Posts tagged National Basketball Association
Ball Don't Lie EP 24.5 - Uncovering MJ Retirement Conspiracy (ft. Jack M Silverstein)
Undoing the dynasty: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and how the Bulls blew a shot to become the Lakers

I can’t think of a more sobering highlight of the intertwining history of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers than Gar Forman’s 20th anniversary of Bulls employment occurring while Lakers fans prep for LeBron James.

Yes, Gar Forman’s first day on the job with the Bulls was August 1, 1998, less than two months after the last day of the dynasty. He was hired as a scout by Tim Floyd, of all people, making Forman the longest standing link to the darkest days in the franchise.

I mention LeBron James in relation to Gar because the Lakers’ answer to their own dark days is always to acquire arguably the game’s best player. You want to talk dynasties? In 70 seasons, the Lakers have won the championship more times (16) than they’ve missed the playoffs (10). When they do miss the postseason, they typically come back with a vengeance by acquiring one of the league’s best players.

The first time they missed the playoffs was 1958. They went 19-53, got the first pick in the draft, and took Elgin Baylor. Their next missed playoffs was 1975. They went 30-52 and traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They missed the playoffs in 1976 and then didn’t miss again until 1994, three years after Magic Johnson retired due to HIV. Two years later they signed Shaq to the richest contract in sports history. They essentially re-launched the franchise after 2004 by choosing Kobe over Shaquille, lost Phil Jackson, missed the playoffs in 2005, convinced Phil Jackson to return, and rode Kobe and Phil to two more rings.

And now, after missing the playoffs for five straight seasons (as many as they’d missed previously, all together), they’ve signed LeBron James.

The key difference between the Bulls as a franchise and the Lakers as a franchise is that the Bulls were a dynasty, but the Lakers are a Dynasty — big D. They’ve done this in three related ways:

  1. An unending pursuit of superstars

  2. An unwavering pursuit of championships

  3. Using the former to gain the latter and the latter to gain the former

Look at this list of the Lake Show’s owner, GM and coach year by year, and then add to that an imaginary fourth column of its star players. What the Lakers have done consistently as well as if not better than any professional American sports franchise ever is use the goodwill and victory-driven capital of one era to build the next.

When GM Max Winter resigned in 1954, owner Ben Berger lured recently retired star George Mikan into the front office. Mikan ran the team for three years and had a horrific coaching stint in the 1958 season, going 9-30, but that down year brought Baylor. Two years later the franchise moved to Los Angeles, but not before landing the #2 pick in the draft and taking West Virginia star Jerry West.

When Baylor and West got tired of losing in the Finals — they were 0-5 together in their first eight seasons — they signed off on a trade to bring three-time reigning MVP Wilt Chamberlain on board. Three seasons later, Wilt and West led the Lakers to the franchise’s first championship in Los Angeles. West retired in 1974, and in 1976 — the year after trading for Kareem — the team moved coach Bill Sharman to GM and hired West as coach.

In 1979, West retired as coach, yet the franchise drafted Magic Johnson first overall. West replaced Sharman as GM in 1982, the year after team owner Jerry Buss signed Magic to a 25-year contract for $25 million. We’ll come back to Magic shortly, but keep in mind that as a high-ranking executive from 1982 to 2000, West oversaw the drafting of James Worthy, the signing of Shaquille O’Neal, the draft-day trade for Kobe Bryant and the hiring of Phil Jackson, meaning he had a hand in eight Lakers titles from 1985 to 2010.

Despite flirtations with other franchises, Kobe ended up remaining with the Lakers his entire career, from his draft trade in 1996 to his 60-point finale in 2016. Less than a year after Kobe’s retirement, the Lakers hired Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations.

For those scoring at home, since the 1948-49 season, the only seasons the Lakers have not employed in some capacity George Mikan, Jerry West, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant are 1959 and 1960 (Elgin’s first two years) and 1975 and 1976 (Kareem’s first two years).

That's what I mean by Dynasty vs. dynasty. The subtext to all of the 20-year retrospectives that I and others have written about the Bulls since 2011 is the grim reality that six championships in eight years were a basketball dead end.

***

(Bettman / Corbis )

(Bettman / Corbis )

To see the starting point, let’s jump back to 1981 and Magic Johnson’s historic 25 years, $25 million contract. When team owner Jerry Buss announced the deal, he said that he was already grooming Magic, then 21 years old, for a post-playing position with the club.

“He may even be my coach, or general manager,” Buss said. “Or maybe he’ll run the team and I’ll just sit back and watch. Magic is a bright kid and I plan to make him my protege, teach him the business aspect of sports. I realize this is a very unusual contract because we’re talking about a kid whose college class just graduated. But what it comes down to is that Magic is part of the family.”

Buss said that about Magic after two seasons — the first was a championship, the second was a three-game first-round sweep to a team with a sub-.500 record.

Now look at what Jerry Reinsdorf said about Jordan to Jordan in July 1996 — one month after MJ brought the Bulls back to the promised land with their fourth championship in six years — as Reinsdorf signed Jordan to a one-year, $30 million deal, the richest one-year deal in sports history:

“I might live to regret this.”

That quote was Reinsdorf’s clarification to author Roland Lazenby, to which Jordan replied: “Actually, he said, ‘Somewhere down the road, I know I’m gonna regret this.’ It demeaned what was happening. It took away from the meaning of things. The gratitude seemed less because of that statement.”

Again, Jerry Buss, about a 21-year-old Magic Johnson with one championship: “Magic is part of the family.”

Jerry Reinsdorf to a 34-year-old Michael Jordan with four championships: “I might live to regret this.”

AP Photo/Mark Elias

AP Photo/Mark Elias

But the Bulls didn’t just miss out on becoming a Dynasty because of a feuding Jordan and Reinsdorf. For the final season of the greatest run in the modern era of professional American sports, Jackson, Jordan and Scottie Pippen were each locked in public, separate yet interconnected blood feuds with the Jerrys, all rooted in contract negotiations. Krause drew the visceral hatred — even Phil publicly called Krause “the only dark spot” on the 1997-98 season — but Reinsdorf’s leave-your-emotions-at-the-door approach actually cut deeper on a personal level, because Jordan and Jackson held an affinity and respect for Reinsdorf that did not extend to his general manager.

To put it plainly, those guys liked Reinsdorf, which made his approach to negotiations all the more injurious.

“He’s loyal, he’s honest, he’s truthful,” Jackson told Lazenby about Reinsdorf. “But there’s something about going in and trying to get the best every time. Winning the deal. When it comes to money, to win the deal. … He has actually said those things, according to people I’ve been close to, and those things really hurt, because most everybody likes Jerry Reinsdorf.”

