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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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NBA

NBA Daily: The Jrue Holiday Effect

Drew Maresca examines how good the Bucks can be with Jrue Holiday back in Milwaukee’s lineup.

Drew Maresca

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Jrue Holiday’s return from a bout with the novel coronavirus was uneventful. He played just under 18 minutes, tallying only 2 points and 3 assists. But despite Holiday’s ineffective outing, the Milwaukee Bucks still pulled out a win against the second-best team in the Western Conference. So just imagine how good they’ll be once Holiday fits back in.

Fitting in in itself isn’t that big of a challenge for a guy like Holiday. Coach Mike Budenholzer raved about his impact after a December win, according to BehindtheBuckPass.com. Opposing coaches, including Steve Kerr, did the same. And even the otherwise go-at-it-alone superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo seemed to give Holiday his stamp of approval, agreeing to a supermax extension after the trade for him was consummated.

But the fact remains that basketball is a team sport that requires cohesion – which is predicated on time and repetition. This year’s Bucks team – like any team that made major additions in the abbreviated offseason, training camp and preseason – simply didn’t have enough time to form the necessary on-the-court continuity.

Still, the Bucks probably felt pretty good about themselves entering the 2020-21 season. The price for Holiday was pretty high – costing them Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, the draft rights to R.J. Hampton (the team’s 2020 first-round pick), another two future first-round picks (unprotected) and two additional pick swaps – but that’s the cost of adding a borderline superstar.

But everyone around the team seemed satisfied with the move.

“Jrue is an incredibly high character person and one of the premier guards in the NBA,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst told the media shortly after the trade was consummated. “He will make us better on both ends of the floor, as he’s an elite defender and a proven playmaker on offense with the ability to score, shoot and facilitate. His experience will help our team and we are thrilled to welcome him and his family to Milwaukee.”

High praise from the new boss – but not surprisingly, the lack of preparation resulted in relative struggles. Milwaukee entered Sunday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers with a 20-13 record, good for third in the conference. And while that’s quite good, it’s actually a step back for the Bucks, who won 28 of their first 33 games last season.

Specifically, Holiday numbers are down, at least when comparing his season averages to prior efforts. Holiday is posting 16.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game through 23 games in 2020-21. He’s scoring nearly five less per game less than he did during his best season (2018-19), although he’s doing so in 32.5 minutes per game – down from the 35.6 average over the past three seasons.  

But Holiday appears to be a quick study. Through the first 11 games, Holiday averaged just 14.6 points 5.0 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. And he was shooting just 47.7 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on three-point attempts. However, through the next 12 games, Holiday increased his tally, scoring 18.0 points, dishing out 5.8 assists and grabbing 5.3 rebounds per game on 52.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.3 percent on three-point attempts.

Further, Holiday is second in the league in steals per game (1.9) across the entire season, and he has the second-best defensive plus/minus and PER (19.9) on the team, as well as the third-highest assist percentage (22.6 percent).

So it appeared as though, despite acclimating to a new team with a new system, Holiday was fitting in quicker than most would have thought. But the chaos that began in 2020 wasn’t done yet. Holiday got COVID-19 a few weeks ago and, as a result, he was forced to miss 10 consecutive games prior to Sunday’s contest against the Clippers.

Examining the Bucks’ last 10 games makes Holiday’s value and impact all the more evident. Sure, Milwaukee won four in a row, but they also went 1-5 before that – which adds up to a 5-5 record without Holiday. What’s more, their four-game winning streak came against Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Minnesota and New Orleans, four of the five worst teams in the Western Conference.

Further, the Bucks, who boast the league’s 10th best defense with a defensive rating of 110.6 including the past 10 games without Holiday, were suddenly giving up nearly four more points per game without Holiday than they did prior to his entering the league’s health and safety protocols

Admittedly, that return looked particularly difficult against seven-time All-Star Paul George. Maybe that’s why head coach Mike Budenholzer brought Holiday off of the bench, restricting him to only 18 minutes of playing time. Holiday looked rusty, notching only 2 points and 3 assists.

