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NBA Daily: Rockets Might Be Formidable Challenge For Warriors

If nothing else, the Rockets gave everyone, including the Warriors, something to think about by beating the champs.

Moke Hamilton

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For those that had any lingering doubt as to the authenticity of the Houston Rockets, Saturday afternoon’s win over the Golden State Warriors should serve as a bit of a wakeup call.

Sure, championships aren’t won in mid-January, but by virtue of the win, the Rockets won their season series against the Warriors, 2-1.

Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season—the year the Warriors won the first of three consecutive Western Conference Finals—they’ve lost a season series to just one other team: the San Antonio Spurs.

A review of the tape suggests that those that believe that Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard are truly the team that has the best shot of beating the Warriors is founded in some fact. In the last three seasons, the Warriors have lost a total of 39 games.

In total, during that span, seven teams have failed to beat the Warriors even once, while 12 teams have beaten them one time. Four teams have beaten the Warriors twice and only the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies have beaten them thrice.

The Spurs, though, have managed to beat the Warriors five times, with Popovich leading his team to a 2-1 regular season series win over the Warriors during the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.

It’s safe to say that they have been the only team worthy of calling themselves anything near a worthy adversary to Stephen Curry and company.

At least, that was the case until Saturday night.

* * * * * *

With all due respect to Michael Jordan, if the Warriors win the NBA Finals this season, they can legitimately claim to be the best team in NBA history.

Two titles in three years is nothing to sneeze at, but the claim holds no weight whatsoever without ever having won two in a row, especially when scores of other teams have been able to accomplish the feat.

Aside from the two championships, the Warriors can claim the best regular season record in the league’s history and the distinction of being the only team to ever win 67 or more games for three consecutive seasons.

It is true that the Warriors have been almost invincible since the 2014-15 season, but things have changed now that Chris Paul has joined forces with James Harden.

This season, the Mike D’Antoni coached team ranks 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions, a marked improvement over last season’s rank of 18th.

With Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, Luc Mbah a Moute, they have four defensive stalwarts, one of whom (Ariza) who wasn’t able to suit up due to being suspended.

At the end of the day, beating a team in the regular season doesn’t really count for much, especially when you consider the greatest irony: in each of the seasons the Spurs beat the Warriors in their season series, the Warriors won the NBA Finals. The obvious asterisk there is that the Warriors didn’t play the Spurs in the 2015 NBA Playoffs and only managed to sweep them once the Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard in 2017.

Still, beating the defending champs in any game, much less a season series, has got to feel good. Whether they want to admit it or not, Saturday’s game against the Warriors was one that the Rockets wanted to get, that’s probably why Mike D’Antoni opted to reinsert James Harden into the game after he surpassed his 30-minute playing restriction.

In the end, Harden logged 35 minutes and ended up making what was the game’s clinching three-pointer.

Poetic, indeed.

* * * * * *

With the season a little more than halfway over, the Warriors still appear to be head and shoulders above those competing for their throne. Of the other contenders, the Rockets and Boston Celtics, at least for now, appear most formidable.

At the end of the day, what the Warriors have to fear more than anything is their own arrogance. As a unit, the team believes that it’s the best at playing small ball and that no other team can beat them as their own game. While that may be true, there have been a few instances over the past few years where that belief has ended up costing them.

What the Warriors seem to struggle with is understanding that not every possession can be played the same way, and as some possessions become more and more valuable, it would be wise for the team to play more conservatively and traditionally.

For example, when the Cavaliers beat the Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving made one of the most incredible shots we’ve ever seen, but it was Stephen Curry who helped leave the door open for the Cavs with a pitiful final five minutes of the game.

Among the worst atrocities he committed was an ill-advised turnover that came as a result of an off target behind the back pass to Klay Thompson. In such a situation, any second grader could have and would have known that a simple bounce pass to the flashing Thompson would have sufficed.

Steve Kerr’s message to his team, though, is to play like themselves and not overthink their execution.

While that’s fair, it does at least leave room to wonder if the Warriors will have the humility to play conservatively when the game is on the line.

Curry himself admitted to playing too aggressively and making poor reads and decisions down the stretch versus the Rockets. The team passed up wide-open two-point shots for three-pointers that didn’t fall, and those botched opportunities played a direct role in causing the loss.

Fortunately, for the Warriors, not much was at stake, but their performance and decision-making in those tight minutes leave us to wonder what will happen if and when they find themselves in another tight moment or two…

And by virtue of the Rockets becoming just the second team to take a season series from the Warriors since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, we can also fairly wonder whether they truly have what it takes to take down the Golden Goliath.

