The Warriors Finally Look Like Themselves

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Ever since Kevin Durant joined the Warriors in the Summer of 2016, the team has had enough talent to toy with the NBA whenever it wants. This year has been slightly different, though; the Rockets pushed Golden State to the wall in the Western Conference Finals and very well might have eliminated them if they had a healthy Chris Paul. The Cavaliers pushed the Warriors to overtime in Game 1 of this year’s Finals behind 51 points from LeBron James. But besides these two examples, the Warriors can knock out their opponents and pick the round, too.

Last night, they decided to knock out the Cavs.

Behind 33 points and nine three-pointers from Steph Curry, 26 points on 10-14 shooting from Kevin Durant, and 20 more points from a hobbled Klay Thompson, the Warriors crushed the Cavaliers 122-103 in a game where Cleveland was only down by five before Curry and company took it over. Last night, we saw the closest thing to last year’s Warriors dominance that we have seen since, well, last year’s Warriors. Even though it appears as if Golden State lacks motivation at certain points in games, they are still far more talented than any other team in the NBA and when they put it all together, the rest of the league gets put on notice.

That’s what happened last night. Keep in mind that the Warriors are doing this without Andre Iguodala, who is recovering from a bone bruise in his knee and has not played since Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. While Iguodala may not necessarily seem like one of the most important figures in the Warriors’ dynasty, he absolutely is, and their occasionally absent-minded play without him should be proof of that. He one of the few people on Earth willing and able to consistently defend LeBron James, and if he returns in this series (which he might), the Warriors have a better chance of containing LeBron.

Until then, however, it will likely be either JaVale McGee or Kevon Looney occupying the final starting spot for the Warriors. Both men are capable bigs, but neither has the ability to guard James or space the floor on the offensive end. The Warriors, after starting Looney for the five previous games, decided to go with McGee in the starting lineup last night, and even though he had a +/- of 0, the move seemed to pay dividends; McGee had 12 points and most of his action came under the basket when the Cavaliers’ defenders were more preoccupied with Golden State’s three-point shooters. Whether you take McGee seriously or not, he is a live body who can cause havoc on the glass and makes the most of his opportunities in close. That’s all the Warriors need him to do until Iguodala returns from injury.

And think about the luxuries that Steve Kerr has with a team this versatile and talented. On the other side, Cavs coach Ty Lue doesn’t have nearly as many good options to go to off the bench (for instance, it’s more difficult for Lue to put Kyle Korver on the floor against a Warriors lineup looking to attack any defensive mismatch the Cavs have to offer). And, instead of having a steady presence like Shaun Livingston coming off the bench, Cleveland has Jordan Clarkson, who has shot 3-13 in the first two games of the series and makes multiple ill-fated attempts to take over the Cavs’ offense when he steps on the floor.

But instead of maligning all of the matchup problems the Cavaliers have in this series, it’s more important to look at what the Warriors have done right. That can be boiled down into one player: Steph Curry.

Last night, Curry broke an NBA Finals record last night by hitting nine three-pointers; he finished with 33 points but his impact goes beyond his scoring. The psychological impact of his hot shooting, particularly at Oracle Arena, cannot be quantified. And there is something to be said for the blow an opposing team takes when they play masterful defense for 23 or more seconds, only to have Curry drain a turnaround fadeaway from five feet behind the line. When you add that to the individual talents of Durant and Klay Thompson, the Warriors offense becomes virtually unstoppable when it’s clicking.

There should be at least a slight momentum shift when the series heads back to Cleveland for Game 3. But the Cavaliers will almost certainly need to win both games at Quicken Loans Arena to have a chance in this series; even though LeBron James and the Cavaliers have come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals before, there’s a reason it’s only happened once since 1947. Even with the greatest player in the history of the league on their side, Cleveland will have a very difficult time coming back against the most talented team the league has ever seen.

That team is the Golden State Warriors. Even though they’ve had their trials and tribulations throughout the season, we always knew that they could flip the switch and play to their dominant, ruthless potential whenever they wanted to. They did that last night, mainly with the help of their two-time league MVP. Oh, by the way, they may very well get the ex-Finals MVP they have lying around back before this series ends.

The Warriors have returned. Maybe they never really left. Either way, the NBA’s sleeping giant is awake, alive, and humming on all cylinders. That usually doesn’t end well for anyone in its way.



The Cavaliers Run Themselves Out of Game 1

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There is a pantheon of dumb plays in the history of both college and professional basketball. It has some awesome entries; Chris Webber trying to call timeout when his team didn’t have one, Rasheed Wallace leaving Robert Horry wide open to lose Game 5 of the 2005 Finals, and JaVale McGee’s entire career. These moments, whether they come in the regular season or the biggest games of the year, are the reason why “Shaqtin’ a Fool” exists.

But aside from the occasionally brain dead moments that happen during a basketball game, these are some of the best players in the world. They always get the basic stuff, like the time and score of the game, correct, and they know how to react depending on the game situation, right? Right?

Wrong.

To prove this, I present you with the human example that is Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith. Smith made headlines earlier in the season when he launched a bowl of soup at an assistant coach in what was definitely the seventh or eighthweirdest moment in the NBA this season. Smith is an erratic player with an evidently erratic personality; his occasional moments of brilliance on the court are augmented by brain-neutral plays and mind-numbing decisions. With that context in mind, I present to you the end of the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals:

There is so much wrong with whatever happened there. First of all, George Hill is an 80% free throw shooter for his career and should have made the free throw. When Smith gets the rebound, he has the opportunity to lay it in, albeit over a 6’10” Kevin Durant, to give Cleveland the lead. When he pulls the ball out to the three-point line, the Cavaliers should have called timeout. Instead, none of these things happened and Cleveland didn’t get a shot off in the final 4.7 seconds.

And, after all of the stupid things you read in the last paragraph, you would think that it doesn’t get any dumber than that. I’m here to tell you that it does.

The only possible explanation for whatever it is Smith did in the closing seconds of the fourth was that he didn’t know the score and thought the Cavaliers were winning. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue seems to believe that’s the case; after the game, he said that Smith thought his team was ahead and tried to run out the clock. Smith, on the other hand, insists that he knew the game was tied at 107 and thought Cleveland would take a timeout. Choose who you want to believe in this situation, but Smith has made dumb plays in crunch time before, and that particular instance involved another episode of scoreboard amnesia. Therefore, I have to go with the guy who got stepped over by Allen Iverson over the guy who threw soup at one of his coaches. It’s just that easy.

As much as we should all collectively laugh at this, however, it is one of the most costly blunders in recent Finals history, and it may have cost the Cavs any chance they had at winning this series.

Think, for example, about all the things that went right for Cleveland last night:

  • LeBron James goes for the 6th 50-point game in Finals history
  • Golden State only goes +6 in the third quarter (team had averaged a +7.6 3rd quarter scoring margin in the playoffs before last night)
  • Kevin Durant and Steph Curry score 55 points on 45 shots
  • Kevin Love goes for 21 points and 13 rebounds
  • Cleveland wins offensive rebound battle 19-4

Despite all of this, the Cavaliers lost in overtime. There were some breaks that didn’t go their way, like a controversial foul towards the end of the game on James that was changed to a block from a charge on Durant. After the game, Lue voiced his displeasure with the call, and even though it was a bang-bang play, he has a right to be upset, as foul calls are usually not up for review. However, the Cavaliers should not, in any way, blame last night’s defeat on poor refereeing. They had a chance to make a free throw, then they had a chance to get a basket, then they had a chance to call timeout to draw up a play to get said basket, and they somehow managed to do none of those things despite the odds being, for once, in their favor.

For Cleveland fans, that is the shame of what transpired last night. The Warriors are decidedly more talented than the Cavaliers but did not play their best game last night. The underdog had a chance to take out the favorite last night and put the defending champs in a 1-0 hole. They couldn’t get the job done, and even with the best player in the world performing at quite possibly the highest level of his career, the Warriors still found a way to pull it out.

Before this series, I picked the Warriors to win in five games. One of the ways Cleveland could have dragged out this series would have been by winning the first game and stealing some momentum out of Oracle Arena. Granted, they could still win Game 2, but against one of the all-time great teams in NBA history, it’s very difficult to win a seven-game series after allowing a golden opportunity like last night’s to slip through your fingers.

Let’s also remember that Smith, who blew the end of regulation, took an unnecessary gamble on a Curry heave at the end of the first half. It cost Cleveland three points and made a significant difference between them winning and losing the game.

What caused a bigger difference, though, were the events that took place in the final five seconds of regulation. But when you think about who had the ball, it’s not a surprise.

And thanks to J.R. Smith losing his counting skills and critical thinking powers, the Cavaliers’ margin for error in this series has gotten even smaller.



Four Score: NBA Finals Preview

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For a few fleeting moments, the fourth Finals meeting between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed in peril. Both teams went down 3-2 in their respective Conference Finals and neither had home court advantage when each series went to a decisive Game 7. But, as has been said for the past three calendar years in the modern NBA, none of those things mattered.

We are getting a fourth installment of the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals, whether we want it or not. Frankly, most everyone knows how this will end. The Warriors are a lot better than Cleveland and just eliminated a 65-win team despite only playing to their potential for one quarter per game, at most.

Nonetheless, let’s do a little Finals preview, shall we?

Iso What?

When Kevin Durant left the Thunder to sign with the Warriors in 2016, he left one of the most stagnant and isolation-dependent offenses in the league to join one of the most free-flowing offenses in the history of the sport. It worked out that way last season, but it hasn’t been the same this year.

In last year’s playoffs, Golden State ran just 6.8% of their possessions in isolation; this would typically come in the form of a favorable one-on-one matchup with either Durant or Steph Curry. This would happen towards the end of the game if Golden State really needed a bucket or at any other time they did. Over their first three Finals runs, ball movement and player movement were the staples of one of the best offenses in NBA history, and that didn’t initially change when Durant entered the fold.

Now, however, it has.

In these playoffs, the percentage of possessions that Golden State uses in isolation action has risen to 11.2%, up nearly 65% from last season.  That’s perfectly fine when you have Durant and Curry, but at some point, your offense stagnates and other players aren’t involved in the action. Of course, this is an uptown problem for one of the most talented rosters in NBA history; the Cavaliers have had higher isolation percentages the past two playoffs and they aren’t nearly as skilled as Golden State. But the Warriors destroyed Cleveland in the Finals last season averaging 29 assists and 121 points per game in just over 100 possessions per game. Against the Rockets, Golden State averaged 21 assists per game and just over 107 points per contest on an average of slightly under 94 possessions. When Cleveland beat Golden State in 2016, each game of the Finals averaged 92 possessions.

