Ever since taking hold of the Golden State Warrior reins in 2014, Steve Kerr has had an embarrassment of riches to work with.
The mainstays—a two-time NBA MVP in Stephen Curry, a three-time All-Defensive first-teamer in Draymond Green, a four-time All-Star in Klay Thompson—got their first taste of gold in year one of Kerr’s tenure.
Sprinkle in Kevin Durant, a former regular season MVP and two-time Finals MVP, to sweeten the original pot and it’s resulted in two more NBA titles (three in total). And, with DeMarcus Cousins added to the mix, the team may end up with its fourth in five seasons.
Those are the sexy names, the media darlings and the star talent—but there are two players who have been there since the inception of this dynasty that don’t receive nearly enough credit.
Mention Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston to Kerr and you’ll hear him rave.
“In many ways the unsung heroes of our team over the last four years,” Kerr said of his veteran pairing.
As the “backbone” of Golden State’s second unit, Iguodala and Livingston have made their biggest impact through pestering opposing offenses. Having the luxury of tall wings with long arms, Kerr experimented with a tactic, which, at the time, hadn’t been implemented before. To say it worked would be an understatement.
“They represent a lot of what we’ve done defensively, in that, we put a bunch of 6-7 guys who could switch,” Kerr said. “And Shaun and Andre were two of the biggest reasons we decided to go with that strategy because they were great with that stuff.
“So I’m just lucky to have coached them and to continue to coach them. They still are an enormous part of what we do, on and off the floor.”
Father Time Is Undefeated
Both Iguodala and Livingston were selected in the top 10 of the 2004 NBA Draft, with the former being older than the latter.
Though Iguodala’s 36,013 career minutes essentially doubles that of Livingston’s total, the younger one feels about the same age as him.
Battles with injuries early in his career and putting in extra hard work to continue playing at 33 years old have admittedly worn on Livingston.
In late November, Iguodala hinted to NBC Sports Bay Area about retiring within the next few seasons. Is it fair to say Livingston is in the same boat?
“I mean, honestly who knows?” Livingston told Basketball Insiders as Warrior trainer Drew Yoder wrapped a bag of ice around his knees. “A year, couple years? But I mean, it’s coming sooner than later. Handwriting is on the wall.”
Named Mr. Basketball for Illinois in 2004 and a McDonald’s All-American standout at Peoria Central High School, Livingston was a top point guard prospect in the nation. Instead of attending Duke, he decided to enter the draft, where the Los Angeles Clippers took him fourth overall.
Livingston’s stint with the Clippers went well when he played. The issue was his body wouldn’t allow him to stay on the floor.
As a rookie, a dislocated right patella and torn shoulder cartilage sidelined Livingston for 52 games. The following year, he missed the first 21 games of the season with a lower back injury.
What happened on Feb. 26, 2007, however, was a tragic moment no basketball fan will ever forget.
On a fastbreak drive to the basket, Livingston lost his balance after a layup attempt and landed awkwardly. Writhing in pain, he had broken his left leg, dislocated the same knee, severely sprained his MCL and tore his ACL, PCL and meniscus—all in one life-changing sequence.
It was so devastating that Livingston almost lost his leg. He had to re-learn how to walk. Months upon months of rehabilitation were necessary to do so.
But Livingston was determined to return. Sure enough, in June 2008, he was cleared to resume basketball activities.
His contract with Los Angeles had already expired and he didn’t receive a qualifying offer, so he became an unrestricted free agent.
While he was blessed to be playing at all, the road was still rocky for Livingston from there. The Miami HEAT offered him his first contract post-injury. He only played four games for the organization before he was sent to the Memphis Grizzlies and subsequently waived the same day.
Whatever it was—a D-League stint, 10-day contracts, trades—Livingston continued to grind, playing for seven organizations in six years. He found footing at the end of 2013 in Cleveland and continued the momentum the next season in Brooklyn, where he started a career-best 54 games and averaged 26 minutes per contest.
Livingston’s fight to not only keep his career afloat, but also make an impact in the process attracted the Warriors’ front office towards him. Three championship seasons later—the rest is history.
“Just being able to get to a position to where I can contribute, and for me personally, that was my goal,” Livingston said of what kept him going. “My goal was to continue to get better and be on better teams.
“I felt like if I was on better teams and able to contribute to a winning team, I felt like I was doing something right because they wanted me.”
So how will Livingston look back on his career when it is all said and done?
“I’ll be pretty proud of the fact that I was able just to stick with my career,” Livingston said. “I didn’t give up on myself.