***

The second three-peat Bulls splintered along several internal fault lines, so I think it’s tricky to blame any one person for the breakup. And considering that Phil Jackson originally planned to end his Bulls coaching tenure after seven years, which would have been 1996, Reinsdorf, Krause, Jackson, Jordan and Pippen could have all gotten along famously and Phil still could have decided to retire for at least a year after the sixth title.

But based strictly on the inherent power dynamic of a professional sports team, it’s difficult to look at the past 20 years of ring-less Chicago Bulls basketball as anything other than a result of the decisions made by ownership and management in 1998.

It’s easy to imagine a world where the goodwill and excellence of the 1990s Bulls led to a subsequent run of titles. Instead, in July of 1998, just one month after MJ dragged the Bulls to ring #6, Phil was retired and Jerry Krause’s two-year pursuit of his friend Tim Floyd of Iowa State was chugging toward fruition. That month, a reporter asked Jordan if hiring Floyd would be akin to pushing Jordan out of basketball.

“I think that’s exactly what it is,” Jordan said. “It’s very obvious that my feelings haven’t really been considered when they’ve made coaching decisions. Jerry (Reinsdorf has) always been a man of his own. He’s never really been influenced by too many people, and I wouldn’t expect him to be influenced by me. If that was the case, Phil wouldn’t ever have gone.”

And later:

“I don’t want to play for a college coach, and no, I don’t want to play for any other coach. I’ve always said that I want to play for Phil Jackson. That hasn’t changed. (Krause) made the stance on Phil Jackson, and that pretty much made the stance on me.”

Getty Images

Getty Images

The next week, the Bulls hired Floyd as something called “director of basketball operations,” with Reinsdorf stipulating that, “Should Phil not return by the end of the lockout, Tim will succeed him as head coach.” Jackson and his agent found this comical, since Krause at the start of the 1997-98 season had told Phil, “I don’t care if (the Bulls go) 82-0 this year, you’re fucking gone.”

As for Floyd, his take on MJ was as simple as it was naive, considering Jordan’s public comments one week earlier that he would not play for Floyd, any college coach, or any coach other than Jackson.

“I know this much: I was not about to take this job if I felt it would affect, in any way, Michael Jordan’s return to the game,” Floyd explained.

Sure enough, Jackson did not return, and on January 13, 1999, with the NBA lockout ongoing, Michael Jordan announced his retirement. The dominoes fell from there in the most stunning roster changeover in NBA history:

  • January 15: Bulls name Floyd head coach

  • January 21: Bulls renounce the rights to six players including Jordan and Rodman and trade Steve Kerr to the Spurs

  • January 22: Bulls trade Pippen to the Rockets

  • January 23: Bulls trade Longley to the Suns

Incredibly and tragically, these 10 days ended up defining the franchise rather than the 10 years that came before them. The Lakers have always reloaded by either trading for or signing arguably the best player in the league (Wilt, Cap, Shaq, Bron) while also drafting franchise-changing Hall of Famer (Elgin, West, Magic, Kobe).

Yet in 20 years since ruling the sports world, the biggest veteran acquisitions the Bulls have pulled off are Ron Mercer, Jalen Rose, Ben Wallace, Carlos Boozer and Pau Gasol. There are many reasons for this failure, but perhaps the most damning is the ongoing, league-wide perception that the organization did the dynasty years dirty.

“I think the biggest question (about the Bulls) that you think about has to be loyalty," said Illinois-native Dwyane Wade in May of 2010, as he and his future teammates LeBron James and Chris Bosh were in the process of choosing their next team, heavily weighing both the Heat and the Bulls. “I see Michael Jordan is not there, Scottie Pippen is not there. … You know, these guys are not a part (of the franchise). That is probably one of the biggest things for me, because I am a very loyal person."

***

The irony is that in many ways, Jerry Reinsdorf is one of the most loyal owners in sports. He paid Jordan the two richest single-season contracts in NBA history. He hooked up Pippen ($67.2 million over 5 years), Longley ($30 million over 5) and Kerr ($11 million over 5) with lucrative sign-and-trades in January of 1999 that vastly increased their salaries despite getting barely anything of value for them. In the post-dynasty world, he spent heavily on extensions or long-term deals on Derrick Rose ($94.8 million over 5), Luol Deng ($71m/6), Joakim Noah ($60m/5), and Kirk Hinrich ($47.5/5).

The Bulls under Reinsdorf have also been spectacularly loyal to many retired players, most notably John Paxson, who has worked with the organization in various capacities since his retirement in 1994, meaning he has been with the Bulls since 1985 when he arrived as a free agent from the Spurs. Among the other ex-Bulls who played during Reinsdorf’s ownership years and went on to work for the team: B.J. Armstrong, Randy Brown, Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, Stacey King, Toni Kukoc, Pete Myers, Scottie Pippen, Bill Wennington, and of course Fred Hoiberg, who played for Floyd both at Iowa State and with the Bulls.

Lastly, there is the loyalty Reinsdorf showed Krause, and the loyalty he has since shown both Gar and Pax, for whom 2018-19 will make a combined 55 consecutive seasons of Bulls employment.

Yet when it came to the three most critical pieces of the most dominant NBA run since Russell’s Celtics, loyalty took a backseat to business. After 1996, Reinsdorf and Krause feared that the Bulls would slowly decline the way the 1980s Celtics did in the early 1990s, and thought that being proactive about turning the page would keep the team relevant.

Instead, the franchise has been doomed by 20 years that have vacillated between supreme irrelevance and mostly mid-tier playoff performances. Oh, the dynasty has had its impact, both that has been largely financial, where the United Center keeps cranking out sellouts, the team keeps churning out merchandise, and new global sponsorships come aboard led by CEOs who want to bask in the glory years.

“The Bulls are an American legend, a pop-culture icon,” said Vice President Piotr Kicinski in November 2015 when his Cinkciarz, a Polish currency exchange company, began a partnership with the Bulls that is now locked in as a seven-year deal. “It means many positive things in Poland. My generation was brought up on the Chicago Bulls playing in the ‘90s.”

John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune

John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune

So yes, the dynasty still resonates. Yet incredibly, the Bulls have managed to remain deeply loyal to the dynasty years without actually benefiting from them. We haven't been able to sign a single top tier free agent on the strength of those six rings. The team’s best player since Michael and Scottie was Derrick Rose, who was only secured in the draft when the ping pong balls came our way despite only a 1.3% chance at the #1 pick. And like Jordan, Pippen and Jackson, Rose’s Bulls tenure ended in animus.

