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NBA PM: Using Fiction to Capture the Warriors

Ben Dowsett uses a bestselling novel to try and capture the brilliance of the Warriors ahead of their biggest challenge.

Ben Dowsett

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In Orson Scott Card’s seminal 1985 novel Ender’s Game, Earth faces peril from an extraterrestrial threat. Known as the Formics (or the ungracefully-aged “buggers”), these alien forces had already been engaged twice decades prior to our story, but a third and presumably final encounter is fast approaching to decide the fate of both species.

To prepare, humankind’s international government forms an outer space training facility called “Battle School,” designed to mold the most gifted young minds on the planet into weapons of military might through intense, advanced strategical simulations. Students are placed into “armies” complete with commanders and ranks; the armies are pitted against each other in a battle most resembling a high-stakes game of zero-gravity laser tag. Over time, the thinking goes, the top strategic minds will separate themselves from the pack, and can be plucked for placement at the head of humanity’s interstellar military forces.

Our protagonist, Andrew Wiggin (Ender), quickly sets himself apart. Ender is unconventional, bucking several older approaches to rise incredibly quickly to command of his own army – one ostensibly comprised of nothing but “launchies” (the Battle School equivalent of raw rookies) and cast-offs from other armies, and meant as a challenge to Ender’s creative abilities.

Dragon Army, as they’re called, is innovative and trendsetting. They eschew traditional battle room “formations” in favor of a free-flowing approach that leaves unprecedented amounts of decision-making in the hands of each individual soldier. It’s like nothing anyone in the program has ever seen.

Dragon Army takes Battle School by storm. They crush confused and overwhelmed opponents, drawing the ire of the rest of the school in the process. They break no rules, and in reality, they advance the entire school’s understanding of the way the game’s guidelines can be manipulated. Before long, Ender is leading Earth’s forces in a third battle against that powerful alien force.

On the NBA’s battleground, the Golden State Warriors are Dragon Army in a game full of envious competitors. And as they prepare for a momentous third test against a seemingly alien life force, their limits – like Ender’s, eventually – could be tested.

* * * * * *

In a subsequent Card sequel to Ender’s Game, we learn an important detail about Dragon Army: They weren’t quite the group of misfits the original novel had led the audience to believe. Their formation was predetermined by an architect based on their collective qualities; in many cases, their skill had previously been untapped or improperly used. Ender’s innovation brought out their full potential, but it’s not as if his approach could have simply be applied to any random collection of soldiers with the same results.

The formation of this current Warriors juggernaut followed a similar path thematically. Draymond Green might be the league’s perfect poster boy for the way talent and personality need the right vehicle to succeed; when they were drafted, many in a league not yet so thoroughly dominated by shooting didn’t think Steph Curry and Klay Thompson had the size and skill to survive as a starting backcourt pairing.

Some of their core had been miscast under previous leadership, too, just like several of Dragon Army’s best. Mark Jackson reached players and was a relative success by all accounts, but his eventual replacement, Steve Kerr, would reveal the degree to which Jackson may have held this group back. Jackson’s more rigid, matchup-oriented style now looks silly in the face of this innovative beast.

Ender’s approach with Dragon Army was simple at its core: Let skill and creativity trump a more predictable style. Where other commanders held a Napoleon-like vice grip over strategy, herding their soldiers into uninspired formations that surely became formulaic over time, Ender possessed limited central authority during battle.

He emphasized creativity and the element of surprise, giving his army the license to adjust on the fly and exploit the openings overmatched opponents inevitably gave up. He insisted that his soldiers push the envelope, even at the risk of error.

After Jackson’s ouster, Kerr pushed the same kinds of themes. He realized the element of his group’s skill that had yet to be mined, leveraging their historical shooting into a whole new kind of attack. He had the same approach to pushing the envelope – mistakes (turnovers, in this case) were a necessary step on the path to success, and they’d inevitably be covered up by the larger successes of the group as a whole.

NBA defenses to this point were almost universally conditioned to defend beginning from the point of attack (the ball), then moving backward from there. Suddenly, they were facing a machine where the guy with the rock was often the least important part of the equation. Armed with unprecedented shooting skill and the knowledge of what that skill would do to the opposition, the Warriors created an offense that was more about space, reaction and simple physics than any overwhelming physical quality.