The only way the Cavaliers win this series is if they don’t get snookered into playing the Warriors’ style of basketball. The problem is that the Warriors are struggling to play like that themselves.

Worst Supporting Actor(s)

The Cleveland Cavaliers have always been a one-man show. This year, however, the gap in talent between LeBron James and his teammates is more frightening and stark.

In these playoffs, James is averaging 34 points per game and shooting just over 54% from the field. The rest of the Cavaliers are not faring as well; the supporting cast is averaging just 67 points per game and they have been bailed out in these playoffs by seven 40-point games from James. The problem for Cleveland, then, is this: how much more can LeBron do and how difficult will it really be for the Warriors to shut down the Cavs’ offense?

The fact of the matter is that the Cavaliers role players need to be better. While Jeff Green chipped in 19 and J.R. Smith had 12 in Game 7 against Boston, these performances were more of an anomaly than the rule in these playoffs. Kevin Love missed Game 7 with a concussion suffered in the previous game, and even though he provides perimeter shooting and quality rebounding, he will have a very difficult time trailing the likes of even Draymond Green on the perimeter. If the Warriors look to get Cleveland into switching action, he would likely have to defend either Curry, Durant, or Klay Thompson. If that happens (and it will, if/when Love returns), advantage: Warriors, particularly if Andre Iguodala is in the starting lineup (more on him later).

Honestly, the Cavaliers’ supporting cast has never been talented enough to win a championship, whether that was before or after the team nuked its own roster at the trade deadline. Sure, GM Koby Altman did the best he could at that point because the Cavaliers, at the time, were a directionless car moving aimlessly towards the chaotic intersection that is the NBA Playoffs. But even though Cleveland got younger and faster in February, that does not mean they necessarily got better.

LeBron James will have to carry the load once more for the Cavaliers if they want to advance to the NBA Finals. It may be too much for him to handle, not because he isn’t capable, but because the Warriors are too good and his supporting cast is too bad.

Andre Iguodala

This one pretty much explains itself. Iguodala missed Golden State’s last four games of the Western Conference Finals with a knee injury. In the three games with him in the lineup against Houston, the Warriors averaged 116.7 points per contest. Without him, they averaged 100.5. The difference with and without him on the floor is drastic, as Iggy has a +11.1 rating per 100 possessions when he is on the floor in these playoffs.

It seems strange to say this about a team that has four of the 15 or 20 best players in the game right now, but Andre Iguodala is the adhesive that keeps the Warriors clicking on both ends. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said today that the Warriors would have beaten the Rockets in five games with the former Finals MVP healthy, and I have to say that I can’t disagree with him. Golden State likely wins the knock-down, drag-out, 90s-esque battles in Games 4 and 5 with him on the floor, and the fact that the Warriors were able to overcome a 3-2 deficit against a 65-win team without him is a testament to just how much talent is on their roster.

The talent disparity between them and the Cavaliers would become even greater if he finds a way to play in these Finals.


I will admit that I’ve done more comprehensive previews for these series in the past, and apologies if comprehensive is what you were looking for here. The fact of the matter is, though, that the Warriors are at least ten times more talented than the Cavs and, even though it’s a far worse fate than he deserves, LeBron James will get bounced in short order by a team he can’t single-handedly take down for the second straight year.

I’ll give the Cavaliers one win out of respect for the greatest player of all time being on their roster. But I can’t fathom a way in which they win this series, unless the Warriors fall back on the same bad habits that nearly got them knocked out of the Playoffs by a shorthanded Rockets team.

Pick: Warriors in 5



Just How Far Can the Houston Rockets Go?

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s hottest team through the first two months of the season and currently hold a Western Conference-leading 25-5 record. Until last night’s loss to the Lakers, one in which MVP candidate James Harden casually dropped 51 points, the team had won 14 games in a row and had also gone 15-0 with point guard Chris Paul in the starting lineup. Paul, though, left last night’s game with an adductor strain and is currently considered day-to-day.

Now that we enjoyed that little bit of fun, it’s time to return to reality and consider whether or not the Rockets can seriously stack up with the Warriors if the two meet in the playoffs.

Much of Houston’s success to this point in the season has been due to the acquisition of Paul from the Clippers this past summer. While Harden has been one of the league’s best players this season, the Rockets are a different monster with CP3 on the floor. To show you just how good Paul has been in just 16 games this season, I give you this table from the good people at Basketball-Reference that provides point differentials and field goal percentages of the Rockets’ lineup combinations to this point in the season. I have modified the table to remove the most common five-man lineups that feature Harden. The point differential, per 100 possessions, of some of these combinations may shock you:

Regular Season: 5-Man Combinations Table
Net Net Net Net
Lineup MP FG% 3P% eFG% PTS
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | C. Paul | P. Tucker 17:18 -.059 -.071 -.012 +12.1
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | C. Capela | E. Gordon | C. Paul 16:43 +.208 +.292 +.279 +29.9
R. Anderson | T. Ariza | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul 13:44 +.167 +.389 +.326 +49.8
R. Anderson | E. Gordon | N. Hilario | C. Paul | P. Tucker 13:26 -.035 +.063 +.019 +16.1
E. Gordon | N. Hilario | L. Mbah a Moute | C. Paul | P. Tucker 12:51 +.257 +.083 +.300 +59.4
Player Average 471:37 +.044 +.071 +.094 +18.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/21/2017.

Holy hell, Batman.

In reality, though, this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Paul has been a plus/minus god for the better part of ten years and is, for my money, one of the three best point guards in the game today. That makes his injury last night, the second significant one he has suffered this season, all the more concerning. While he isn’t expected to miss much time at the moment, the Rockets cannot possibly win a championship without him. After all, we’ve seen what can happen to the Rockets in the playoffs without him and it wasn’t pretty.

All that being said, this is not at all an affront to James Harden’s abilities. It is, however, a testament to the state of the NBA today that having just one of the best players in the league is not nearly enough to get a team into serious championship contention. The other problem for the Rockets last season was that Harden, without the presence of a true point guard, played the position admirably and nearly won Most Valuable Player honors. The issue was that, by the time the Rockets faced off against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Harden was asked to create his own offense and initiate most of Houston’s, as well. He barely shot over 41% in the series and the Rockets were dispatched despite the Spurs’ loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 5. The Rockets don’t have that problem anymore, and while Harden can put the team on his back for periods when Paul is injured or on the bench, the team hopes that they won’t completely need him to come playoff time.

Since we seem to keep coming back to it, let’s address this next issue head-on. Can the Rockets dethrone the defending champions and beat the Warriors in a playoff series?

For starters, let’s take a slightly closer look at the performance of both teams to this point in the season. The Dubs are currently just a half-game back of Houston for the top spot in the West, and while much of the attention has gone to the Rockets’ start, the Warriors have ripped off 25 wins in their first 31 games with little to no fanfare. And you could argue that Golden State has not yet hit its stride, as superstar point guard Steph Curry will be out until the end of this calendar year with an ankle injury.

Simple Rating System, a statistic that rates teams based on point differential and strength of schedule, has the Warriors and Rockets rated just about identically, with Golden State holding the advantage by one one-hundredth of a point. If you want to be skeptical of this metric, you have my full permission; it currently has the Raptors rated as the top team in the East and made the exact same mistake a season ago. But while it may not be perfect, it does take into account most aspects of a team’s performance and gives a number correspondent to the strength of that performance. And according to SRS, the Rockets’ success has been impressive, but it still isn’t enough to put them past the Warriors as the Western Conference’s best team.

There is also no guarantee that the Rockets will keep up this pace, one that has them winning 83% of their games, for the rest of the season. While the Rockets’ offense shouldn’t be a problem as long as Paul and Harden are healthy (they currently lead the league in offensive rating), their defense could become a concern. A team coached by Mike D’Antoni for a full season has never finished in the top ten of the league in defensive rating; the lockout-shortened 2011-12 New York Knicks, a team D’Antoni resigned from with 24 games to play in the regular season, finished fifth in that category that year. The Rockets currently sit in 7th in the league in defensive rating, and while this may very well be the best team he has ever had in his coaching career, there is also reason to believe that their defensive performance could suffer as the season goes along.

I truly want to believe that the Houston Rockets could dethrone them as the best team in the NBA. I really believe that they are the second-best team in the league right now, and I don’t see that changing, barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, before the season ends.

But I’ll believe in the Rockets as a championship contender when I see the Warriors lose a playoff series. I wouldn’t bet on it.




Everything and Nothing Is Changing in the NBA

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Gordon Hayward is shipping up to Boston.

The former Utah Jazz forward will sign with the Celtics on a 4-year, $128 million deal, with the fourth year being a player option. Hayward is the asset Celtics GM Danny Ainge had wanted all along, and he didn’t have to give up any of his precious assets to get the best free agent on the market. This, ultimately, was Boston’s endgame; save the team’s stockpile of draft picks and most of its key pieces to acquire Hayward, who just last year was a 10-win player for the Jazz and a top-15 player in the league, having earned career highs in points and rebounds.

One would figure that Hayward’s decision would significantly change the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. If this is your opinion, you may want to seriously rethink it.

In order to make room for Hayward on their roster, the Celtics are expected to trade any one of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, or Marcus Smart; rumors are that the front office is looking to jettison one of the three players to Utah in a sign-and-trade to acquire Hayward. The most likely scenario is that Crowder is traded, as he would likely be cast as an undersized power forward in Boston’s new offense. However, his loss would be a bitter pill to swallow; Crowder ranked second on the team in win shares (6.7) last season and third in value over replacement player. While he probably wouldn’t be as productive if he stayed in Boston, don’t think that the Celtics are losing nothing if they trade him. Advanced statistics are not as friendly to Bradley or Smart, but the former was Boston’s second-leading scorer a season ago and the latter was the team’s sixth man. If it were up to me, I’d trade Marcus Smart; he only shot 36% from the field last season and just over 28% from deep. Smart, though, is one of the best defensive players on the team (tied for first in defensive win shares) and his departure would likely force Terry Rozier to step in as the Celtics’ backup point guard. While acquiring Hayward is definitely worth it for the Celtics, the team will likely be faced with non-trivial losses after his signing becomes official.

While the Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago, their Pythagorean win-loss record says that Boston should have been 48-34 based on last season’s point differential of +216, or +2.6 points per game. Let’s say that the Celtics send Crowder to Utah in the sign-and-trade. In terms of win shares, the Celtics are getting a +3.7 net change, but if you take that number and add it to their expected win-loss record and not their real one (53-29), the team would finish at 52-30. Granted, this does not take the overall fit of either player into account, but it does provide a starting point to figuring out just how much better Boston is with Hayward’s addition. Personally, I’d say that the Celtics are about three wins better than they were last season if they don’t trade Crowder. If they do, they’re probably right back where they were a season ago, even though their roster is more talented and, simply put, better. The team is due for a market correction after essentially stealing an extra five wins last season, but Hayward will help them once he gets acclimated to his new surroundings.

