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NBA AM: Miami HEAT 2017-18 Season Preview

With their sights set on returning to the playoffs, Basketball Insiders previews the 2017-18 Miami HEAT.

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The Miami HEAT were one of the best stories in the NBA last season. For a team that fell just short of the playoffs, the HEAT certainly played as well as any team in the league in the second half of the year.

Of course, it wasn’t pretty during the first half of the season. The team went 11-30 during their first 41 games and were practically written off by most experts. But this group stayed together and continued to chip away and would compile a 30-11 record in the second half of the season to narrowly miss the playoffs.

This HEAT team opted to bring back most of its free agents this summer and they feel confident with this group moving forward. Will it be enough to return to the postseason?

Let’s preview the 2017-18 season for the Miami HEAT.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

When Pat Riley is pulling the strings for your organization, anything is possible.

At least, that was the sentiment this summer when the HEAT organization was hopeful that it had a chance at landing prized free agent Gordon Hayward. Ultimately, Hayward wound up in Boston, but that probably won’t keep the HEAT out of this season’s playoffs.

With a healthy Dion Waiters alongside Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, Miami has a formidable cast to make a run at the playoff spot they missed ever so slightly last season. Missing the playoffs last year did, however, allow Miami to land Bam Adebayo. The former Kentucky Wildcat impressed in the summer league and should prove as a valuable reserve during his rookie season.

A weakened Eastern Conference plus an improved HEAT team looks to surely equal a playoff appearance this season.

2nd place — Southeast Division

— Dennis Chambers

The Miami HEAT overachieved last year, finishing the season .500 and only missing the playoffs because the also .500 Chicago Bulls owned a tiebreaker. They invested significant cash in bringing back essentially the same team for another go and will probably play middling basketball. Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo are nice additions, but not necessarily the kind of star power that pushes a team into the next echelon of competition. Simply by removing some of last year’s competition, though, Miami should be a lower-half playoff seed. Even if they overachieve again this season, their ceiling is probably 47 or 48 wins.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Joel Brigham

Despite finishing the 2016-17 season with a respectable (and surprising) 41-41 record, by virtue of losing the tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls, the HEAT was forced to watch last season’s playoffs from the confines of South Florida. After walking away from the draft with Bam Adebayo and signing Kelly Olynyk, though, Erik Spoelstra has a few more tools in the box to keep building.

With an identity and a foundational core that features Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic and the re-signed Dion Waiters, the HEAT should rightfully enter the season with renewed hopes of returning to the postseason, especially with the considerable steps back that a few of the teams that finished above them last season have taken. If things break right in Miami and the team is able to stay relatively healthy, a finish as high as fifth in the conference isn’t out of the question. I’d probably still put the Bucks in that fifth seed, but they play the games for a reason… And when the games are played, rest assured, the HEAT will show up and put up a fight for the division crown down in the Southeast.

2nd place — Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

After a strong stretch run to close the 2016-17 season, the HEAT will try to capture that magic for an entire year. Miami committed big money to guys like James Johnson and Dion Waiters, plus newcomer Kelly Olynyk, and they’ll need something close to that strong post-All-Star showing from their group to justify essentially locking this in as their team. They’ll continue to run out an offense strong on spacing, captained by Goran Dragic at the point. They’ll rely on Erik Spoelstra’s strong team defensive scheme, something new draftee Bam Adebayo should only help with. A big question will be how much Justise Winslow has to give after a shoulder injury last season—a strong showing could have the HEAT surprising some teams, while a disappointing performance could see them fighting just to make the playoffs in the East. Assuming the median outcome, they should finish in the middle of the pack in the Southeast.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Ben Dowsett

The Miami HEAT had limited options in terms of what do with their roster this offseason. Give the HEAT credit for investing in the core of players that overachieved last year, though. Sure, James Johnson’s deal will probably look bad after a year or two, and Dion Waiters will always be a risky player to invest in, nevertheless, with a strong culture in Miami and head coach Erik Spoelstra leading the way, this team has the tools to surprise the league again.

3rd place — Southeast Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Goran Dragic

As the team’s leading scorer from a season ago, Dragic projects to again be the top offensive player this season. Perhaps it was Dwyane Wade leaving, but Dragic appeared to be more comfortable on the offensive end as the team’s primary ball handler last season.

Dragic averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game last season while shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range. He was afforded the opportunity to run the offense at a faster pace, which best suits his style of play.