Gar Forman justified the Rose trade by saying it helped the team get “younger and more athletic,” the most infamous assertion by a Bulls executive since Krause’s “players and coaches alone don’t win championships — organizations do.” The link between these two comments is more than just thematic. Krause’s insistence that “organizations win championships” was driven by a hubris that turned that mantra into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That attitude led to him pushing Phil Jackson out the door. He replaced him with Tim Floyd. Floyd’s hiring pushed out Jordan. Floyd also hired his former Iowa State assistant coach Gar Forman on Aug. 1, 1998, and Gar has been winding his way up the team’s food chain ever since, getting his wings in 2009 as general manager, Krause’s former title.

Which brings us back to the Lakers. The day Floyd hired Forman, the Bulls had six championships. If you remove the Lakers’ Minneapolis titles, all of which came before the shot clock, on Aug. 1, 1998, the Lakers had six championships too.

Less than a year later, Jerry West hired Phil Jackson as the Lakers’s new head coach, setting the stage for the next five Lakers championships. In the Minneapolis days, the Lakers were led by George Mikan, DePaul University alumnus and former star of the Chicago American Gears of the National Basketball League. The Lakers beat the Bulls in the playoffs four times between 1968 and 1973. In 1979, the Lakers beat the Bulls in a coin toss for the right to draft Magic Johnson. And in both 2004 and 2007, Kobe Bryant took serious steps to joining the Bulls before being lured back to L.A.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

But the history-altering event that stings most is the Lakers hiring Phil in 1999, an underrated seismic shift in the NBA landscape of the past two decades. Phil is a huge part of the reason that Kobe Bryant spent his entire career in the Purple and Gold, and Phil was only available because while the Lakers build generational success, the Bulls act like Orson Welles’s talented, tortured hero of “Citizen Kane.” One era of success built their mansion, and now they’re going to die in it.

The city of Chicago is a basketball pillar, with an NBA franchise whose glory should regenerate every 10 years. Instead, all we have are the memories. Every few years they give us a new coach and a new young talent. They sign the available free agents and pack the UC nightly.

And the marketing team rolls out a new slogan. And young fans buy young jerseys. And management tells us of “The great tradition of Chicago Bulls basketball.”

And they smile. And nod. And count the gate receipts.

-
-
-

Jack M Silverstein is a sports historian covering the Bears for Windy City Gridiron. He is the author of How The GOAT was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls” and proprietor of Chicago sports IG account @AShotOnEhlo. Say hey at @readjack.

The Third Pick EP 12 - Blame Mariano
Ball Don't Lie ep. 20 - The Season Finale ft. @Al_Patron

It's the season finale of Ball Don't Lie! Author & creator Al Patron (@Al_Patron) joins the crew to wrap up the NBA season. Are the Warriors a dynasty, and how long will their window be open for? We also talk about the ridiculous of LeBron James stans and has the GOAT debate finally been laid to rest? Also what's our overall grade on the NBA, did Drake catch the biggest L in Hip-Hop history, and our final Goofy Mogs of the season.

Follow Scott: @Scott_CEOofSUH
Follow Joe: @FlowsAndolini
Follow Pierce: @HennyOmega

Barber's Chair Live - Uncle Drew in Theaters June 29th
Ball Don't Lie: The Commute ft. @readjack
The Third Pick Lottery Wrap-Up
Western Conference Finals preview
USATSI

USATSI

The Houston Rockets fulfilled their destiny by finding their way to the Western Conference Finals. It seemed like this was bound to happen since the trade sent Chris Paul to Houston, but along the way they exceeded expectations by winning the west, and getting James Harden to play at an MVP level with an all-time point guard beside him.

Now they face the Golden State Warriors with the NBA Finals on the line, and unlike past playoff matchups, the Rockets expect to win.

They’ve been targeting Golden State for years, this season especially. In their opening night matchup, the Rockets came back from down 14 in the fourth quarter to steal the win on ring night, and when a KD jumper was called no good on replay, the Rockets did all but pop the champagne. But now they’re ready for the real bubbly, at least they believe they are, and that’s a huge part of being a title contender.

The Rockets have a vastly different mindset as a team, and that’s a credit to their player development and coaching. Harden doesn’t get caught sleeping on defense anymore, CP3 has smoothly transitioned into a secondary ball-handler, and Clint Capela is playing his role the way Dwight Howard never did during his time in Houston. It’s reminiscent of the Warriors when they play hard every night. It’s the focus of a team that’s finding out they have some chops. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have to go through the big dogs.

The Warriors are looking at this series quite different than Houston is. They’ve gone to hell and back in the playoffs, but they’ve also got a lot more chemistry than the Rockets. They’ll probably end up screwing around and start Javale to match up with Capela because they know their margin of error is the highest in the league. It really comes down to the talent, and Golden State wins that battle.

With Klay Thompson most likely guarding Harden, it sets up for a CP3-Steph match-up, conjuring up memories and emotions from when the Clipper-Warriors rivalry was at its peak. CP3’s instinct may take over where he’ll feel the need to go at Steph, but I think he can be much more effective in the rhythm of their offense. Steph has added muscle to be able to hold his own in defensive switches in the pick and roll, but Paul comes into this series as a much healthier player, and with some momentum after that crazy 40/10 closeout performance vs. Utah in the semifinal. He’s going to try to get Steph out of the game whenever he can, goating him into making mistakes in 1 on 1 defense, but in the end, Curry’s output on offense should win the individual match-up.

Another intriguing match-up is Harden vs. Kevin Durant. While they won't be guarding each other much this series, they’re the best scoring options on their respective teams. Houston simply cannot guard KD 1 on 1. Durant can shoot over, dribble past, and finish on anyone, Trevor Ariza included, and while Harden lacks the height that KD brings to the table, he’s gotten into peak physical shape which has elevated his game to MVP levels. Most likely, we’ll see various actions to get Harden running downhill off the pick and roll. The Rockets love their pick-and-roll sets where Capela immediately uses a downscreen from a shooter (Eric Gordon, for ex.) who can pop out for three. The Warriors defense will formulate a gameplan, preemptively switching the defenders involved, but it’ll require a series long focus. If Harden runs the Dubs tired, it could mean a game to the Rockets.

There's no question that the Rockets give the Warriors the best challenge they've seen in the playoffs. For the first time in the Steve Kerr era, the Warriors won’t have home court advantage, and will have to play a Game 7 on the road if the series stretches that far. Game one could be the closest of them all, as the Warriors come in looking to steal home court & Houston's momentum. One thing I'm sure of is this: the winner of this series will win the NBA title.