Remember when I told you that Hayward was worth just over ten wins for the Jazz last season? Well, that isn’t the important thing when considering his move. The main question to ask yourself is this: is Gordon Hayward worth an extra three wins in late May?

That’s the amount of wins the Celtics would have needed to get past the Great Wall of LeBron in last year’s playoffs. Even with one of the luckiest and most surprising wins in NBA playoff history, Boston was absolutely no match for the James-led Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Does the acquisition of a player like Hayward push the Celtics over the edge and past the Cavaliers? My guess, at least for next year, is that it doesn’t. It does make things more interesting, but it’s unlikely that Hayward instantly makes the Celtics the best team in the Eastern Conference; after all, the Celtics were immolated to the tune of a -100 point differential in last year’s Conference Finals, one that lasted just five games.

Now, Hayward’s signing is not solely a play towards 2018. The Celtics, assuming Ainge can re-sign star point guard Isaiah Thomas next year, are squarely in position to ascend to the Eastern Conference throne should James begin to decline (he turns 33 in late December) or leave the Cavaliers after next season. From that point of view, the acquisition is very smart; Boston gets a star player while giving up relatively few assets to do so. However, those picking the Celtics to win the East next year are probably at least a year ahead of themselves.

Of course, Hayward’s move isn’t the only significant development in this year’s free agency window. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the Western Conference, shall we?

In my view, the most significant move out west was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ draft day acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Chicago, for reasons passing understanding, only took Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkanen) from Chicago for a player who ranked in the top fifteen in both offensive and defensive win shares last season. Then, Minnesota signed Indiana Pacers (more on them later) point guard Jeff Teague and dealt Ricky Rubio to Utah. While the two are similar players, Teague is a slightly better shooter and, by extension, a slightly better floor-spacer for an offense that will likely run more isolation sets for Butler. Also, the addition of Butler should help budding stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, both of whom are just 21 years old. Butler’s arrival should be beneficial to Wiggins, in particular, as he struggled mightily on defense last season. For added measure, the team later signed power forward Taj Gibson to play alongside Towns in the paint.

Here’s the catch, though: the most transformative acquisition of the past two weeks came to a team that finished 31-51 last season. While their Pythagorean win percentage says they should have won seven more games than they did, the Timberwolves have a ways to go before becoming a serious championship contender. While the Celtics can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel with the Cavs’ dominance, there still exists a gulf between Minnesota and the Golden State Warriors. And Golden State doesn’t have aging superstars who are likely to leave the team anytime soon. So while Butler makes the Timberwolves a lot better than they were, he shouldn’t be enough to make the difference between them and the Warriors.

Another huge trade in the West was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s acquisition of Pacers forward Paul George. George announced shortly before the deal that he had absolutely no intention of re-signing with Indiana when he becomes a free agent in 2018. This left team president Kevin Pritchard between a rock and a hard place; trade George and receive less than he should in return or keep George for one more year and let him walk, likely to the Los Angeles Lakers, next summer. Pritchard decided to cut his losses and deal George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. George is a legitimate star in today’s NBA, and his numbers would suggest that the Pacers should get far more than they did in the trade. However, his preemptive decision left Pritchard with no good alternatives, so trading him for far less than market value was probably his only move to get himself out of check with his superstar. While many observers have chided the Pacers for getting fleeced in the deal, they had very few good options in this situation. They should be let off the hook just for getting anything at all for George’s services.

George, by all standards, is a very good player. He had a career year last year and has averaged over 20 points per game in each of the last three full seasons he has played. Where he has struggled recently is with his defense, as he accrued a negative defensive box plus/minus rating last season. This year, though, he’ll be playing with Russell Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP. Chances are that he won’t be carrying all of the offensive load like he did with Indiana last season, thus giving him more energy to spend on defense. The two should have a symbiotic relationship next season, and while Westbrook probably won’t be averaging a triple-double next season, the addition of a player like George will take some of the burden from both players.

That being said, the Thunder won just 47 games a season ago. They were the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and were bounced in an exciting but anticlimactic five games by the Houston Rockets in the first round last season. While the Thunder will try to keep George after next season, the Lakers are still the favorites to reel him in next summer. And even with him, the Thunder are likely not good enough to make a serious run at a championship this season. While George is an objectively excellent player, he shouldn’t move the needle enough to push the Thunder past the Warriors.

The one team that can claim to have a fighting chance at winning the West next season is the Houston Rockets. The team acquired star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in a monster trade that included the Rockets sending seven players back to L.A. The numbers, though, suggest that the hefty price Houston paid (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, others) is more than worth it; Paul contributed just under 11 wins to the Clippers last year in all of 61 games. Even at 32, Paul is still one of the best point guards in the league, and his addition could very well make the Rockets the second best team in the Western Conference. While some have made the argument that Paul and superstar James Harden will struggle to coexist because, as they say, there is only one basketball, the Rockets now have two of the best guards in the game. Somehow, I’m inclined to think they’ll make it work.

But, again, can they beat the Warriors? Paul has never been to the Conference Finals and the Rockets couldn’t even get past the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in Game 6 of the conference semis last year. In a vacuum, this move would likely make the Rockets the title favorite next season. Instead, Houston will have to contend with the monolith that is the most talented basketball team ever assembled.

And also, the Warriors will be even more absurd than they were just last year. In free agency, the team has added shooters Omri Casspi and Nick Young (yes, that Nick Young) to their already-loaded bench. Meanwhile, they have also managed to keep all of their core pieces intact while making their roster even better than it already was. If a team is going to catch the Warriors for the NBA title next season, I haven’t found it yet. While CP3 makes the Rockets significantly better, Houston would need several things to go right for them to get past Golden State.

Many important moves have been made in NBA free agency and trades in the last few days. Several teams have gotten better this month, such as the Thunder, Celtics, Timberwolves, and Rockets. We haven’t even gotten to mention the Denver Nuggets, who will be a ton of fun next year after signing power forward Paul Millsap to a 3-year, $90 million deal. Also, the Sacramento Kings are pushing toward playoff contention (don’t laugh) with the signings of George Hill and Zach Randolph, as well as the drafting of Kentucky’s DeAaron Fox with the fifth overall pick in the draft.

Many NBA teams have gotten better over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately for them, the moves made this June and July likely won’t make much of a difference come next May and June.

Are the Warriors Too Good For the Cavaliers?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the most talked about person surrounding the Warriors-Cavaliers showdown in Oakland wasn’t Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, or LeBron James.

It was Rihanna.

The fact that the Barbadian singer stole the headlines away from the game itself shows that the contest couldn’t have been all that competitive.

Sure enough, it wasn’t. The Warriors easily took care of the Cavaliers, 113-91, in a game that was never truly in doubt after halftime. Kevin Durant led the way for Golden State with 38 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists; even more impressively, Durant did all of this without committing a turnover, becoming the first player to have 30 points and five assists without a turnover in a Finals game since Michael Jordan accomplished that feat in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. Steph Curry poured in another 28 points on 6-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc.

LeBron James paced the Cavaliers with 28 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists, and Kyrie Irving scored 24. As strange as this may sound, the individual performances of James and Irving were not nearly as good as their numbers would suggest, as the Cavaliers were -18 when both players were on the floor last night. The Cavaliers were thoroughly dismantled in the second half, and their defense had no answers for the Warriors’ multi-pronged attack, which was centered around Curry and Durant.

Cleveland’s performance in Game 1 begs an important question: is this version of the Warriors too good for these Cavaliers to beat in a seven-game series?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: the Cavaliers played far from their best game last night. The team combined to shoot just under 35% from the field (30 for 86) and made just 11 of 31 attempts from the three-point line. Cleveland’s turnover problem was exacerbated by the Warriors offense, which turned the ball over just four times in 48 minutes. The Warriors had a really, really good night and the Cavaliers…. well, let’s just say they didn’t. That being said, it is worth examining whether or not Cleveland’s struggles are an anomaly or a disturbing trend.

For example, the Cavs’ transition defense is something that can be fixed. Take this play from late in the first half last night. Watch as the seas part for Durant to finish the fast break with a thunderous slam (pun 100% intended):

If I’m Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, I would play that clip on loop for the next 48+ hours before Game 2. The Warriors finished Game 1 with 56 points in the paint and could’ve had closer to 70 had they not missed or, in the case of Zaza Pachulia, passed up on several open layups. The Cavalier defense was so concerned about the Warriors’ vast array of shooters (Curry, Klay Thompson, even Draymond Green) that they completely neglected to protect the rim. This strategy, one that basically rejects every fundamental tenet of basketball defense, turned Game 1 of the NBA Finals into Kevin Durant’s own personal dunk contest. That strategy can definitely be adjusted/fixed before Sunday night’s Game 2 rolls around.

But the Cavaliers must sort out other issues if they want to win their second championship in as many years.

Even though James and Irving are the undisputed leaders of the Cavs’ attack, the team simply needs contributions from other sources in order to be successful. For example, Kevin Love shot just four-of-thirteen from the field last night and had quite possibly the quietest 21-rebound performance in NBA history. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, Cleveland’s other two starters, combined for just three points and one made field goal on seven attempts.

That’s not all, though, for the Cavaliers’ individual struggles. Deron Williams, who scored fourteen points in seventeen minutes in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, struggled to get anything going last night. Williams’ game was so truly awful that he amassed a whopping offensive rating of ten (offensive rating is a measure of how many points a player accounts for per 100 possessions while he is on the floor). In case you haven’t figured it out, ten points per 100 possessions isn’t that good. Similarly, sharpshooter Kyle Korver, acquired from the Hawks in a midseason trade to give the Cavs more of a perimeter presence off the bench, accrued an offensive rating of 21 in nineteen minutes; he didn’t score in the game.

The Cavaliers simply cannot survive the Warriors’ merciless onslaught without contributions from their secondary pieces. While Irving is one of the best point guards in the league and James is the best player on the planet, they cannot singlehandedly carry the Cavs to their second straight championship. Players like Williams, Love, Korver, Smith, and Thompson must stretch Golden State’s defense with their perimeter shooting if the Cavaliers want to take this series deep.

There’s also this to consider: the Warriors should have an off night offensively at some point in this series, as even an offense as talented as Golden State’s is prone to go cold from time to time. Last night, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combined to shoot 6-for-28 from the field and score just fifteen points. However, both made an impact on the defensive end; Thompson performed the unenviable task of guarding Irving while Green held an 85 defensive rating in his 36 minutes of action (with the defensive rating statistic, a lower number equates to better performance). Near the end of last night’s game, FiveThirtyEight writer Chris Herring pointed out the difference in the teams’ supporting casts:

It’s true; while Thompson and Green struggled mightily on the offensive end, they still impacted the game with what they were able to do defensively. The Cavaliers’ other pieces have not been able to do that, and how did they impact Game 1 when their shots weren’t falling? Answer: they didn’t.