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NBA Daily: Four Trades For Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler has told the Minnesota Timberwolves he would like to be traded. If the team decides to deal, what might they get back in return?

Drew Maresca

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The Jimmy Butler and Minnesota Timberwolves saga feels as though it’s dragged on forever. In reality, it was only 15 months ago that he was traded to the Timberwolves from the Chicago Bulls for what now seems like a king’s random: Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, with the only other asset going back to Minnesota being the sixteenth overall pick.

Regardless of what was given up for him or how long the relationship lasted, it seems as though the two will part ways sooner than later. After a drawn out and fairly public back-and-forth on social media about when and where the two parties would ultimately meet, Coach and President Tom Thibodeau and Butler finally sat down on Wednesday. It was then that Butler informed the Timberwolves he would like to be traded. So much for a happy ending to the Thibodeau-Butler reunion.

But Butler doesn’t simply want out of Minnesota. He wants to be traded to one of three teams: the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers or the New York Knicks. Reports have read that Butler will only sign an extension with one of his preferred destinations. The subtext of the leak – regardless of who leaked it – indicates that teams beyond those three need not apply. And in fairness to Butler, he recognizes that he is in the prime of his career and prefers to begin establishing himself in a hand-selected location.

Butler is scheduled to make $19,841,627 this season. Below, Basketball Insiders explores the likely trade packages each of the three teams Butler would like to play for might put together, as well as one additional team that may be able to convince Butler to re-sign. Lots of other scenarios exist, including three-team deals and packages in which Minnesota ships out additional players. But we only focused on two-team deals in which Butler is the only player departing the Wolves roster.

Los Angeles Clippers

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Clippers are the preferred destination for Butler. The Clippers have numerous players with the requisite salary to get the deal done, but little in the way of desirable young players to entice the Wolves.

From a salary standpoint, the Timberwolves would likely have their choice of veterans to pry from the Clippers roster. Danilo Gallinari makes more than Butler and his deal stretches another year after 2018-19. Besides, Gallinari’s age and injury history make him an unlikely candidate. Marcin Gortat is on a $13.565 million expiring deal. But unfortunately for the Clippers, Gortat’s value is relatively low. While the Clippers probably prefer to hang onto Avery Bradley to form a tenacious one-two defensive punch, would be the likely starting point considering his value. But Bradley cannot be traded until December 15. If both teams are willing to wait, then Bradley will likely be the main piece for salary purposes. Otherwise, the Clippers may have to part with one or more of Tobias Harris, Wesley Johnson and Patrick Beverley.

But none of the aforementioned veterans would be the centerpiece of the trade. And the Clippers are unable to trade away another of their first round picks before 2022. So the deal is likely to be predicated on the inclusion of either Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Jerome Robinson, both of whom were drafted by the Clippers with back-to-back picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. However, the team should think twice before trading both. Other recent trades involving superstars – Paul George –haven’t returned two lottery picks of late. If possible, the Clippers should be steadfast in insisting that only one be included.

The Wolves will likely prefer Gilgeous-Alexander given the buzz that he created in the summer league. If the Clippers are serious about acquiring Jimmy Butler, they should begin rebuilding around Butler before they miss out on him altogether (see the Lakers’ recent failed-before-it-even-started pursuit of Paul George).

Clippers Get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves Get Tobias Harris, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jawun Evans

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are one of Jimmy Butler’s (second tier) preferred destinations. On the one hand, the Nets have limited developed talent to pair with Butler in 2018-19. On the other, the Nets open up an enormous amount of cap space next season, allowing them to sign at least two max-level free agents, one of whom could be Butler. If Butler went ahead and included Brooklyn on his list of destinations, then so be it.

Spencer Dinwiddie is an up-and-coming young guard and among the most valuable assets on the Nets roster. Trade discussions would probably begin there. But Dinwiddie only makes $1.6 million this season, the last year on his deal. The recently acquired Kenneth Faried makes a fairly significant $13.7 million and his contract also expires after this season. Throw in a Jarrett Allen for good measure and you’ve got the framework of a deal. In this situation, a protected pick would be needed as well.

Nets Get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves Get Kenneth Faried, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and the Nets 2019 First Round Pick (top 8 protected)

New York Knicks

The Knicks held their press day on Monday, at which time team President Steve Mills professed the team’s strategy of avoiding sending out assets for players that are free agents-to-be. If this is actually true, the team will have a hard time blowing the Timberwolves away with an offer.