“It’s just something to hang my hat on. A part of my character. It’s who I am more than anything, not the kind of player I was. It’s more about who I am as a person. That means more to me than anything I could do on the court.”
Who’s Up Next In The Bay
Of course, the show must go on in Golden State once Livingston decides it’s time to retire. Luckily for the franchise, they have a ton of promising players on deck.
Warrior guards Quinn Cook and Jacob Evans, along with young frontcourt players like Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell and Damian Jones, are the future. Some of them are getting meaningful minutes already, while the others are observing and preparing themselves.
“I mean, those guys are grinders,” Livingston told Basketball Insiders. “They’ve worked their way to this position, now it’s about getting better. It doesn’t stop once you’re here. They haven’t ‘made’ anything. It’s just about getting better and continuing to help the team grow.”
As soon as the subject of growing talent was brought up, Livingston loudly responded with a stern voice: “LOONEY.”
“I mean that’s a perfect example,” Livingston said. “He’s our most important big right now with Draymond [Green] out, know what I mean? ‘Cause of what he brings to the table and he knows how to play. He’s always in the right spot.
“So that’s the progression of him being here these years and watching, learning from the vets – watching Andre [Iguodala], watching Draymond. And now he’s one of the main core guys that has to be on the floor.”
Player development is an element of Golden State’s organization that hasn’t really been talked about all that much, but has certainly been impactful on the depth of the roster.
Just look at when Curry went down with an injury—Cook had to step in and start, while two-way player Damion Lee supplanted those bench minutes.
Or with Green and, recently, Jones being out now, consider the job Looney, McKinnie and Bell have done filling the void.
“It’s important for every organization to grow from within and to develop young players, guys who may be new to the league and put into complementary roles,” Kerr said.
“We work really hard with our guys who are in that situation and I think they’ve made great strides. But it’s critical. You have to constantly be thinking about your entire roster.”
Durant insists that player development is the main focus of the league and has been an integral part of Golden State’s reign as champions.
“Obviously when you win, it’s always about the trophy or the guys that help you get the trophy,” Durant told Basketball Insiders. “But you’ve got a lot of young guys in our organization that work extremely hard every day. That’s the core of the league. That’s just the foundation of the league, is player development.
“It’s a next man up league and you’ve got an opportunity to play or get minutes, shots and you want to take full advantage. So everybody’s putting in that work just in case their number’s called.”
And if you want to know who’s next up for the Warriors, both Livingston and Kerr agree that it’s Evans.
Focus On The Season At Hand
While looking at the past and pondering the future can be on Livingston’s mind, he is 100 percent locked in on what’s happening in the present.
Golden State’s record is 17-9, good for fourth place in an extremely tight Western Conference at the beginning of December. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster season for the back-to-back defending NBA champions.
“Keeping guys’ body language, keeping their spirit right, that’s pretty important,” Livingston told Basketball Insiders of powering through.
There has been a bunch of injuries to key players, reported discord between certain guys in the locker and inconsistent effort game-to-game. Basketball Insiders asked what needs improvement on the court.
“I think it’s our defense, but I think that comes from energy and effort,” Livingston said. “I think we have the right group. And part of that is we’re a younger group, so we’ve got some young guys out there that’s feeling their way out.
“But it comes down to energy and effort and sometimes in the regular season, obviously the 82-game schedule catches up to you.”
However, the Warriors are well on their way back. After missing 11 games with a groin injury, Curry has returned to the floor, invigorating the team’s spirit with more than just his talent.
“The fact that he’s the type of player he is only elevates us,” Livingston said. “And then, his presence, as far as just his positivity. He never gets too down on himself. It’s just more about next play mentality and that just always helps coming from your best player.”
Livingston’s shooting numbers are down this year. On the bright side, he is coming off a 3-for-4 night against the Cavs.
He’s not asked to do much scoring with the abundance of talent around him, but when he does, there’s always the bread-and-butter of Livingston’s game—the backdown, turnaround 10-foot jumper.
It’s been a staple to the veteran’s career ever since he’s been in the league and it has served as a dagger to many opponents.
“You always have to try to have a go-to move or something that can get you a bucket when you need it, that you rely on when you may be struggling,” Livingston said. “It’s just about being a threat on the court and that’s really where it comes from.”
Pose a question to Livingston about what makes him who he is as a player, and he’ll tell you that it’s unselfishness—the characteristic that made Livingston so highly sought-after as an 18-year-old.
And that’s why Kerr and Golden State’s organization love him.
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.
NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?
Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.
Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.
It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.
The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.
If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.
In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.
TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.
Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.
For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.
There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.
That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.
Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.
Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.