It’s been three weeks since the 2014-15 NBA season started, and there have already been a number of interesting surprises. While the sample size is still relatively small since it’s still early in the season, we wanted point out some of these shocking developments and look at the reasons behind them. Here are 10 of the biggest early-season surprises:
Milwaukee’s Top Defense – Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks had the 29th ranked defense in the league, behind only the Utah Jazz. They allowed 108.9 points per 100 possessions and teams loved facing Milwaukee. The Bucks let teams shoot 46.8 percent from the field (25th in the NBA), 38.2 percent from three-point range (30th in the NBA) and they forced just 13.6 turnovers per game (20th in the NBA). In other words, Milwaukee was awful on the defensive end last season.
Now, all of a sudden, they’re one of the league’s best defensive teams. They are giving up just 94.7 points per 100 possessions (second in the NBA), allowing teams to shoot just 41.8 percent from the field (fourth in the NBA) and forcing 15.6 turnovers per game (ninth in the NBA).
So, what happened? Jason Kidd took over as the team’s head coach over the offseason, and has been trying to turn the group into a defensive-oriented team. Jared Dudley, who is also new in town, gave credit to assistant coach Sean Sweeney, saying that he has stressed the importance of defense to the young group and stayed on top of the players. Kendall Marshall, another new addition, says Kidd has been meticulous and points out every little thing that can help the team improve on the defensive end.
Getting Larry Sanders back has also been huge, as he’s one of the better rim protectors in the NBA when he’s healthy and playing like himself. This season, Sanders is averaging 2.0 blocks and 1.7 steals, both of which are team-highs. The development of the team’s young core (John Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brandon Knight, Nate Wolters, Khris Middleton, etc.) has also been huge, as well as the addition of Jabari Parker, who has been working hard on the defensive end and averaging 1.1 steals.
Whether the Bucks can sustain this success on the defensive end remains to be seen, but it has been a pleasant surprise early in the season. They are currently 4-5 and find themselves in the eighth seed, which shows how a revamped defense can help turn a team around. Just ask the Charlotte Hornets, who made a similar worst-to-first jump on the defensive end last year thanks to Steve Clifford’s schemes and used that to propel them into the playoffs against all odds.
Anthony Davis’ Video-Game Numbers – It’s no surprise that Anthony Davis has emerged as a superstar. Many people saw that coming over the offseason, this author included . However, nobody expected Davis to put up these ridiculous numbers and look like the frontrunner for the Most Valuable Player award, yet that’s exactly what the 21-year-old has done in the early stages of the season.
Right now, Davis is averaging 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.1 blocks and 2.3 steals. His PER is 35.55, which is first in the NBA by a large margin since the next-best starter is Dirk Nowitzki at 27.57. Davis ranks fourth in scoring, third in rebounds, first in blocks, fourth in steals, second in double-doubles and first in ridiculous box scores that make jaws drop.
Since the start of last season, Davis has six games in which he’s recorded 25 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, which is the same number of 25-10-5 games all other NBA players combined have during that span. Davis has contributed 25 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in three of eight games this season. No player in the last 15 years has had more than three 25-10-6 games in a season, but Davis seems poised to change that (potentially in the next few weeks).
Davis dominated during the summer when he suited up Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. Now, he has picked up right where he left off in the NBA, playing outstanding basketball on both ends of the floor to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 5-3 record. If Davis keeps this up, he’ll surely be in the mix for the MVP award and his name will be all over the NBA’s record book.
Chicago’s Effective Offense – The Chicago Bulls are known for many things, including their elite defense, excellent coaching and ability to withstand injuries. One thing that the Bulls aren’t known for is their offense. In recent years, Chicago has won games with their physical play and exceptional defense, not by putting up a lot of points.
Last season, Chicago scored just 99.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 28th in the NBA ahead of only the woeful Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. They shot just 43.2 percent from the field (ranking dead last in the NBA) and 34.8 percent from three-point range (ranking 24th). Their 93.7 points per game was the worst in the league. The Bulls’ style was to wear teams down and grind out wins. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done on many nights.
However, this year, things have been different in Chicago. While the Bulls remain a top 10 defense, their offense has been very good as well. Chicago has the ninth-best offense in the NBA, scoring 106 points per 100 possessions. They’re shooting 46.7 percent from the field (seventh in the NBA) and 37.4 from three (ninth in the NBA). They’re scoring nearly 10 more points per game, and hurting teams on both ends of the floor for the first time in quite a while.
