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NBA Sunday: Danny Ainge Deserves Credit

Since trading Paul Pierce, Danny Ainge has done everything right. Signing Al Horford is just the latest example.

Moke Hamilton

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The Boston Celtics haven’t won a playoff series since 2012—the year they took the Miami HEAT to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Piece by piece, the team began splitting up. Ray Allen left for Miami and, the following summer, after the team lost to the New York Knicks in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, Danny Ainge parted ways with Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

With Rajon Rondo being the final domino to fall—he was traded in December 2014—Ainge was said to have embarked upon the most proactive rebuilding project we had seen in quite some time.

Now, with the signing of Al Horford—less than two years after trading Rondo—the Celtics will reemerge as a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.

* * * * * *

What July 2016 may be remembered for more than anything else is how a number of impact players in the league changed addresses.

Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan rode off into the sunset while Derrick Rose was traded to New York.

Meanwhile, Al Horford joins a list that features the likes of Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah, each of whom signed with a new team in search of greener pastures and an opportunity to prove himself.

Of them all, one can make the argument that Horford is the acquisition that comes with the least amount of risk, at least from a basketball perspective.

In signing Durant, the Warriors had to rescind Bird rights on a few of their pieces and will begin the 2016-17 season without Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. As much as Stephen Curry’s injury played a major role in the demise of the Warriors during the 2016 NBA Finals, the absence of Bogut in Game 6 and Game 7 was underplayed. He was vital to the Warriors offensive scheming and defensive planning and without him—one of the best passing centers in the league—they will have to make major adjustments. It should also be pointed out that both Stephen Curry and Durant will have to make major adjustments in their respective games to coexist, as will Klay Thompson, who will go from the team’s secondary offensive option to third.

Odds are, things will work out in Oakland, but to overlook the fact that a substantial roll of the dice was taken in signing Durant would be to overlook logic.

Fortunately, for the Celtics, none of those concerns exist with Horford.

* * * * * *

As Joakim Noah was leading Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007, scouts began whispering about one of Noah’s teammates—Horford.

There were a great many that felt that Horford’s gifts meant that he would translate better at the NBA level, and after nine years, it’s difficult to argue. Horford was eventually selected by the Atlanta Hawks at number three, six picks before Noah was selected by the Chicago Bulls at number nine.

Since then, Horford has made four All-Star teams and has played a crucial role in the Hawks qualifying for the playoffs each year since. During his time in Atlanta, the Hawks have won six playoff series and have found consistent success under three different head coaches.

Noah’s team accomplishments are not on par with Horford’s, but that isn’t the major point. What should be understood about Horford is that he is a rare breed in today’s NBA. In the long run, Horford seems destined to be remembered by history in much the same way that Rasheed Wallace and Lamar Odom will be. In each their own right, Wallace and Odom were players whose career statistics and numbers don’t even begin to tell the story of the kind of impact they had on the culture of their respective teams and the role they played in contributing to the win column.

Since Horford began playing internationally with his native Dominican Republic, he quickly earned the reputation of being a hard working player who was more concerned with playing a better team game than his hunt for personal numbers or statistics.

One of Horford’s father’s former teammates on the Dominican National Basketball Team remembers interacting with Horford when he was a young teenager and remembers being sure that he had exactly what it took to excel in the NBA.

Apparently, he was correct.

* * * * * *

In today’s NBA, where winning requires at least three All-Star caliber performers and three above-average bench contributors, building a team capable of winning it all requires the adherence to two main principles. The first is to not allow an irreplaceable asset to leave you for nothing. The Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets each saw Dwight Howard exit without netting them any assets in return. The Thunder have now experienced that with Durant, as well, and in each instance, each franchise has been set back. Ainge managed to avoid this by dealing Rondo for value. Among the items returned to him from the Dallas Mavericks were Jae Crowder (who has since emerged as a vital rotation piece for Brad Stevens) and what ended up being the number 17 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. That pick was used on Frenchman Guerschon Yabusele. Yabusele will play in the Chinese Basketball Association for the 2016-17 season, but at just 20 years old, he is exactly the type of asset that a young and toiling team like the Celtics could use.

The second principle is one that the New York Knicks learned through experience—don’t sacrifice your assets for a player that could be had outright with cap space in the near future. When it became common knowledge that Carmelo Anthony had eyes for the New York Knicks, he and the franchise played a real life game of chicken wherein, under pressure from James Dolan, the Knicks opted to pay a king’s ransom for Anthony. In that trade, the Knicks gave away almost every asset they had in the cupboard—Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Eddy Curry, Anthony Randolph, two second round picks, a first round pick and cash.

While the Knicks did receive some good rotation pieces in return, it’s clear that trading for Anthony set them back. It has been more than five years since Anthony became a Knick and in that duration, the Knicks have won one playoff series and missed the playoffs for three consecutive years.

Now, imagine for a moment that the Knicks would have signed Anthony outright after the 2011 lockout had subsided. Other than Wilson Chandler, each of the aforementioned trade chips would have been with the Knicks and those pieces could have been used to build around Anthony, instead of being sacrificed to acquire him. Had things played out a little differently, Chris Paul would have likely ended up a Knick and it would not have taken Anthony five whole years to have a fairly young, exciting core built around him.

It would appear that Ainge saw the mistakes of other franchises and opted to not repeat them. He maximized the value that he was able to get in return for Garnett, Pierce and Rondo and have used them to rebuild his team. He got incredibly fortunate with Horford and will now add him to a young core that is reminiscent of the 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons. Those Pistons were renowned for being a sum that was greater than its individual pieces, and it was something that each member of the team realized.

The culture that Ainge has built in Boston and the pieces that he has accumulated there are oddly reminiscent of something we have seen before. So, to say that things are looking up for the Celtics would be a bit of an understatement.

* * * * * *

As it stands, the Celtics only have four players under contract for the 2017-18 season: Al Horofrd, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas. They have a team option on Marcus Smart that is likely to be exercised, but next summer, when a ton of superstars will be free agents, the Celtics could have in excess of $50 million available to them under the salary cap.

On a personal level, it has been difficult to see Paul Pierce wearing other jerseys. He never looked quite right in Brooklyn’s black or in the red, white and blue of the Washington Wizards. As his career appears to be coming to a close as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, objectively speaking, based on what has transpired in Boston over the past few years, it is difficult to argue against the fact that Ainge has set the franchise up for success in both the immediate and distant future.

In all likelihood, Horford is just the first big catch of the post-Paul Pierce era in Boston. Just think: if Russell Westbrook decided he wanted to move East, there are few teams that would make as much sense for him as the Celtics.

It has been four years since the Celtics have won a playoff series, but in all likelihood, that is a streak that will end this year. And thanks to some prudent management and the signing of a low-risk piece who puts winning above all else, over the next four years, the Celtics are likely to experience some major success.

Despite being across the country in Los Angeles, even Paul Pierce can see that.

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New Orleans Pelicans and Cliff Alexander Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The New Orleans Pelicans and free agent forward Cliff Alexander have agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

The addition of Alexander will give New Orleans 20 players heading into training camp.

Alexander spent last season playing 40 combined games with the Erie Bayhawks and Long Island Nets in the G-League, where he averaged 15.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game. Alexander also shot 52 percent from the field and blocked one shot per game.

The 21-year-old forward was a McDonald’s All-American and won MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic in 2014 before attending Kansas University. Alexander played 28 games as a Jayhawk and averaged 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 17.6 minutes per game before declaring for the draft.

After going undrafted, Alexander played in eight games for Portland during the 2015-16 season and received a 10-day contract from the Brooklyn Nets in April.

For more information on the salary cap and roster situation for the New Orleans Pelicans, click here.

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Atlanta Hawks and John Jenkins Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The Atlanta Hawks and free agent guard John Jenkins have agreed to a training camp deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

The addition of Jenkins will give Atlanta 20 players heading into training camp.

Jenkins drew interest from several other teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks.

The 26-year-old guard began his career in Atlanta after the Hawks selected him 23rd overall out of Vanderbilt in the 2012 draft. For his career, Jenkins has averaged 5.1 points in 12.8 minutes per game while shooting 45 percent from the field overall and 36 percent from beyond the arc.

For more information on Atlanta’s salary cap and roster situation, click here.

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NBA

Golden State Warriors 2017-18 Season Preview

The Golden State Warriors remain the cream of the NBA crop, even after several franchises went all in this offseason. Can anyone really beat the Warriors in a seven-game series? We look at the Warriors in this final NBA season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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After losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors were highly favored to win the 2016-17 championship with the offseason addition of Kevin Durant. In the Warriors’ third straight Finals match up with Cavaliers, Golden State, with plenty of help from Durant, over-matched Cleveland in last season’s NBA Finals. This year, with Durant taking a pay cut, the team did a masterful job of bringing back just about all of the key players from last year’s championship run. Now the team is primed to wreak havoc on the league once again.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It’s almost comical at this point how the best team in basketball keeps getting better.

After adding Kevin Durant last summer, and then completely decimating the entire NBA, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, all the Golden State Warriors did was go out and add two players in Omri Casspi and Nick Young who almost perfectly fit their brand of “you’re not out-shooting us” basketball.

The powers of the NBA all shuffled around their rosters this season in hopes of trying to assemble some type of “anti-Warriors” remedy, and when it’s all said and done, those moves will be all for naught. Expect Golden State to ride their legendary roster to another NBA title.

1st place – Pacific Division

– Dennis Chambers

What do you need me to say about the Warriors that you don’t already know? Two of the best five players in the league are on the roster, as well as arguably the top defensive player in the league and a cast of reserves that fit perfectly with the superstars running the show. Even JaVale McGee is shooting three pointers now. The Warriors are unstoppable and in some ways even better than the team that won a championship a few months ago. It’s going to be a long season for every other team in the league. They’re all playing for second place.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

The road to the NBA Finals obviously goes through Oakland, especially after the club managed to re-sign JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Nick Young will give the team some additional firepower, but they probably don’t even need it.

So long as these guys stay healthy, they’ll probably find their way to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, and with the Clippers having lost Chris Paul, the Warriors should have a relatively easy time winning the Pacific Division for the fourth straight year.

I’m usually longer-winded than that, but I’m not sure much else needs to be said about the Warriors.

1st place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

At this point, what’s really left to say? The Warriors had arguably the best basketball team ever assembled last season, and that was while dealing with minor role concerns and dealing with Kevin Durant’s midseason injury. Then they went out and improved this offseason, adding the likes of Omri Casspi and Nick Young as perfect end-of-roster pieces. Combine that with what most would expect will be even better fit and chemistry across the roster this season, and the Warriors stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league even with several squads making big power moves to try and bridge the gap. Anything but a third title in four years will fail to do justice to the incredible, historical talent on this roster.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

The best team in the NBA went out and retained key players and signed Omri Casspi and Nick Young to round out the roster. As has been the case for several years now, the Warriors enter the upcoming season with the most overall talent, improved chemistry, good health and every ingredient necessary to win an NBA championship. Several other contenders pulled off some impressive moves to try and bridge the gap between themselves and the Warriors, but Golden State still holds the advantage against every other team in the league. So long as the Warriors are playing up to their potential, or anywhere near it, the other contenders are out of luck. Unless the Warriors face some serious injuries this upcoming season or some internal discord, we should expect them to win their third championship in four seasons.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant

Don’t knock me for not clearly choosing a single player here. The individual excellence of both Stephen Curry and Durant cannot be stated enough. While Curry’s statistics did take a bit of a step back from the year prior, he still led the way for the Warriors last season. Last year, Curry led the team in points per game (by a slim margin), three-pointers made, assists and usage percentage. Keep in mind, Durant was excellent but Curry still commanded the offense for the most part. However, Durant was right on Curry’s heels and in the playoffs actually slightly surpassed Curry in points per game. In addition, Durant remains as tough to cover one-on-one as anyone in the league. Regardless, both players are unbelievable individual talents and would easily be the top offensive player on just about any other team.

Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green

For the foreseeable future, Draymond Green has this category on lockdown for the Warriors. Green uses a combination of length, strength, timing and sneaky athleticism to smother his opponents. Green’s versatility allows him to guard a range of positions in the post and switch to guard guards and forwards on the wing effectively as well. His versatility is the lynchpin of the Warrior’s vaunted death line up that uses Green at center and brings Iguodala off the bench to close games. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year race came down to Green and Utah center Rudy Gobert. In the end, Green’s versatility as well as his ability to guard the rim effectively made him the top choice in voters’ minds. Expect Green to be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year this upcoming season as well.

Top Playmaker: Stephen Curry

When the Warriors added Durant to the roster, many wondered, even for a team as unselfish as the Warriors, how would Stephen Curry and Durant manage to share the ball? That question was answered when Curry took a step back and allowed Durant’s individual offensive brilliance to shine. Curry’s points per game dropped (30.1 to 25.3) as did his usage percentage (32.0 to 29.2). Curry’s individual excellence continued regardless as he remained the Warriors’ top distributor (followed closely by Draymond Green). In addition, Curry garners so much attention that his simple presence on the court creates more room for teammates to operate. Curry’s ability to pull up from virtually anywhere on the court and willingness to make the extra pass to teammates makes him a nightmare to cover and the Warriors’ top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry

Once again, you could give this award to either of the Warrior’s two best offensive players. Curry dominates most of the advanced statistics when breaking down clutch play, defined as the last minutes of a game within 5 point or less, per nba.com. However, based on Durant’s size, length and ability to get off a shot in isolation, he makes for an excellent clutch player in just about any situation. Either is an extraordinary option and their play in crunch time continues to be critical to their championship fortunes.

The Unheralded Player: Klay Thompson

Klay Thompson is a phenomenal talent who does a number of things well. He’s an unbelievable three-point shooter and defends elite point guards to alleviate the pressure on Curry. For a team with two elite offensive players, having Thompson as your third option on offense is just unfair to the rest of the league. Thompson lights up the league with his ability to hit outside shots without needing to dominate the ball. Don’t just count on Thompson to score as he takes pride in his defense and his ability to lockdown on defense.

Best New Addition: Omri Casspi

Overall, the Warriors have had an unbelievable stretch of luck when it comes to injuries, which will hopefully rub off on Omri Casspi this season. With his length, versatility and the ability to stretch the floor, he can slide into either forward spot. His addition strengthens the team’s ability to survive the grind of the regular season and lessen the minutes of the starters. Casspi fills a lot of needs for several teams that are looking to challenge the Warriors, so simply keeping him away from those teams is an added benefit to his signing.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr continues to be the perfect coach for this team. He helps to keep the players focused on their individual roles within the larger team structure and has so far prevented major dissension and discord. Kerr took the team that Mark Jackson previously coached and helped to transform the team into champions. Credit is deserved for his part in successfully orchestrating the move of former All-Star Iguodala to a bench role and meshing Durant’s individual brilliance with the Warriors’ pre-existing, pass-happy offense. Kerr has missed significant time due to his botched spinal surgery, but if he can manage his health, count on Kerr to keep the Warriors a well-oiled machine.

2. Nick Young

Nick Young is a player that has had an up-and-down career. Credit Young for carving out a relatively successful career as a journeyman three-point shooting wing. Keeping Young focused and unlocking his full range of talents has been difficult for many organizations. The Warriors are up next and will give the 11th year pro an opportunity to do what he does best — knocking down three-pointers. As a career 37.6 percentage three-point shooter, Young will have a chance to get more open looks from distance than he has previously in his career. Like JaVale McGee, Young will also have a chance to transform his reputation if he proves to be a disciplined, effective contributor to a championship team.

3. Jordan Bell

What’s the perfect piece for a rebuilding team in need of young talent to build around? Jordan Bell, selected with the 38th pick in this year’s draft), is just that sort of player. The Warriors acquired the pick from the Chicago Bulls for cash consideration. The Bulls loss is the Warriors gain as hopes are high for the young talent from the University of Oregon. The Warriors will take their time with the 6-foot-9 forward and hope that he will build on and develop his defensive talents and one day be a reliable contributor for Golden State.

4. Shaun Livingston

Shaun Livingston is many years removed from the knee injury that nearly ended his professional career. While Livingston has played for nine teams in his career, he continues to be loyal to the Warriors, the team with which he has experienced the most success post-injury. Livingston continues to do whatever the team requires as he slides into either guard slot when needed and provides reliable production from the bench. Opposing backup point guards often get caught being posted up by the lengthy 6-foot-7 guard. Count Livingston as another essential cog who will do whatever it takes to help the Warriors win at all costs.

– James Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Warriors are a major spender at $135.4 million in guaranteed salary, resulting in at least $32 million in luxury taxes. Golden State used its Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to sign Nick Young at $5.2 million for a season. Having re-signed on one-year deals, Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee can block any trades.

Before November, the Warriors need to decide on 2018-19 team options for Kevon Looney and Damian Jones. Next summer, Kevin Durant can opt out again but now the team has his Early Bird Rights and the ability to give him a raise in the $35 million range. The Warriors seem willing to pay for a winner but for how long as luxury taxes grow progressively as the team gradually becomes a repeat offender?

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

This team continues to have everything you could want in a modern NBA team. An electric point guard who is nearly unstoppable, a 3-and-D wing with a killer three-point shot, an unstoppable one-on-one player who can score from anywhere, a dominant and flexible defensive forward who can play center and a defensive wing who is a great glue guy. That’s just the five players that are normally used to close out games. The rest of the roster has a number of key contributors ready to do whatever the team needs. Oh, and they also have a great coach to keep everyone on the same page. With all the pieces a team could want, expect the Warriors to again push a possible record-breaking pace in the regular season on their way to the playoffs and likely the Finals.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The easiest answer here is none. Eventually the injury bug might hit the Warriors but for now they have everything they could want to continue their excellent play. Perhaps some players may lose a sense of urgency in the regular season after breaking records and dominating the last few seasons, though that seems unlikely. On paper, this team is not afflicted by any major weaknesses.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can anyone stop the Warriors?

Other teams continue to make moves to get better. On September 23, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded agreed to terms on a deal to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. With that move, count the Thunder, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and the Cavaliers as the biggest potential obstacles in the Warriors’ path to repeat. One of these teams may beat them, but the Warriors are the heavy favorites and the team most likely to win the championship next year.

– James Blancarte

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