Granted, the Warriors played extremely well in Game 1. Their four turnovers tied for the fewest in NBA Finals history and conventional wisdom would think that the performance will be difficult to replicate. But consider this: for all of the praise Golden State’s offense is getting today (and deservedly so), they only shot 42.5% from the field last night. For as well as they performed on the game’s biggest stage, they had far from their most efficient game of the season. That’s part of why I picked them to win the series; even on a bad night, they can still destroy you offensively. And while last night wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a bad night, the numbers show that they can play even better than they are right now. That is a frightening and scary thought for Cleveland to wrestle with.

The Cavaliers have fixable, albeit major, problems to rectify before they hit the Oracle Arena floor for Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. They need their bench to produce and their shooters to start hitting from behind the three-point line. They also need to play better transition defense, and they can accomplish that by simply standing in front of the player with the basketball at that particular time.

And they need to quickly make these adjustments to save the NBA Finals from turning into Kevin Durant/Jeff Van Gundy vs. Rihanna.

In Defense of Kevin Durant and Superstars Who Chase Rings

Photo Credit: Soobum Im/USA Today

Kevin Durant made his much-anticipated free agency decision on Monday, signing with the Warriors and spurning the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team he spent the first nine years of his career with (he played his rookie season with the Seattle SuperSonics before the team relocated to Oklahoma City).  For added context, the Thunder led the Warriors three games to one in the Western Conference Finals before dropping the next three games to suffer a heartbreaking elimination and one of the worst collapses in NBA history.

Needless to say, many were not thrilled about Durant’s decision to join the team he lost to in the playoffs.  These were just some of the thoughts of NBA players and pundits alike after Durant announced his “next chapter”:

First of all, there is no reason to compare Durant’s case to Jordan’s. Jordan made $30 million and $33 million in his last two seasons with the Bulls, respectively.  Durant’s deal with the Warriors is for two years and $54 million; he’ll be making less on average than Jordan did in his final two years.  So don’t even talk about greed in this discussion; Jordan and others did just fine for themselves by staying with their original teams.

Secondly, Charles Barkley has no right to say that Kevin Durant is cheating his way to a championship.  If memory serves, Barkley himself wanted to chase a ring at the end of his career and worked a trade to the Houston Rockets to make it happen.  (Hint: it didn’t work out so well.)  But hey, let’s rip a player for exercising his right to play wherever he wants.  That seems very fair.

And why is it a weak move for Durant to go wherever he wants?  It’s not weak to play for a team that won the most games in NBA history a season ago.  It isn’t.  It also wasn’t weak when LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010.  The issue with James’ decision was not the decision itself; rather, the issue came with The Decision, the one hour ESPN special that consisted of pure boredom and only yielded about 20 important seconds.  Even then, The Decision wasn’t all bad: James raised nearly $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and an additional $3.5 million through advertisement revenue.  Not bad for a completely pointless hour of television.

But why is there so much hatred about Durant’s move?  Why are so many people up in arms about what they perceive as a “weak move” when the players and the owners negotiated the right to free agency in the Collective Bargaining Agreement?  And why is there discontent over the increased salary cap when all it signifies is more money in the sport?

The way we’ve looked at the Durant signing is indicative of the way sports is covered today.  For example, people such as Stephen A. Smith are essentially paid to say outlandish, bizarre things without any shred of thought whatsoever.  Smith’s comment, and his appearance on SportsCenter that day, show that his argument was based more in emotion and anger than in nuance and contemplation.  There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but it shows that screaming loudly and making your takes as hot and crazy as possible is the best way to get noticed in the sports world.  That’s the monster we’ve created; Smith is just a byproduct of it.  Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

There’s also the other issue of “chasing rings”.  When superstars decide to team up with other superstars to win, we label them sellouts, players who weren’t willing to “do it the hard way”.  Here’s my argument: what incentive is there to do it the hard way when you can give yourself a better chance to win with another team?  While it would have been incredibly rewarding for Durant to win a championship in Oklahoma City, the fact is that it was financially possible and a sensible basketball decision for him to go to the Warriors.  What’s wrong with that?  It’s difficult to compare sports to the real world, but Durant left one job only to find a better opportunity with a greater chance for success.  There’s nothing wrong with doing that.

There is an argument to be made, though, that KD’s move is bad for the rest of the NBA.  That is very true.  To the most casual observer, what reason is there to watch the NBA in the regular season next year?  Luckily, hardcore fans will know that the Dubs will have to gut the rest of their current team to have enough money to sign Durant. This almost certainly means that the team will be worse than they were last year; you can’t go up from 73 wins and there won’t be as good of a supporting cast as there was a season ago.  But with four of the top 20 players in the world on the same squad, a great supporting cast may not be necessary.

But the outrage about a free agent making a decision on where to play basketball next season should not elicit this much outrage.  The only people who have the right to be upset with Durant are Thunder fans. Other than that, people don’t have the right to be this angry.  In fact, shouldn’t KD be applauded here?  In sports, we always talk about prioritizing money over winning and we place a ton of value on championships.  What Durant did in this case was just the opposite: he wants to win and will sacrifice money (and the spotlight) to do so. That shouldn’t be ridiculed; that should be appreciated.

But, in our world of “hot takes” and endless criticism of stars, we apparently can’t appreciate Durant’s self-sacrifice.  Which is a real shame, especially when you consider that it really wasn’t a “weak move” after all.

2016 NBA Mock Draft/Big Board

I’m sure you probably forgot about it with the NBA Finals going to seven games, but the NBA Draft is this Thursday in Brooklyn. This draft promises to be interesting on a number of levels, with a deep international pool and can’t-miss prospects at the top of the class.

I’ll start things off with my big board; it consists of 54 players, most if not all of which will be drafted Thursday night.  Here it is, followed by an explanation of a couple of rankings that might jump out at you:

  1. Brandon Ingram
  2. Ben Simmons
  3. Buddy Hield
  4. Jamal Murray
  5. Dragan Bender
  6. Jaylen Brown
  7. Kris Dunn
  8. Marquese Chriss
  9. Deyonta Davis
  10. Furkan Korkmaz
  11. Henry Ellenson
  12. Malik Beasley
  13. Dejounte Murray
  14. Denzel Valentine
  15. Domantas Sabonis
  16. Jakob Poeltl
  17. Skal Labissiere
  18. Demetrius Jackson
  19. Timothe Luwawu
  20. Ivica Zubac
  21. Malachi Richardson
  22. Taurean Prince
  23. Ante Zizic
  24. Patrick McCaw
  25. DeAndre’ Bembry
  26. Wade Baldwin IV
  27. Tyler Ulis
  28. Brice Johnson
  29. Thon Maker
  30. Rade Zagorac
  31. Stephen Zimmerman
  32. Juan Hernangomez
  33. Paul Zipser
  34. Guerschon Yabusele
  35. A.J. Hammons
  36. Cheick Diallo
  37. Caris LeVert
  38. Ben Bentil
  39. Zhou Qi
  40. Isaia Cordinier
  41. Diamond Stone
  42. Malcolm Brogdon
  43. Wayne Selden
  44. Chinanu Onuaku
  45. Jake Layman
  46. Juan Hernangomez
  47. Gary Payton II
  48. Georgios Papagiannis
  49. Isaiah Whitehead
  50. Damian Jones
  51. Pascal Siakam
  52. Fred VanVleet
  53. Kay Felder
  54. Yogi Ferrell

A couple of things to explain here.  Number one, I put Brandon Ingram at #1 on my board, and I did this for a variety of reasons.  The obvious one is that he’s a far, far better shooter than Simmons.  Simmons will have to get a jump shot if he wants to be successful in the NBA, at least offensively.  While he often looks to get his teammates involved, a la LeBron James or Magic Johnson, his shot needs an awful lot of work.  I also really like Ingram as a defender, and I think this makes his value as a wing skyrocket.

Another thing I should really address is Buddy Hield’s presence at #3.  While this sounds hyperbolic (and maybe it is), Hield is the best shooter the draft has seen since Steph Curry came out of Davidson in 2009.  Hield’s career progression kind of reminds you of Curry’s; he was a four-year student-athlete at Oklahoma and wasn’t recruited by more basketball-rich schools because of his lack of athletic ability.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, I think Hield is going to be really good in the NBA; his work ethic enables him to continue to improve, even at 22, and he should be able to contribute right away to whichever team takes him.

With all of that being said, it’s time for our first-round mock draft.  If this tweet is any indicator, I should be getting about two of thirty of these picks right:

So that’s nice.  In any event, let’s give it a shot.  Here’s my 2016 mock draft.  Let’s hope it doesn’t go up in flames.

1. Philadelphia 76ers

The pick: Ben Simmons

F/LSU

The only other logical pick for the 76ers here would be Brandon Ingram.  Simmons and Ingram are the two best players in this draft, and it’s a pretty big gap between two and three.

The most impressive part of Simmons’ game, other than his athleticism, is his passing ability.   Watch this play against Florida in January.  Pay close attention to how he looks off the defender and whips the pass into the paint for a shot under the basket:

In watching that play, it’s easy to see why the comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson have rolled in.  However, he’s not nearly a perfect player; as previously stated, he actually cannot shoot.  He’s probably not even shooting with the correct hand, so maybe a Tristan Thompson-esque change from his left hand to his right is forthcoming.

Also, if he is to have any other weakness, it’s that he’s not that great in the post.  His post game will need to become more advanced if he is to play the three or four in the NBA.  Other than that, he’s a really good passer and rebounder, one who could and probably will be highly productive at the next level.

Philly needs literally everything in the draft and free agency, so getting Simmons at 1 is a very good start.

Simmons Comparison: LAMAR ODOM/BLAKE GRIFFIN

2. Los Angeles Lakers

The pick: Brandon Ingram

F/Duke

Another very easy call here.  If the 76ers by chance pick Ingram over Simmons, then the Lakers would take Simmons at 2.

Ingram is another very interesting player at the top of the draft. He’s kind of a prototypical NBA wing, and as you can see from this highlight reel, he can really do a little bit of everything.

Personally, I like Ingram a little more than Simmons because his skill set better fits the NBA game.  He’s a good shooter (41% from three last season) and his shot should improve with time and repetition.  He also has lots of potential defensively and can become elite when he adds more strength.

