In a crazy way, it ranked with the Warriors’ greatest moments during their five-year run to the Finals. With two of the NBA’s most decorated superstars on crutches last June, they still had a chance to win it all.
Who knows what happens if Stephen Curry makes that shot? This was Game 6 against Toronto, always to be remembered as the Warriors’ final game in Oakland. As the clock wound down, Curry missed a heavily contested 3-pointer that surely would have forced a Game 7 in Toronto. Klay Thompson had gone down with a torn ACL in the third quarter; Kevin Durant was already finished with his torn Achilles tendon. Somehow, they were still the Warriors, bound by a championship mentality of irrepressible belief.
It’s hardly a stretch to imagine Thompson returning on schedule, with a flourish, and the Warriors stirring up a bit of noise in this season’s playoffs. To win the whole thing? Too many other teams have barreled into the fast lane. The Western Conference is loaded, and only two of its teams have seriously regressed from last season: Golden State and Oklahoma City.
So who will be the last team standing? From this viewpoint, it’s a field of seven.
Philadelphia will come out of the East. Only Jimmy Butler can explain why he left the 76ers, featuring the young and transcendent Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, when he was given all the big shots to take. (Butler signed with Miami.) And there are lasting images of halfcourt-spacing disaster from the Eastern semifinals against Toronto when Embiid, sore-kneed and sickly, was ineffective around the basket and Simmons — rarely cutting to the basket, not trusting any of his shots beyond 6 feet — looking lost on the perimeter.
Dramatic change will be required. The 76ers need to keep Embiid healthy and in vintage post-up form. Simmons worked on his shot all summer, and when he hit the first 3-pointer of his NBA career — no joke, in a recent exhibition game — Embiid went crazy with joy. The difference will be stifling defense, easily tops in the conference, from a starting five including Al Horford (great addition), Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris.
Milwaukee won’t be far behind. The Bucks are coming off the league’s best record (60-22) and an MVP season from Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose forays to the basket combine balletic grace with wrecking-ball fury. They lost prolific guard Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana because they didn’t want to venture into the luxury tax — there’s the difference between thrifty ownership and Golden State’s win-at-any-cost philosophy — but there’s still plenty of shooting on this roster.
We won’t include Boston, because losing Horford and Kyrie Irving will be a burden too great to overcome, even if a Kyrie-free locker room bolsters team chemistry.
Turning to the Western Conference, we’ll rule out Portland, for there just isn’t enough talent to surround the great Damian Lillard and his backcourt partner, CJ McCollum.
Now, Houston, that’s a different story — if the Rockets can sort out a massive pile of clutter.
It’s not about Russell Westbrook teaming up with James Harden. Perhaps the flaws of this partnership will be exposed at playoff time, but these two have been friends since they were kids in L.A. and they’ll be determined to blow minds right out of the gate. (“It’s going to be scary,” Westbrook promised on media day, but “not for us.”)
No, it’s all about the front office with Houston. General manager Daryl Morey lost some allies, perhaps including owner Tilman Fertitta, after his simple tweet launched a firestorm in China. According to sources familiar with the team, China’s punitive response (sponsor and media boycotts) could cost the team $25 million. Then there’s the increasing skepticism surrounding Fertitta, who reportedly sank $1.4 billion into debt to meet the $2.2 billion purchase price for the team. He’s been a bit too thrifty for the fans’ liking, and instead of making a direct call on coach Mike D’Antoni’s future — extend his contract or let him go — Fertitta has left him hanging.
Scanning the rest of the conference, Utah will be extremely tough when Mike Conley joins Donovan Mitchell in its best backcourt since the days of John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek. The Jazz also signed Bojan Bogdanovic as a free agent to join confident Joe Ingles and defensive-minded center Rudy Gobert, and that’s a lot of weapons for the able and grim-faced coach, Quin Snyder.
Denver essentially stayed the same, stung by the second-round loss to Portland but determined that center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray can carry the Nuggets to greater heights. Jokic looked exhausted at the latter stages of tough playoff games, so you’d figure the doughy big man would lose some weight. Instead, he gained some 20 pounds — and says he feels better than ever. Maybe it’s OK when you’re considered the best passing center since the days of Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis.
It’s hard to really tell who’s running the Lakers. Between owner Jeanie Buss, GM Rob Pelinka and executive Linda Rambis, widely described as a “shadow owner” most trusted by Buss, it’s anybody’s guess. Maybe it’s LeBron James, who lured Anthony Davis to L.A. through their mutual agent, Rich Paul. In any case, the Lakers will be dangerous with their Big Two (quite the rage in the league this year), Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green and a far more balanced roster.
But the big story in L.A. will be the Clippers, our pick to win it all.
Acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George was a master stroke by the brain-trust combination of owner Steve Ballmer, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, consultant Jerry West and head coach Doc Rivers. George will miss at least 10 games as he recovers from surgery on both shoulders, so we may not see Leonard getting those constant “load management” rest days he enjoyed in Toronto, but that’s a temporary issue.
Defense wins titles — never forget the Warriors’ recent greatness in that category — and if the Clippers really want to get serious about it, they can field a lineup of lockdown demons in Leonard, George, Patrick Beverley, Rodney McGruder and Mo Harkless. Consider this, as well: If Memphis can’t find a trade for Andre Iguodala and arranges a buyout, all signs point to him narrowing his free-agent choices to the L.A. teams.
Curry bringing up the ball on a crucial possession and Iguodala coming out to greet him in a Clippers uniform? One shudders at the prospect.