In a time where three-point shooting comes at a premium, Dragic certainly has lived up to expectations. He was instrumental for the HEAT all season long and it seems reasonable to believe he’ll continue to be one of the team’s most valuable players.

Top Defensive Player: Hassan Whiteside

It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Whiteside as the team’s top defensive player. He averaged a career-high 17 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last season. Whiteside led the league in rebounds and finished fourth in blocks.

Much of what allowed the HEAT to boast a top-five defense last season was having Whiteside down in the paint. While his blocks were down last season from the year before, his presence in the paint still makes things difficult for the opposing players to get clean looks.

Whiteside finished fourth in the league in defensive rating (99.9), fourth in defensive win shares (5.3) and fifth in block percentage. He held opponents to 51 percent shooting within six feet of the rim. To put that into context, Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green held opponents to 48.3 percent shooting at the same distance.

Whiteside squashed any doubt about how he’d perform after signing a monster contract summer. Now, it’s time to show that he can maintain his dominance on the defensive end.

Top Playmaker: Goran Dragic

Without Dwyane Wade in the picture, Dragic proved to be a great leader for the HEAT on the court. He benefited by the opportunity to get out and run last season and was very effective getting his teammates involved.

Dragic has proven over his nine years in the NBA that he can be very good at attacking the basket and kicking out to the open man when needed. As we’ll cover in the next section, he led the team with 81 total points in clutch situations and came up with several big plays throughout the season.

When the HEAT needed a big play, the team could count on Dragic to make it.

Top Clutch Player: Tyler Johnson

While we could have highlighted Dragic here, we are going to take a look at Johnson during clutch moments last season.

Of course, we can’t forget when Dion Waiters hit the game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors with .6 seconds left to continue the team’s 13-game winning streak. Memes were created with Waiters’ pose following the shot, t-shirts were made and Twitter exploded after it. It was arguably one of the top moments of the season for the HEAT.

As Waiters came up with the shot of the year against the Warriors, Johnson was quietly one of the team’s best clutch performers last season. The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Johnson ranked as the team’s second-best player in these moments.

While Dragic led the team with 81 total points last season in clutch situations, Johnson was second on the team with 67 points. He shot 44.9 percent (22-of-49) from the field and 45 percent (9-of-20) from three-point range in clutch situations.

Johnson’s percentages were actually slightly better than Dragic’s and he was the team’s top three-point shooter during these moments. Many HEAT fans may remember his performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers when he scored eight of his 24 total points during overtime to help the team to a key win.

For the HEAT, having all three of these players in Dragic, Johnson and Waiters on the roster has been very beneficial. An argument can be made for each player as the team’s best clutch player and it’s likely a good problem to have for head coach Erik Spoelstra.

The Unheralded Player: Udonis Haslem

Each year, we highlight players in this category that don’t receive nearly as much love as they should. Haslem is a perfect candidate for this title and it isn’t even close.

Haslem serves as the team’s captain and is the leader in the locker room. While Haslem hasn’t played much over the past couple of seasons, he serves a much larger role than that. Haslem is the HEAT’s voice and heart and soul of the team. The leadership that he brings to the team is clearly very valuable to the HEAT to bring him back for a 15th season.

Ask any current or former HEAT player what Haslem means to the team and it likely won’t take long before they mention his leadership skills, toughness and professionalism. It speaks volumes for his character for the team to bring him back for another season.

As the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds, Haslem has become a strong mentor for the team’s younger players. He even spoke to members of the summer league team on exactly what it means to be a part of the HEAT culture.

It’s obvious that Haslem has earned a place among the franchise’s all-time greats and he’s back for at least one more season.

Best New Addition: Kelly Olynyk

Given that the HEAT opted to retain most of its roster, the best new addition candidates basically came down to Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo. While Adebayo certainly has potential, we opted to highlight Olynyk here.

Now, the decision to sign Olynyk to a four-year, $51.2 million contract was a bit out of left field, but his addition figures to help bolster the team’s frontcourt depth. With the addition of Olynyk, the team now has Hassan Whiteside, Olynyk and Adebayo on the depth chart in the frontcourt.

Olynyk figures to be a welcomed addition to the team given his ability to space the floor, which is something the HEAT have lacked in recent years. He averaged nine points, 4.8 rebounds and two assists per game last season for the Boston Celtics while shooting 35.4 percent from three-point range.

