Come with me, if you will, to a time not too long ago; a simpler, more civilized time before the NBA arms race went positively nuclear. 31 October 2014, to be exact.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were playing the New York Knicks, not unlike this very year. Just like this year, the Cavs were heavily favored, and the Knicks were predicted to lay down and play dead because, well, they’re the Knicks. It was a festive atmosphere in Cleveland then, too. LeBron James was playing in his first game as a Cav since the fateful Decision that sent him to South Beach. Emotions ran high. Expectations were through the roof. It was, as they say, a moment.
Except, James and the Cavaliers did not keep up their end of the bargain. They lost 95-90 to a Knicks team that would end up only winning 16 more times the entire season. LeBron was minus-13 that night and coughed up eight turnovers. The Cavaliers ended up trading for JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov and advancing to the NBA Finals. They were said to be too small to compete for a title because that didn’t have a true center to complement Tristan Thompson. LeBron could not coexist with another primary ball handler like Kyrie Irving. He just didn’t fit with a team that wasn’t built to have a superstar of his gravity on the court 40 minutes a night.
Why do I bring up a game from two years ago? If you haven’t figured it out by now, then maybe you didn’t watch last night’s NBA openers. I practically telegraphed this comparison – the same things we’re saying about the Warriors today are the things we said about the Cavs two years ago. That’s because the question is identical. How do you seamlessly integrate a superstar into an existing team that already has a superstar? After losing to the San Antonio Spurs in spectacular fashion, 129-100, in their first game of the year, it’s clear the Warriors have not sorted that one out yet.
Opinions on why the Warriors struggled vary wildly. Some, like TNT analyst Reggie Miller said it’s because Kevin Durant is used to playing isolation ball and standing around the top of the key until he’s passed to, that the Warriors offense requires constantly off-ball movement. Deadspin’s Tom Ley said almost the opposite, wondering why the Warriors would “ask a player of Durant’s quality to do nothing but stand in the corner and wait for open threes in order to maintain the offense’s shape and spacing.”
But the other side of the ball seems like a far more pressing concern. Golden State gave up 129 points to the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard racked up a career-high 35 points on his own, and someone named Jonathan Simmons scored 20 and hit 60% from beyond the arc. Excuse me? I don’t care how efficient the Warriors offense could have been or how well they integrated Durant into their system. Teams that give up 129 points don’t win championships.
Also, teams whose highest scoring bench player (Ian Clark!) finishes with five measly points don’t win rings either. Such is life when you sign a top-five player to join your other top-five player and a few top-15 players on your superteam. Their starting lineup might be light years ahead, but their bench is a few hundred parsecs behind. They’re noticeably smaller, too – lacking many true big men to bang with the superior front court of the Spurs. Zaza Pachulia was a total non-factor and won’t be able to replace the playing time of both Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli below the basket.
It sounds bad, doesn’t it? It sure looked bad last night, but as every debate show on ESPN and FS1 will tell you the rest of this week, it’s only one game. One game out of 82. You need only look across the country to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Two years ago, they were disappointing the NBA’s salivating chattering class with a stumble out of the gates. One trade reversed their slide, and, if not for injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, they might have been hoisting their second championship banner yesterday and not their first.
The Cavs took a drastically different Knicks team to the proverbial woodshed last night, then left them in it and locked the door. Oh, and they also burned it down and urinated on the remains. This is a great team, no doubt about it. But this is their third year together. They needed patience to develop into a champion. The same will be required of this Warriors team.
Oh, also, the Spurs are freakin’ awesome
Can we table the Warriors’ premature funeral to discuss that the Spurs are still the Spurs and will always be the Spurs? Early MVP statements were made by LeBron and Damian Lillard, but the most forceful was clearly Kawhi Leonard, who dropped a career-high 35 on Golden State and a true shooting percentage of .634, per Basketball Reference. The site’s defensive rating for Leonard was 94, which means that he gave up 94 points per 100 possessions on the defensive end. For comparison, the defensive rating for Klay Thompson was 142. And they did all of this with Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee playing over 10 minutes. I foolishly predicted the Spurs would drop to the middle of the pack this year on my NBA podcast, Roundball Rock, but any time you doubt the Spurs for even a moment, that just motivates them even more.
Why LaMarcus Aldridge would want to leave this team now is an absolute mystery. If this guy can’t be happy with one of the NBA’s most prestigious, well managed franchises, then maybe this life is not for him. Perhaps he could consider a career in a less stressful profession. Just imagine it: LaMarcus Aldridge, Universal Studios Hollywood tour guide. At least we could finally say we lured LA to LA.
Is Damian Lillard’s rap name the best nickname or the worst nickname in the NBA? Is Damian Lillard a good rapper? Is he better than Shaq? Can we take a rapping basketball player seriously with track names like Bill Walton and Growth Spurt? I think I’m convinced. Lillard is a good rapper! As much fun as it would be for Dame Dolla to be as terrible as Metta World Peace’s album My World, it’s not. And, now that the Meet the Hoopers State Farm ad campaign is over and we never have to see Dame in a diaper ever again, I think 2016 is officially the Year of Lillard. He’s my dark horse MVP candidate and I would not be shocked if the Blazers had a better record than the Thunder this season.*
(*Let it be known that Damian Lillard is on my fantasy team and I will be irrationally exuberant about him all season, so strap in!)
Tonight’s games remind me of ...
- Miami Heat v Orlando Magic — A quiet day on the beach reading a James Patterson novel
- Dallas Mavericks v Indiana Pacers — A throaty, whisky-stained mating call
- Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics — White privilege
- Charlotte Hornets v Milwaukee Bucks — Camping. Just camping
- Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies — The passage of time and our shared mortality
- Denver Nuggets v New Orleans Pelicans — The first Men in Black film
- Oklahoma City Thunder v Philadelphia 76ers — That even your closest friends cannot be trusted
- Sacramento Kings v Phoenix Suns — That running a basketball team is hard work. Harder than you think
- Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers — The dull, throbbing pain of a root canal
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