The obvious knock on Ingram is that he’s thin as a rail.  That he is (6’9″, 190 lb.), and he will initially have trouble guarding stronger players in the post.  He’s also very raw and could become a far better finisher, especially in traffic.  Ingram has stated that he wants to eat lots of calories in order to bulk up, and he will have to fill out his frame in order to flourish in the NBA.

However, history has shown that he can still be on the thin side and succeed.  In watching him play, he reminds me of Kevin Durant, and I mean every word of that statement.

The Lakers will get Ingram or Simmons here.  Not a bad consolation prize at all.

Ingram Comparison: KEVIN DURANT

3. Boston Celtics

The pick: Dragan Bender

F/C/Croatia (last played for Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli BSL)

This is where I could see the draft getting very crazy.  The Celtics could do any number of things with this pick (including trade it) and there are several players they could take at 3.

The guy I have them taking is Dragan Bender, the slightly mysterious, physically imposing big man from overseas who is projected to go in the top-5.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, Bender is this year’s Kristaps Porzingis, for better or worse.

Bender’s game is a little bit of an enigma; he is a decent shooter who has shown that he can step out to the three-point line every once in a while.  He’s also a very good passer, particularly out of the post, which should help him against over-aggressive defenses.

But there are some apparent weaknesses: he’s not a great defender and his fundamentals are very poor.  His shot is also very inconsistent and he only shot 25% from three for Maccabi Tel Aviv last season.

Nonetheless, he projects as a solid NBA player.  Maybe he’ll be a solid unicorn as well.

Bender Comparison: VLADE DIVAC

4. Phoenix Suns

The pick: Jaylen Brown

F/California

Jaylen Brown is one of the most intriguing players in this draft. Brown is extremely athletic, the type of player who should be able to strive in Phoenix’s up-and-down system.

You can see the apparent athletic gifts Brown has in this dunk against UCLA:

Brown is an athletic specimen, but he doesn’t have that much more to offer other than his athletic ability and his defensive game; the two have a symbiotic relationship.  He doesn’t have very many advanced dribble moves and is only really a straight-line driver in the half court.  He also doesn’t have much of a jumper at this stage in his development, so going to a system that doesn’t require very much of him offensively will be very important.

Brown is incredibly raw, but he won’t be 20 until the season begins.  If he goes to the right place, he could develop into a really good player.  He has one of the highest upsides in the draft and he should be able to improve once he gets to the NBA.

Pheonix might be the place for him to do that.

Brown Comparison: METTA WORLD PEACE

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

The pick: Buddy Hield

Buddy Hield may not be the best player in the NBA Draft but he was the best player in college basketball last season.  That has to count for something, right?

Hield has no limits to his shooting range and, just as importantly, possesses a very quick trigger.  Watch how quickly he gets this shot out against Kansas in February:

Hield was the best shooter in the game, and he got that way because of his insane work ethic.  Just listen to this account from ESPN’s Dana O’Neil:

Hield […] tries to get between 300 and 500 shots a day outside of practice. And that’s on the days he’s feeling good about himself. When he feels like he’s off, he’ll push himself into the 500 to 700 range.

500 to 700 shots per day.  That’s absurd, but it at least partially explains why Hield has gotten so good.  The other part is sheer, natural talent, which he has a lot of.

His athleticism is what hindered him going into college and it will again in the NBA.  But if his work ethic is any indication, Hield can make himself into one of the best players in this draft and one of the best shooters in the league.

And the Timberwolves will reap the benefits at 5.  That is unless they deal the pick, of course.

6. New Orleans Pelicans

The pick: Kris Dunn

G/Providence

Kris Dunn is one of the few locks in this draft; at 22, he’s also one of its oldest players.  This kind of eats away at his upside, but it’s abundantly clear that Dunn is the best point guard in this year’s class.  It isn’t that close, either.

As for his fit in New Orleans, it would probably be a really great place for him to go.  He would step in immediately as the team’s starting point guard, but that’s not the best part of a potential Dunn-Pelicans union.  New Orleans started four different point guards over the course of last season; Dunn would solidify the position and, at worst, give the team another option.

There’s also the appeal of what Dunn brings to the table.  He’s one of the most athletic players in this draft and this helps him on both ends of the floor.  He isn’t as good of a decision-maker as you would think and his jump shot isn’t that great, but these things could still improve with time.

In the meantime, he’s an already solid defender who should get even better in the NBA.  Also, his athleticism and his ability to pass should help him acquiesce with star big man Anthony Davis; needless to say, prepare for a poor man’s version of Lob City in the French Quarter.

Dunn is the perfect fit for the Pelicans, and he’s one of the few sureties of this draft.  He may be a little overrated, but he’ll still have himself a solid career in the NBA.

Dunn Comparison: VICTOR OLADIPO

7. Denver Nuggets

The pick: Jamal Murray

G/Kentucky

Jamal Murray is one of the best pure shooters in this year’s draft class.  Watch him shoot this three from deep against Louisville early in the year:

Murray is a certified scorer, having put up 20 per game on an offensively stacked Kentucky squad. He’s also a good decision-maker and a solid passer. His greatest gift, though, is not on the offensive end.

Murray is one of the best defenders in this year’s draft, and even though his lack of athleticism will hurt him at the next level, his effort and energy will help him compensate for this weakness. Even though he’s not big enough to guard wings, he should be able to have success against guards, which is critical for a Nuggets team that allowed 105 points per game last season. Denver also ranked 26th in three-point percentage (33.8%) last year, so Murray is basically the epitome of everything they need right now.

He’s far from a perfect player, but Jamal Murray is a player you would want on your team; he makes effort plays that help his team win games.  Hopefully for the Nuggets, drafting him will help them improve from their 33-win mark of a season ago.

Murray Comparison: WESLEY MATTHEWS

8. Sacramento Kings

The pick: Marquese Chriss

F/Washington

This is where the draft starts to turn a little bit upside down.  I have the Kings taking the riskiest player in this draft at 8: Marquese Chriss.

Chriss is only 18 years old and won’t turn 19 until next month. If you watch him play long enough, his age and inexperience show.  He doesn’t bring very much to the table offensively, although he does have a pretty good jump shot.  Also, his defensive game needs quite a bit of work, and his effort is questionable at times.  He will have to prove that he’s mature enough for the NBA, and I’m not convinced that he is right now.

The selling point for Chriss is his extraordinary upside.  He may be the most athletic player in the draft and his quickness could help him become a good defender if he works at it.  He’ll have to do that in addition to proving that he’s mature beyond his years. My guess is that he’ll be headed to the D-League to start his career.

Someone will take a risk on him in the top 10, and I think the Kings will be that team.

Chriss Comparison: JOSH SMITH

9. Toronto Raptors

The pick: Deyonta Davis

F/C/Michigan State

Davis is a very solid defender and could become a very good NBA rim protector in his development.  The NBA is chomping at the bit to have another one of those, as SB Nation’s Kevin O’Connor writes:

Davis wasn’t expected to be a one-and-done prospect but he rose quickly in college. At this point of the draft process he’s a likely lottery pick. But NBA teams are drooling for more bigs that can protect the rim, switch screens, and rebound, so Davis could surge up the charts as the draft approaches. Just like he always has.

Davis has risen in the draft process, as his athleticism and rim protection make him appealing to teams looking for a little more punch defensively.  The Raptors are going to need that punch in the future, as sudden playoff hero Bismack Biyombo is due for a massive raise from his $2.81 million salary of a season ago.  He’ll get that raise, but it may not be from the Raptors.

Davis is not much of a jump shooter at this stage of his development; he does have the potential to step out from midrange eventually.  He’s kind of an inconsistent player, but he’s also still a teenager learning the fundamentals of the game. He should be able to improve as he learns how to play basketball, and he could become one of the best players in this draft.

His upside is abundant, which should appeal to the Raptors, who are looking to dethrone the Cavs in the Eastern Conference.  That may not happen, but drafting Davis with the 9th pick would be a prudent decision for them.

Davis Comparison: JORDAN HILL

10. Milwaukee Bucks

The pick: Furkan Korkmaz

F/Turkey (last played for Anadolu Efes of the Turkish League)

Furkan Korkmaz is one of the unknown players in this year’s class.  His skill set, though, allows him to translate in the NBA right away.

I’ll admit this: I wasn’t able to see quite as much of him as I might have liked.  What I did see of him grabbed my attention, to say the least.

For example, Korkmaz is a very solid shooter with exceptional form.   When watching him play, you immediately hearken to watching someone like Klay Thompson, a shooter with perfect form and a very quick release.  Even though Korkmaz may be more of a forward in the NBA, he’ll be playing the type of game that Thompson does now.  His shooting could help several teams; that’s where the Milwaukee Bucks come in.

The Bucks shot just 34.5% from deep a season ago and have struggled in three-point shooting for the past several years.  The team made an effort to resolve this problem by drafting UNLV sharpshooter Rashad Vaughn a season ago; Vaughn shot threes at a 29% clip last season.

Drafting Korkmaz could go a long way toward fixing this problem.  He has told teams that he’ll be coming over right away and he could provide immediate shooting help for a Bucks team that could use it.

The Bucks are close to contention; taking someone who could help address their biggest flaw can’t hurt.

Korkmaz Comparison: KLAY THOMPSON

11. Orlando Magic

The pick: Henry Ellenson

F/Marquette

Marquette’s Henry Ellenson has recently drawn some comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki.  When he plays, it’s easy to see why; they possess very similar sets of skills and body types.

Ellenson’s abilities are very diverse: he’s an improving shooter and can mix it up in the post as well.  He can also shoot off the dribble, as this play from the Big East Tournament shows:

Ellenson can do many different things offensively. His major weakness, however, is his defense.  The main reason why he struggles so much defensively is his athleticism, which is another similarity he shares with Dirk.  Ellenson is simply a slow player, but the Magic could use his skill set to their advantage.

Consider this: new head coach Frank Vogel seems to really like big men.  He cultivated the careers of Roy Hibbert and Myles Turner in Indiana, and he doesn’t really like to play at a very fast pace.  That style of play will be perfect for Ellenson, as the team will only rely on his shot-making ability and offensive game.

Even if he isn’t the next Dirk, Ellenson will still be able to help many teams.  The Magic are definitely one of them.

Ellenson Comparison: DIRK NOWITZKI

12. Atlanta Hawks

The pick: Dejounte Murray

G/Washington

Just like his Washington teammate, Marquese Chriss, Dejounte Murray is a potentially high-risk, high-reward player.  The Hawks probably were not in the market for backcourt help before this week.  However, they are now, as Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports:

The Hawks could definitely use another guard in their system. Murray is that guy.

He is one of the better scorers in the draft; the problem comes in his efficiency, or lack thereof.  He consistently forces up bad shots and will need to improve his shot selection at the next level.  His defense is also lacking somewhat, but he can improve this skill.