Still, Holiday was on the court in crunch time, demonstrating his value for all of Milwaukee to see. The long-time veteran was involved in the most important play of the game, dishing the hockey assist on the game-securing bucket – driving and drawing the defense before swinging the ball to the corner, which eventually led to Antetokounmpo flying in for an emphatic dunk.

Holiday spoke with the media following the game about how he felt in his first game since getting over his bout with the COVID-19 virus.

“Conditioning is just a little behind,” Holiday said. “I felt like I was a step slow. Again, just being able to play against actual NBA players in NBA games is so different from in practice.”

So Holiday is back, but he’s not back just yet — and still, the Bucks beat a healthy Clippers team, which is a feat for any squad. It’s not hard to imagine how good they’ll be once he’s fully healthy and conditioned.

Ultimately, adding Holiday was a stroke of genius for the Bucks, and the finished product isn’t even here yet. Subject to recency bias, it’s understandable why the media and fans alike have gravitated toward the Brooklyn Nets, but don’t forget about the Bucks because they’re not the same team they were last year – and Holiday is the reason why.

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NBA

Dennis’ Defense Key to Lakers’ Title Run

The Lakers realize that they need Anthony Davis in order to defend their title. After four games without Dennis Schroder, they also understand the true value of their starting point guard.

Chad Smith

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As of late, the path to an 18th championship banner has gotten more difficult for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team had lost four games in a row and five of their last six before Friday night’s victory against the Portland Trail Blazers. With Anthony Davis sidelined until after the All-Star break, Frank Vogel is forced to rely on the team’s depth and experience to navigate through the next four weeks.

The absence of Davis has undoubtedly put more of the heavy lifting on the shoulders of LeBron James, but that may not be in the best interest of the Lakers in the long run. While James has been adamant about playing every game and earning his fifth MVP trophy, he has nothing to prove to anyone. Even at the age of 36, James is still widely regarded as the best player in the world.

A healthy and motivated superstar like James is a nice luxury to have, but the void left by Davis needs to be filled collectively by the rest of the roster. Kyle Kuzma figured to slide right into a prominent role with Davis sidelined but Kuzma himself then had a back strain that forced him to miss some time. Over his last three games, Kuzma is averaging just 7.6 points, 1.6 assists and 2.6 turnovers while shooting 28 percent from the field.

The rest of the frontcourt players – Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell and Markieff Morris – have needed to step up their production but haven’t been able to do so on a consistent basis. The Lakers even tried using smaller lineups with Wesley Matthews and Talen Horton-Tucker receiving an uptick in minutes. Vogel was then blindsided with another blow to his roster.

Dennis Schroder was forced to miss four straight games due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Schroder has quietly been a brilliant addition, providing valuable on-ball and perimeter defense to this Lakers team. While there was a lot of buzz heading into the season after Los Angeles acquired the point guard from Oklahoma City, many wondered how he would fit in with the starting unit.

Schroder stated before the season that he envisioned himself as the starting point guard, taking some of the responsibility and burden of running the offense away from James. To his credit, he has been exceptional in that area, and Vogel has praised the guard for earning the starting role. Schroder’s defense has been a tremendous boost for the Lakers, and the numbers tell the story.

Los Angeles has the top-ranked defense, ranking first in defensive rating (105.8) and second in opponent scoring (106.1), according to Basketball-Reference. They also boast a top-five net rating and lead the league in blocks as a team.

James has referred to the 27-year old as ‘Dennis The Menace’ for good reason. Schroder has been a tenacious defender on the perimeter and a real pest for opposing point guard. This is where his value to the team is noticed the most, glaringly obviously without him on the floor.

In their highly-anticipated matchup last Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets, Vogel was looking forward to sticking Schroder on Kyrie Irving in an attempt to slow down one of the best offenses in NBA history. Obviously, that didn’t happen, as Irving and James Harden had their way with the Lakers’ backcourt.