Getting Derrick Rose back has obviously helped them, as he’s averaging 18 points while making his teammates better and significantly increasing the team’s pace. The addition of Pau Gasol has also been huge for Chicago, since he’s one of the most skilled big men in the league and he’s averaging 18.6 points while shooting 48.7 percent from the field.
However, the biggest difference for the Bulls has been the development of Jimmy Butler. Last year, in his third season, Butler averaged just 13.1 points and shot the ball poorly (39.7 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from three) while he was dealing with turf toe for much of the season. Now, Butler has emerged as Chicago’s leading scorer, averaging 21.3 points to go along with 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals. Butler is shooting a remarkable 53.3 percent from the field and a career-high 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. This has been a breakout year for Butler, and it comes at a perfect time since he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer and a lucrative payday now seems inevitable. One reason he didn’t agree to an extension with the Bulls prior to the Oct. 31 deadline is because he wanted to bet on himself and he felt he could have a monster year. That’s looking like a great decision.
Right now, Chicago ranks in the top 10 in offense and defense, which is even more impressive when you consider that Rose, Butler and Joakim Noah have all missed multiple games this season. The Bulls are a scary team and they have the talent to go deep into the postseason this year, especially if their well-rounded play continues.
Jackson has averaged 21.5 points, 7.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds – all of which are career-highs. He has scored over 20 points in six of his eight games, and is leading Oklahoma City in points and assists. He’s also doing a solid job running the offense and making his teammates better, as evidenced by his career-high dimes.
Jackson has made it clear that he wants to be a starter, and he has made the most of this opportunity to show that he’s a starting-caliber guard. This breakout stretch couldn’t have come at a better time for Jackson, as he’s about to hit restricted free agency next summer.
As Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports recently noted, executives around the league have been paying close attention to Jackson’s play and have said he could land an offer sheet in the $13 million to $14 million range.
With the way Jackson is playing and helping his stock before free agency, Oklahoma City’s front office probably regrets not extending their young guard prior to the October 31 deadline.
Jackson is only 24 years old, so his best basketball is likely still ahead of him. Don’t be surprised if a team extends a lucrative offer to Jackson next summer in hopes of making him their point guard of the future.
Cleveland’s Defensive Issues – Entering the season, everyone knew that the Cleveland Cavaliers would take time to jell and reach their full potential as a team. Anytime three superstars are getting used to playing with each other, there’s going to be an adjustment period, especially when they’re doing so under a first-time NBA head coach who has no experience with any of them. Cleveland’s 1-3 start was blown out of proportion, and the team has silenced their critics with a four-game winning streak.
However, there is some reason to be concerned about this Cavs team, and it has nothing to do with their record. The issue is Cleveland’s defense, which has been extraordinarily bad thus far. Looking at their personnel, nobody expected the Cavs to be the league’s best defensive squad, but nobody thought they’d be this bad either.
They are allowing teams to score 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 26th in the NBA. To show what kind of company the Cavs are in with that defensive rating, consider that the only teams worse than them are the Boston Celtics (3-5), Utah Jazz (4-7), Minnesota Timberwolves (2-7) and Los Angeles Lakers (1-9). That’s right, even the winless Philadelphia 76ers have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than Cleveland. The Cavaliers allowing opposing teams to shoot 48.4 percent from the field (28th in the NBA) and are forcing just 13.4 turnovers per game (18th in the NBA).
Not only are the numbers ugly, some these issues aren’t just things that will be corrected with time and improved chemistry. Cleveland lacks a rim protector, which is why teams are scoring so many points at such a high percentage. The Cavs are blocking just 5.8 shots per game (26th in the NBA) and it’s hard to see that number improving unless they sign a free agent rim protector (I’ve suggested Emeka Okafor once he gets healthy) or trade for an interior defender. Rumors have already surfaced that they’re trying to acquire Minnesota’s Corey Brewer to help their perimeter defense.
Fortunately for the Cavs, they have one of the best offenses in the league, which allows them to score 110.7 points per 100 possessions (ranking second in the league). That keeps them in games and is the reason for this win streak. During those four wins, they’re still allowing teams to score 106.75 points on average, they’re just dominating on the offensive end and winning shootouts. That may work in the regular season, but it’s nearly impossible to win a championship in the NBA with one of the league’s worst defenses. It’s obviously not time to hit the panic button in Cleveland, but it is time to acknowledge that they have issues on the defensive end that could cause problems for them as they pursue the title.
