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  1. The Warriors’ fall from glory, explained

    Tom Ziller writing for SB Nation - - -

    Things are getting bad quick for the Warriors.

    By Tom Ziller@teamziller Oct 28, 2019, 10:33am EDT

    Can this Warriors season be saved?

    The Golden State Warriors were always going to be a different team this season after losing Kevin Durant in free agency and Klay Thompson to injury. But 0-2, having not led for a single second through 96 minutes of play, having lost by 19 to the Clippers at home and 28 to the Thunder in Oklahoma City? No one expected them to be this bad.

    Why are they this bad? Are they this bad? What’s the path back to some semblance of Warriorhood? Are Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr and Draymond Green frauds? Are their championships tainted? Is this the end of a dynasty? Is this the end of this era of Warriors basketball?

    Let’s dig in.

    Are the Warriors actually this bad?

    Are the Warriors the second or third worst team in the NBA? No, of course not. Golden State ran into a buzzsaw Clippers team on a mission to scare everyone in the opener. The Warriors looked massively unprepared to take a punch from the Thunder on Sunday, and they never recovered once they got way behind. The offense is a total mess with only two plus passers (Curry and Green) and with no one shooting well. The Warriors are trying to play like they always have, with movement of bodies and the ball. They just don’t have the players skilled enough to pull it off right now. The defense is a total mess right now, too. Golden State basically doesn’t have any playable centers, and D’Angelo Russell is an enormous defensive drop-off from Klay Thompson.

    But the Warriors do have one of the five best players in the world in Curry, and a top-notch defender in Green, and a top-flight coach in Kerr. That combo, if healthy, prevents this team from being among the worst in the league. These two games are forming a bit of a mirage here.

    Beyond Durant and Thompson, how did this team get so depleted so fast?

    When Durant chose the Nets, the Warriors had two choices: let him walk or try to maneuver for an asset in return via sign-and-trade. Golden State, already capped out due to massive contracts for Curry, Thompson, and eventually Green, opted to pick up an asset in the transaction. The Nets weren’t going to keep restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell, having also nabbed Kyrie Irving in free agency. So the Warriors got creative and agreed to take back Russell on a fat contract.

    But to do that, the Warriors had to cut salary. That meant trading Andre Iguodala and a draft pick to the Grizzlies. (Iguodala is now one of the most sought-after veterans who could hit the buy-out market. Memphis is trying to trade him for an asset before it comes to that.) So to get Russell, the Warriors lost Durant and had to trade Iguodala.

    A pricey new contract for Thompson plus the Russell deal had the Warriors looking for other ways to lower the luxury tax bill for this season. One way of doing that was to waive Shaun Livingston, another rotation player for the title runs, to shed some guaranteed salary.

    Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook walked in free agency. DeMarcus Cousins, injured again after not contributing much to the Warriors’ 2018-19 effort because of injury, left. Kevon Looney is hurt, and it doesn’t sound good. This is how a roster gets destroyed: a few big slashes and a dozen little cuts.

    Why isn’t Russell working out yet?

    It’s early. It’s been two games! Be patient.

    That said, Russell had one season of success in Brooklyn, and he handled the ball a lot (31.9 percent usage rate, which is star level). That’s going to be different when you’re playing with Curry instead of Spencer Dinwiddie. Sure, Curry co-existed with Kevin Durant. But Durant also plays like a high-usage big man, not a high-usage guard. The impact is just different.

    At minimum, there will be a serious adjustment period for Russell to learn how to play with Curry and vice versa. At maximum, Russell’s 2018-19 season was a bit of a fluke and he got paid off a mirage. The truth is probably somewhere in between, and will only be revealed with time and effort.

    Smart money would probably bet on Kerr and Curry figuring out how to best use a talented guard, even if it means changing up the offense.

    Does Curry need to be more like James Harden given the state of the roster?

    I mean, that’d be fun to watch, right? No one knows whether Curry can really do that — he hasn’t played like that since Davidson. To suggest Curry can is to diminish Harden’s gifts and, frankly, Curry’s gifts too. But it’s something that I’m sure a few people within the Warriors front office have thought about.

    Will the Warriors miss the playoffs?

    It’s possible. ...
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  2. Do the Sixers Even Need Ben Simmons to Shoot Jump Shots?

    This is from Nat Friedman, writing for GQ - - -

    For this year's NBA preview, Nathaniel Friedman picks the key stories to watch out for this season.

    By Nathaniel Friedman

    October 22, 2019

    It still may not be real. No matter how many times you watch the footage of the Ben Simmons three-pointer, what you’re seeing never really sinks in. And maybe it never will. The level of cognitive dissonance is overwhelming, to the point where you wonder if you’re dreaming, or hallucinating, and start to question the entire reality around you.

    That’s how hard it is to wrap your mind around the fact that two seasons into his NBA career, the Sixers’ position-less phenom finally sank a three during a game. Yes, there had been snippets of footage showing Simmons knocking threes down in the gym, but these were little more than breadcrumbs, an inkling that he was making progress. There’s practice or workouts and then there’s the flow of NBA action, and as Allen Iverson immortally told us, the difference between the two is night and day. That this happened during the preseason, when defenses are notably lax, is almost beside the point. The specific circumstances matter less than our inability to come to terms with what the footage undeniably shows.

    But it wasn’t just that Simmons hadn’t yet made a three. In his 160 games as a pro, he had attempted only 17 of them. Simmons is a putrid shooter who also struggles at the free throw line. He has no jumper to speak of, which makes his shooting from deep an almost laughable proposition. What makes Simmons such a brilliant and vexing player, though, is that he consistently finds a way to work around these glaring holes in his game. His combination of size, strength, explosiveness, and pure speed alone would be enough to give defenses fits. But Simmons is also a master at pinpointing just the right angle of attack. When he hits the lane, it’s already too late. This exquisite sense of space is also what makes him such a deadly playmaker; Simmons is a near-miraculous passer seemingly unencumbered by the concept of passing lanes.

    Asking if Simmons needs to shoot the ball is often an incoherent question, as he almost always finds a way to obviate these expectations. Simmons simply plays as if the jump shot doesn’t exist as an option. You can even take it one step further and view his entire game as predicated on this negative assumption. While, Simmons’s inability to shoot may seem like a liability, this weakness is in some ways central to his identity. Everything about the way he plays seems to arise out of necessity, as if the game only really opens up for him once he’s able to step out of the framework of orthodoxy, to say nothing of how difficult it is for opposing teams to make sense of a player whose greatest strength may be his outside-the-box thinking.

    There’s a solid argument to be made that Simmons is averse to shooting on an almost unconscious level and that, far from hampering the Sixers, this is a good thing that actually makes them better, or at least more dangerous. The fact remains, though, that over the past two seasons, opponents have at key junctures, especially in the postseason, found a way to neutralize Simmons by simply daring him to shoot while doing everything in their power to clog up the lane. If he is going to progress as a player—and if the upstart Sixers can grow into their presumptive role as one of the East’s long-term powerhouses—Simmons needed to be able to at least credibly attempt take an open jumper, if not become a consistent long-range threat, which meant figuring out how to sometimes default to the obvious choice when avoiding the obvious is the entire premise of his game.

    Simmons’s total aversion to shooting may be a strategic choice. But it had also begun to feel defiant, an outright refusal that bordered on stubborn. The perception has been that Simmons is so convinced of his own superiority that he doesn’t want to embarrass himself by doing something that has been almost assuredly bound to fail. Simmons is right so frequently, and has been so obliquely justified in not shooting, that doing so becomes an act of self-abnegation—hardly the comfort zone of an athlete who has been earmarked for greatness since his teens. Simmons hasn’t wanted to make himself vulnerable like that because he doesn’t know how to. Or, to put it less charitably, he’s so invested in his ego that he’s unable to acknowledge that things needed to change.

    Simmons learning to shoot isn’t just absolutely essential to the Sixers’ championship aspirations. It’s also a keen metaphor for the team as a whole. The Sixers grew up fast and supposedly made good on Sam Hinkie’s Process-oriented rebuild. Adding Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris last season further amped up the hype before a disappointing postseason brought the team crashing back down ...
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  3. James Harden and Russell Westbrook Are in a Position to Do Something Entirely New

    This is from Nat Friedman, writing for GQ - - -

    For this year's NBA preview, Nathaniel Friedman picks the key stories to watch out for this season

    By Nathaniel Friedman

    October 21, 2019

    Dread is not always a bad thing. Take this past NBA offseason, which, at least superficially, was awash in good vibes. The prevailing sense was that it made the league healthier and more entertaining. But the reason the 2019-20 season is so hotly anticipated is that this newfound sense of well-being is actually quite precarious. Some of the biggest names in the league are at a crossroads, and what happens next could very well define their career going forward, or at least shape the narrative around them for the foreseeable future. The upside is tremendous. But at the same time, there’s plenty that could go wrong. We’re eager to see both what’s created and how destruction can be averted.

    Nowhere is this more true than in Houston. When the Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook, they set into motion one of the most ambitious, and possibly foolhardy, on-court experiments in recent memory. Getting rid of 34-year-old Chris Paul, who makes a ton of money and, at this point, is best suited for doing things that the Rockets don’t like to do, was a no-brainer. Taking on Westbrook, though, was itself an insanely bold move. The longtime Thunder All-Star is one of the most dynamic players in the league. His will to win is undeniable. But Westbrook is an unruly, impulsive presence who is notoriously difficult to build around. He’s had trouble meshing with talented teammates. And the 11th year guard, whose hell-bent style of play is hardly built for longevity, is under contract through at least 2022 on what remains of a $205 million contract.

    Any team taking on Westbrook would face a host of challenges. The Rockets, though, may have been the single most unlikely landing spot for the former MVP, due almost entirely to the presence of former OKC teammate—and fellow former MVP—James Harden. The Rockets’ system, which began as a vehicle designed to accommodate their franchise player’s unique skill-set and considerable quirks, has evolved (or maybe devolved) into a joyless, cynical, forbidding exercise in inevitability: Harden holds the ball as the clock runs down, Harden creates off the dribble with seconds left to spare, and, more often than not, Harden drives the lane with hopes of creating contact. That he’s one of the most inventive and, when he wants to be, frankly dazzling players in the league is only occasionally evident, as Harden has himself become machinery.

    At this point, slotting nearly any player of consequence into this latest version of the Rockets’ attack would be a stretch. That’s why Paul, who is expected in Oklahoma City to revive his standing as one of, if not the, strongest playmakers in the league, became dispensable. There’s just not much room for anyone other than Harden to assert themselves. Introducing Westbrook into this environment borders on inconceivable, if not ludicrous. Both him and Harden are ball-dominant point guards (if that destination even means anything these days) who look to score as a matter of course. Neither is much inclined to establish a “flow of the game” or play off of teammates. And while both put up high assist numbers, they also both generally operate on an island until they absolutely have to make a pass. It’s hard to imagine how these two would fit together at all, much less in the current iteration of Houston’s system, even with out-of-the-box tinkerer Mike D’Antoni on the sidelines.

    But the Rockets’ decision to go all in on this backcourt makes it pretty clear that they aren’t looking to merely stick with the program. Coming off of another disappointing postseason, the front office had to do something, and they didn’t appear willing to fire D’Antoni (though his contract has yet to be extended). That they traded for a player of Westbrook’s caliber makes it clear that the Rockets were looking to shake things up; that they ended up with the game’s premier chaos agent, who is practically assured to wreak havoc on their meticulous system, shows just how far the Rockets were willing to take this impulse. Adding Westbrook is an extreme measure that necessitates a drastic reimagining of nearly everything about how the Rockets operate, to such a degree that any attempt to fall back on their strategy of the last few seasons.

    What makes all of this presumably self-conscious destruction so notable is that, more than any team in the league, the Rockets had purported to have it all figured out. Where the team had ended up by the of last season’s playoffs was a logical endpoint, the final form of their attempts to optimize Harden’s strengths. That it was formulaic, predictable, and often lifeless mattered less than the fact that it worked. It was both based on the math ...
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  4. Just How Special Are the Young Pelicans Going to Be?