They don’t pass more than other teams, necessarily – they pass more effectively. The Dubs have produced a positive event (a made shot or free throws) on a higher percentage of their passes than any other team in the league every year since Kerr came aboard, per SportVU data, and they’ve virtually lapped the field on points created via assist.

So little of it is directly planned, either. The Warriors have unprecedented freedom on both ends of the court – Curry has the license to jack up virtually any shot he likes, just like Green is free to roam and disrupt on his way to captaining the league’s most unique defense. Other teams enter the battle room, await their commander’s formation signal and then execute; the Warriors are already flying toward the enemy with guns blazing, forcing them into decisions they aren’t yet prepared to make.

* * * * * *

Dragon Army and Battle School weren’t Ender’s final tests. After dominating them, he would face a far more daunting adversary. And as the Warriors enter a third battle against perhaps the closest thing the NBA has ever seen to an extraterrestrial force, perhaps it’s fitting that, like Ender, they could be forced to morph once more to reach the ultimate goal.

When Ender took command of his forces against the Formics in a series of final battles, he did so with certain advantages he never held at Battle School: a hand-picked team; a legendary mentor; maybe most importantly, a fancy new weapon capable of destroying an entire enemy planet in one fell swoop (think of it as the fictional military version of Kevin Durant).

At the same time, he faced an enemy vastly different from his previous experience, one better prepared to absorb his strengths and exploit his weaknesses. In the end, success came down to one last little bit of improvised innovation.

Whether it will come to that for these Warriors remains to be seen, especially with a detonator like Durant now in the arsenal as well. But whether or not this final challenge presents real intrigue, we can always remember this group as the NBA’s Dragon Army.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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NBA AM: 50 NBA Predictions for 2017-2018

As he always does, Joel Brigham makes 50 predictions for the forthcoming NBA season.

Joel Brigham

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If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s making NBA predictions that end up being correct right about half the time. Every season for as long as I’ve been writing about basketball, I’ve made 50 predictions about the forthcoming season, only to return to those predictions in the spring and berate myself for believing the things I believed back in the fall. It’s an annual emotional rollercoaster.

Well, it’s the fall, which means regardless of whether or not readers agree with these predictions, most can at least see how a good deal of them could come to fruition. Flip a coin, though, because last season I only went 21-for-42. Here’s to hoping I do a little better than that this season.

On to this season’s NBA predictions:

Individual Predictions

1. James Harden will lead the league in scoring this season.

2. Both he and Russell Westbrook will top 30 points per game.

3. DeAndre Jordan will lead the league in rebounds.

4. John Wall will be the only player in the league to average 10.0 or more assists per game.

5. J.J. Redick will be among the top eight players in the league in terms of three-pointers made.

6. Rudy Gobert will lead the league in blocks.

Team Predictions

7. Once again, the Boston Celtics (not the Cleveland Cavaliers) will post the best record in the Eastern Conference.

8. Last season the Houston Rockets broke the record for most three-pointers attempted in an NBA season. They’re going to break that record again.

9. The Golden State Warriors are going to win a ton of games in 2017-2018, as they always do, but once again they will fall just a touch shy of 70 wins.

10. The Northwest Division (Denver, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Portland and Utah) will have more collective wins than any other division in basketball.

11. The Minnesota Timberwolves will win at least 20 more games than they did last season.

12. The three top scoring teams in the league all will be in the Western Conference.

Rookie Predictions

13. Dennis Smith will be Rookie of the Year.

14. He also is going to lead all rookies in scoring.

15. Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball both will average more than 6.5 assists per game.

16. Simmons and Philadelphia teammate Markelle Fultz both will be on the All-Rookie First Team.

17. John Collins will lead all rookies in rebounds and blocks.

18. Lauri Markkanen will lead all rookies in made three-pointers.

19. Jordan Bell will be this year’s most successful second-rounder.

Playoff Predictions

20. One game or fewer will determine which team will be the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs and which team will have the least ping pong balls in the lottery that year.