Dubs in Fo’

The Draymond Green effect has Warriors ahead 2-0 on Pelicans in series
AP

AP

The first two games of the West semifinals between the Warriors and Pelicans have differed vastly in aesthetics and in point differential, but the constant has been Draymond Green. Contrary to Kerr’s typical rotations, Green has started at center, which is especially significant because of Anthony Davis. What’s more is the success he’s had in the matchup, but to everyone’s surprise, Green has been the best player overall in this series.

Kerr’s decision to start Draymond in the first place such a surprise to me. I thought Green at the 5 would be their last card to play (and maybe it was), but clearly they feared Davis dominating and creating a rhythm early in the series. Without Curry in game 1, Green was left to supplant Steph’s duties on offense. He pushed the pace, kept the ball jumping and facilitated every trip down the court.

It was clear that they wanted to outrun the Pelicans and try to tire them out. The Pels showed their aggressiveness on defense against the Portland’s half court prominent offense, but Golden State’s system does not compare. When the Pelican’s defense swings around so quickly, it inevitably gives up an opening that the Dubs can capitalize on.

With the lead ballooning so dramatically in Game 1, the Pelicans we’ve seen for the last 2 months didn’t make an appearance. But in Game 2, the pace was much more in favor of New Orleans. They fed Davis way more in the paint, forcing Golden State to play Draymond 40 minutes (he played 30 minutes in G1). The extended minutes from Green certainly played into NOLA’s hands as well, as he’s the player they could conceivably crack. This is a different Draymond though.

Green’s seen the success he’s contributed to this team, but he’s also seen the way he can become a detriment. This season, he’s been locked in. Balancing the hype with focus is something Green has mastered. It’s also what the Pelicans tried to test him on. Rajon Rondo was being a pest for the whole 48. Body bumping, shit talking, and even wiping his sweat off on the ball in between Green’s attempts. But still Green stayed poised.

What really stood out was Davis’ attempts to poke the bear. After the two hit the floor on a rebound opportunity, which looked like two simultaneous flops, Davis locked Greens arm using his leg, causing the two to barrel down the court in a wrestling style barrel roll. This is something I’ve just never seen out of Davis, and maybe that’s a good thing, a sign he’s trying to establish himself. Maybe it’s his teammates pushing him to get chippy.

Draymond’s emotional self control directly contributes to his teams wins, and his overall game. The stressors that were prevalent the last three years are gone, and it’s made the game much easier too. The Playoffs are all about adjustments, because of the number of times you face a single team. Green is seeing it all with a much clearer mind, and his team is following his lead.

LeBron must find that killer instinct in order to get back to the Finals

 Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. Kevin Durant. LeBron James. Dwyane Wade.

One of these things is not like the other. These particular names were chosen as they are often the most closely associated with the name that doesn’t belong.

4 certified killers. 1 plug.

Warning: Due to having seen LeBron James play since high school, things happening in Year 15 don’t impress, excite, or dumbfound me. Many in the basketball world have been waiting for the superpowers to dim to see where his commitment level is. How hard he works to improve the IQ. Quite frankly? So far, good…

Now? It’s put up shut up time.

Going back to Saint Vincent, Saint Mary’s, LeBron James has struck me as a “people-pleaser.” Someone who is so caught up in the well-being of those parties around them that they forget about themselves. Hell, going through the worst of the worst now helps me appreciate it more than ever.

The most difficult hurdle of being a savior is that those you’re saving have to be ready, willing & able. Ask Jesus Christ.

At this point, being ready, willing & able falls on the coaching staff. Sure, LeBron orchestrated the blowing up of the team & has his stand-in appearing admirably absent-minded at all times. But that doesn’t mean that when things get bad you revert to throwing guise on to the floor for familiarity reason.

Great things come to those who embrace discomfort. JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love & Jose Calderon flanking LeBron James isn’t going to win a championship.

It might will not be enough to beat the Pacers but it’s definitely not going to beat Houston or Golden State. It’s not going to even get past Philly; can you imagine Joel in that series?

So why bother?

LeBron is the ultimate servant. The ultimate teammate. My disdain for James stemmed [mostly] from his stans making comparisons to players that play a completely different style than he does.

Kobe never studied where his teammates liked the ball because he practices making shots with bad passes, shouldn’t we all?

His Airness never had to celebrate a young fella being the only person doing the right things because he led by example & played in an era where jobs depended on following his lead.

With that being said: *climbs to the mountaintop & screams through megaphone*

LeBron James is a point guard.

Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland because he was never going to be the voice of reason. He was never going to be able to put his stamp on the franchise. But most of all, he hasn’t been allowed to play his game the way he envisioned it. Even as someone who’s purposely avoided praising James because you all do it enough, the only reason ANYONE wouldn’t want to play with James is when his play started dipping into their bag.

It sounds wild but look at all three of his championship teams: filled with high caliber players who could all carry the load for stretches. Any time in his career that LBJ has been asked to lead & show up consistently, his teams have failed.

This team is built in that same manner. Lue, the stand-in, has been forced to learn on the fly but will have to earn his money in this series. Being afraid to grow with the game has & will continue to kill many, many careers, & if LBJ is going to go down in the first round & vociferously return to be the butt of my jokes, it should be at his natural position, allowing him to get others involved & play to his strengths late in the game.

A lineup of LeBron James, Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love & Larry Nance adds enough youth to the lineup that it doesn’t put you in a hole to start the game & this lineup gives you the best chance of allowing LeBron James to continually drive downhill & make the best plays. James has smiled more at Osman this year than any teammate ever. Hood is a swiss army knife waiting to be unleashed. Larry Nance Jr’s athleticism & lob release threat ability have made him a favorite of mine even during my series on taking back the Lakers franchise. Oh yeah! This lineup also moves James out of Love’s normal spot & puts Love back to a place where he’s not being bullied by younger, stronger kids.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, the Pacers have to be feeling great about where they are. Great teams always have six starters. For the entirety of the year, it’s been a constant mental tussle regarding shifting Sabonis to a 5, Turner to the 4 & how to address the issue of Bogdanovic vs. Thad Young as the fifth starter. Needless to say, that’s six.

The Pacers also have committed to a style of play, one that continually fostered confidence within the organization throughout the course of the year thus allowing for opportunities for guise to go out & flourish. Sabonis came into the league with a pro-ready skillset. Victor Oladipo has never stood on a wing & watched somebody else create shots for him in his life.

But when you’re blindly chasing wins as opposed to having any semblance of a plan, nothing you attempt will succeed. The only thing OKC knows is that Russ is going to get his. Maybe one day someone will remember basketball is a team sport. Hi PG13!