    This is from Nat Friedman, writing for GQ - - -

    For this year's NBA preview, Nathaniel Friedman picks the key stories to watch out for this season.

    By Nathaniel Friedman

    October 22, 2019

    They were dead long before they hit the ground, maybe even before they realized they were going to die. As soon as it became clear that the Lakers would make a run at Anthony Davis, their young core—Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart—became expendable. Landing Davis would require parting with some, if not all, of this promising group. But by the time Davis signed with Klutch Sports, and LeBron James made it clear that pursuing him at last season’s trade deadline was his top priority, Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, and Hart were practically undead.

    When the Lakers’ long-awaited trade for Davis finally happened, it was almost a relief to see Ingram, Ball, and Hart sent to the Pelicans. In addition to the past year’s indignities, these youngsters (plus Julius Randle, maybe the best of the bunch) had been in an impossible position for their first few seasons in the league. Trusting a collection of greenhorns to rebuild a franchise without any veteran leadership of note is a tall order. Expecting them to skillfully negotiate all the challenges that come with doing it for a storied team like the Lakers, in the high-stakes context of Los Angeles, raises the degree of difficulty further. Factor in the dysfunction that’s reigned supreme in that organization as of late and it’s hard to wonder if Ingram et al. ever really had a chance.

    It’s also been extremely hard to make any sense of these four as players. They’re at once overrated—it’s not looking like any of them will be the kind of perennial All-Star that would’ve been necessary to jumpstart the Lakers’ fortunes—and underrated in that they’ve been held to an unreasonable standard since their respective rookie seasons. This may seem like the most parochial narratives, and yet Ingram and Ball in particular have been cursed with “great potential,” thereby creating an unholy alliance between Lakers fans who were needlessly bullish on the future; take-mongers steeped in schadenfreude; and too-smart-for-their-own-good NBA observers smitten with Ingram’s Kevin Durant-esque frame and Ball’s feel for the game. Holding them to an unreasonable standard reeked of bad faith. But it also provided a framework for consuming the Lakers that worked for everybody—one that, unfortunately, very nearly turned these players’ careers into collateral.

    Sports narratives, artificial as they maybe, can be reified into a real-life conundrum for the athletes caught in the crosshairs. In a very real, on-court sense, though, the Lakers doomed these four by pegging their development to the development of the team. In the years since Kobe Bryant’s retirement, and the restoration of oxygen to the environment, the Lakers have struggled to find any on-court equilibrium, to say nothing of the chaos that has consumed the front office. These players were expected to catalyze, and provide direction for, the entire rebuild, which is ludicrous considering how (tantalizingly) unformed, or unfinished, these prospects were at first. Not only were they expected to flourish without a strong foundation. They were, by default, asked to furnish that foundation. And the more apparent it became that no one, not even James, would help them make sense of themselves, the more it was put on them to figure it, and the franchise’s trajectory out for themselves.

    If this sounds ludicrous, it’s because Ingram, Ball, and Hart going to the Pelicans feels like a fever breaking or a mania dwindling down. They are, even after all of this, still just kids. There’s also a distinct possibility that they’re development was slowed down, even stunted, by their experience with the Lakers (see, for example, D’Angelo Russell). It’s also comforting to no longer be plagued by questions about James’s leadership (he was supposed to mentor them) and possible on-court decline (he didn’t elevate those around him). The former Baby Lakers are free at last and we have been freed along with them. With the Pelicans, these three not only get a fresh start, but whatever they do subsequently can erase the collective embarrassment that will, or at least should, come with an honest assessment of how they’ve been construed for the past few seasons. It’s a chance for everyone to not only make amends with themselves but give them the fair shake they’ve deserved all along. (Oh, and don’t cry for Kuzma, who now gets to feast on soft defenses preoccupied with James and Davis on a team that should be in the mix for a title.)

