
Iguodala should have won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, but his remarkable importance to his team continued to fly under the radar in favor of more traditional metrics. He doesn’t post flashy box score stats or make many highlight-reel plays, instead contributing in exactly the sort of ways that go overlooked. He was a constant presence in crunch time lineups last season (appearing in nearly 90 percent of all such minutes while healthy), and his on court-off court impact on variations of Golden State’s “Death Lineup” was comparable to or even perhaps greater than any other member besides Curry himself. He’s the most important defensive player outside Green and a vital locker room presence, and shouldn’t be looked past as part of the heart of this team.
Top New Addition: Kevin Durant
Yeah, the contrarian pick might be a bit difficult to sell here. We covered much of Durant’s potential impact, but a couple other summer signings will be meaningful as well.
Zaza Pachulia took a huge pay cut to chase a ring, and should take over for Andrew Bogut in the starting center spot. He’s not the passer, defender or overall basketball savant Bogut is, but he’s a more durable body who brings consistent effort and performance. David West brings another veteran voice to the locker room as a solid backup who can play both big positions, though it’s fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank at 36 years old. Neither are stars, but with so much skill at the top of the roster there’s no need – these guys will provide solid complementary skills and depth.
– Ben Dowsett
WHO WE LIKE
- Klay Thompson
Oh yeah, him. It’s a little insane that a truly legitimate case can be made for the second-best shooter in the entire NBA as just the fourth-most important piece of the equation for his team, but here we are.
Concerns about Thompson’s usage and involvement are at least partially valid, but questions about his role aren’t: It’s the same. He’ll use wildly underrated conditioning (almost certainly best on the team and among the tops in the league) to continuously rocket around picks and open up space with his gravity offensively, then spend most of nearly every game locking down the opponent’s top guard defensively. Thompson is prone to the sort of shooting barrages even Curry can’t match, and we should see even more of these with Durant around to draw attention.
If the number of mouths to feed in the offense becomes a problem, the Warriors will cross that bridge when they come to it. For now, they’ll simply plug even more talent into his lineups and turn Klay loose with the exact same mandate as last season. A not-so-bold prediction: He leads the NBA in three-point percentage among volume shooters next season.
- Steve Kerr
Whether you do or don’t believe Kerr had his share of correctable errors at various points last season, there’s little doubt the year will serve as a vital learning experience. Even the best of us make our share of mistakes, and failure is necessary before success can truly be attained for most in the NBA. Kerr has had the summer to reflect on his bigger picture (when he’s not fist-pumping at the team’s offseason acquisitions at least), and should have more perspective for a group almost certain to chase some more history. He’s already proven himself times over as one of the most adaptable and player-friendly coaches in the league, with strong tactical chops and a willingness to critique himself. It’s easy to forget he’s only entering his third NBA season at the helm – he’s still likely improving as a coach.
- Shaun Livingston
Livingston has put a catastrophic injury well behind him in becoming a key bench cog for the Warriors, one with the skills to prop up an offense for a few minutes a game (his midrange post game felt unstoppable for long stretches last season) plus the size at the point to maintain the Dubs’ switch-everything defensive identity. His size makes him capable of fitting in alongside starter-heavy units when there’s a need, and he may have been the single Warrior most capable of exploiting a one-on-one size mismatch in a pinch until Durant came along. He’ll continue to do important work behind the scenes.
- David West
West brings experience, savvy and guile as the team’s new elder statesman, and more importantly might save Kerr from his maddening tendency to trot Anderson Varejao out at strange times. He’s physical enough to help make up for a general lack of size at the big positions, and could be a great mentor for someone like Green.
– Ben Dowsett
SALARY CAP 101
Once Kevin Durant agreed to join the Warriors, the team renounced the rights to free agents Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa and others, then traded Andrew Bogut to the Dallas Mavericks. Once they had enough room under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, they signed Durant to a two-year, $54.3 million contract. Durant can opt out next season, and either re-sign with Non-Bird Rights at $31.8 million — or push Golden State to use cap room to pay him a maximum salary that projects to be $33.5 million with a $102 million projected salary cap. The former makes a lot more sense for the team, and is probably a necessary sacrifice for Durant.
Meanwhile, the team has 14 guaranteed salaries, with five players vying for one spot (Elliot Williams, JaVale McGee, Phil Pressey, Cameron Jones and Elgin Cook). The team has until the end of October to pick up Kevon Looney’s rookie-scale option. Next summer, the Warriors can get to about $60 million in cap space, but that number assumes Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Durant move on as free agents. Naturally, the Warriors would seriously prefer to not drop under next year’s cap.
– Eric Pincus
Barring catastrophe, the Warriors will contend with some of the most dominant offenses in league history. They’re the most talented group of shooters ever assembled by a wide margin, and Durant brings them one of the league’s most efficient one-on-one options for the brief stretches where gravity within their team scheme isn’t enough. Expect them to once again be near the league lead in transition chances and efficiency, plus overall pace – no one is more comfortable trading quick possessions. They could be in for some amount of defensive slippage, but it’s possible this still remains a strength with a number of talented, like-sized guys in the rotation and Green at the helm. Green was also the linchpin for strong team rebounding figures, which should likely continue this year.
– Ben Dowsett
Depth concerns are probably overstated among those simply trying to find something negative about this team, but Green could be the exception here: Where guys like Durant, Curry and Thompson at least have some of the same overlapping skills and gravity, no one else on this roster does what Draymond does or even comes close. Any prolonged absence or slippage from Green is the only semi-realistic regular season scenario that really casts doubt on the team’s depth, but that scenario could be scarier than most assume. Age and durability are concerns for basically the entire frontcourt outside of Green. It’s also fair to wonder whether the likes of Pachulia and West are as capable on either end of the ball as Bogut and Festus Ezeli, particularly defensively, and whether the season-long trickle-down might be enough to drop the Warriors out of the league’s top 10 for defensive efficiency.
– Ben Dowsett
THE BURNING QUESTION
Do the Warriors win a ring or not?
Every team has an abundance of smaller queries that add up to this big one, but few others in recent memory have been in a situation where that all-important question is so singularly prominent. This is arguably the strongest collection of talent to ever share a court in this league, and anything but the ultimate prize will, right or wrong, be considered a failure. What the Warriors do during the regular season is about as close to irrelevant as it gets – their entire year will be sculpted with that couple-month stretch from April to June solely in mind. Expectations are sky-high, but so is this group’s confidence and, of course, their skill level. Only the hardware will represent a successful season this time around.
– Ben Dowsett
NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On
At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.
At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.
Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.
“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”
Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.
But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.
“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”
Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.
Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.
Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.
“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”
But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.
“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.
But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.
“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”
Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.
Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.
Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.
“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.
“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”
For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.
“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.
From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.
* * * * * *
*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.
Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?
Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.
While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.
March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.
So who could still become available?
Joakim Noah, New York Knicks
This seems almost too obvious.
The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.
After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.
Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.
Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic
Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.
Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.
Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings
Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.
But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.
Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.
Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings
Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.
Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.
As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.
Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks
Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.
So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.
If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.
Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers
Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.
He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.
Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.
But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?
With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.
Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos
There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.
NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor
James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor
The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.
But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.
All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.
The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.
While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.
Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.
“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.
When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”
Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.
“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”
Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.
In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.
The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.