Needless to say, coaching is & has played a huge part in the journey thus far & that will only ratchet up as the end of the series approaches. Sure, players decide games but, in this series, more than any other, the right players haven’t really been on the floor for either side.

Nate McMillan & Tyronn Lue played in very different NBAs. Nate, the late 80s-early90s style basketball where winning meant you normally had a star that led the way & everyone followed. You could see remnants of that mindset lingering with the PG13 ordeal, but guise skillsets improve each day. Not only do they want to be featured & utilized but it makes everyone else’s job easier. Which helps keep a coach around longer. Shouts to growth. & Nate Mac for being open to change.

Lue, of the early aughts, is actually the one who got to experience the growth of the game & appreciate that the more talented guise on the floor are overall, the better it is for everyone. But then again, when you don’t want to or know that you’re going to be a head coach. You don’t really prepare for it. You don’t do your research. Learning on the fly in front of the world is hell. Ever heard of the Butterfly Effect?

Well, T. Lue knows the Sunken Place well, shouts to AI.

Never would’ve imagined he’d end up back there simply for being awed by the aura of one LBJ., But if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. Ben Simmons took two years off just to show Sixers brass he is a 6’10” point guard. Imagine if someone had thought outside of the box with this 6’8” prototype.

Did the Thunder choose the wrong guard between Westbrook and Harden?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Monday was a tale of two MVPs. While the expected 2018 NBA MVP led his team to a commanding 3-1 lead, the incumbent got flamed all night on social media as his team now sits a game away from imploding.

In Minnesota, the pressure was on James Harden to perform at an MVP-level against a Timberwolves squad hungry to even their best-of-seven series with the Rockets. Harden struggled in game 2, making just two of 18 shots in a winning effort, and then followed up by missing 12 of 21 attempts as Minnesota took game 3. It looked like game 4 would be much of the same when his first seven shots didn't drop and the Wolves trailed by one at the half.

Harden responded in MVP fashion, outscoring the TImberwolves alone in the third (22 points for Harden, 20 for Minnesota) as Houston exploded for a franchise-record 50 points in the third quarter en route to a 119-100 win. Harden finished with 36 points on 12-of-26 shooting, all but erasing the stench of the previous 10 quarters.

"We hit the switch, the switch that we've been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs," Harden told TNT after the game.

Meanwhile in Utah, Russell Westbrook guaranteed to "shut that shit off" in game 4 after Ricky Rubio gave Russ a dose of his own medicine with a 26-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple-double performance in game 3. Russ did cut Rubio's point total in half, but the Thunder were embarrassed by the Jazz 113-96, showing less fight on the court than Mitt Romney on the sidelines.

Two men. Two MVP-caliber stars going in completely opposite directions.

To think, they were once teammates.

The biggest modern-day question in sports is 'what if the Oklahoma City Thunder stayed the course with their homegrown picks - Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden?' OKC made the NBA Finals when it seemed like their core was starting to reach their peak, and most definitely would've won an NBA Championship (or two... or three... or four) in time with a trio of future MVPs on their roster.

The belief was the Thunder couldn't afford to keep all four players. Kevin Durant had just started a five year, $86 million extension and was entrenched as the franchise cornerstone, and Russell Westbrook had signed a five year, $80 million extension in January 2012. The decision on who to keep and who to let go came down to Harden vs. Ibaka.

Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports

GM Sam Presti tried to lock both down the summer before they hit restricted free agency. Serge was able to come to terms on a 4-year, $49 million deal in August 2012, but not Harden. The Thunder offered him 4 years, $55 million, but he wanted the max. Thus, Harden was shipped to Houston, leaving OKC fans and all of basketball to question the move for years to come.

The Thunder could've waited until the summer, maneuver around the books to find the financial flexibility to keep the Beard (read: amnestied Kendrick Perkins' abysmal $8 million contract.) They could've sat and let another team sign Harden to an offer sheet and matched the deal, and dealt with the salary cap and luxury tax ramifications later on. But right before the 2012-13 season, months before they really needed to make a decision, they settled for the trade.

Not only has it changed the course of Oklahoma City basketball, it changed the landscape of the NBA.

The Thunder never got back to the NBA Finals with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, collapsing in 2016 after a 3-1 series lead on Golden State. They then traded Ibaka to Orlando and watched as Kevin Durant bolted for the Warriors, subsequently leading the best team in basketball to another NBA title.

James Harden has since become one of the best players of the modern era, lifting the Rockets to the top seed in the west as they try to end a 23-year championship drought. Ibaka has regressed, but is carving out a nice role for himself with the Toronto Raptors.

And then there's Russ - an undeniable superstar with an MVP and consecutive triple-double seasons on his resume. He's one of the most exhilarating players in the game today, but he's failed to win with one of the greatest of all time (KD), couldn't do it on his own, and now sits a game away from elimination with a prime Paul George and (not-so-much in his prime) Carmelo Anthony.

It begs the question: did the Thunder trade the wrong guy in their backcourt?

The decision (made easier by giving Westbrook the max) was always between Harden and Ibaka, but what if OKC gave Harden the max instead and shipped Westbrook off for assets far greater than Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lang?

The instant thought is Durant possibly would have stayed in OKC. He and Russ continuously clashed as both tried to assert themselves as the alpha of the team. Harden has shared the spotlight well with Chris Paul in one season in Houston, and could've dealt with the same playing with Durant, who was already set as the franchise player in Oklahoma City. Golden State is still enticing, but having a better rapport with the Robin to your Batman may have been enough to sway KD into signing a new deal.

For everything that makes Russell Westbrook great - an explosive, exciting game, the unwavering will to win - James Harden brings an equally dominant game, plus an underrated intangible: the ability to make everyone around him better. When he's on, he commands so much attention it opens up plays for others. In an MVP season for Harden, the Rockets have been the best three-point shooting team in the league.

The Thunder move as Russell Westbrook moves. His aggressive play can be dominant at times, at others, it becomes more of a detriment to his teammates than an asset.

Westbrook has just one more chance to prove he can take his club to glory. If he doesn't, George is likely to leave him high and dry just as KD did two years ago, the 'what if's' will intensify, and he'll forever have to play through the whispers from fans and pundits who will second-guess every move he makes for the rest of his career.

Harden, on the other hand, is beginning what could be a long run atop the NBA in Houston. Time will tell whether the Rockets will be coronated, but they're much further along (and better) than OKC.

Five and a half years later, Thunder fans have to be thinking in the back of their minds if they could go back in time and trade the other guard.

The 1st annual Slimmies

As the NBA regular season comes to it’s close, it’s time to present the subjective awards that of which nobody ever asked for: the first annual Slimmies!

