The band is back together in Toronto for another go at postseason glory. After re-signing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors bring back two of their top three scorers from last season and look poised to prey on the weak Eastern Conference in an attempt to finally unseat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With some fresh faces in the mix for Toronto, and hopefully full seasons from Lowry and Ibaka to pair with what appears to be the prime version of DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors are about to embark on what looks like their third consecutive 50-win season.
While the continuity and experience are there for the Raptors, will it finally be enough to get over the hump and past the Cavs? Only time will tell.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Toronto brought the gang back this summer to continue trying to take their shot at an NBA championship.
In retaining both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors kept their two biggest weapons alongside star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, effectively keeping their window of competition among the East’s best open. Despite keeping old faces around, the Raptors did manage to add some fresh blood into their equation, hoping to finally break through to the next level. C.J. Miles crosses the border into Toronto after a trade that sent Corey Joseph to the Indiana Pacers. The Raptors also added OG Anunboy in the first round of this year’s draft.
Whether the same core plus a few new sidekicks can help Toronto get passed Cleveland and Boston is still up for debate, and barring catastrophic injuries, probably unlikely. However, the Raptors will still be plenty competitive this season, as they have been for years now.
2nd place — Atlantic Division
— Dennis Chambers
It’s okay if you’ve started to get bored by the Toronto Raptors. There were no splashy moves this summer, which came after yet another uninspiring postseason showing. Kyle Lowry is awesome, and DeMar DeRozan is one of the league’s elite scorers at this point, but neither player has been all that great in the playoffs the last few years. Serge Ibaka doesn’t look as athletic as he did in Oklahoma City, and Jonas Valanciunas doesn’t appear to have much more ceiling to grow into. These guys are what they are at this point, and while the addition of C.J. Miles will help with three-point shooting a bit, there just wasn’t enough change here for me to think bigger things are coming. They’re a high playoff seed in the East, for sure, but it’s hard to expect much out of them in the postseason based on what we’ve seen from them in the recent past.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
— Joel Brigham
In what should be remembered as a fairly excellent summer, the Raptors were able to ride both sides of the competitive fence. They retained Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka – both on sizable contracts, but nothing ridiculous, and with only three-year terms to match the remaining guaranteed time on DeMar DeRozan’s deal. This means they’ve clearly identified this three-year period as their competitive window. They’ve also retained young talent on the roster, such as Norm Powell, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and 2017 draftee O.G. Anunoby. They’re set for both the present and future.
Whether the present side is enough to get them over the hump and into an NBA Finals remains to be seen, and feels unlikely for now. The Raptors did add shooter C.J. Miles, but they also lost both Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll. Unless the playoffs bring some new answers for the Clevelands and Bostons of the world, they could be in roughly the same competitive spot a year from now.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
— Ben Dowsett
After clocking “only” 51 wins last season, the Raptors saw a fairly impressive streak come to an end—it was the first time since the conclusion of the 2011 season that the team failed to increase their prior season’s win total.
The team also saw their three-year reign atop the Atlantic Division come to a halt, as the Celtics managed to finish two games ahead of them in the standings.
At this point, most people believe that the Raptors have peaked, and I’d tend to agree. DeMar DeRozan remains one of the more underrated shooting guards in the league, and at 28 years old, he probably hasn’t played his best basketball yet. The same can’t be said of Kyle Lowry, however, as he will turn 32 years old in March. The most interesting thing to see as it relates to the Raptors is the extent to which the minutes created by DeMarre Carroll’s trade to Brooklyn impacts some of the younger players on the roster. If rookie OG Anunoby hits the ground running or if Jonas Valanciunas or Norman Powell take a significant stride forward and become stars, then maybe the Raptors will have a chance to fight for something other than a berth in the second round of the playoffs.
If not, though, we’ve likely already seen the best of this group, and we’ve likely seen their reign atop the Atlantic end.