But the team can still put forth a respectable package, which would begin with a young guard named Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina is an incredible defender who can be the lead guard or play off the ball. He is a 6-foot-6 20 year old with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. Ntilikina is alluring to almost any front office in the league.

Beyond Ntilikina, the Knicks actually have a talented veteran who can fill most of the salary requirements – Courtney Lee. Lee is slightly older than Butler, but can bridge the gap until Ntilikina is ready to take on a bigger role along side Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

The Timberwolves would probably prefer to net more than just one solid prospect in a deal for Butler, but Butler put them in a precarious situation when he gave them a wish list of preferred destinations. The Knicks would be wise to offer this and no more.

Knicks get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves get Courtney Lee, Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke and Damyean Dotson

Boston Celtics

Lots of teams will throw their respective hats in the ring on Jimmy Butler. On paper, the Celtics make the most sense given their abundance of young talent and accrued draft picks. And let’s not forget that earlier this summer, rumors began to spread about Kyrie Irving’s desire to team up with Butler.

The Celtics have enough draft assets to swing a deal in which they give up limited players, instead leveraging their future draft picks. Remember, the Celtics not only own their own picks, the team also possesses the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first-round pick (top-one protected) and the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2019 first-round pick (top-eight protected).

But is that the right answer? After all, the Celtics already have a mini-logjam at the wing between Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. But maybe, instead of parting ways with future assets, the Celtics secure Butler and shorten up their rotation, which could potentially disrupt the team’s success into the playoffs with the entire roster entering the season seemingly healthy. Disclaimer — the Celtics would likely seek assurances from Butler that he would be open to re-signing before trading away a young star like Jaylen Brown.

Celtics get Jimmy Butler

Timberwolves get Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart

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NBA Daily: What is Phoenix Doing?

The Phoenix Suns’ trade for Ryan Anderson raises some concerns, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Phoenix Suns have made a slew of great moves over the last few months. The team named Igor Kokoškov as the new head coach back in May before making Deandre Ayton the No. 1 overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Phoenix has since inked Devin Booker to an extension that will keep their best player in Arizona for the foreseeable future.

But then, on Friday, they did this.

Coupled with the signing of veteran Trevor Ariza earlier this offseason, the move for Anderson (who is projected to start) signals that Phoenix will at least try to be competitive next season. Ariza posted solid numbers while playing heavy minutes with the Houston Rockets last year, averaging 11.1 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 36.8 percent from three and playing above average defense. Anderson, meanwhile, was faded by Houston down the stretch, but is still a capable shooter and should rebound with more playing time.

The Suns haven’t exactly had a problem with their level of competition over the last half-decade, so why are they doing this now? The Western Conference is more talented than ever with LeBron James — and a number of other high-level players — taking their talents out West, so it seems like an inopportune time to try and jump into the playoff picture. So, what exactly do these moves mean for Phoenix? And how could it impact their future?

Right now, the answers to those questions don’t look good.

There are certainly some positives to take away from this most recent trade as well as the Ariza signing; Anderson and Ariza provide veteran leadership to a very young roster. As the Rockets went toe-to-toe with the Golden State Warriors, they learned first-hand what it takes in order for a team to be successful, and the lessons they can teach the Suns’ youth could prove invaluable.

Their arrival could also remedy some major problems, including the Suns’ league-worst three-point percentage and (more specifically with Ariza) their also league-worst defensive rating. The acquisition of rookie point guard De’Anthony Melton is a boon for their weakest roster spot and should aid their defense as well. After years of tanking the Suns have the resemblance of a team that could compete on a nightly basis.

That’s about where the positives end, however.

Anderson’s massive albatross of a contract is an inherent negative. Owed more than $40 million over the next two seasons, Anderson will tie up money and valuable cap space that Phoenix would be better served using elsewhere.

Anderson and Ariza also add to an already existing logjam at the forward spot. Not only that, but the two will funnel minutes away from the youth of Phoenix — T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges, Dragan Bender, etc. — and could serve to stunt the overall growth and potential of those players. Not only would that be a disservice to the players and fans, but to themselves as an organization as well.

Another potential negative could be the effect on Phoenix’s future draft stock. The Suns are still rebuilding; their primary goals should still revolve around acquiring young talent via the draft. But all of this seems to fly in the face of that.