21 Milwaukee will be a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference and will have homecourt advantage in the first round.

22. Philadelphia does make the postseason, but as a seventh or eighth seed.

23. For the fourth season in a row, it will be the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers playing in the NBA Finals.

24. The Golden State Warriors will (once again) win the NBA championship.

Awards Predictions

25. Giannis Antetokounmpo will win the MVP award this year. With LeBron James likely being more restful than ever in the regular season and Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden deferring more often to other superstars on their respective teams, Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard have the clearest road to individual dominance this year. Something tells me Giannis is on the precipice of doing some truly amazing things, both physically and statistically.

26. Kawhi Leonard will win Defensive Player of the Year. His streak was broken by Draymond Green a year ago. He’ll get it going again with a win in 2018.

27. Brad Stevens will win NBA Coach of the Year.

28. J.R. Smith is going to win Sixth Man of the Year. This award typically values scorers on good teams, and that’s exactly what J.R. is to going to be this year. If he had to get booted to the reserves, he may as well be the best one, right?

29. The Most Improved Player typically is someone who goes from being good to being elite, and that guy this year looks like it will be Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis or Nikola Jokic. For the sake of settling on one, I’ll say Porzingis.

30. Danny Ainge will win Executive of the Year. Getting his hands on Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward without giving up much and landing a top rookie prospect in Jayson Tatum is about as good as it gets.

Trade Predictions

31. After finding himself in just about every single Phoenix Suns trade rumor over the course of the last three seasons, this is the year Eric Bledsoe finally gets moved midseason.

32. There are big questions surrounding New Orleans’ roster, which likely will lead to some DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors. The Pelicans will not, however, trade the All-Star big man.

33. In the midst of their rebuild, Atlanta will try to move Kent Bazemore, the most expensive player on their roster. They will not succeed in this.

34. There has been a Kenneth Faried mention in the trade predictions section of this article seemingly every year, so let’s keep it going. This is the year Faried finally gets shipped from Denver.

35. Jahlil Okafor will be a Chicago Bull by the end of the season.

36. Portland’s frontcourt is absolutely loaded. As such, at least one of their big men will get shipped by the deadline.

37. At least one of the Lopez twins will not finish the season on the same team he started the year playing with.

38. Cleveland’s “Brooklyn Pick,” despite being a hot commodity with the potential to bring in another star player for a championship run, will not change hands. That pick stays with Cleveland.

Miscellaneous Predictions

39. The Chicago Bulls have led the league in attendance for years, but not this season. If the Chicago Bears still are going to have tickets available on game day, so are the Bulls. This season, Cleveland leads the league in attendance for the first time ever.

40. The Atlanta Hawks will win the draft lottery.

Insiders Predictions

For the second year in a row, my fellow writers at Basketball Insiders will bear the burden of making these predictions, and they too will be held accountable when we revisit these in the spring. Here’s a look at some of their bold predictions:

41. Joel Embiid will play at least 70 games this year. (Dennis Chambers).

42. Joel Embiid will not play 60 games. In the games he does play he will look awesome and put up amazing stats, but his absences will ultimately cost the Sixers the playoffs. (Steve Kyler).

43. Marcus Smart will shoot at least a league average percentage on deep balls this season. (Shane Rhodes).

44. Giannis Antetokounmpo will become the first player in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in back-to-back seasons (Tommy Beer).

45. This will be the first time in Carmelo Anthony’s Hall of Fame career that he will not average 20 points per game. (Lang Greene).

46. The Wizards will finish with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Brian Fritz).

47. Blake Griffin and Danillo Gallinari both will play in at least 60 games this year. (Jesse Blancarte).

48. Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons each will have at least ten triple doubles this season. (Michael Scotto).

49. Bogdan Bogdanovic will finish among the top three in Rookie of the Year voting. (Benny Nadeau).

50. The Memphis Grizzlies will miss the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. (Spencer Davies).

***

You’re going to read a lot of predictions articles this time of year, but I’m the only one who will come to these predictions at the end of the season to gauge how smart (or, more likely, how completely and utterly stupid) I was in making some of these. Check back in June for the wrap-up, and here’s to another great season of NBA basketball!

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