Sacramento’s Impressive Wins – The most surprising team in the first three weeks of the NBA season has been the Sacramento Kings, who are currently 6-4 and in the Western Conference playoff picture. Last season, Sacramento didn’t get their sixth win until Dec. 9, when they were 6-13 and near the bottom of the standings. But this year, they have been playing much better and racking up quality wins.
The Kings’ first six wins have come against the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets (twice), Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs. Sacramento also led by 20 points at one point in their games against the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies, but ultimately lost those contests. While those losses were heartbreaking, they did show that Sacramento can hang with any team in the West this year (even if they need to get better at closing games).
The Kings have made huge strides for a number of reasons.
First, DeMarcus Cousins has taken his game to another level and emerged as one of the best centers in the NBA, averaging 22.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals, while shooting 50 percent from the field. In the past, Cousins really struggled on the defensive end, but he has been much better this year and it seems he has matured. Cousins should have been an All-Star last season, but was stubbed, but he seems like a lock to make his All-Star debut this year.
Another key for Sacramento has been Rudy Guy playing at an extremely high level and looking more efficient than ever. Gay is averaging 22.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.8 percent from the field. He’s making better decisions and his 22.1 PER is by far a career-high, as he has never hit the 20 PER mark in his career until this season. The Kings have been so impressed by Gay’s production that they just gave him a three-year, $40 million extension.
Finally, there’s the play of Darren Collison. When the Kings decided to let Isaiah Thomas walk as a free agent and then signed Collison (and later Ramon Sessions) to be the replacement, many people were scratching their head. Throughout his career, Collison had shown that he was a solid backup, but struggled when put into the starting lineup with the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks. But this year, he has been excellent for the Kings, averaging career-highs in points (15.8), assists (6.0), rebounds (3.6), steals (1.9) and PER (19.2) while limiting his turnovers. He has really stepped up for Sacramento, and he’s doing a good job running the offense and moving the ball around.
It remains to be seen if the Kings can continue to play at this level. Their wins have been against quality opponents, but they also just became the first team in NBA history to lose two consecutive games when they were leading by 18 or more points at the end of the first quarter. They have been somewhat inconsistent (as many young teams are), but if the good Kings show up on more nights than not, Sacramento may be able to end their eight-year playoff drought and give their extraordinary fans something to be excited about.
Brandon Jennings’ Efficient Play – Entering this weekend’s games, Jennings had the sixth-best PER in the NBA, ranking ahead of superstars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry among others. Why is that surprising? Because in Jennings’ six-year career, he has only finished in the top 100 in PER one time, and he has developed a reputation as an inefficient player who takes bad shots and plays out of control.
Initially, it seemed like Jennings and new head coach Stan Van Gundy were a horrible match. After all, Van Gundy has always liked point guards who were controlled and did exactly what he wanted. It’s why in Orlando he played the struggling veteran Chris Duhon over the young, exciting speedster Ish Smith, much to the dismay of Magic fans. It’s also why he preferred Jameer Nelson to Rafer Alston, even after the latter point guard led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009. With this in mind, many around the NBA thought that Van Gundy and Jennings wouldn’t work together.
However, that hasn’t been the case. Jennings has done a terrific job this season, averaging 16.2 points, six assists and 1.1 steals, while shooting career-highs from the field (45.1 percent) and three-point range (43.2 percent). He’s making better decisions and taking the right shots by getting the basket and not settling for jumpers. Basically, he’s no longer doing all of the things he has done in years past that would have infuriated Van Gundy.
Jennings has the third-highest PER in the East, behind only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and he has been the most efficient point guard in the conference so far this season.
If he keeps this up, it will make Van Gundy’s job much easier and Jennings may be able to change the way he’s perceived around the league, much like Monta Ellis did last season with the Dallas Mavericks.
Evan Fournier Exceeding Expectations – When the Orlando Magic initially traded Arron Afflalo to the Denver Nuggets for Evan Fournier and a late second-round pick, many fans and analysts criticized the move. Afflalo was coming off of the best season of his career and many reports had indicated that Orlando wanted a first-round pick as well as an attractive asset in exchange for him. A late second-rounder and Fournier, who had been a mediocre reserve in his first two NBA seasons, didn’t seem like much in return for the Magic’s most attractive trade chip.
However, through the first few weeks of the NBA season, Fournier has emerged as one of Orlando’s best players. He’s averaging 17.6 points while shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 51.1 percent from three-point range. He has been Orlando’s starting shooting guard, and always seems to hit big shots when the teams need them.