Most likely to miss practice regularly

Joe Harris: Welcome back from your google search of who the hell Joe Harris is. From what my sources have told me, the Nets coaching staff is unsure of who he is too. In fact, most of the players think he’s doesn’t exist. Harris’ checks still cash though, and in the state of NY, has a few places to spend it, and I doubt he’ll ever let practice get in the way of that.

Milos Teodosic: Are we really sure how old this guy is? Allegedly, he’s 31, but he looks 50. Though he’s the NBA’s oldest rookie, he still plays like a seasoned veteran. His flashy passes are already the stuff of legend, and he’s got a wet jumper to boot. However, his year round 5 o’clock shadow is most definitely a product of his undoubtable chain smoking, so there’s no doubt he’s taking smoke breaks all throughout practice

Klay Thompson: Klay’s the type of shooter that can go from hot, to unconscious, but he’s just as liable to do so off the court. In fact, in a number of interviews with the media, Thompson has forgotten the question or his answer in the middle of his response. What’s more, Kevin Durant revealed on the Bill Simmons podcast, that Klay missed practice the same day that he dropped 60. For that alone, he’s in the no-practice HOF.

Winner: Ray Felton (Ray Fat)

Felton is a no practice legend. He’s got an elite body composition, short and thin legs down low, big sturdy chest up top, and the motor that you only see in a 45 year old YMCA hooper that “almost went to the league.” Felton’s game speaks for itself. Sag off an inch and he’s pulling from 30, you play him tight and he’s pulling from 30. Only the truly genius hoopers know that 3’s are worth 50% more than a 2, and that running from 3-point line to 3-point takes 50% less energy, and I consider Ray Felton a genius.

Hypebeast of the Year

Winner: Kelly Oubre

This is the only answer. Oubre blew the minds of clout chasers everywhere when he showed up to play the Brooklyn Nets with a Supreme/Nike collab leg sleeve. What a revolutionary. He only made it through half the game though before a trainer told him to take it off. But the guy is just as risqué off the court. Back in November, he catwalked into the Wizards locker room, parading a jacket that said “FUCK YOU.” Whether the fit he wears is a dub or not, his conviction remains tenable, as long as there’s a camera nearby, he’s happy. Even his on court semantics feel a bit fake. In a matchup against the Celtics last season, Oubre got hit on an illegal screen by Kelly Olynyk. Overcome by the beige-rage, Oubre retaliates by trying to charge into him, but instead hits the ref and continuing the “hold me back” shtick. But this year, in a matchup against the Warriors, a scrap between Bradley Beal and Draymond fell into the crowd. Oubre just started swingin’ and ended up hitting his own teammate, John Wall, in the process. To no surprise, both games were nationally televised on ESPN. All in all, Kelly Oubre Jr. truly is the Clout King.

BPOY (Beer Pong Player of the Year)

Joe Ingles: Of course there’s an Aussie on this list, their baby formulas are 26 proof. Ingles, the all around lefty, is a crafty shooter with a High IQ. Those same skills have transferred to the table, sneaking bounce shots past the defense, and hitting the right cups to get an ‘island’ to which he’s converted at a high rate. His biggest skill is that he’s never not been a drunk, so hangovers never affect him in back to backs.

JR smith:  has an asterisk when it comes to this category. He’s been as deadly this season as all of our other candidates, but Smith insists on playing ‘henny pong.’ Much like his cognac, he’s very special. JR never picks up ‘elbow’ violations because he insists on shooting from further than he needs to, and unlike everyone else, he’s the most dangerous player once he’s catches fire.

Dirk Nowitzki: Arguably the best 7-foot shooter of all time, Nowitzki has started to slow down these days. Though the big German can still down beers like most others can’t, just don’t try to play him with American brew, the Germans love their stuff. Though he’s cut down on the beer to stay in shape for the NBA season, that shooting form will last a lifetime, and so should his game as well.

Winner: James Harden

The likely NBA MVP, and superstar guard might just top the list of the best player to hit the night scene regularly. Certainly a legend on the court, but he’s a legend in these streets as well. Harden’s stepped up his game by shedding his dad bod and beer belly, rarely missing a game winning cup, and sustaining his accuracy even with a few drinks in him. He’s still liable to get sauched, but he’s always got his eye on the prize.

Least improved player

Taj Gibson: Taj is the man. Every single year he comes in and does exactly what’s asked of him. But there’s no part of his game that we can say got better, and there’s no part of it that’s gotten worse. He’s just about the perfect role player for his teams because not too many others are willing to do the stuff he does every night.

Tom Thibodeau: Thibs isn’t here for the same reason as Taj. Maybe that’s why the two are a match made in hoop heaven. The big intrigue behind Thibs return to coaching was the rumors that he was a changed man. But the idea of a new Thibs was just a hoax. Minnesota's starting five have all averaged over 32 minutes(!) a game, and before his injury Jimmy Butler was averaging 37 minutes(!!!!!!) a game. The double edged sword here is that because of their play style, they need to play those minutes to compete nightly, and so it all comes back to Thibs.

Isaiah Thomas: IT was all ready for a brinks truck next summer, but little did he know he’d be getting a derailed train. Thomas was welcomed the Cavs with a trade after uninspiring play, and an inability to conform to the Cavs style of play. Unable to put his ego aside, Thomas may have had the worst season when we consider how well he played last year. While injury can be to blame, his best chance of having a good season was to stick to the team with LeBron, but that’s its own challenge.

Winner: Russell Westbrook

Don’t let Westbrooks stats fool you (again,) he’s the same player as last year, but there isn’t a narrative pushing his MVP candidacy this year. The Thunder are on pace to have the exact same record as last year, but with much higher expectations all season. We can also look back at their offseason moves and there’s an argument to be made that they got worse from it. While Paul George was the big name on the trade market, Westbrook had marginalized Victor Oladipo so much last season that trading him and Sabonis at the time was largely perceived as a fleecing. In hindsight, it may have been the wrong decision. Victor Oladipo’s contract is locked in, unlike PG13, but he’s also a lock for most improved player, and should probably make an All-NBA team too. These problems all stem back to Westbrooks attitude and style of play, which are also the biggest reasons that the Thunder haven’t ever been able to truly reach their peak, and why they could even see a scenario where they don’t even make the playoffs this season and which may just scare the second best SF they’ve had out of town.

Worst Hair/Facial Hair

Kevin Durant: KD’s reaching the part of his career where he may need to look in the mirror and make a decision. LeBron did this a few years ago when he punted his headband to bring life back to his hairline, but Durant doesn’t any accessories to furlough.  It’s past the point where brushing could recover it because the bald spots are kicking in. He does benefit from being a 7-footer though, so not too many people are really within range to catch a look, but when we do get glimpses on broadcasts, is not a pretty sight.