The Hawks probably wouldn’t be asking very much out of Murray, at least to start.  Why they are drafting him has everything to do with his offensive ability, as he could give the Hawks a diverse set of talents.  Atlanta needs to be willing to wait for them to develop, though, as Murray is very raw and needs time to realize his potential.

Even if he goes to the D-League to start his career, Murray may be able to help Atlanta offensively for years to come.  Just don’t expect it anytime soon.

Murray Comparison: ALEC BURKS/JAMAL CRAWFORD

13. Pheonix Suns

The pick: Skal Labissiere

F/C/Kentucky

At this time a year ago, Skal Labissiere was regarded as one of the top players in this draft.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Labissiere’s 2015-16 collegiate season at Kentucky was one of the most singularly disappointing campaigns in recent memory.  It wasn’t all his fault; he didn’t receive a ton of playing time and didn’t get the repetitions needed to improve his overall game. He needs to improve exponentially, but you can see why teams are excited about him.

For example, his height and exceptional reach potentially make him one of the best rim protectors in this year’s class.  This play against LSU in early March shows a glimpse of his potential:

At 7’0″, Labissiere could reasonably play center in the NBA.  That being said, he still has a long way to go in many areas; he has little to no offensive game and would probably be off to the D-League to start his career.

While that is true, some teams are salivating over him because of his upside.  At just 20 years old, he does not possess the competitive experience of his peers.  Having grown up in Haiti and lived through the 2010 earthquake, Skal has been through a lot.  Luckily for him, he’s about to realize his NBA dream.

I would be willing to take a chance on Labissiere near the end of the lottery, and I think the Suns would as well.

Labissiere Comparison: HASSAN WHITESIDE

14. Chicago Bulls

The pick: Jakob Poeltl

C/Utah

I will be very honest with you: Jakob Poeltl does not thrill me. I’ve wanted to like him throughout this process, and I don’t think he’s going to be a bad player in the NBA.

But having watched him several times during the season and in the NCAA Tournament, I wasn’t blown away by him.  He’s a very true center and really doesn’t possess any ability to play the 4. Also, he doesn’t have great athletic ability or an advanced offensive game to make up for it.  This lack of offensive prowess hurt him in his NCAA Tournament matchup against Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis; if you don’t want to see the highlights, Poeltl got destroyed.

Nevertheless, the Bulls might need a center this summer. Joakim Noah is a free agent and a shell of his former self. While the team is trading point guard Derrick Rose to the Knicks, the lack of a true center is their biggest need right now.

So even though I see several issues with Poeltl’s game, I think he’d be a solid pickup for Chicago.  He’s not overwhelmingly good like some scouts think, but he’ll be a solid choice for the Bulls at 14.

And really, solid is all Chicago can ask for.

Poeltl Comparison: ANDREW BOGUT

15. Denver Nuggets

The pick: Denzel Valentine

F/Michigan State

The Nuggets’ second pick of the first round is a little bit more simple.  They’ll likely take the best player available here: Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine.

Valentine should probably be a lottery choice.  The reason he would be available here is because of concerns about a knee injury, as reported by BasketballInsiders:

Word is Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine may have a fairly significant knee issue, so much so that one team sort of compared him to former Indiana Pacers All-Star Danny Granger, who came into the league with a degenerative knee condition and struggled every year to play 82 games. League sources said it’s still likely he will get drafted in the first round, but his stock looks to be a tough one to lock in with so many teams believing his knee will be a problem.

I’d say that’s an issue.  But if Valentine can stay healthy, he’ll be one of the most effective players this draft has to offer.  As a very good passer and shooter, he could immediately step into the point forward role that many have talked about Ben Simmons assuming.

With the Nuggets, taking Valentine should be the obvious choice. Given all of Danilo Gallinari’s injury concerns, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have his replacement ready in case they flare up again?  This is the pick they should make.

Hopefully, Valentine proves to be more like Jared Sullinger than Danny Granger.

Valentine Comparison: GORDON HAYWARD

16. Boston Celtics

The pick: Ante Zizic

C/Croatia (last played for Cibona Zagreb of the Croatian League)

If the Celtics are serious about being players in free agency for Kevin Durant and others, then their best option is to pick a draft-and-stash international player.  Enter Ante Zizic, a center from Croatia.

Zizic is an interesting player and one of the best rebounders in the draft.  He likely will not be coming to the States this year, so the Celtics won’t be paying him.  They will retain his rights, though.  

At just 19 years old, Zizic was exceptionally productive in Croatia; he posted a 25.7 PER in just one season in the league. Zizic’s productivity should mean that he’ll fare well in the NBA. He won’t be here this year, but his rebounding, defensive, and scoring ability should have him in demand on draft night.

And with the Celtics looking to save all the money they possibly can, they’ll be willing to wait for his skill set to make its way across the Atlantic.

Zizic Comparison: NIKOLA VUCEVIC

17. Memphis Grizzlies

The pick: Malachi Richardson

F/Syracuse

Perhaps no player in the first round of this draft helped his stock through the draft process more than Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson.  Richardson had one of the best performances at the Draft Combine in mid-May, which undoubtedly led him to keep his name in this year’s class.

The reason the Grizzlies are taking him here is because… they said so.  Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress and The Vertical reports the following:

The Grizzlies are enamored with the Syracuse wing, and he could be a fit here. They could really use the perimeter shooting he offers and has some upside.

The Grizzlies have essentially promised Richardson he will be taken here if he isn’t before then.  Richardson would offer the Grizzlies a bevy of skills, from his outside shooting to his athletic ability.  He’s a pure scorer, and that has precluded him somewhat from becoming a better passer and decision-maker.

Richardson really needs to improve his shot selection to stick in the NBA.  He has a tendency to take poor shots, particularly early in the shot clock.  If he can curb this habit and become a better passer, he’ll become a good player in the NBA.

But for now, he’s good enough to get a promise from Memphis at 17.

Richardson Comparison: PAUL PIERCE/MANU GINOBILI

18. Detroit Pistons

The pick: Domantas Sabonis

F/Gonzaga

Domantas Sabonis is a very interesting player.  As a pure power forward, he doesn’t possess very much athletic ability or a consistent three-pointer at this phase.  However, he can give a team a legitimate offensive threat off the bench, one who could step out to midrange or put it on the floor and get to the basket.

As I said earlier, Sabonis absolutely slaughtered Jakob Poeltl in their second round NCAA Tournament game.  Go to around 0:42 of the video if you want a true sense of Sabonis’ offensive expertise and dominance of the Utah center on that particular night:

Sabonis’ stock is somewhat difficult to pin down. While I could completely see him being taken in the lottery, I could also see him falling out of it.  He doesn’t have a ton of upside and his biggest progression in the NBA will be his improving perimeter jumper.  He’s not that fast and not really athletic.

But he makes hustle plays, ones that win games and keep him in demand.  Also, his father, Arvydas, played in the NBA for seven seasons, all of which came after his 30th birthday.  His dad was a very intelligent player, and Domantas is too.

Detroit has been looking for a talented backup big man since their deadline deal for Houston’s Donatas Motiejunas fell through.  Stan Van Gundy will get what he wants in Sabonis.

Sabonis Comparison: DREW GOODEN

19. Denver Nuggets

The pick: Wade Baldwin IV

G/Vanderbilt

Wade Baldwin has been shooting up NBA Draft boards with comparisons to Russell Westbrook.  Yes, that Russell Westbrook.

Baldwin has also shot up big boards because of his performance in interviews.  He’s said all of the right things in the draft process and teams don’t really seem to care if he himself actually believes them.

Baldwin’s biggest calling card at the NBA level will be his athleticism.  Watch him get away with a travel and get up for the dunk at the Maui Invitational in late November:

Needless to say, Baldwin’s athletic ability will help him bring a lot to the table for NBA teams.  He could become a good defender if he wants to be; that’s a big if, but it could be a major asset in his game.  He’s also a dangerous shooter from deep, having shot 42.2% in two years at Vanderbilt.  His jumper is somewhat inconsistent, but it’s easy to see why some teams are absolutely drooling over him.

For the Nuggets, Baldwin is another guard in a crowded backcourt that includes Gary Harris and Emmanuel Mudiay. There’s always the possibility that Mudiay doesn’t work out as the team’s starting point guard (he ranked 375th in the NBA in PER last season), so Baldwin should make for a solid insurance policy.

Hopefully for him, he can rise even higher than this before Thursday night.

20. Indiana Pacers

The pick: Brice Johnson

F/North Carolina

So, Larry Bird, you want to play a little faster?  Okay, you have your guy.

Johnson is really athletic.  Like, so athletic that his max vertical is 38 inches.  In watching dunks like these, I’m convinced that figure should be even higher:

Johnson would be the perfect fit for new coach Nate McMillan’s (and Bird’s) system.  He would be ideal as a rim runner and a finisher who could throw down putback dunks.  He wouldn’t be asked to do very much and has a legitimate dunk contest future.

If the Pacers get that Brice Johnson, they should be more than happy.

Johnson Comparison: BRANDAN WRIGHT

21. Utah Jazz

The pick: Timothe Luwawu

F/France (last played for Mega Leks of the Serbian Basketball League)

Some mock drafts see Timothe Luwawu landing in the lottery. Mine does not, as I don’t see very many teams that need help at the wing.

Luwawu is a good player, one who almost entered the draft a season ago.  His most translatable NBA skill is his jump shot, as he is a very good jump shooter for a small forward.  His other impressive skill is his defense, as he is one of the best defenders in the draft, even if his consistency lags behind.

Luwawu has not been playing competitive basketball for a very long time, and he still has room for improvement.  He is 21 years old, but he still has some upside left.

The Jazz seem to like defensively-inclined, athletic players. Luwawu will give that to them, and while he isn’t quite ready to assume a larger role right now, he should become a very good player in the NBA.  The one issue with Utah’s current construction is that Gordon Hayward could very well be traded; Luwawu could go a long way toward replacing him.

The Jazz trade down and get their man, regardless of whether or not Hayward stays.

Luwawu Comparison: P.J. TUCKER

22. Charlotte Hornets

The pick: Malik Beasley

G/Florida State

Malik Beasley is one of my favorite players in this draft.  He makes his teammates better.  He’s unselfish.  He goes after loose balls with reckless abandon.  He gives 100% at all times.

And then there are the obvious tools be brings to the table.  His athleticism is off the charts and he is able to finish dunks with authority both in transition and the halfcourt.  As a defender, he is very solid, and his athleticism and development will definitely help him improve on that end.

The Hornets may be in the market for a backup point guard. Jeremy Lin has a player option for next season and figures to demand more than the $2.1 million he made this year.  Beasley would be a cheaper solution, one who could give the Hornets some minutes behind Kemba Walker.

Beasley would be a backup plan for Charlotte, but he’d be a very good one.  He would give an effort and energy that would be infectious.  He’d also give the Hornets good defense, and he’s only getting better on that end.

This would be a home run for the Hornets if they could land Beasley.  It might even be the biggest steal of the draft if it happens.  I totally believe that.

Beasley Comparison: ZACH LAVINE

23. Boston Celtics

The pick: Rade Zagorac

F/Serbia (last played for Mega Leks of the Serbian Basketball League)

The Celtics have another pick, and the common sense solution is another draft-and-stash player: Rade Zagorac.

Zagorac is a player with good size for a wing (6’9″) and noteworthy athletic ability.  At just 20 years old, he’s still got a lot of room to improve, and staying to play in Serbia for at least another year or two should be beneficial to his development.

I know it sounds crazy that the Celtics would take three international players in the first round.  It probably is; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the C’s deal at least one of their first-round selections.  They have eight in total, so there will be plenty of other opportunities to improve their team.  I could definitely see them trading one or more of these picks to acquire assets to help them win now.

If they keep the pick, I have them taking Zagorac.  That is a very big if.

Zagorac Comparison: TRAVIS OUTLAW

24. Philadelphia 76ers

The pick: Demetrius Jackson

G/Notre Dame

I may have said this earlier, but the 76ers have a ton of needs. The biggest one is probably the point guard position, and even though they’re going to take Simmons with the first pick, they could use some serious guard help.

So it would only make sense that they take the best guard available in Demetrius Jackson.  Jackson would be able to help the Sixers almost immediately as a passer, finisher, and shooter. His offensive game is generally undeveloped but he should be able to step in and contribute right away.

However, this is another situation where the team could deal its late-first round draft pick.  The Sixers have been in “active discussions” with other teams about trading the pick and it would make complete sense if they did.  Philly could use some shooting to surround Simmons and could include this pick in a package with one of their many, many, many big men.

So if Philly holds on to the 24th pick, they’ll take Jackson.  My guess is that they won’t.

Jackson Comparison: ERIC BLEDSOE

25. Los Angeles Clippers

The pick: Patrick McCaw

G/F/UNLV

You’ll never believe this, but the Los Angeles Clippers have a first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.  Even better, they haven’t traded it away.  Yet.

Team President Doc Rivers has made some questionable decisions during his tenure that have seriously sabotaged head coach Doc Rivers.  Late first round draft picks have not been among them, but Rivers has a questionable history when it comes to personnel decisions.

And, let’s face it, the Clippers could be on the verge of blowing up their roster in a nuclear manner.  In deciding what to do about many of the team’s soon-to-expire contracts, Rivers will have to decide who to keep and who to get rid of; he’ll have to decide on the futures of players such as Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and J.J. Redick rather soon.

Patrick McCaw might be a part of the Clippers’ (soon-to-be-revamped?) roster.  McCaw is an intriguing player best known for his athleticism and finishing ability.  He struggles defensively and with his shot but he has the potential to stick in the league.

The Clippers need to take advantage of this opportunity.  It’s not every year that you get to have a first-round draft pick.  Well, not for them, anyway.

McCaw Comparison: KEVIN MARTIN

26. Philadelphia 76ers

The pick: Taurean Prince

F/Baylor

This is another pick that the 76ers will likely trade.  I really can’t see any way the team keeps the pick unless it drafts an international player.  What I can do is tell you a little about Taurean Prince.

Prince grew up in San Antonio and his parents separated early in his life.  Long story short, he bounced from home to home without finding a permanent one.  He went back and forth between both of his parents and wasn’t able to find full-time shelter until going to college at Long Island University, only to transfer to Baylor.  CSN Philly has his full story if you’re interested in reading it; you really should give it a look.

That puts things in some good perspective and it shows that Prince won’t be fazed at all by playing in the NBA.  As a player, Prince is a very good athlete who excels at the defensive end. He’s not a great offensive player but he has some potential left to improve.  He does have NBA range from deep and could become this draft’s “three-and-D” player.  But the most important thing he’s about to become is an NBA draft pick, fulfilling his dream of being in the league.

If he does nothing else in basketball, he will have gotten much farther than anyone could have expected when he was going from house to house as a child.

Prince Comparison: DEMARRE CARROLL

27. Toronto Raptors

The pick: DeAndre’ Bembry

G/St. Joseph’s

DeAndre’ Bembry is probably the best offensive player left at this point in the draft.  The Raptors could use a little offense, even if it comes at the end of the first round.

Bembry is capable of throwing down in transition and has a good body for a guard.  He’s also a very good ball-handler who is able to make advanced dribble moves to get to this shot.  He is a certified scorer, having averaged nearly 18 points per game over the past two seasons.

However, his weakness is his jump shot and how it has regressed since his freshman year at St. Joe’s.  Inexplicably, Bembry’s three-point percentage dipped from 34.6% in his freshman year to 32.7% in his sophomore year and finally to 26.6% this past season.  Bembry will have to fix his shot if he’s going to have a successful NBA career.

The Raptors will take the best available player here and take a chance on DeAndre’ Bembry.

Bembry Comparison: JAE CROWDER

28. Phoenix Suns

The pick: Thon Maker

C/Sudan (last played for Canada’s Athlete Institute)

This is the ultimate low-risk, potentially high-reward pick. Actually, there’s little to no risk in taking Thon Maker with the 28th pick in the first round.

Maker is a rarity in today’s NBA Draft: a player who came straight out of high school into the draft.  Maker was able to do this because he actually graduated high school in 2015, the same year Simmons, Ingram, and every other one-and-done player did.  However, Maker decided to stay in high school as a post-graduate student, therefore fulfilling the minimum age and schooling requirements (one year out of high school) for entry into the NBA Draft.  Maker is poised to become the first player to be drafted into the NBA straight out of high school since 2005, the last year of the league’s old eligibility rules.

As a player, Maker is incredibly raw; he never played college basketball and has very little competitive experience.  His best skill is his rebounding ability, a talent crafted from his effort and elite size (7’1″, 220 lb.).  He is also a good defender and could become a rim protector with time.  The other clear upside with him is that he’s 19 years old and could get a lot better with NBA coaching.

There’s a reason why picking Maker is a perceived risk; teams won’t know what they’re getting until the Summer League (Maker did not play in any 5-on-5 games at the Draft Combine). However, there is something to be said for the possibility that he could be the player with the highest upside in this draft.  Maybe, at the end of the first round, a team will take a minimal risk on Maker.

He really is two years away from being two years away.  After that, we’ll see where he is.  But he’s going to be drafted, and I think the Suns would take a risk on him at 28.

Maker Comparison: ARVYDAS SABONIS/BISMACK BIYOMBO

29. San Antonio Spurs

The pick: Ivica Zubac

C/Bosnia and Herzegovina (last played for Mega Leks of the Serbian League)

You’re probably keenly aware of the San Antonio Spurs’ history of digging out international talent.  From Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili to Fabricio Oberto to international hero Boban Marjanovic, the team has been brilliant at finding good international players and developing them into solid NBA players.  This pick will be no different.

Ivica Zubac is a very talented player who would fit perfectly into the Spurs’ system.  He’s a great passer, particularly for a center, and he has a very good, balanced skill set offensively.  He reminds me an awful lot of Marc Gasol; unfortunately, he reminds me of Gasol in some negative ways, too.

The two have a lot of things in common, but their biggest similarity is their shared foot problems.  Zubac plays fairly low to the ground and his broken foot, suffered in 2014, is the reason why.  Add that on to a knee injury suffered last year and you get a picture of a somewhat crippled big man whose injury problems may get worse before they get better.

It’s the ultimate Spurs pick, though.  R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich have done a great job with international picks; they even have a couple stashed away in other countries.  They would be more than receptive to taking Zubac or another international player at 29, so don’t be surprised if and when they do.

And don’t be surprised if their pick becomes a future all-star, either.

Zubac Comparison: MARC GASOL

30. Golden State Warriors

The pick: Cheick Diallo

F/C/Kansas

Let’s face it; the Warriors really can’t make their team better through the draft.  They have the reigning unanimous MVP (Steph Curry) and two other stars (Draymond Green and Klay Thompson) on the payroll.  They’re doing pretty well for themselves.

And, according to Chris Broussard and his sources, they’re trying to make another splash in free agency:

That would shake up the NBA, to say the least. You could basically pencil in the Cavaliers and the Warriors for next year’s Finals if this happens.  I think that would surprise just about everyone. Anyway…

A logical and interesting choice here would be Kansas’ Cheick Diallo.  Diallo showed flashes of being a solid player last year at Kansas but played very limited minutes.  He made a name for himself at the Draft Combine and left his name in the draft off the heels of his performance there.  He’s extremely raw on both ends of the floor and would need extensive time in the D-League before coming to the NBA.  Going to the right situation is crucial to his development.

Golden State is that perfect situation.  I think they might take a risk on him at the end of round one.

Diallo Comparison: TRISTAN THOMPSON

What did I get right and wrong?  Leave a comment below or tweet me!

The NBA Finals Is Upside Down, So Let’s Just Enjoy It

lebron james game 6 stats nba finals 2016 points rebounds assists steals
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Nothing easy… we’re going to Game Seven baby!  Game Seven! GAME SEVENNNNNNNN! – Zaza Pachulia

I’m going to say something I never thought I’d say.  It took a long time to get to this point, but since we’re here, I might as well tell the truth.

I give up trying to figure out these NBA Finals.  The twists, the turns, the mouthpiece tosses.  I really don’t know how Game 7 will go and I’m still trying to figure out how we got here.  It’s not worth it to sort out the particulars of the first six games of this series because the Finals actually makes less sense to me when I do.

But we can at least try to decipher the first six games and look ahead to Sunday night’s Game 7.  The key word: try.

For one thing, we’ve found our Finals MVP.  Ironically, it’s the same person that should’ve won the award last year: LeBron James.  He’s actually leading every statistical category in this series, as noted by ESPN Stats and Info:

James has so clearly been the best player on the floor in this series.  Moreover, no player on the Warriors has distinguished himself nearly enough to wrest the award away from him, and that holds true even if Golden State wins Game 7.  If you’re only watching the Finals and didn’t follow the regular season, you would think that LeBron was the unanimous MVP and not Steph Curry.  That’s saying something.

And there’s more bad news for the Warriors.  Andre Iguodala, last year’s Finals MVP and primary LeBron defender, suffered a back injury in last night’s game.  While he’s definitely going to play on Sunday, his health may be the difference in the game. There’s another thing I never thought I’d say.