2nd place — Atlantic Division
— Moke Hamilton
The Raptors did well to retain their most important players this offseason and structure their contracts in a way that allows Toronto to go in a different direction in three years, should it become necessary. For now, the Raptors seem destined to remain a tier below the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. The loss of Patrick Patterson may have more of an impact on Toronto than most predict, but the addition of C.J. Miles will add some much needed floor-spacing. Toronto is going to have to hope that some of its younger players have improved enough so that they can effectively fill the roles that veterans like DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph , Patterson and P.J.Tucker held last season. Even if the Raptors’ younger players step up, it won’t amount to anything unless Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan find a way to perform at their usual levels during the postseason. For a variety of reasons, both star guards have struggled to make the kind of impact that are expected of them in the games that matter most. Until they figure out how to overcome this, the Raptors can’t hope to compete with Boston or Cleveland, regardless of how well the rest of their players perform. Also, can we please get more playing time and a bigger role for Norman Powell?
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
— Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player – DeMar DeRozan
Now in the midst of his prime and coming off of a career year, DeMar DeRozan has separated himself from Kyle Lowry to become the clear-cut top option on offense.
Last season, while Lowry struggled with injuries, DeRozan found himself as the head honcho of the Toronto Raptors’ offense. Scoring a career-high 27.3 points per game was one thing, but DeRozan dominated the ball on offense and turned in a massive 34.3 percent usage rate. Much is known about DeRozan’s inability to connect from downtown, and he shot his worst percentage from beyond the arc last season since 2011-12. However, his ability to cut defenders up in the midrange is unparalleled and slowly, but surely, that skill is becoming a lost art in today’s NBA. But DeRozan makes it work.
With a healthy (and paid) Lowry, plus a few more options that can shoot from outside, DeRozan should be fully capable of replicating his career year this season using the extra lane space at his disposal. If the Raptors expect to trade punches with the big dogs of the Eastern Conference, they’ll need a big year from their star shooting guard.
Top Defensive Player – Jonas Valanciunas
While DeRozan carries the torch for the Raptors on offense, their defensive anchor comes in the form of 7-foot center Jonas Valanciunas.
In the age of small ball and shooting from deep, Valanciunas provides a little blast to the past for the Raptors in the way he uses his large frame to take up space and plug up the middle of the lane. Last season, Valanciunas led Toronto in Defensive Win Shares with three, and was second on the team in Defensive Rating, posting a 105 in that category.
Along with being the team’s anchor defensively, Valanciunas is the Raptors top defensive rebounder as well. So, after the big man does his job in terms of affecting the opponent’s ability to score, he’ll rip down the loose ball as well to turn it back over to the Toronto offense.
With multiple 20-point scorers and capable shooters on the roster up across the border, the defense hinges itself on the 7-footer from Lithuania.
Top Playmaker – Kyle Lowry
For the last five seasons, the Raptors’ top playmaker has been the same guy. And this summer, Toronto made sure that same guy would bear this title for at least three more seasons.
Kyle Lowry is the catalyst behind the Raptors offense that again holds the task of trying to dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers and battle with the Boston Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy.
While battling injury last season limited Lowry to just 60 regular season games allowed DeMar DeRozan to explode his scoring total, the Raptors offense as a whole felt the effects of losing their starting point guard. When Lowry wasn’t on the court for Toronto, their Offensive Rating dropped from an impressive 115.9 down to a 108.1.
Lowry doesn’t just represent the Raptors’ point guard and leader in assists when he’s on the court for Toronto; their offense as a whole surges from his ability to score efficiently at all levels and operate the unit as a well-oiled machine.
Top Clutch Player – DeMar DeRozan
As the Raptors’ alpha dog on offense, it’s generally a good bet to place the ball in DeRozan’s hands come crunch time as well.
Last year, as noted, DeRozan had a lot of time to himself on offense. As a result, he logged a decent amount of minutes in the “clutch time” of games. Of the 41 games that DeRozan and the Raptors were in a “clutch” situation (either the 4th quarter or overtime with less than five minutes left with either team’s lead being less than five), Toronto was 22-19. DeRozan himself managed 3.6 points in 3.4 minutes of those particular situations, good for 14th best in the entire NBA.
When the game is on the line for the Raptors, their best bet is to get it to their best scorer and let him go win the game.
The Unheralded Player – Norman Powell
When the star backcourt players for Toronto need to catch their breath, Norman Powell is waiting in the wings to pick up their slack.
