Before the start of this NBA season, the whole world was ready to put a stamp on the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors as the sure-thing champions. There isn’t even a reason to watch the games, frankly. It’s all over. Fit Kevin Durant for his ring.
However, as we saw in San Antonio’s 29-point shellacking of Golden State on opening night, any team is beatable, even the ones that look as though they should be invincible.
In fact, there have been only 51 teams in the history of basketball that have posted winning percentages over .750 in the regular season, and only 23 of those teams have gone on to win the title. Great teams—even superteams—fail to win the title more often than they succeed in winning it, which is why we should go ahead and let the basketball play itself out before naming a preemptive champ.
The following teams, for example, show just how fallible apparent giants can be:
#10 – 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers
The Stars: LeBron James, Mo Williams
What Happened: Cleveland was an absolute force in 2008-09, steamrolling their way to 66 wins behind an MVP campaign from James. They swept through the first two rounds of the postseason, but faced a much more formidable (and larger) opponent in the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, who wiped the Cavs’ offense off the face of the planet. James himself averaged 38.5 PPG in that series, but it wasn’t enough to deal with Dwight Howard’s smothering defense, and thus James’ best individual season ended fruitlessly.
#9 – 2002 Sacramento Kings
The Stars: Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac
What Happened: While the Kings currently boast the longest title drought (65 years) in league history, there was a period of time right around the turn of the century where it looked like that streak may have ended. The 2001-02 Kings were the best version of that team since moving to Sacramento, as they won 61 games and breezed through the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs that spring. They were stymied, however, as they often were, by a great Lakers team. It actually was the third straight year that Sacramento had gotten booted by L.A., but this was their best shot at a championship and they came up just a little short after a hard-fought, seven-game Western Conference Finals.
#8 – 2005 Phoenix Suns
The Stars: Steve Nash, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire
What Happened: Before fast-paced offenses were as commonplace as they are today, Mike D’Antoni’s mid-aughts Suns teams were killing opponents with their breakneck speed. Nash won two league MVP awards helming that offense, and in 2005 it looked like it was all coming together with the top-seeded, 62-win Suns team ripping through the first two rounds of the postseason with only a couple of losses. In the Western Conference Finals, however, the Suns lost Joe Johnson to a facial fracture and the San Antonio Spurs absolutely shut down the rest of that well-oiled offense. Had they advanced, there’s a good chance they also could have handled the Detroit Pistons and won the team’s first-ever championship.
#7 – 2006 Detroit Pistons
The Stars: Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace
What Happened: It was more or less this same Detroit Pistons team that toppled the 2003-04 L.A. Lakers, and they were legitimately good. The Pistons were so good, in fact, that they made the Finals again in 2005 and came incredibly close to winning a second-straight championship. The team returned with the same core in 2005-06, but this time with a new head coach in Flip Saunders. The change did nothing to deter those claiming Detroit were once again favorites to make and possible win the Finals yet again. They won 64 games and Billups actually finished fifth in MVP voting that year, but it wasn’t enough to get them through the playoffs. A loaded Miami team that featured both Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade booted them off their pedestal that season, making them one of the more disappointing preseason favorites in recent league history.
#6 – 2013 L.A. Lakers
The Stars: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Ron Artest
What Happened: This thing was a disaster from the word “go.” Mike Brown switched the team over to a Princeton offense that “helped” these vaulted Lakers go 0-8 in the preseason and 1-4 to start the regular season. As a result, Brown was fired and eventually replaced by Mike D’Antoni, for whom things did not get much better. Their 15-21 start was the worst for the team since 1993, and they eventually limped into the playoffs as a seven-seed, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round in four unimpressive games.
#5 – 2007 Dallas Mavericks
The Stars: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Peja Stojakovic, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler
What Happened: Coming off a season in which the Mavericks lost the NBA Finals in an absolutely gut-wrenching fashion, the expectation was that Dallas would make its way back to the Finals and win this time – particularly with a roster loaded up with as many stars as this one featured. Their first-round matchup against the upstart Golden State Warriors, however, proved surprisingly challenging, even though the Mavs won all three games against the Warriors during the regular season. In the postseason, however, Dallas was dropped 4-2 by an eight-seed, ghosting any expectations fans and media may have had for them that season.
#4 – 1997 Houston Rockets
The Stars: Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley
What Happened: In 1994, Hakeem Olajuwon won his first championship, so former college teammate Clyde Drexler thought to himself, “I’d love to get a piece of that action.” He did precisely that the following year, when Olajuwon and Drexler shared credit for winning the 1995 NBA title. So Charles Barkley thought to himself, “I’d love to get a piece of that action,” but he saw very different results thanks to the full-bore return of His Airness, Michael Jordan. That Rockets team was stacked, though, and had Jordan stayed with the Birmingham Barons just one more year, Barkley may have earned that elusive ring he always desired.
#3 – 2016 Golden State Warriors
The Stars: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green.
What Happened: LeBron James happened. With Curry ailing in the Finals and the entire Golden State team running out of gas after a season that saw them win a record-breaking 73 games, Cleveland found an extra gear and wiped out the best regular-season team of all-time.
#2 – 2011 Miami HEAT
The Stars: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh
What Happened: Much like when Kevin Durant signed in Golden State, the general consensus around the league following James’ and Bosh’s odyssey to South Beach was that the deck was unfairly stacked in Miami’s favor. They crushed the regular season that year, winning 58 games, and they headed into the Finals with a ridiculous amount of momentum, winning exciting series against both Boston and Chicago. They even won Game 1 of the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks and were leading by 15 points with just over six minutes to go in the fourth quarter when Dallas charged back to steal a win and turn the tides of the series. That unbelievable superteam dropped their first Finals together in six games.
#1 – 2004 L.A. Lakers
The Stars: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone
What Happened: In terms of molding the idea of a modern “superteam,” this was the one that introduced fans to the feeling of unfairness that they’d feel again later in regard to Miami and Golden State. By adding future Hall-of-Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone to an already-loaded squad, L.A. looked absolutely unstoppable heading into the season, but there were problems from the get-go. Payton didn’t have the easiest time running the Triangle for Phil Jackson, and Malone hurt his knee. Meanwhile, Bryant’s off-court legal issues served as an ongoing distraction for the team, creating an atmosphere around the team that was far from where it should have been. By the time the Finals rolled around, Malone was hobbling and the tension between Bryant and O’Neal was palpable. They shockingly lost to the more team-oriented Detroit Pistons in just five games, and the team fell apart from there. O’Neal was traded to Miami, Malone retired and both Payton and Rick Fox were traded to the Boston Celtics. That particular Lakers title window was rather ceremoniously slammed shut.
None of this is to say that this year’s Golden State Warriors can’t win the championship because nobody is going to Las Vegas right now with the intention of betting against that much talent. What this does show is that superteams with just as much (if not more) talent certainly have lost before. It’s not always about talent. Sometimes it’s about momentum and matchups, and while we feel like we understand how talented the Warriors are, we don’t know how the rest will play out. That, in fact, is exactly why we watch the games.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN