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NBA Sunday: New Warriors, New Identity

Overhauling the rotation and adding Kevin Durant cost the Warriors a lot. Now, they must reinvent themselves.

Moke Hamilton

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As it relates to the Golden State Warriors, the prevailing sentiment is that the rich only got richer by adding Kevin Durant. That perception will be challenged, especially if the Dubs fail to win the Western Conference this season.

And as crazy as that may sound, Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr now know better than anybody.

In the NBA, there are no guarantees.

* * * * * *

When it comes to basketball talents, Kevin Durant is one in a million.

To this point, one could argue that the scoring prowess and gifts he has shown are fairly remarkable for a man his size. Still, in comparison to some of the game’s other historically great scorers—George Gervin, Bernard King and Dominique Wilkins come to mind—you could make the case that Durant is just another. Stephen Curry and LeBron James, on the other hand, have already accomplished some things that will have them remembered as being historically great. They will be remembered for generations to come, especially after they cemented their legacies with championships.

On the other hand, in Oklahoma City, Durant appeared to be headed down the same path as Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. No disrespect to either of them, but if you polled 10 NBA superstars and asked if they’d rather be, say, Paul Pierce or Allen Iverson, the choice would be easy.

For that reason, it really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise when Durant opted to join a team that had dynastic potential. It also shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Warriors—staring at the prospect of adding a talent like Durant—jumped at the opportunity. It’s easy to see why Durant and the Warriors had eyes for each other.

Even more so, after flaming out in the Finals, it was easy to rationalize the decision to obliterate a core that went 140-24 and won back-to-back conference titles and one championship.

Since then, the prevailing sentiment has become that together, Durant and the Warriors ruined the NBA because they will become some sort of insurmountable juggernaut.

Sound familiar?

Just six years ago, much of the same was said when LeBron James decided to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. To a fair amount of basketball onlookers, the central (and very valid) question was how the two would coexist since each preferred to play on the basketball. The other questions about the team revolved around their lack of size and around the ability of the green Erik Spoelstra to tie it all together. In basketball years, six years is an eternity, but lest we forget, so many things had to go right for the HEAT to become a dominant force.

Their progression should serve as a wake-up call to everyone that has even a casual interest in the NBA. No matter whose names are on the back of the jerseys, winning at the highest level requires a number of things, none of which are guaranteed to anybody.

The players need to care about winning more than all else. The players need to trust one another and their head coach and, most importantly, they need to remain healthy over the long haul.

Having gone just 10-9 over their first 19 games together, LeBron’s HEAT wouldn’t even score the best record in the Eastern Conference in their first season together. And while they would advance to the NBA Finals, both James and Wade would admit to you that, along the way, they wondered if they’d made a mistake in joining forces.

James and Wade have long been close and it was during their time together the ensuing summer that Wade told James that he would be happy with allowing James to become the team’s alpha. Basketball is about sacrifice, especially when dealing with superstars who are playing for legacies. That Wade loved James as a friend probably made wanting to sacrifice for him that much easier.

That was one of the few things that had to happen for the HEAT to become who they were. Aside from that, James had to develop into a low-post threat. Chris Bosh had to simultaneously develop into a three-point threat and an All-NBA level defender. Spoelstra had to have the courage to stand up to James when the two disagreed over usage and philosophy, and on top of all of that, the HEAT needed the Bulls and Pacers to buckle under the pressure while the likes of Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen thrived under it.

Just because they did doesn’t mean the Warriors will. Mind you, there are a few “super teams” that weren’t able to get it done.

* * * * * *

The teams that fare best tend to be those with continuity and chemistry. Of this, the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers are exhibit A and B.

And while the Warriors may have added the biggest fish in Durant, en route to signing him, the franchise parted ways with Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights and Brandon Rush, mostly out of salary cap necessity.

Collectively, those six players were vital to the success of the team and are effectively replaced in the rotation by Durant, David West and Zaza Pachulia. Under Kerr, the Warriors have had strength in numbers, evidenced by Kerr’s employing a 10-man rotation. That’ll change this season, as the once 10-man rotation will likely feature eight players, at most. Also relevant? The Warriors traded key cogs for pieces that are older, less athletic, less capable at spacing the floor and less dominant on the defensive end. That’s not exactly ideal.

What is ideal, though, would be for these Warriors to lose a few more games between now and the All-Star break. Last season, beginning shortly after they improved to 11-0 after defeating the Brooklyn Nets in a November game, the questions began. As the season progressed, they got more plentiful. During All-Star Weekend, all anyone wanted to talk about was the fact that the 48-4 Warriors had a serious chance to break a record which seemed unbreakable. In response, the Warriors made no secret of the fact that they wanted it, too.

There’s no way to prove that their pursuit of immortal greatness had any impact on their falling short to the Cavaliers. To be quite honest, the health (or lack thereof) of Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut were probably bigger factors.

But that season-long pursuit was emotionally taxing and also gave the Warriors something other than simply winning a championship to think about. And as to not be hypocritical, now is a good time to point out that several times in this space, it was argued that the Warriors could and should pursue the record.

Still, winning 73 games and walking away without the championship is the equivalent of speeding out in front in a 400-meter sprint, only to stumble, fall and lose with 10 meters remaining.

After losing their season opener to the Spurs, one thing we already know about the Warriors is that they won’t have an opportunity to challenge the NBA record the team set last season, winning their first 24 games. That may actually be a good thing, though.

Between now and All-Star weekend, as the team attempts to rediscover its identity, learn its defensive strengths and reinvent itself to maximize its new personnel, a few more losses are likely to come. In the end, these Warriors aren’t likely to win 70 games and they probably shouldn’t even be favored to win the regular season Western Conference title.

But in the end, that’s okay.

As the entire world learned last year, for these Warriors—and especially with Kevin Durant on board—there are some things far more important than regular season success.

For now, the Warriors need to reinvent themselves, find a new identity and avoid joining the long list of superteams that couldn’t get it done. Because the truth is, they have a lot of work to do.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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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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