In their next game against the Miami HEAT, Kendrick Nunn scored 27 points in their win over Los Angeles. The Washington Wizards defeated the Lakers as Russell Westbrook (33) and Bradley Beal (32) scored at will. The Utah Jazz throttled the Lakers as well and Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell each nearly had a triple-double. In Schroder’s return, the Lakers not only won the game but were also able to hold Portland’s seventh-ranked offense to just 93 points.

Schroder had started all 29 games this season before that game against Brooklyn. Offensively, he has been quite consistent this season when comparing his two previous years in Oklahoma City. He started just 16 times in his 144 games in Oklahoma City, often playing behind Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. His shot attempts are down this season – but his free-throw attempts are up as he gets to the rim and thriving in his role as a playmaker.

Beyond that, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft had been having a sensational February. Last month, he averaged 17 points and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the floor, 38 percent from three-point range and 88 percent from the free-throw line.

When Davis and James are on the floor together, they’re able to feed off of one another and stagger their offensive aggressiveness. Without Davis, it will be more important for Schroder to generate the offense while keeping up his tenacity on defense. Simply put, those are things that no other point guard on the roster can provide.

It may not have been the extended absence that Davis is facing, but Schroder missing games in the future could cost them in terms of playoff seeding. The Western Conference is loaded as now the Lakers must fend off the Phoenix Suns for the third seed. With the rest of the season’s games being unveiled last week, the Lakers have the second-hardest remaining schedule in the league.

Stopping or slowing opposing point guards will be a difficult task for the Lakers without Schroder in the lineup. Guards like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic and Jamal Murray can cause problems, and that’s just in the Western Conference. Should Los Angeles meet a team like the Nets in the Finals, Schroder’s defensive prowess will be vital to their success.

The good news for the Lakers is that seeding shouldn’t matter as much this season. Despite some fans being allowed into arenas, there are no expectations of having anything near full attendance later this season. The home-court advantage is minimal, and if the Lakers are fully healthy for the postseason they should still be the favorites as the defending champions.

Like all contenders, Los Angeles will be very active in the buyout market. Finding an inside defensive presence is crucial, while shooting upgrades will be available too. But what will be most difficult to find is an asset like Schroder, a contributor that provides so much on both sides of the ball.

Aside from James and Davis, Schroder just might be the most important player for the Lakers as they prepare to defend their title.

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NBA

The Five Most Intriguing Second Half Matchups in 2020-21

Drew Maresca breaks down the second-half of the 2020-21 NBA schedule, identifying the five most intriguing matchups.

Drew Maresca

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Needless to say, 2020 forced us all to accept uncertainty in all facets of our lives – and that includes sports. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of missed games, the NBA did not announce a complete schedule entering the 2020-21 season.

But the NBA – as well as most of the sports world – continues to forge ahead through the pandemic, hosting fans and even holding an abbreviated All-Star Weekend. More to the point, the NBA is now comfortable enough with its product through the first two or so months to announce its schedule for the rest of the way.

There are a number of interesting takeaways from a delayed schedule release. The biggest of all, perhaps, is that the Los Angeles Lakers have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, which should aid them as Anthony Davis works his way back from an Achilles injury. The New York Knicks, who haven’t qualified for the postseason since 2013, will end their season on a hellacious west coast trip, might it derail their playoff hopes? Further, we found out that fans are the real winners, with 44 nationally televised games between Mar. 14 and May 10, airing on ABC, ESPN and TNT.

But good regular season games are of the highest importance. As much as the playoffs generate most of the league’s intrigue, legends are built in the regular season, too. The late, great Kobe Bryant scored 81 points on a January night in the regular season. He also scored 60 in his career-finale during the final game of the 2015-16 regular season. Michael Jordan scored 55-points in his return to Madison Square Garden, following a nearly two-year long hiatus, in March – also in the regular season.

With that in mind, let’s examine the five most intriguing matchups of the second half of this year’s regular season.