Playing just 18 minutes a game last season, Powell managed to score 8.4 points per game and provided the Raptors with a much-needed scoring punch off of the bench. In just his second season, Powell saw a serious increase in action as he began to consistently prove his worth in the Raptors’ second unit.
Without the name recognition or the big contract that some of the other Toronto backcourt members possess, Powell tends to fly under some radars in terms of attention paid to. However, with another year and a bigger role under his belt, the Raptors’ bench scoring dynamo could see himself get even more opportunities this season. Judging from the track record, Powell will be right there to produce when called upon, too.
Best New Addition – C.J. Miles
Coming over in a trade from the Indiana Pacers, C.J. Miles represents the Raptors best new piece this season.
With Miles’ ability to score from the outside and play multiple wing positions, he adds a level of versatility and relief to Lowry and DeRozan that they didn’t have last season. Playing alongside two potent scorers like the backcourt duo in Toronto, Miles should be able to hoist open jumpers on more than a few occasions this season. After shooting 41.3 percent in Indiana last year running beside Paul George, there’s cause for belief that Miles can provide similar consistency up north.
While the Raptors posted one of the best offensive ratings in the league last season, they still were relatively average when it came to shooting three-pointers. As the rest of the NBA begins to adopt the long-ball mentality, Miles is the perfect addition to a Raptors team that is looking to make a deep playoff run.
— Dennis Chambers
WHO WE LIKE
1. Masai Ujiri
For another year, the Raptors’ general manager has kept the team relevant among the league’s powerhouse clubs. By signing Kyle Lowry to an extension, bringing back Serge Ibaka, acquiring the likes of C.J. Miles and drafting OG Anunoby, Ujiri allowed his franchise another season to make a deep playoff run.
Instead of bolting from beyond the border to the New York Knicks front office opening, Ujiri stayed put to man the fort he’d built into a legitimate contender in the East. And instead of letting some of his core players walk, Ujiri ponied up the necessary cash to keep the wheel turning in Toronto for at least a few more years.
Ujiri may never become the architect of a team that wins a title in Toronto, but he for sure has been the builder of one of the most successful stretches in franchise history.
2. O.G. Anunoby
Before tearing his ACL during his sophomore season at Indiana, O.G. Anunoby was regarded as a potential lottery pick in last June’s NBA Draft. Instead, he wound up falling due to injury and the Raptors snatched him up with the No. 23 pick.
If Anunoby returns to form though, he could present himself as an important perimeter option defensively for the Raptors. Standing at 6-foot-8, Anunoby measures out a 7-foot-2 wingspan, making his length and athletic explosiveness a combination that’s hard to get around. As a freshman at Indiana, Anunoby was responsible for guarding Jamal Murray during a NCAA Tournament matchup. The Hoosiers won that game, and Anunoby forced Murray to shoot 1-of-9 from beyond the arc.
Anunoby is a project, and coming off of injury doesn’t help that, but if he can put the health concerns behind him and develop the way Toronto is hoping he can, Anunoby could potentially wind up as the steal of the 2017 draft.
3. Dwane Casey
Dwane Casey has been responsible for shaping the Raptors into the contender that they have been over the last four years. While Ujiri has consistently placed upgrades and quality pieces in Casey’s hands, he’s ultimately been the one in charge of putting them all together to make it work.
And he’s done just that.
Over the course of the last four seasons, Casey’s lowest win total with Toronto is 48 wins, back in 2013-14. Since then, and coupled with the emergence of DeRozan and his pairing with Lowry, the Raptors have been a force to be reckoned with amongst the teams in the East (not named the Cavaliers). While Casey has never gotten the Raptors over that final hump — let’s be honest, there’s not much he can do about LeBron James — he’s consistently taken his team deep into the postseason and made them a more than watchable product.
What the Raptors have in Casey is a leader who is more than capable of meshing egos, game-planning at an elite level, and placing his team and players in a position to compete night in, and night out.
4. Norman Powell
The proverbial underdog on the Raptors squad, Norman Powell put himself on the map last postseason.