Yes, Anderson, Ariza and any other acquisitions made between now and the start of the season could improve the Suns’ immediate fortunes. But, short of a major blockbuster, there is nothing the team could do to push them into the Western Conference playoff picture. While the fans may enjoy some extra wins here or there, they would only serve to worsen their chances at a high pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, a draft flush with high-end talent that could provide Phoenix with yet another franchise-altering piece.

Another thing that may get overlooked is just how quickly the Suns gave up on Marquese Chriss. The Suns sent the Sacramento Kings a multitude of assets to acquire Chriss, the No. 8 overall pick in 2016, on his draft night, including two first round picks, a second round pick and the rights to Bogdan Bogdanović.

Now, with Chriss off to Houston, Phoenix looks even worse for making the deal.

Chriss hadn’t impressed much during his two seasons with the Suns, but he at times flashed some of the potential that made him a top-10 pick. Phoenix giving up on Chriss so easily is just another example of poor decision making by the organization that got them to this point in the first place.

So, while no one can say for sure how next season will play out, things aren’t looking good for the Suns after a promising start to their offseason. The reasoning behind the Anderson and Ariza acquisitions isn’t readily apparent, and that should worry those who were looking forward to watching the youth of Phoenix grow.

At the very least, it should be interesting to see how the Suns handle the situation as well as the potential fit of Anderson and Ariza with the wealth of young talent on the roster as well, both next season and going forward.

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Still Chugging: The NBA’s Oldest Contributors

Despite Manu Ginobili’s retirement this week, there are still plenty of veterans with 15-plus years of experience contributing at a high-level, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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This week, basketball finally lost the services of Manu Ginobili, a former domestic and international icon. At the age of 41, Ginobili was one of the sport’s oldest players — but as a four-time NBA champion, EuroLeague winner and a 2004 Gold medalist, he also retires with an unbelievably complete resume. With Jason Terry currently sans a contract or training camp invite, the 40-and-over crowd has shrunk to two just names: Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki.

While the present league-wide landscape attempts to uncover younger and younger athletes each year, there are a handful of veterans with 15-plus years of experience still making worthwhile contributions. Some on this list play for Finals-level hopefuls and others compete for lottery-bound franchises, but these are the players best-suited to help and assist well into their 40s and beyond.

Pau Gasol, 38, San Antonio Spurs

Although the eldest Gasol has put up back-to-back seasons with his lowest points per game average as a professional, the 17-year veteran is still well-entrenched for a perennially great Spurs side. He’ll spend another season as San Antonio’s likely starting center alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and Dejounte Murray, plus newcomers Lonnie Walker IV and DeMar DeRozan. In a supporting offensive role last season, Gasol took down 10.1 points, eight rebounds and 3.1 assists in just 23.5 minutes per game.

Gasol’s game-to-game reliability isn’t what used to be, but he appears to be an important cog for a team with Finals aspirations once again. There’s the potential for Rudy Gay to steal some of his minutes in a small-ball set-up, though that’s more of an afterthought at this point in the offseason. The Spaniard’s skill set has always leaned heavily on soft touches and efficient, high-percentage attempts, so — like a fine wine — Gasol should age fantastically heading into his twilight seasons.

Given Gasol’s personal accomplishments — two-time NBA champion, six-time All-Star, 2002 Rookie of the Year — he’s a near-lock for the Hall of Fame before even adding his overseas plaudits to the discussion.

Hall of Fame Watch: Near-lock.

Kyle Korver, 37, Cleveland Cavaliers

As the Cavaliers officially transition into a new, LeBron-less era, one of the few players left in the fray is Kyle Korver. In the first year of his new deal, the elite sharpshooter averaged 9.2 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.2 three-pointers on 43.6 percent from deep over a paltry 21.6 minutes per game. James’ departure leaves an opening at small forward, but that spot will be presumably filled by Cedi Osman, one of Cleveland’s brightest young pieces.

There were some incredibly brief rumors in July about a potential Jerryd Bayless-Korver swap, but those never came to fruition — so now what? Korver has tallied two or more three-pointers in every season since 2012-13, even shooting a blistering 46 percent from three after joining the Cavaliers in 2016. While there’s certainly room for an important Korver role on this Kevin Love-anchored roster, the marksman’s contract seems to be palatable in any potential deal.

Korver has two years left at $7.5 million, but only about half of that guaranteed in 2019-20 if he’s waived prior to July 7. For a contending franchise, Korver could enter the fold on a decent contract and for an inexpensive return — but until then, expect him to keep firing away effectively in the Midwest. Unsurprisingly, Korver will likely finish his career with the third-most three-pointers of all-time, although both Jamal Crawford and Stephen Curry, amazingly, aren’t far behind.