James Harden: I’m soooo tired of Harden’s look, and I get that the beard is a large part of his brand, but it’s a tired shtick. We really just need to see is his face without the beard once just to get an idea of what we’re missing. What’s really grinding my gears with Harden though is his cut. He’s had the same mohawk fade every single season, and I don’t think he gets enough shit for it. I thought mohawks were a thing like, 8 years ago.

Kelly Olynyk: Some players can pull off the long hair/beard combo, but Kelly Olynyk is not one of them. Steven Adams is the shining example of this, combining function with fashion, but Olynyk just looks like an old Amish mother. He also suffers from maybe the worst beard in the NBA. It might not even be appropriate to call that thing a beard, it’s as if his chin is a functional Chia pet. Let’s all pray the carpet doesn’t match the drapes.

Winner: Elfrid Payton

I have to admit that I was a fan of Payton’s hair when he was a rookie. There’s not another cut like it in the league, and the curvature resembled that of an abstract sculpture. The story behind it is that his high school team made a pact to keep growing their hair until they won their state championship, but since they never won he’s kept it. A problem in this logic is that he has shaped up the sides of his head, evidenced by a google search, so he has in fact cut his hair, thus violating the treaty, so he might as well do what the Weeknd did. But more importantly, the hair has gotten so long and protruding that it’s affected his shots, no doubt playing a part in his shooting motion. In a game against the Nets this season, he airballs a 5 foot floater and the replay shows his hair completely blocking his line of sight.

SMVP (Social-Media MVP)

Enes Kanter: He is just the consummate troll. His target all year, LeBron James. When the Cavs came to Madison Square in November, Kanter and James got into a scuffle and a shouting match. When asked about it in postgame Kanter said, “ I don’t care who you are, what you call yourself, King, Queen, Princess…” Throughout the year he’s tweeted shots at LBJ, but it hasn’t only been jokes for Kanter. He spoke out against the corrupt leader of Turkey, his country of origin, and in response the Turkish Government canceled his passport. Through social media, he let everyone know what was basically unruly imprisonment, and was returned back to the US promptly. When you can use twitter to save your life, that’s certainly SMVP worthy.

Kyle Kuzma: The second round stud has been a huge surprise for the Lakers this year. He’s got a vast array of skills and shots which combined with his youth, athleticism and size make for a scary prospect. But what’s really intriguing is his attitude. He’s a shit talking specialist, and has the confidence that most rookies don’t have, he did play 4-years of college ball. What’s made for such great following on social is he’s got a guy younger guy like Lonzo to clown on his IG story. The best part of Kuz is that while he’s still a rookie, he carries himself like he’s the man on the team, and that extends to his social media too.

Lou Williams: Sweet Lou is one of the easiest dudes to root for in the league. His game is tough, and he’s never been fake about himself. When a fan asked if he was still dating two women, something he’s been very open about, he responded “4.” But at 31, in his 12th season, he’s maybe played his best, dragging a ragtag clippers team into a possible playoff spot, and with the recent success he nearly cemented an All-star over his social media ‘campaign.’ After every great game he had, he’d tweet out without subtlety about his candidacy. When it was reported that All-star Jimmy Butler would sit the game to rest for the season, Williams tweeted at him “you serious bruh?” Butler then challenged Williams to a game of ones for $100,000 to settle things. Whether or not it’ll ever come to that, it’s this lively debate between players that we just love to see.

Winner: Joel “The Process” Embiid

Things just come easy to Embiid. Ever since he was drafted, he had the exact mix of humor and carelessness to create a strong fan base, especially over social media. In instagram posts, he’ll often put an obscure name for a location that undermine those in the photo, or enhance the caption he’s written. He’ll call out opponents and even his teammates, but there’s always a complex level of humor when he makes these engagements. When Joel let his shot at Rihanna fly it soon after became known she’d consider a date once Embiid became an All-star. After doing just that this season, he was asked  about it in a postgame interview on TNT, responding perfectly. As his career starts to take off it’ll be a pleasure to watch his game get better and to see the fire content that comes with it.

What should the Bulls do with the Pelicans' first round pick?

Hello Bulls fans,

As we are all well aware the Chicago Bulls have two first round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. I’ve discussed the possibilities of what can happen with the first of these two picks, but have not yet gone into detail about how the second pick, courtesy of the New Orleans Pelicans, can be utilized. It is very important that the Chicago Bulls hit on both of these picks in this draft to expedite the rebuild process with quality, high-upside players.

There’s no telling how things will shape out in the Western Conference but as of right now the Pelicans' pick sits at 18th overall, and can move anywhere from 14th up to the twenties. The Pelicans have lost four in a row, and are in competition with the Denver Nuggets for the final playoff spot in the West, but their remaining schedule is mostly against lottery teams.

In the event the Pelicans do miss the playoffs, the Bulls will have some pretty good players to look at. Alabama PG Collin Sexton is a very interesting prospect. He has excellent burst and is dynamic in transition, and doesn’t need a ball screen to get to the rim. He is very explosive in space and would fit well in Fred Hoiberg's uptempo offense. Both Sexton and incumbent PG Kris Dunn both get after it defensively and would be fun to watch them battle for the starting job in camp.

If the Bulls are fortunate enough to grab a Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley, or DeAndre Ayton with their first pick, then small forward suddenly becomes a position of need. Enter Kevin Knox, a combo forward from Kentucky into the mix. He’s 6’9 with a 11.5 wingspan and wide shoulders than can fill out in the NBA. He’s a multi-positional defender and can make shots with and space. Players that aren’t ball dominant will greatly benefit from this system and it will also take pressure off them to perform. There has no official word on if Knox will stay in college or skip his sophomore campaign to join the NBA. A decision will be made by this Friday.

The worst possible scenario is the Pelicans moving up in seeding, which would send that pick down to the late teens or early twenties. One of the players who could get a look late in the first is Villanova PG Jalen Brunson. I know I’m beating a dead horse when I say Kris Dunn needs a back up point guard to relieve him, but Jerian Grant doesn’t cut it. You need player who can keep things moving and has basketball IQ. Brunson can read the defense and make the right plays.

Ultimately the direction we elect to go with this pick depends on how these next couple of weeks go. I will have a better idea about what positional players make the most sense by where we are sitting. We can go from finding potential starters to adding in serviceable back ups or “camp bodies” to add competition.