The acquisition of Fournier is similar to how the Magic landed Tobias Harris two years ago. They traded J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks for the seldom-used Harris, and the deal was initially criticized since Harris had barely played or produced in his first two NBA seasons and Redick was in the midst of a career-year. Harris had yet to average more than five points in a season and had only played 11 minutes per game. However, with the opportunity to play significant minutes every night, Harris broke out in Orlando and is now one of the team’s most productive players, averaging 17.9 points and 8.5 rebounds.
General manager Rob Hennigan has done a terrific job of finding diamonds in the rough through trades. Fournier and Harris are perfect examples, as are Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless who came over from the Philadelphia 76ers in the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade. Hennigan has a good eye for talent, and the Magic’s young core is full of up-and-coming players who are playing very well.
Surprising Rookies Making an Impact – The 2014 NBA Draft featured a number of potential stars who had been on the NBA’s radar since they were in high school, including Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Marcus Smart.
However, early in the season, it’s been some of the less notable rookies who have gotten off to strong starts. Randle, unfortunately, broke his right leg in his NBA debut and will miss the remainder of the season. Smart had a scary injury of his own, hurting his ankle to the point that he had to leave the court on a stretcher and doctors had to cut through his shoe to do tests since his foot was so swollen. Wiggins and Parker are healthy, but they haven’t burst onto the scene like some expected.
Instead, the top rookies according to efficiency rating have been Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic), Jordan Clarkson (Los Angeles Lakers), James Ennis (Miami HEAT), Jusuf Nurkic (Denver Nuggets), K.J. McDaniels (Philadelphia 76ers), Joe Harris (Cleveland Cavaliers) and P.J. Hairston (Charlotte Hornets) Bojan Bogdanovic. Parker and Wiggins are ranked eighth and 10th, respectively.
It’s obviously way too early to grade these players and Wiggins and Parker have each flashed glimpses of brilliance that show just how high their ceilings are, and they are the only two rookies scoring in double-figures for the season. However, the names ahead of them are surprising, as Gordon and Nurkic were labeled projects who were very raw during the pre-draft process. Yet Gordon is the only rookie posting a PER above the league average of 15. Unfortunately, Gordon is now sidelined indefinitely due to a fractured foot, which further opens the door for some of these unheralded rookies to steal the spotlight. The other names atop this list are even more surprising, since Clarkson, Ennis, McDaniels and Harris were all second-round picks.
While it’s still very possible that Wiggins and Parker will eventually emerge as the best players in this class, the early-season results could suggest that the Rookie of the Year race will be much more competitive than originally expected and that this draft class may be quite deep.
Rockets Thriving On Both Ends – A prominent storyline over the offseason was that the Houston Rockets took a significant step back after losing Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin while failing to land their third star despite pursuing free agents Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony. Houston managed to sign Trevor Ariza to fill the void left by Parsons’ departure, but many felt that the team had regressed and would have trouble contending in the loaded Western Conference.
That clearly hasn’t been the case thus far. Houston currently stands at 9-1, with the top record in the West. Their success largely stems from the fact that they have the league’s best defense, allowing just 91.5 points per 100 possessions. Teams are shooting just 40.3 percent from the field against Houston (first in the NBA) and 28.1 percent from three-point range (also first in the NBA).
Dwight Howard is putting up his best stats since leaving the Orlando Magic, averaging 20.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and a steal while shooting a career-high 61.8 percent from the field. Howard didn’t get enough credit for his dominance during Houston’s first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in last year’s playoffs when he averaged 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks, and he has picked up right where he left off. James Harden is also having a monster year, averaging career-highs in points (26.2), assists (7.4), rebounds (6.3), steals (1.8) and blocks (1.0).
Ariza has been huge for the Rockets as well. He has clearly improved Houston’s defense since the team now has three quality defenders in the starting five with Ariza, Howard and Patrick Beverley. Ariza is making significant contributions on offense too, averaging 14.9 points (tying his career-high), 6.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and two steals. He’s shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from three-point range. He has been one of the league’s best players in catch-and-shoot situations, hitting 2.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game at a 41.7 percent clip, which is exactly what Houston needs from their supporting cast around Harden and Howard.
Houston is winning games with a +9.4 average margin of victory, and their lone loss came against the Golden State Warriors when they were without Howard, Beverley and Terrence Jones. The Rockets are playing outstanding two-way basketball and they certainly look like a legitimate contender.
What surprised you the most in the first few weeks of the 2014-15 NBA season? Leave a comment below or reach out to Alex Kennedy on Twitter (@AlexKennedyNBA).
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.