In terms of any future Hall of Fame bid, it seems as if the odds are stacked against Korver despite all of his excellent achievements from behind the arc.

Hall of Fame Watch: Very unlikely.

Zach Randolph, 37, Sacramento Kings

After eight consistent, well-received seasons down south, Zach Randolph opted to leave Memphis last summer for a project out in Sacramento. Notching 14.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists on 47.3 percent from the field, Randolph provided some much-needed intensity to a young, inexperienced Kings roster. In June, Sacramento selected Marvin Bagley III, a move that’ll probably sit Randolph in a backup role from here on out — both at power forward and center.

And, truthfully, it’ll be the perfect fit for a 17-year warrior that came to define the successful Grind-n-Grind era in Memphis. Despite the budding talents of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Willie-Cauley Stein, Randolph’s bullish style of play still led the team in points and finished second in rebounds. Randolph’s versatility in the paint should afford him plenty of opportunities off the bench — but he’ll toughen up their prized prospects nonetheless.

If Randolph plays at least two more seasons and averages about 10 points over the next 140 games or so, he’d almost definitely reach the 20,000-point plateau. Of course, the only two to reach that mark and not reach the Hall of Fame are Tom Chambers and Antawn Jamison — however, Randolph has already reached the 10,000-rebound mark as well, something that’ll give him a well-deserved leg up down the line.

Hall of Fame Watch: In the conversation.

Tony Parker, 36, Charlotte Hornets

Same face, new place.

After 17 seasons with the Spurs, the Tony Parker has switched cities to Charlotte, where he’ll primarily serve as the backup to Kemba Walker. Just four years ago, Parker was still among the league’s elite point guards — but Father Time has caught up quickly to the French legend as of late. In only 55 games last season, Parker averaged 7.7 points and 3.5 assists in 19.5 minutes per contest, numbers that came in as across-the-board lows for his illustrious career. Regardless, the six-time All-Star should function well as the Hornets’ bench general and, as an added bonus, he’ll reunite with Nicolas Batum, a long-time national squad teammate.

It’s fairly hard to predict exactly what we’ll get from Parker moving forward, but the Hornets could do far worse than the four-time league champion. At the very least, Parker should statistically recover from a down year — although he’ll provide plenty of off-the-court value as well. Either way, it hardly matters how his career winds down out on the East Coast; Parker is a certifiable Hall of Famer already. On top of his fantastic NBA career, the 6-foot-2 guard won EuroBasket MVP in 2013 as France took home the Gold.

Hall of Fame Watch: Near-lock.

Dwyane Wade, 36, Miami HEAT

And there’s Dwyane Wade — a man who has conquered every conceivable professional mountain but hasn’t quite committed to another NBA season just yet. A few days ago, Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald noted that Wade “seems inclined” to play this season — still, he’s been awfully quiet heading into September. Naturally, Wade has begun to slow down after 15 arduous, playoff-filled seasons, but he’s liable to go vintage Flash at any moment. Last November, Wade dropped 25 points, 11 rebounds and six assists on 8-for-19 from the field, nearly carrying the Cavaliers to victory during a narrow two-point loss to Atlanta.

Even though those moments are further and further spread out these days, there’s clearly some all-worldly talent left in the tank for the 6-foot-4 guard. Despite Miami’s crowded backcourt — Dion Waiters, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington — there’s always room for a bonafide legend in the rotation. Wade’s minutes have dropped each season since 2012-13 and Miami’s deep roster can allow him to settle into a comfortable, contributing role without a heavy load.

It should go without saying, but there’s not a single reality in existence in which Wade is not a first-ballot Hall of Famer once he retires. He’s a three-time champion, Finals MVP, 12-time All-Star, former scoring champion and a gold medalist — so the only question left is this: What does Wade have in store for his final act?

Hall of Fame Watch: 100% on lock.

Honorable Mentions: Jamal Crawford, 38; Joe Johnson, 37; Tyson Chandler, 35; Nene, 35.

At the end of the day, Ginobili’s sudden departure has left an understandable hole in the NBA but there are other long-standing contributors to turn to in this time of need. These veterans haven’t reached their fourth decade just yet — however, this list of five stalwarts will continue to trek on through their winding, successful professional careers. Not all of them will reach the Hall of Fame or even play in the Finals, but they’re the few remaining gems from a golden generation.

While some have stated their intentions to play for the foreseeable future and others are still on the fence about 2018-19, one thing is for certain — enjoy them while they’re still here!

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