HEAT fans may remember one signature performance by Olynyk during last season’s playoffs. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Wizards, Olynyk recorded 26 points, four rebounds and four assists on 10-of-14 shooting from the floor to help the Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

While those sort of performances may not happen regularly, Olynyk has proven that he can be an effective scorer off of the bench or as a starter.

— Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Erik Spoelstra

It is becoming a yearly tradition to highlight head coach Spoelstra for the HEAT. It was easy to disregard the accomplishments he had with the Big Three, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that he can coach very well no matter who is on the team.

Coaching a roster that didn’t boast too many household names, Spoelstra nearly led one of the best comebacks in regular season history. As the team once sat at 11-30 last season, it would have been easy for the team to throw in the towel and begin looking ahead to the offseason. In fact, many believed the HEAT were better off tanking and positioning themselves for a better draft pick.

Instead, Spoelstra stuck the course and so did his players. After beginning with a lowly 11-30 record, the team finished by going 30-11 in the second half of the season. It was the best second-half record ever by a team that missed the playoffs. Many even believed he had a legitimate argument to win Coach of the Year–he finished second.

The team is hoping they can ride that momentum into the 2017-18 season and it seems reasonable to believe they’ll pick up right where they left off.

2. James Johnson

The HEAT prioritized retaining most of its roster this offseason and most fans were delighted to see a new contract for Johnson. After having a career year, Johnson made the decision to hand him a new four-year, $60 million contract an easy one.

In 76 games last season, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. It was by far the best season of his eight-year career after having stops in Chicago, Toronto, Sacramento and Memphis.

The team signed Johnson to a one-year, $4 million deal last offseason and it’s safe to say he exceeded expectations by a longshot. He committed to himself by getting better on the court and off of the court. He transformed his body by dropping nearly 40 pounds of weight and nearly eight percent of body fat thanks to the HEAT’s training staff.

Based on his progress and improvements during his first season with the HEAT, we expect Johnson to become a valuable piece to this team.

3. Josh Richardson

Richardson is just the latest in a long line of success stories in the NBA. As a former second-round pick by the HEAT two years ago, it was reported earlier this week that he has agreed to a four-year, $42 million contract extension with the team.

Although Richardson was hampered by injuries last season, the HEAT have seen enough in him that they believe he can continue to develop and become a meaningful player in the future. In 53 games last season, Richardson averaged a career-high 10.2 points.

Richardson has proven to be one of the team’s best shooters. During his rookie campaign two years ago, he shot 46.1 percent from three-point range. He struggled shooting last season after converting on just 33 percent of his three-point shots, but that dip in shooting could be due to dealing with knee, ankle and foot injuries.

He did show flashes of great play during the final month of the regular season. In six April games, Richardson averaged 15 points, 3.2 rebounds and three assists while converting on 53 percent of his three-point attempts. It should be fun to see his progress should he stay healthy this year.

4. Dion Waiters

Waiters has already established himself as a fan favorite after just one season in Miami. Of course, it helps that he hit a game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors. His pose after hitting that shot has been plastered on memes, t-shirts and social media. It’s safe to say that HEAT nation has fully embraced him.

Waiters opted to sign a one-year, $2 million contract with the team last year, in essence, betting on himself. It worked. The team rewarded him with a four-year, $52 million contract.

Last season, the guard turned in nearly his best season to date after averaging 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 46 games. He also shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range. As he begins his second year in Miami, look for him to continue to make the highlight reels and stir it up on social media.

— Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

Miami went under the salary cap this summer to sign James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk to multi-year deals. The HEAT still own their $4.3 million Room Exception but may be invested already in a full roster of 15 (with 13 guaranteed players plus two partials in Rodney McGruder and Okaro White).

Next summer, Miami projects to be over the cap with heavy investments in Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and their recent signings. Before November, the HEAT need to pick up Justise Winslow’s 2018-19 team option.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The HEAT had excellent chemistry on and off of the court last season. With the additions of several new players last season, it seems remarkable.

They showed this strength during the team’s improbable second-half run. Multiple players stepped up during this stretch to help the team rise up in the Eastern Conference. Some teams may have opted to give up once they went 11-30, but this group stayed together and nearly made the playoffs.

Based off of the success the team had in the second-half of last season, the front office opted to bring back the majority of their free agents. They re-signed Dion Waiters and James Johnson, while they opted to keep Wayne Ellington on the roster, as well.