    But there’s been another twist to this saga, one that makes you wonder if these three, who have somehow stayed perfectly intrepid throughout, have a curse hanging over them. Zion Williamson’s knee injury, which reportedly ...
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  5. LeBron James and the Lakers Have Something to Prove Again

    This is from Nat Friedman, writing for GQ - - -

    For this year's NBA preview, Nathaniel Friedman picks the key stories to watch out for this season.

    By Nathaniel Friedman

    October 21, 2019

    One day, LeBron James will get very old, and before then, he will cease to be one of the two or three most imposing offensive players in the NBA. But it’s safe to assume that it won’t happen this season, because the simple fact that it hasn’t already happened suggests that it may never happen. Granted, the 34-year-old James is no longer the same player he once was in his twenties, most noticeable on the defensive end. At the other end of the court, James has altered his game over the years, possibly out of necessity. Yet rather than chafing against new limitations, James has continually evolved, to the point where it often seems like he’s getting better with age, or at least approaching some sort of fully-optimized ideal of basketball efficacy.

    But individual performance doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and as soon as you zoom out from the finer points of James’s attack, there’s plenty to scrutinize. His first season as a Laker was decidedly underwhelming. While the team would likely have made the playoffs had James not missed several weeks due to injury, James didn’t exactly succeed in transforming them into a powerhouse. He didn’t really gel with the Lakers’ young core and often seemed content to go at it alone. And then almost everyone was shipped off for Anthony Davis, a newly signed Klutch client, and that was that.

    Of course, the Lakers did succeed in landing AD, which was the plan all along, and there’s an argument to be made that, for James, 2018-19 was a mulligan. But the fact remains that James didn’t exactly make the best of a lackluster situation. The optics of the Lakers puttering along weren't great. James makes other players better, except in this case, he didn’t. He’s a strong leader, except here he failed to galvanize his team. After spending four years in Cleveland as the David to the Warrior’s Goliath, James seemed to be perpetually looking ahead to having some fellow All-Stars around to work with. And there were whisperings that James was preoccupied with making moves in Hollywood when he could have focused his attention more squarely on the Lakers. Thankfully, we were spared a debate over whether or not James’s charitable efforts were detracting from his on-court contributions.

    The offseason may have been even more damning. While acquiring Davis was a coup, albeit a totally expected one, the Lakers were also thought to be in the running for marquee names like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. Leonard, in particular, was thought to have the Lakers high on his list and indeed, the team ended up being—at least ostensibly—one of the three finalists competing for his services. Except the Lakers didn’t end up with Leonard, Butler, or any other top-tier free agent, and it was impossible to not think about how James, or did not, factor into their decision. The Lakers were a train wreck of an organization, and post-Davis, the roster assembled was a hodgepodge of characters severely lacking in depth. But the general presumption was that the combination of James, Davis, and another All-Star would be unstoppable.

    In the grand scheme of James’s stunning career, one lost season really shouldn’t matter, and with Davis, the Lakers could easily end up being one of the league’s scariest teams. Ultimately, things like optics, narrative, and legacy matter because the take-centric way we consume. Content without a take is dead on arrival, and fans mistake the language of punditry for a form of expertise when it’s really just a means of disguising inanity. Except in this case, James himself is very much a devotee of this kind of thinking, in large part because, as a massive brand, he understands the value of controlling his narrative. You could argue that James has learned this skill as a reaction to having been under intense game-to-game scrutiny since his teens. But he long ago stopped needing to ever be on the defensive. Now, he has to think this way because that’s how a sports brand has to work.

    And at this point, James is really only measured against Michael Jordan, and has made such a strong case for his being distinct from Jordan that it’s become increasingly nonsensical to compare the two. But from a narrative standpoint he’s still chasing MJ, and will be until he figures out how to once and for all differentiate himself. The third act of Jordan’s story, which is still largely intact in spite of his Wizards comeback, combines unfettered dominance, a singularly competitive mindset, and a flare for the dramatic. The best in the game bowed out after unquestionably proving his supremacy.

    It just might be the greatest sports story ever told; it has made pro-Jordan takes next to unimpeachable ...
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