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NBA Daily: Golden State’s Hiatus Is Almost Over

A few blows have put made the Golden State Warriors go on a hiatus since June, but Matt John goes into detail as to why the league should fear them even more when they return.

Matt John

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A couple of days ago, the Warriors recalled Stephen Curry from their G League affiliate in Santa Cruz, which cued loads of jokes from NBA Twitter. Needless to say, the sport is better when it has one of its biggest icons back and healthy following a prolonged stint on the sideline. The Warriors may have lost in his return, but Curry was up to his old tricks again even with such a depleted roster.

It doesn’t even matter either as the Warriors’ season had been decided months ago —  but everyone was just glad to see Curry back. Come to think of it, the NBA needs the Warriors back, period. We need the band back together. We don’t need The Hamptons 5 together again necessarily – and thankfully, we won’t – but let’s remember that it was the pre-Kevin Durant roster that revolutionized the NBA with their emphasis on both spacing and positionless basketball.

Sadly, we’re not going to be able to watch those guys because of all the bad breaks they’ve had dating back to last June. Durant is gone. Klay Thompson is on the shelf until next year. Curry’s played four games total. Since Draymond Green’s specialty is holding it all together, he’s done less than ever this season because there was nothing to hold together.

Losing all those guys, even with D’Angelo Russell as suitable consolation prize, set the Warriors so far back that, even with Green, the only tasks they could do this season was develop former lottery picks like Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, cash in on players who had no future there like Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III and deal with players that fell into a little bit of both – hi, Willie Cauley-Stein — all while being one of the worst teams in the league.

Basically, the Warriors have been going through exactly what the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls went through. The only differences being that the Bulls’ first season post-Michael Jordan was shortened by a lockout, the Warriors kept the Dennis Rodman of the group – so to speak – and, of course, their best players will all be back next year and are still very much in their prime.

We know how good the Warriors will be when they have everyone back on their squad. In fact, don’t be shocked if they win more games than they lose now that they have Curry back along with Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins from here on out. Golden State as the favorite night-in and night-out made things a little predictable over the last few years. For the first time since 2014, we’re going to see someone else represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.

Although no one wants injuries, parity is a welcome change of pace on that side.

But the Warriors will return to full strength when next season starts, and they’re going to have more at their disposal than just the Splash Brothers and Draymond Green. Indeed, while Kevin Durant is no longer there to form the atomic bomb that was the Warriors from 2016-2019, Golden State is going to have plenty of reinforcements that should put them back at the top as they had been for half a decade.

First is the inclusion of Andrew Wiggins. So far, Wiggins has been fine since coming over to the Bay Area. Averaging 20 points on 46/33/70 splits, as well as 5.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists, is nothing to sneeze at. It hasn’t led to many wins, but just about everyone knows that’s not his fault.

Everyone also knows that when Curry and Thompson are re-integrated, Wiggins’ numbers will fall when he takes a backseat to them, but that might just be perfect for him. We’ve seen what happens when you count on Wiggins to be the No. 1 guy. Maybe he was never slated to be the man to lead your team to success. Instead, a supporting role might be more ideal

So far, the sample size is admittingly small to pass any sort of judgment, however, there are some encouraging signs that should make them optimistic about Wiggins turning into the perfect complementary piece. Not from Wiggins, but from the other young pieces they’ve developed.

That starts with Chriss, who had one foot out of the league when Golden State picked him up. Draymond Green, among others, vowed that Chriss had what it took to be in the league at the beginning of the season. The early returns weren’t great, and Chriss is averaging merely average numbers – 9.2 points and 6.1 rebounds – but anyone who’s watched him knows that it isn’t that simple. In fact, he’s come along quite nicely since mid-January.

Since Jan. 20, Chriss is averaging 13.6 points and 7.5 rebounds on 61 percent shooting from the field. What makes those numbers look promising is that while any skeptic would say that it’s a classic case of good stats/bad team numbers, Chriss wasn’t doing that for the first month or so. Because Golden State was afforded the time to focus on his development, he’s getting them results now. If they are molding Chriss into the big scouts thought he could be back in 2016, the Warriors have to believe they can do the same with Wiggins.

Again, Golden State should not expect to develop Wiggins into being a star. If they do, then they got a massive steal. They don’t need that from him though. They just need him to be the third option behind Curry and Thompson. With a lesser role, he may be able to exert more energy on the defensive end. With their opponent’s attention focused more on stopping Golden State’s backcourt, Wiggins should expect more open shots. His 33 percent shooting from distance this season isn’t too encouraging — but his near 40 percent mark from distance the shot is wide open most certainly is.

Golden State broke the regular-season record when they had Harrison Barnes as their primary wing. If Wiggins thrives in that role, then the Warriors shouldn’t see too much of a dropoff from the days of Kevin Durant.

It’s not just the young guys that they are developing already… but the young talent they’ll be sure to get over the next few years.

Like everyone else that has tread through a season of losses, the Warriors should be getting a shiny lottery prospect to develop for the next few years on a cheap rookie contract. This year’s draft is going to have some high-potential guys coming out. Whether it’s James Wiseman, Anthony Edwards, Lamelo Ball or Cole Anthony, we’re most likely going to see one of those guys be put next to the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

And they’re likely going to get another high lottery pick thanks to the D’Angelo Russell trade, too. The pick that Minnesota gave up to get Russell is only top-three protected next year and, if it doesn’t convey, it’s completely unprotected. The Timberwolves have shown some progress since the deals they’ve made at the deadline, but they’re going up against a Western Conference with very few teams aiming to tank.

The Warriors already had the pieces in place to form a contender last season. Now, they have the pieces to turn their reign into an era of triumphant basketball only comparable to the San Antonio Spurs.

When the Splash Brothers are at full strength next season, their opponents in the Western Conference will be even stronger than they were before. This time, LeBron James could see them in a round that’s not the NBA Finals. The same goes for Kawhi Leonard, too. Even James Harden and his team have doubled down on building a team designed to stop them. It may be the toughest all-around challenge they’ve had to face since they exploded onto the scene.

We all know how good these guys are when they take the court. For now, we just have to bear the current roster while the world’s greatest show remains on intermission. Once it’s over, the Golden State Warriors will be back.

And they’ll be hungry too.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA

NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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