The team now has a ton of depth and appears to be in good shape for next season.

— Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

If you look at this HEAT team on paper, they don’t project to have many weaknesses. The offense ranked 16th in the league in efficiency. The defense was ranked inside the top five and head coach Erik Spoelstra is widely regarded as one of the best head coaches in the game.

But one area in which can be seen as a weakness could be the team’s lack of superstar talent. While Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are certainly good players, they’re not superstars. The HEAT have serviceable players at each position, but is it enough to get them deep into the playoffs?

Many have wondered if this HEAT team will be able to duplicate its second-half success with its current roster. Of course, the team has certainly tried to sign some of the league’s top free agents over the years, but have come up just short in doing so.

The HEAT figure to be in the race for a playoff berth all season long, but the lack of superstar talent could be what ultimately prevents them from making a deep playoff run.

— Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION:

After keeping its core together, will that be enough to make a run at the playoffs?

In what many project to be a weaker Eastern Conference this season, the HEAT will find themselves back in the postseason this year. They came up a tiebreaker with the Chicago Bulls short from making the playoffs last season and likely would have been a problem for the Boston Celtics in the first round. Now, they’re armed with a few more weapons and have depth all across the board. It’s not a matter of if they make the playoffs, but rather a matter of how high they can climb up the standings and whether or not they have what it takes to advance.

— Cody Taylor

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Atlanta Hawks and John Jenkins Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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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.

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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.

Basketball Insiders

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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 matchup with Cavaliers, Golden State, with plenty of help from Durant, overmatched 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

STRENGTHS

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

WEAKNESSES

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

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NBA Sunday: It’s All On Westbrook Now

With Paul George and Carmelo joining Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are the most interesting team in the NBA, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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The Oklahoma City Thunder just might be the most interesting team in basketball.

Sorry, LeBron.

As recently as 10 days ago, sources familiar with the thinking of the New York Knicks front office floated the potential of the Knicks waiting out a potential Carmelo deal until December. Now, of course, we know that Anthony wanted no part of beginning the season in New York, so much so that he let it be known that he would be willing to accept a trade to either the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Anthony era is officially over in New York City, and in its wake is what many consider to have been the most entertaining offseason in NBA history. Considering the star players that changed teams, it’s difficult to argue.

But what makes the Anthony trade even more interesting is the fact that he now finds himself teamed with Russell Westbrook—one of the most polarizing players in the NBA today.

* * * * * *

It now seems like a lifetime ago, but Russell Westbrook’s potential to be great has always been in question. We quietly wondered whether he was superior to Derrick Rose and once wondered whether the Thunder should have tried to package him and move him in exchange for Chris Paul back when the point guard was being moved on from New Orleans.

Over the years, many have opined that Westbrook was the NBA version of a bucking bronco and that the failure of both Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan to tame him cost the Thunder Kevin Durant.

While there may be some truth there, Westbrook at least temporarily silenced his critics with his performance last season. He admirably led the Thunder to 47 wins and became the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double for an entire season. Neither of those facts, nor the fact that Westbrook was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2016-17 season, was met with any sort of universal acceptance of Westbrook being a truly “valuable” player. Some believe that Westbrook is a truly special player who galvanizes his teammates with a willingness to win only seen by the likes of the Allen Iversons and Kobe Bryants of the world while others think that he’s a selfish gunslinger who longs for the spotlight.

Any number of advanced metrics could reasonably lead one to the conclusion that Westbrook’s accomplishing of the single-season triple-double average was a result of an incredibly high usage rate and a conscious pursuit that was in the forefront of both his and his teammates’ mind.

Truth be told, deep down inside, Westbrook probably wanted to win the MVP award as soon as Durant let it be known that he was taking his talents to Oakland. Even leading up to the announcement, many had opined that Westbrook’s reckless abandon and undisciplined play helped the Thunder yield the 3-1 series lead they held over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, and if the Thunder simply managed to win that series, everything would have been different.

Instead, Durant’s decision to leave was seen as a rebuke to Westbrook, who he is as a player and his style of basketball. At the time, the implication was that Durant didn’t think he could win with Westbrook. For someone as fiery and fierce as he, Durant’s decision to bolt and the subsequent questioning as to the reasons why was the quintessential poking of a bear with a stick.

In the end, Westbrook roared.