5. Brooklyn Nets at New York Knicks, Mar. 15

This is a New York thing. Pride is on the line. The Nets have only been New York City residents for nine years – still, they’ve had more success in their short time within the boroughs than their New York neighbors. Worse, now the Nets look poised to compete for a championship with James Harden recently joining Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. All that comes after convincing Durant and Irving to join the Nets instead of relocating to Manhattan.

But the Knicks appear to be on the upswing themselves, currently in possession of the sixth-best record in the East. That culminates in a hostile matchup between division rivals for city-wide bragging rights. Let’s throw in, 2,000 or so basketball-starved fans in the World’s Most Famous Arena, and you have a recipe for drama.

4. Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz, May 7

Simply put, Jazz/Nuggets games are everything that’s good with basketball. It involves two very good teams, who also happen to be division rivals, and great individual matchups. One team features the best defensive center in the NBA. The other has, possibly, the most unique offensive center in the history of the game. They both feature great shooting guards – one is more of a freak athlete, while the other is more of a technical assassin.  They both boast solid role players, but at different positions. Utah possesses the third-best offensive rating in the league, while Denver sports the fifth-best. They are also the third- and fifth-best three-point shooting teams in the league, too. Adding to the matter, they put on possibly the best series in the 2020 NBA playoffs from inside the bubble.

Basically, the more Jazz versus Nuggets games the better.

3. Brooklyn Nets at Utah Jazz, Mar. 24

This one is for the purists. It features the ultimate clash of styles, with the league’s best offense – Brooklyn boasts an offensive rating of 119 – bumping heads with the second-best defense in Utah. Interestingly, the Nets do play the Lakers, who currently own the league’s best defense, in early April, but with Davis’ return up-in-the-air, it’s hard to place too much significance on that matchup.

And the Nets/Jazz game is probably more interesting to basketball fans, anyway. There are intriguing individual matchups like Mike Conley/Kyrie Irving and Donovan Mitchell/James Harden to watch. There’s also the issue of the Jazz dealing with Durant, should he return in time, and the Nets’ subpar bigs against the league’s best defensive center. Plus, the idea that the Jazz, hailing from a significantly smaller media market, are less established and unknown – a complete fallacy, of course – will play into the intrigue around them down the stretch.

If that weren’t enough, the Nets are one of the league’s hottest teams, having won eight of their last 10 games. And the Jazz are even hotter, boasting the league’s best record and winning nine of their last 10. The two teams have played only once this season, an early January affair that resulted in a 34-point Brooklyn win, so there’s still lots of feeling out to be done. Still, this one has NBA Finals preview written all over it.

2. Los Angeles Lakers at New York Knicks, Apr. 12

Upon first glance, it makes little sense to include this matchup with these other high-stakes games. But let’s remember, LeBron James in Madison Square Garden is must-see TV. He dropped 50 points at MSG in 2008, 52 in 2009 and he secured a 32-point triple double in 2010. While James is extremely likely to return next season (and possibly beyond) in an attempt to unseat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, he is currently 36. Any minor tweak can have long lasting implications. So while James still has all of his powers, we can probably agree that LeBron at MSG is an event that supersedes the regular season.

1. Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, May 6th

Lakers/Clippers has been the rivalry in the NBA since the start of the 2019-20 season, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to see it on this list. The rivalry might seem a little watered down due to the fact that they’ll play each other again before May – but this one will be far more important for two reasons. First, while Davis may not return before their Apr. 4 matchup and, if he does, he’s likely to be on a minutes restrictions. Beyond that, it’s entirely unlikely that he doesn’t return prior to this one so seeding – and possibly even the division crown – could be on the line. Granted, in a Los Angeles-Los Angeles, Western Conference Finals, seeding makes no less difference than usual, but it could make all the difference in literally every other playoff scenario. This game is prime time stuff. Think Brooklyn versus New York with actual, real-time ramifications.

The NBA schedule is usually released before the season without much fanfare. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things, and now even the release of the second-half of the season’s schedule is an event. And while it might seem forced to some, this write says the more basketball activities – and ultimately games – the better.

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