After turning in a strong sophomore campaign, Powell was asked to step into the starting lineup amid injury problems for five games during Toronto’s last playoff run, and boy did he answer the call. In just 25.2 minutes a night during the playoffs, Powell managed to score 11.7 points and shot a more than impressive 44.1 percent from downtown, giving the Raptors another scoring option that they needed with an ailing Lowry.
While on the court for the Raptors in the playoffs, Powell helped the team spike their Offensive Rating from 101.7 to 107.9. At just 23 years old, and through only two NBA seasons, Powell performed beyond his years for Toronto in the playoffs.
Heading into this season, Powell seems to have already earned his stripes and could be in position for another jump in production this season. Should he continue to develop, the Raptors may have another dangerous weapon to pair with their star-studded backcourt.
— Dennis Chambers
SALARY CAP 101
The Raptors are flirting with the NBA’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Currently, they’re slightly over by a small margin, invested heavily in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Of the four, Valanciunas is the most likely to be moved, if Toronto can find a suitor. The team is hard-capped at $125.3 million, which may get in the way of the team utilizing their Bi-Annual Exception of $3.3 million. Similarly, Toronto won’t be able to use most of their sizable trade exceptions ($11.8 and $7.6 million) until next July.
Looking ahead, the Raptors project to be over next summer’s salary cap (estimated at $102 million). Both Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo are eligible for extensions, with an October 17 deadline. The team also needs to decide on 2018-19 options on Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam.
— Eric Pincus
For a team that’s coming off of their fourth straight playoff run, the Raptors are loaded with experience. Simply put, they’ve got a bunch of guys that have been there before and know what it takes to grind out the long NBA season and get themselves to May basketball.
With a core of DeRozan, Lowry, Ibaka, and Valanciunas, Toronto has guys in place that have experienced deep postseason runs. In a year where there could be some turnover of new teams at the bottom of the playoff standings, the Raptors could find themselves in a matchup with some fresh blood that may be too green to handle the moment.
What the Raptors do so well, especially in that aforementioned playoff scenario, is getting teams to commit fouls, shooting fouls in particular. Last season, Toronto was the best team in the league when it came to free throws per field goal attempt, where they averaged .233 per shot. By possessing the ability to wear down opponents and get them into foul trouble while simultaneously getting the opportunity for free points, the Raptors have a unique skill that will benefit them greatly come the postseason.
— Dennis Chambers
Unfortunately for the Raptors, what they have in experience they lack in any real depth. Today’s NBA calls for its most elite contenders to have three, maybe even four, star players. Toronto has two bonafide stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Serge Ibaka is a nice player, but he’s no star.
Last season, the Raptors had just four players average double-figures (not counting Terrence Ross who now plays in Orlando). Those scorers weren’t even spread out, either. DeRozan averaged 27 points, Lowry 22, Ibaka scored 14, and Jonas Valanciunas pitched in 12 points a night. After that, it drops off the Raptors. Trying to beat teams like Cleveland and Boston who are going to have a bevy of players who can drop 20 points in a blink of an eye is going to be a challenge should either one of Toronto’s star guards have an off-shooting night.
Along with their lack of star power, the Raptors are an average three-point shooting team at best, and in today’s league that’s just not good enough. Last season, Toronto ranked 21st in three-pointers made and 22nd in attempts. Luckily for them, their efficiency in taking those shots was decent, with a team average of 36.3 percent. With Lowry back at full health and the addition of C.J. Miles, hopefully, the Raptors can improve their outside shooting. Otherwise, they may not be able to produce those quick big-time runs the rest of the league seems to be adopting.
— Dennis Chambers
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Toronto Raptors finally get themselves over the hill with their current core and past the Cleveland Cavaliers?
How do I say this nicely? No.
Listen, while the Toronto Raptors are a very good basketball team, they lack some of the key ingredients to truly break through to that next level. Unfortunately for them, there’s not much they can do about it. They don’t have the cap space or the assets to acquire that crucial third-star player, and the duo of DeRozan and Lowry isn’t quite good enough to hang banners in Air Canada Centre.
More than anything though, it’s just bad timing. The Raptors impressive core and stretch of good basketball hits the brick wall otherwise known as LeBron James year after year. Sometimes, no matter what you do, it’ll never be enough to take down one of the great ones.
— Dennis Chambers
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.