No matter what happens from here, a part of Westbrook’s legacy will be that he averaged a triple-double for an entire season and he was named the Most Valuable Player the year after the one who was deemed to be his Batman abandoned him.

But now, as Westbrook enters his 10th NBA season, the question that will be answered this coming season is whether or not his demons have been exorcised.

* * * * * *

Indeed, the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder will be the most interesting team in basketball.

One could easily argue that they are best equipped to topple the mighty Golden State Warriors. With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining Russell Westbrook, scoring should be relatively easy. The Thunder ranked 11th in the league in scoring last season and 16th in offensive efficiency—both should improve.

Defensively, with Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson and Steven Adams joining Westbrook and George, the Thunder have a few players that will battle defensively. The thought of slowing down two of the three of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson is something that the Thunder can at least deem to be possible. With the newfound scoring prowess the team should expect to have, declaring them to have a puncher’s chance against the Warriors is reasonable.

Aside from the obvious pleasure of imagining a battle between the two teams, what makes the Thunder the most interesting team this coming season is the fact that it simply cannot be known whether and to what extent Westbrook will be willing to yield touches and shot opportunities to Anthony and George. Last season, Westbrook average 24 shots attempts per game.

In “clutch” situations, which is defined as the final five minutes of a game that’s within five or fewer points, Westbrook attempt 184 shots. Tied for second were DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, both of whom had 134 such shots attempts. In other words, Westbrook took 37 percent more clutch shots than the players who tied for second-most.

In other words, Westbrook was the alpha and omega of everything the Thunder did and, more importantly, what they believed they could be. Whether or not he still believes it necessary for him to dominate the ball the way he did last season will go a long way toward determining the success of the team’s new triumvirate.

And believe it or not, the way that Westbrook conducts himself and plays with the ball (or chooses to play without it) will probably answer the question as to whether or not Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City has affected his mental approach to the game, and the extent to which he defers shots and opportunities to his teammates.

Without question, that’s what it will take to keep Anthony and George happy.

* * * * * *

In all likelihood, the Golden State Warriors are on their way to being the NBA’s next dynasty. But if the Roman Empire and Ming Dynasty ended, so too will that of Golden State.

Not many people pay attention to the nuances of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, but with the repeater tax penalties that were implemented, one could reasonably expect that the reign of the Warriors, at least as we currently know them, may be short-lived.

By virtue of Stephen Curry’s monstrous $201 million extension and the club’s re-signing of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors are looking at a luxury tax bill of about $43 million for the 2017-18 season. With Durant potentially opting out of his current contract next summer, the Warriors will likely be faced with the prospect of having to dole out new contracts for Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively.

With $30 million annual salaries the norm in today’s NBA, unless each of the aforementioned three are willing to take substantial pay cuts, re-signing each of them at their fair market value, with the repeater tax penalties, could cost the Warriors over $500 million in luxury tax payments for just the 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-2021 seasons alone.

Even if the Warriors do manage to win the next two championships, the sheer economics of keeping the team intact make it seem that the team’s re-signing of Klay Thompson is improbable unless both Durant (next summer, if he opts out) and Thompson (in 2019) agree to take far below their fair market value in subsequent contracts.

At this point, though, it’s reasonable to think that the NBA’s repeater tax and the economics of keeping the team intact means that this current iteration of Warriors may only be together for two more seasons.

If Westbrook (28 years old), George (27 years old) and Anthony (33 years old) were to stay together and have some pieces added around them, whether it be this season or either of the following two, one could effectively argue that of all teams in the NBA, they appear best equipped to assume the throne.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed—not even the partnership of the trio in Oklahoma City.

In the end, above all else, that’s probably what makes the Thunder the more interesting than anybody else.

Collectively, their team seems to have so much potential, but with Westbrook not having signed the $207 million extension tendered to him by the Thunder, George’s known desire to relocate to Los Angeles after this coming season and Anthony’s friendship with both Chris Paul and LeBron James, the three may represent the best trio of mercenaries ever assembled.

With each of the three having something to play for, and each of the three holding options over their 2018-19 seasons, the partnership between Westbrook, George and Anthony may never mature to the point where they are actually able to accomplish something great.

In some ways, the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder is a shotgun wedding, but the participants could conceivably end up living happily ever after.

Whether they do or not may ultimately depend on the reigning league MVP.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly think that storyline is much more interesting than watching LeBron James win the Eastern Conference for the eighth straight year.

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