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NBA Power Rankings – 11/25/16

Moke Hamilton delivers his weekly power rankings. Where does your favorite team rank?

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With Thanksgiving Day having come and gone, NBA executives around the league enjoyed the first league-wide day off to take inventory and try to figure out where their teams are.

This week’s biggest mover is the New Orleans Pelicans. With Jrue Holiday returning to the lineup, the Pelicans have seemed to rediscover their mojo in a way similar to Klay Thompson out in Oakland. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers are slowly showing signs of becoming a new team and nearly knocked off the Memphis Grizzlies this past week, and they only happen to be one of the hottest teams in the league.

Count the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics among the teams that have gotten its fans excited with their successful play over the past week while the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers have been getting headlines for sputtering.

As usual for a Friday afternoon, Basketball Insiders brings you its weekly NBA Power Rankings.

 

30. Dallas Mavericks (Overall: 2-12, Last Week: 28)

Currently on a seven-game skid, it could easily reach double digits since the Mavs play the Cavs, Pelicans and Spurs over the course of their next three, respectively. As the trade winds begin to swirl, expect the Mavs to kick the tires on any deal that may be out there.

 

29. Miami HEAT (Overall: 4-10, Last Week: 25)

We’re pretty sure if we search hard enough, we can find something positive to say about the HEAT… Unfortunately, we’ve just run out of time. With five games over the next week that includes a home-and-home with the Grizzlies, all we can say is Dwyane Wade ain’t walking through that door.


28. Washington Wizards (Overall: 4-9, Last Week: 26)

At 4-9, only the HEAT, Nets and Sixers have a worse record in the Eastern Conference. Along with the Kings, the Wizards are the other team whose name is coming up most when rivals are asked who needs to make a trade. It’s actually difficult to argue at this point.


27. Minnesota Timberwolves (Overall: 4-10, Last Week: 23)

Perhaps we were foolish for expecting too much from the T-Wolves too soon. We also would be irresponsible for not calling out Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins for the egg they laid in Wednesday’s 117-96 loss at the Pelicans. The duo combined for just 22 points on 6-for-30 shooting from the field. That can’t happen.


26. Brooklyn Nets (Overall: 4-10, Last Week: 22)

Losers of five straight, it would appear that the free-fall that many had predicted for the Nets is upon us. The 23 points that Sean Kilpatrick dropped off the bench in Wednesday’s 111-92 home loss to the Celtics gives renewed hope for his potential, but energy and effort, it appears, can only take you so far.


25. Philadelphia 76ers (Overall: 4-11, Last Week: 30)

Believe it or not, the Sixers won back-to-back games last week, outlasting the Suns and HEAT. They had a shot to beat the Grizzlies, but Joel Embiid was forced to sit the second overtime after surpassing his minutes limit. He may be turnover prone, but he’s the real deal and these guys are turning a corner.


24. Phoenix Suns (Overall: 5-11, Last Week: 27)

We’re all in on Devin Booker (and his 30-point effort in Monday’s loss to the Wizards), but we liked what we saw in Wednesday’s 92-87 win at the Magic even more—six players on the team in double figures.


23. Orlando Magic (Overall: 6-9, Last Week: 20)

At just 6-9 and with the playoffs remaining a goal for this franchise, the Magic have emerged as a team that would be willing to make a deal. Word on the street is that general manager Rob Hennigan may be on the hot seat, as patience has worn thin down in Orlando.


22. New Orleans Pelicans (Overall: 6-10, Last Week: 29)

After a 2-10 start, Jrue Holiday returned to the lineup and the team is 4-0 since. Three of the wins came over the Blazers, Hornets and Hawks. Jrue’s 16.3 points and seven assists have helped in a huge way, but his addition pushes the personnel back into their natural positions. Keep an eye on the Pels.


21. Sacramento Kings (Overall: 6-9, Last Week: 24)

The Kings are the team that most rival executives expect to make a substantial move prior to the trade deadline. Sunday begins a six-game road trip and if the Kings find themselves several games outside of the playoff race, once Dec. 15 rolls around, expect them to begin taking more calls. But wins over the Raptors and Thunder make us crack a smile.


20. Detroit Pistons (Overall: 7-9, Last Week: 16)

Reggie Jackson is progressing toward returning, and the timing will be determined by the medical staff. At two games under .500 and losers of four of their last five, Stan Van Gundy can’t get Jackson back in the lineup soon enough.


19. Milwaukee Bucks (Overall: 6-7, Last Week: 19)

We’ve been somewhat critical of Jabari Parker, so we should point out Saturday’s 28-point effort against the Warriors and Monday’s 22-point game against the Magic. Over his last five, he’s giving Jason Kidd 20 points, 5.6 rebounds and three assists. Now, if only those numbers could translate into a few more wins…


18. Denver Nuggets (Overall: 6-9, Last Week: 21)

Surprisingly, the Nuggets wake up the day after Thanksgiving to find themselves just 1.5 games out of the first place in the division. It has something to do with the struggles of the Blazers and Thunder, and a lot to do with the play of Danilo Gallinari and Jusuf Nurkic.


17. Indiana Pacers (Overall: 7-9, Last Week: 17)

The Pacers have only held opponents under 100 points four times this season (they’re 3-1 when doing so) and are one of the more disappointing teams out East this season. What’s most disconcerting is that a fair number of their losses have come to weaker teams. If something doesn’t change, things could get really ugly once the schedule gets tougher.


16. Portland Trail Blazers (Overall: 8-9, Last Week: 14)

Will the real Blazers please stand up? Losers of five of their last six, the Blazers suddenly find themselves under .500 for the first time since they were 2-3. We’ll give them a tiny break since the losses have all come to respectable competition, but we’re still concerned. The good news is that they now begin a four-game home stand that has some very winnable games.


15. Utah Jazz (Overall: 8-8, Last Week: 13)

A four-game skid finds the Jazz at .500, which makes them one of six teams out West that are within one game the .500 mark. The good news? They’re still first in the league in points allowed and sixth in defensive efficiency. We’re still believers.


14. New York Knicks (Overall: 7-7, Last Week: 18)

Don’t look now, but the Knicks might be figuring some things out—including the fact that Kristaps Porzingis should probably be their primary offensive weapon. Winners of four of their last five, Porzingis has averaged 25 points and nine rebounds per game over that stretch. Honorable mention to Kyle O’Quinn, who has filled in for the ill Joakim Noah as well.


13. Chicago Bulls (Overall: 9-6, Last Week: 11)

Over the last 10 games, Jimmy Butler is averaging about 28 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. The club is 5-2 in their last seven and exceeding the expectations that many had of them. Still, we can’t easily forgive Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets.


12. Boston Celtics (Overall: 9-6, Last Week: 15)

The Celts are 3-0 since the return of Al Horford, and it’s no coincidence. In those three wins (against the Pistons, T-Wolves and Nets), they’re giving up just 92.3 points per game while Horford is contributing 18.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and six assists per. Could have been against better competition, but a win is a win.


11. Oklahoma City Thunder (Overall: 8-8, Last Week: 8)

The silver lining in the three straight losses the Thunder have endured were that all three were played in four nights. Still, after beginning the season at 6-1, they’ve quietly gone 2-7. They could use some more firepower (Rudy Gay would make some sense) but also haven’t held an opponent under 100 points since Nov. 7. We’re getting worried.


10. Los Angeles Lakers (Overall: 8-8, Last Week: 9)

There are worse places to be if you’re the Lakers, but with D’Angelo Russell on the shelf and the next eight games against teams who entered the season with playoff expectations, things may get really ugly. For now, they stick in our Top 10 since last week’s losses came to top ranked teams.


9. Charlotte Hornets (Overall: 8-6, Last Week: 7)

After losing three straight (and slipping in our power rankings), the Hornets hope to make hay over the next few weeks, as six of their next nine games will be played at home before embarking on a tough, five-game, mid-December road trip.


8. Houston Rockets (Overall: 9-6, Last Week: 10)

Wednesday’s 115-102 loss to the Raptors snapped a three-game win streak, but as long as James Harden continues to lead the league in assists (he’s averaging 12.5 per game), they’ll have a chance to knock anyone off on any given night. Quick shout to Clint Capella, whose 13.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks over the last 10 games have been huge.


7. Memphis Grizzlies (Overall: 10-5, Last Week: 12)

With six straight wins, the Grizz have done a masterful job of beating the teams they’re supposed to. With five games over the next seven nights, we expect the current win streak to end sometime soon, but the Grizz have put themselves in a good position, let’s just hope their old legs can keep pace, especially with the power move they’ve made into our top 10.


6. Atlanta Hawks (Overall: 10-5, Last Week: 3)

Since beginning the season at 9-2, the Hawks are losers of three of four, including L’s to the Knicks and Pelicans. Dwight Howard’s 23-point, 20-rebound game in Wednesday’s win against the Hawks stopped the bleeding. Still, we’re wondering what’s going on in the A, as the Hawks have appeared to take a step backward.


5. Toronto Raptors (Overall: 9-6, Last Week: 6)

The Raps are finishing up a five-game road trip wherein they won two of the first four. Sunday’s 102-99 loss at the Kings may come back to haunt them, as all of a sudden, the Celts are leading the division and the improving Knicks are breathing down their necks. After torching everything, over the last five, DeMar DeRozan is shooting just 43 percent from the field for 25 points per game.


4. Cleveland Cavaliers (Overall: 11-2, Last Week: 5)

The champs hung 137 points on the Blazers on Wednesday night. Kevin Love scored a league-record 34 points in the first quarter, which made LeBron James’ 31-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound triple-double an afterthought. Could Thursday’s battle with the Clips be a Finals preview?


3. San Antonio Spurs (Overall: 12-3, Last Week: 4)

After missing Monday’s win over the Mavs, LaMarcus Aldridge returned in Wednesday’s win over the Hornets and dropped 23 to go alongside Kawhi Leonard’s 30. The Spurs are winners of seven straight and, as we predicted, one of the top three teams out West. With the Hawks sliding out of the top five, they stay ahead of the Cavs by virtue of the longer win streak.


2. Golden State Warriors (Overall: 13-2, Last Week: 2)

Winners of nine-straight, the Dubs are looking nearly unstoppable, especially since Klay Thompson has found his mojo. Over their last five, he’s scoring 24.5 points while hitting 43 percent of his three-pointers. We wouldn’t be surprised if the current win streak hits 15, though there’s (obviously) a lot of games between now and then.


1. Los Angeles Clippers (Overall: 14-2, Last Week: 1)

Considering what they’ve been through, it’s hard to not root for the Clips, even if there are a fair amount of people that think they’re just a collection of non-winners. They clock in at fourth in points allowed, second in defensive rating, second in offensive rating and second in points scored. So long as they’re healthy, these guys will be for real. Circle your calendar for Thursday night, as they’ll make their only visit to Cleveland.

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NBA

Aamir Simms Readying Himself for His Opportunity

Clemon’s Aamir Simms is a versatile big man built for the modern NBA. Drew Maresca spoke with Simms about the draft process, Clemson’s success last season and how he thinks he fits in the league.

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Clemson has produced some very good NBA players – including Elden Campbell, Dale Davis and Horace Grant – but not too many of late. The most recent Clemson Tiger who was selected in the NBA Draft was Jason Blossomgame in 2017. Before that, K.J McDaniels in 2014, Trevor Booker in 2010 and Will Soloman in 2001. Aamir Simms hopes to be the first in a while – and he hopes to stick in the league.

Statistically, Simms has everything you’d want in a prospect. He’s a 6’8” big who can defend multiple positions and shoot it from deep. He averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 2020-21, shooting 40 percent on three-point attempts and 82.5 percent from the free throw line.

Simms was also named to the second-team All-ACC this season, after being named to the third-team All-ACC last season.

But the NBA Draft is a crapshoot with hundreds of players competing for just 60 spots. Complicating matters is the fact that Simms was a four-year player – and age is not an asset in the NBA Draft.

But Simms proved a lot in his time at Clemson, and he feels that his ability and willingness to do whatever a team needs is an asset.

“My original position was the four,” Simms recently told Basketball Insiders. “But I’m comfortable playing small ball five (too). And later in my career, I want to work toward playing some three, too, like Jeff Green.”

Green, who played a major role in the Brooklyn Nets’ success this season, is among the players who inspire Simms. He obviously values what LeBron James and Kevin Durant do, but he sees the utility of players like Green, and he understands that mimicking players like this will be key in his success.

“Being a versatile four like Jae Crowder (would be ideal), Simms said. “Being able to defend guys his size. Having the mid-range and the face-up like Al Horford or Paul Milsap. The craftiness and versatility of Tobias Harris. And especially Jeff Green. He does a good job of shooting the ball, playing the post, guarding one through five.”

“And that’s something I’m excited to showcase in this combine, in workouts and even through summer league.”

Achieving that success requires serious skill and versatility, but Simms believes he’s already on his way. If you’re thinking “but there isn’t evidence that he can do that,” you’re not wrong. But it’s not uncommon for players to sacrifice their own success for the greater good of a college program – and that’s exactly what Simms did.

“My perimeter defense is something I am really ready to showcase,” Simms said. “At school, I was an undersized five, so I didn’t switch much for the sake of the team,’ Simms said.

But he can – and he knows it.

Clemson’s entire roster had only three players taller than Simms. Two of the three were Freshmen and the other – Jonathan Baehre – started just 10 games. Clearly, Clemson coach Brad Brownell had a vision for his team, which included Simms as an undersized center. And considering their entry into the NCAA tournament after the media predicted they finish 10th in the ACC in a pre-season poll, it’s fair to say it worked.

“I think there’s a lot of things that teams look at (in the draft process): winners, individual growth, changes in your stats, and consistency,” Simms said. “I think I’ve shown all those areas throughout this season.”

“Just the way I led my team, (along) with other guys on the team, I got us back to the tournament – because people didn’t really expect us to. We got ranked pretty highly. My shooting and numbers improved, especially my field goal percentage. I was a little streaky with rebounds, but I think I showed improvements in areas that would progress me in the prospect rankings.”

With Simms, shooting will initiate interest.  As mentioned above, Simms shot better than 40 percent on three-point over the past two seasons – but he wasn’t a knock-down shooter early in his Clemson career.

As a Freshmen, Simms shot a pedestrian 32.6 percent on three-point attempts. But credit Simms for identifying the problem and working to fix it

“The reason why I shot so low as a freshman was that my form was coming across the left side of my face, so when I released the ball I couldn’t see as much,” Simms explained. “From the middle of my freshmen year to Senior year, I worked with (assistant) coach Smith before he went to Florida State, as well as (assistant) coach Dean and (director of player development) Terrell Mcintyre.”

“And those guys helped me improve my form and stick with it. And then, it was just spending my summers getting up hundreds of shots – 500 every morning and 500 every night to get that muscle memory down.”

But there’s more to Simms game than just shooting, and that’s what he hopes to prove throughout the draft process – beginning on Sunday, June 20 at the G-League Elite camp.

The G League Elite camp is an opportunity for 40 players to showcase their abilities in front of NBA and G League scouts, as well as coaches and front-office executives. The camp will consist of five-on-five scrimmages, as well as strength and agility drills. Top performers will earn an invite to the 2021 NBA Draft combine, meaning the camp can catapult players into very real consideration by NBA clubs. And Simms understands the opportunity at hand.

“Getting invited to the combine (is the goal),” Simms said. “That’s where the best of the best goes. I belong, but I’m fortunate to get the invite because there are other good guys who didn’t get an invite.”

This season, Simms faced off against at least two lottery prospects in Scottie Barnes (Florida State) and Jalen Johnson (Duke). Both will probably be used as measuring sticks of Simms’ potential; but considering defensive schemes, all matchups aren’t equal.

Simms underperformed against Florida State, scoring just 5 points on one-for-three shooting. But Florida State eliminates post opportunities and is known for its swarming defense.

“Florida State gets up in you, (they) switch one through five. They sit on you and take you out from catching the ball deep in the post,” Simms said. “I understood I wasn’t going to be as involved as I wanted entering it.”

But regardless of how you view Simms’ performance against Florida State, he demonstrated a big heart in coming back and playing well against Duke just one week later. While Clemson lost by 26 points, Simms performed well in a head-to-head matchup with another high-profile forward, scoring 19 points on seven-for-thirteen shooting.

“I have shown since my junior year that your ranking doesn’t matter,” Simms explained. “You play lottery picks a few times every year. That one was more of a bounce back after Florida State. That’s another one where we weren’t together, but the individual performance was what it was. It was in a losing effort so I didn’t focus on it, but it shows that I can play with anyone. I don’t care if you’re top 10 in the draft or wherever. I always feel I perform at a high level against highly projected players, and that was an opportunity to remind people who I am.”

Having to prove oneself self after four seasons at a big-time program would probably bother a lot of prospects, but it doesn’t bother Simms. On the contrary, Simms uses it as motivation.

“I am just thankful to be in the position I am because a lot of guys work for it and don’t get the opportunity,” Simms said. “It can be frustrating to be asked to prove yourself over and over, but the majority of great guys in the game have to do that at some point, too, so that’s fine.”

“I (already) have a chip on my shoulder,” Simms continued. “I come from the worst situations you can imagine, so being asked to keep showing my game and my progression is easy. Being able to put the ball in the basket and play hard isn’t something I stress over.”

“I’ve been through way darker times,” Simms continued. “Playing basketball is fun. I’ll have to show it over and over, but at least I’m doing what I love. Passion takes care of all of that. My faith pushes me through, God pushes me through. So if they ask me to do it 100 times, I’ll do it 101. I belong in the league. I believe I’m NBA-ready. If they want me to do it this week and another week after that, I’m ready.”

Simms is focused on getting the right opportunity with the right team. He’s spoken to his friends in the NBA including Mamadi Diakite (Milwaukee Bucks) and Nic Claxton (Brooklyn Nets), both of whom speak about the mental toll of going from being “the guy” to getting DNPs. But they’re not bitter. They emphasize the importance of getting into a good situation with a patient team and how it enables players to build confidence away from the pressure of the NBA game.

Still, you never know when your number will be called and rookies have to be perpetually ready. They also have to understand a team’s needs and the system that’s run. But Simms isn’t worried about that aspect. As the 2021 “Skip” Prosser Award winner, emblematic of the top scholar-athlete in men’s college basketball, he’s always been one to hit the books – and he intends on approaching an NBA opportunity the same way.

“If I am lucky enough to get drafted, I am going to spend that time starting the first night to get a feel for the team,” Simms said. “Learn the roster, who’s the primary and secondary guys and seeing where I fit.”

“No matter what, one thing you can do is rebound and defend. So that’s something I am going to do from the jump, (as well as) doing what coach asks of me. I’ve always been very coachable.”

Getting drafted is obviously the goal. But Simms understands that there is an opportunity beyond the draft. And conversely, he knows that getting drafted doesn’t guarantee success.

“Too many guys get caught up with their name being called, and that can land them in a bad situation,” Simms said. “It takes a lot of maturity to understand that it’s OK if you’re not drafted. A lot of guys who aren’t drafted or are taken late second-round are standing out (currently). Look around the league, guys come from the G League or overseas… if you can get over the idea of getting drafted and just focus on getting your foot in the door, that’s most important. That’s what I’m focused on.”

Simms has spent at least the last four years preparing himself for this moment – now it’s time to prove that he belongs. His mix of athleticism, size and skill will get him noticed, but his patience and cerebral approach are real differentiators. Even if Simms’ name isn’t called on July 29th at the draft, this writer believes he’ll find his way onto an NBA roster for the 2021-22 season, one way or another.

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Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers

From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.

It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.

Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games. 

He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.

To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.

There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.

However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.

Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.

As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.

The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”

As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.

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Now What? – Golden State Warriors

The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.

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For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.

Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.

The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.

Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.

Strengths

Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.

A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.

Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.

Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.

Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.

Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.

Weaknesses

One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.

Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.

Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.

Opportunities

The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.

The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.

Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.

Threats

Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.

Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.

While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.

One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.

The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.

Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.

A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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