And Iguodala’s injury has other ramifications, too.  The Warriors are already thin in the frontcourt, with Andrew Bogut out for the Finals with a knee injury.  Without his minutes and the normal services of Iguodala, players like Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes would likely have to spend more time guarding James.

Green may be able to hold his own, but the bigger question mark is Barnes.  After I wrote about how Barnes would need to play better for the Warriors to win a championship, he promptly had the worst game of his life in Game 6.  Barnes went for 0 offensive rebounds, 0 assists, and 0 points last night.  This is hard to do (especially as a starter), but the legitimately did nothing on the offensive end of the floor.  So who knows where his mind is right now.

Yet another issue for the Warriors comes from an unlikely source: Steph Curry.  The back-to-back MVP struggled with foul trouble in Game 6, fouling out for the first time this season. After his sixth foul, he had this memorable reaction.  He would assuredly like to forget it:

Soon after Steph fouled out, his wife, Ayesha, tweeted out this thought.  I don’t even know what to say about it that would correctly encapsulate its stupidity:

Ayesha Curry puts out a theory (via Twitter).

Ironically, after saying she “won’t be silent”, she deleted the tweet.  It was a good move, as the tweet only received at least 28,758 retweets.  It’s not like the whole world saw it or anything.

But, regardless of his wife’s thoughts, Steph needs to stay out of foul trouble in Game 7.  The Warriors need his offense on the floor to win their second straight championship.  Even though he’s been outplayed by Kyrie Irving in this series, he is still capable of going off at any particular time.  His chances of doing so are exponentially greater if he doesn’t have to go to the bench with early foul woes.

And then there’s the issue of the Warriors’ “death lineup”.  While it had flourished earlier in the series, it was outscored 27-9 in Game 6.  Part of that is the injury to Iguodala, but the Cavs deserve a great deal of credit here.  On multiple occasions, the team used pick and roll action to switch Curry or Klay Thompson on James.  Curry’s foul trouble, combined with LeBron’s massive height and strength advantage over both players, led to several easy baskets for Cleveland.

The other problem is that without Bogut’s rim protection, the Warriors have no way of stopping these switches.  If Green (who plays center in the death lineup) helps on LeBron, he leaves Tristan Thompson open.  Because Bron is such a good passer and Thompson is so good at cutting toward the basket, the result often ends in an alley-oop dunk, as it did several times in Game 6.

Golden State has several issues.  These issues are so significant that they may make the difference in this series.  But this is about more than the Warriors; it’s also about LeBron.

We’ll never know why James was so much less assertive in the first four games as compared to his last two.  However, since he and Kyrie Irving decided to take things into their own hands the last two games, the Cavaliers have been a totally different team.

There is one Cavalier player, though, who could seriously step things up in Game 7: Kevin Love.  Last night, Love only played 12 minutes, plagued by foul trouble and ineffectiveness.  At this point, Tyronn Lue may want to bring Love off the bench outright, as he’s only getting role player minutes in his current capacity.  Richard Jefferson once again stepped into his role and outplayed him, and he may be worthy of the Game 7 nod.  Then again, the Cavs got here with Love, so their allegiance to him in their starting lineup is very understandable.

At this point, I’m about out of ways to figure out this series.  I don’t know how we’re here, with the greatest regular season team in NBA history on the verge of the worst collapse the league has ever seen.  But this series really is even; both teams have scored 610 points over the course of the last six games.  In spite of the fact that none of the games have been within single digits, the NBA Finals is as even as it could be.

I have a feeling Game 7 is going to be epic.  It will pit the league’s two biggest stars against one another in a winner-take-all bout to determine legacies and history.  I’ve given up trying to figure out this series, so I’m going to enjoy Sunday night’s game as the culmination of a fascinating NBA season.

You should too.

The Cavaliers Are Not a Better Team Without Kevin Love*

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 17: Kevin Love #0 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate during the second quarter of the NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Pistons 106-101. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

*But his absence helps Cleveland stack up against the Warriors.

When Kevin Love suffered a concussion in the first half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, opinion was split on his impact to a Cavs team facing a 2-0 deficit against the Golden State Warriors. Some thought Love’s injury and, later, his inability to play in Game 3 would spell doom for Cleveland; others felt his absence would actually help the team.  Still others believed that the series was already over regardless of Love’s presence.

Sure enough, the Cavaliers rocked the Warriors by 30 in Game 3, inserting themselves back into the series.  They did so without Kevin Love.

So it was no surprise that after the game, many pundits pointed to Love’s absence as a case of addition by subtraction rather than a crippling loss.  Here are just some headlines from the postgame reaction:

The Cavaliers Should Trade Kevin Love This Summer, But Where? (SB Nation)

Let’s Face the Facts: The Cavs Are Better Against the Warriors Without Kevin Love (CBS Sports)

It’s Time for Cavs, Kevin Love to Decide If They Fit in or Fit Out Together (Bleacher Report)

It looks like some are already jumping ahead to this summer, one that should see the salary cap rapidly approach $100 million.  Whether or not the Cavaliers wish to keep Love may be impacted by the fact that the team is almost $24 million over the league’s $84.7 million luxury tax for this season; Love’s contract calls for a cap hit of over $20 million every year until 2020. While Dan Gilbert has exhibited the willingness to win no matter the cost, financials could play into the Cavs’ ultimate decision on Love.

But there really isn’t time to worry about this now.  What we can pay attention to is the Cavaliers’ NBA Finals matchup with the defending champions and single-season wins record holders, the Golden State Warriors.

And the fact is, Cleveland is probably better, at least in this series, without him.

In Game 1, Love shot 7-17 and scored 17 points.  However, he only shot 3-10 from inside the paint and 2-5 from inside three feet.  The Cavs’ offense was off all night, resulting in a 38% shooting performance which included a 23-60 showing from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Love.  The Warriors took Game 1 104-89, a win that saw Golden State’s bench score 45 points.  By contrast, Cleveland’s bench scored a paltry 10.

Both teams would move on to Game 2.  In that game, Love went up for a rebound against the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes.  Barnes drilled Love with an elbow to the back of the head, leaving him down in a heap as play continued.

 

Why the game proceeded as Love was down in such a dangerous area of the floor is beyond me.  Luckily, Draymond Green was able to jump to his side and avoid landing on him as he elevated for the subsequent layup, avoiding more serious injury for the Cavs’ big man.  The game should have been stopped to give Love time to get out of the way before grown men of his size (and bigger) came flying at his twisted body.  But I digress….

The Warriors would follow up on the injury by pulling away and taking Game 2 by 33 for a 2-0 lead and undisputed control of the series.  Love would enter the NBA’s concussion protocol after re-entering the game in the second half as a dizzied, compromised version of himself.  Some thought the Cavaliers would be a compromised version of themselves in Game 3.  As it turns out, they were just the opposite.

With Love’s inability to start Game 3, the team would turn to soon-to-be 36-year-old Richard Jefferson to start in his place. While many (including myself) called for Tyronn Lue to start Timofey Mozgov, the team’s only true center, the move to Jefferson wound up paying dividends.  The team shot 52.7% from the field, including 12-25 from three, en route to a 120-90 drubbing of the Warriors.

While there are other factors at play (namely the struggles of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson), what the Cavaliers did on Wednesday night was nothing short of remarkable.  Jefferson’s insertion into the starting lineup made a big difference in several ways.

For one, the Cavs’ offense was run much more simply with Jefferson.  Kyrie Irving and LeBron James handled the ball on almost every possession.  Decisions were made far more quickly.  The ball movement was far sharper than it was in Games 1 and 2; 17 and 15 assists in the first two games, respectively, became 23 assists in Game 3.

Nonetheless, we do need to look beyond the numbers for a full explanation of the Cavs’ stunning turnaround.  For as simple as this sounds, James, Irving, and the rest of the offense executed in ways they didn’t in the Bay Area.  For example, look at J.R. Smith.  Smith, the alwaysenigmatic sharpshooter who has found a way to revitalize his career in Cleveland’s winning environment, struggled to patch together any offense in the first two games.  Lo and behold, Game 3 rolls around and Smith puts up 20 points on the strength of five threes.

That leads us to another theory: do the role players for each team play better at home?  In watching the Cavaliers in this series, the answer would have to be yes.  Role players such as Smith and Tristan Thompson, who struggled in Oakland, pieced together outstanding performances in Game 3, doing their part to turn the tide of the Finals.

That being said, the Cavs need to sustain their performance in Game 4 and beyond.  Curry and Klay Thompson will figure out their perimeter woes sooner or later, and when they do, the Warriors will be difficult to contain.

But while sustainability may be an issue, the Cavaliers are better equipped to win this series with Jefferson in the starting lineup. In Game 3, Jefferson’s offensive rating (140) and defensive rating (94) were just two figures of how his presence improved the rest of his team.  As I alluded to before, the Cavs just played faster with him in the starting lineup; that applies to both ends of the floor.  All of a sudden, defensive switches were far quicker.  The Dubs’ pick-and-roll wasn’t as deadly as it was in the first two games.  And, last but not least, the Cavs were able to run their offense through James and Irving, which greatly simplified Cleveland’s offensive sets and put less impetus on role players to create baskets.

And I’ll say this since we seem to like talking about this year’s Finals in the context of last year’s: is Richard Jefferson the 2016 version of Andre Iguodala?  Unlike Iguodala, Jefferson did start five games in the regular season, but the similarities between the two players and their teams’ circumstances from last year to this are interesting, to say the least.  Iguodala was undoubtedly asked to do more a year ago, from defending LeBron to helping the slumping offense go small; Jefferson’s main role is to knock down threes and defend the Warriors’ wings (Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Green).  Golden State’s primary offense does not come from those players, so RJ’s assignment becomes much easier.

But Jefferson’s role in the Cavs’ (at least temporary) turnaround is nothing short of impressive.  The offense and defense run far more smoothly with him on the floor, something that can’t be said about Love.  Love is a better player than Jefferson at this point in their respective careers and in most matchups, the former helps the team win.

However, the best starting lineup for the Cavaliers to combat the Warriors is one that includes Richard Jefferson, not one with Kevin Love.  And after seeing how well Jefferson played on Wednesday, why shouldn’t he start again in Game 4?  It is a tough quandary for Lue (who, all told, is only 58 games into his NBA head coaching career), but how could you break up a starting lineup that went a combined +113 in Game 3?  I would think that Love has to come off the bench, wouldn’t you?

If he does, the Cavaliers would probably be better for it.  That’s not something that is usually said about Love, but his style of play and slow-footed defense is incompatible for this series and this opponent.

But the player who can hold his own against the Warriors and help his team succeed is Richard Jefferson.

And that’s why he should get the start in Game 4.