With the NBA set to release the 2014-15 schedule, you’ll have to forgive those of us admitted basketball junkies for already beginning to obsess over all of the potential storylines, expectations and eventual outcomes of what was truly one of the more active summers we’ve seen in quite some time.
Although it was actually less than two months ago when the San Antonio Spurs won its fifth title in franchise history, it almost seems like an eternity ago at this point. Part of that is because of the fact that San Antonio tends to go about doing things in such a “bring your sneakers and go to work” manner, but we can also attribute it to the fact that we almost went directly into the 2014 NBA Draft and then immediately into the LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony watch.
Once James decided to return to Northeast Ohio, it sent a shock wave throughout the league, which included Anthony determining that staying with the New York Knicks was ultimately his best choice, and kick-started a much-needed resurgence within the Eastern Conference. Even though it appears both men decided on a slimmer-and-trimmer approach as they enter their 12th NBA season, the impact of their decisions could potentially be felt throughout the NBA for years to come.
The Eastern Conference, in particular, should be significantly improved as we move forward, which is particularly settling after a season in 2013-14 that many considered to be one of the single-worst in terms of overall competitive balance. Even though we all feel for the Indiana Pacers and that dedicated fan base –having lost its best two players in Paul George (injury) and Lance Stephenson (free agency) over the span of about 20 days – we also cannot lose sight of just how much the conference will benefit from the overall talent redistribution.
While some may automatically ‘crown’ the Cleveland Cavaliers as the expected Eastern Conference representative for next year’s Finals especially in the wake of the pending transaction that will reportedly send Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a protected first-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for All-Star Kevin Love, teams like the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Miami HEAT, Toronto Raptors and even the Charlotte Hornets should be expected to at least make it interesting.
To be clear, the Cavs will be successful and should be one of the more dynamic offensive teams with James, Love and Kyrie Irving. That said, those of us that tend to respect and appreciate the process of developing team chemistry as well as establishing its defensive identity are at least pumping the brakes in terms of automatically anointing them as the eventual champions. James has the ability to be an all-world defender in his own right, but made it clear during his last couple years in Miami that he is no longer looking to grind throughout 82 games and the accompanying playoff run as his team’s sole ‘Grade A’ defensive player.
Put simply, while Love rebounds exceptionally well, neither he nor Irving would be considered “stellar” defenders by any stretch of the imagination. First-year head coach David Blatt will have the enviable “problem” of having to develop and implement schemes that can mask some of the team’s perceived deficiencies on that end of the court. That could have played into the initial resistance to trading a player like Wiggins – who figures to be a highly effective perimeter defender at this level – but the immediacy of James’ two-year contract, which has an with an opt out clause after just one season, and a desire to fully capitalize on his remaining “prime” years made for a relatively easy decision regardless of Wiggins’ potential.
On a side note, the thought of Ricky Rubio leading a fast break with the likes of Wiggins and Zach LaVine on the wings is something Timberwolves fans should eagerly await. They’ll take a few years to develop, but each of those two electrifying rookies should buy GM Flip Saunders some time to continue reshaping their roster and also have the potential to be highly entertaining along the way, but we digress.
Fresh off his first All-Star appearance and being caught up in a numbers game that resulted in the 23-year-old being cut from Team USA’s roster, John Wall will almost undoubtedly return with a chip on his shoulder. As one of the NBA’s more talented point guards, the less-heralded Wall seems intent to prove his name belongs alongside the best of what is truly one of the more talented crops of floor generals the league has seen.
“Not even (against) just those (Team USA point guards), but the NBA, period,” Wall told CSNWashington.com’s Ben Standig. “I guess I’m overlooked again. I guess I have to prove myself one more time.”
Those words should actually be encouraging for Wizards fans, as they likely mean we’ll be seeing the very best that Wall and his team have to offer, yet again. Their run to the semifinals was impressive, but the Wizards are hungry and looking to build upon last season’s relative success. If their playoff run was any indication of what is to come, it appears Bradley Beal is poised to take the next step and could even make a run at joining his backcourt mate in the All-Star discussion as we move forward. The additions of veterans like Paul Pierce (former Finals MVP), Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair combined with the continued progress of younger players like Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. could give Randy Wittman and his staff the strongest core the Wizards have seen in some time.
Outside of teams like the Bulls, HEAT and Raptors – which should also be highly competitive depending upon relative health – even the perennial cellar dwellers throughout the conference have made significant improvements. The Milwaukee Bucks are far from a contender, but were finally able to land what they hope can be their franchise player for years to come in Jabari Parker. His development would have been fun to watch in itself, but an another layer of intrigue was added for better or worse when the organization decided to jettison former head coach Larry Drew in favor of Jason Kidd shortly after the season ended.
The Orlando Magic have been in the NBA’s lottery in each of the two seasons following Dwight Howard’s exodus, but have gone about stockpiling a ton of young talent in the form of Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton just to name a few. Sooner or later, you would imagine that much young talent would have to pan out, and this could be the season when we witness the start of their journey back into the playoff picture.
The Hornets completed their franchise turnaround last year and look ready to make some noise again with the recently added Stephenson. When you take into consideration their drafting of Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston to go along with the additions of free agent veterans like Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts, the Hornets may have had one of the more productive offseasons around the league.
It will also be interesting to see what Lionel Hollins can do with an aging, but every-bit-as-expensive roster in Brooklyn. They were a playoff team in 2014, but find themselves mired in what ESPNLA’s Max Kellerman refers to as “second-round purgatory” just the same. Deron Williams will eventually return from reportedly having double-ankle surgery, and the team is also looking for a healthy return from starting center Brook Lopez. Hollins’ no-nonsense and defense-oriented approach could be just what was needed for a team that was 29th overall in team rebounds and in the bottom half of the league at defending against both two-point and three-point field goals.
The Knicks remain one of the conference’s biggest question marks, but there are already signs of improvement from a stability and player commitment standpoint. We knew that was to be expected once the franchise turned the reins over to Phil Jackson, and Anthony’s recent request for ‘patience’ and dedication to being in top physical condition have Jackson’s fingerprints all over it. It’s probably an act of futility to even ask such a rabid fan base to temper expectations (1973 was a long time ago), but Knickerbockers diehards should have plenty to be excited for as first-year head coach Derek Fisher and Jackson mold things in their preferred image over the next 12-18 months.
All in all, the conference seems to be in a much better standing as we move forward, which can only be seen as a good thing. After four years of all-out domination from Miami, even if the conference title still goes through James and his Cavs, this is the first time in half a decade where at least five teams have a legitimate shot at representing the East. That type of competitive balance simply wasn’t something any of us could have anticipated as we headed into the summer.
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.