No need for panic: it's not a wrap for the Raptors heading into playoffs
NBA.com

NBA.com

We can all agree that the NBA season is a long one, correct? This is obviously not to excuse any lapse of quality play from good teams, but it’s certainly understandable.

That being said, teams either get hot or have a shaky finish as they stumble into the playoffs, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the momentum will carry into the post-season. Lord knows we’ve seen teams fizzle out quickly (which is why the banged up Warriors can’t really be snuffed out as title favourites).

As far as the Toronto Raptors are concerned, they’re in a position they’ve never been in before, so it’s difficult to gauge whether or not the outside world should have faith in them having a deep run and being the first non-LeBron Eastern Conference team to reach the NBA Finals since 2010. Not only does that speaks to the dominance of LeBron, but also that parity in the East sucks and we’re in dire need for some change. Warriors-Cavs part 4 would be historic for storyline purposes, but it’s like watching a Patriots-Giants Superbowl again (no thank you).

After enjoying an amazing run of winning 20 of 22 games since late January, the month of March wasn't pleasant for the Raptors, as they prepare for a daunting finish to the regular season. They’ve lost four of their last seven, including an ejection-fest against OKC, and a thriller in Cleveland on the end of a back-to-back. In both games they surrendered 132 points, uncharacteristic of a top-5 ranked defense in the Association. With having given up 110+ points to 7 of their last 8 opponents, and stagnant play against lesser teams, critics are finding it uneasy to believe the Raptors will be fresh enough to make a run in the playoffs.

But I don’t believe there's much cause for concern. The reason being three key components: the Coach, the all-Star back court, and the bench.

Getting fresh legs is important, but the chemistry has been on point with the reset of the culture in Toronto for this season. A few bad games doesn’t suddenly dissolve all of that. But one thing that Toronto teams can’t seem to overcome is the pressure of high expectations. With the exception of Toronto FC winning the MLS Cup last year, the city has seen its fair share of disappointment. Look no further than 2015 and 2016 Blue Jays, who were in prime win-now situations and reached the ALCS both years, but squandered both opportunities and have watched their window for success close on them since.

The Raptors team who went to the East Finals in 2016 did win 56 games, but there weren’t any aspirations for titles. Getting out of the first round wasn’t something they’d done since 2001. The franchise was just happy to be where they were, and overachieved against weaker teams. Let’s be real, no one but the Cavs were getting out of the East and everyone knew it.

This is the first year in franchise history that the Raptors are seriously being looked at as contenders, and the fact that some American analysts are respecting that is quite something to believe. If the Raptors don’t get to at least the Conference Finals, it’s a failed season, and there’s no way around that. Those expectations weren’t set at the beginning of the season because no one knew how the team would respond to the “culture reset” that president Masai Ujiri wanted. No one knew that the bench full of unproven role players would happen to be the best in the NBA. No one knew that DeMar DeRozan’s playmaking ability would ascend over the course of the season, and certainly, no one expected the Raptors to hold steady at the top of the East for as long as they have, with a legitimate chance to clinch it. These expectations were grown through the quality of play, and since winning is what the team and fans have been accustomed to this season, it’s way beyond being happy to be in the playoffs; it’s about changing the narrative and adding some much needed hardware.

There’s no reason to panic. As much as the team has been scrutinized for past failures, this season has turned over a new leaf and there are too many players on the team and staff in the building who are hungry enough to go after it and take what they want. It's pretty much the Finals or Bust, and that’s the right attitude for success one would want from their teams. Obviously we don’t know how far they’ll go, but the hope is that they don’t revive the miseries of old.

That’s My Word & It STiXX

Exploring the best case scenario for the Warriors this postseason
Photo: Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Photo: Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

One of the biggest criticisms throughout the Warriors reign of the NBA is the lack of “real adversity” they faced. But I’d beg to differ. In fact, Since they began their current run of making the playoffs in 2013, Golden State has instead turned their misfortune from water into wine. From not trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love to signing Kevin Durant after blowing a 3-1 lead in the Finals, time and time again they’ve had the best case scenarios play out in their favor. But with all of the injuries of late, the worst being Steph Curry’s MCL strain, we should explore possible positive of their most recent slump.

The best thing going for the Dubs comes down to two words: Kevin Durant. The reigning Finals MVP was brought to the Bay for moments like this. It was reported Durant would be returning to the court Thursday against Milwaukee, but we saw exactly what KD can do without Steph during his first injury stint earlier this season. The Dubs defensive rating was tops over that period of time, and Durant locked himself in on both ends, subsequently drawing tons of Defensive Player of the Year buzz.

His versatility also shine through in their change of pace. While he's deadly on the break, he’s still the best iso scorer in the league, equipped with innumerable ways to get buckets. Surely they’ll get KD post touches and let the teams off ball movement create mismatch opportunities to attack.

Something to look for as Durant, and then later, Draymond and Klay return, is how the Warriors step up defensively. Golden State needs to conform to a more appropriate system without Curry. Without Steph heading the snake that is the Warriors’ offense, they’ll need to focus on the possession game, and stops on defense will hold even more importance. They’ll also hope to get good minutes from the young guys.

Pat McCaw has still struggled mightily on both ends, but as Omri Casspi losses his spot in the rotation, rightfully so, McCaw could find his rhythm and gain the confidence he’s flashed every so often. Jordan Bell could make a Javale McGee-esque impact on offense on lob attempts, but will need to calm down on defense being that his last few injuries have come from reckless shot-block attempts.

Surprisingly their most important young player may be Kevon Looney. His style of play would be perfect for a Steph-less team, good at rolling and popping on offense, and moving with patience on defense. It’s when the pace speeds up that Looney begins to struggle.

Quinn Cook’s play will also play a huge role. There just isn’t another point guard on the team that can space the floor and who’s willing to shoot the ball and keep defense’s honest. Hopefully, he gets in a good enough flow that he becomes their backup point guard for good, as it seems as though Shaun Livingston may have run his course as a key rotation player. For years Golden State has searched for their backup PG, and Cook's game just seems to fit the role.

While they've already clinched a playoff spot, the Warriors still need to tread water. As their injured stars begin to trickle back to the court, the ultimate hope is for them to be fully healthy come May and June. At this point, the playoffs won’t mean anything if their key players aren’t able to get in the games. If Durant can keep the team afloat sans Draymond and Klay, the team may want to keep the two stars sidelined until absolutely necessary. The #1 seed is surely Houston's, so a final push for home court advantage shouldn’t be on their mind, just get their guys back when the time is right.

Should Curry miss the first round, who would the Dubs want to face? Oklahoma City currently sits at 4th, but are still liable to drop into the 7th seed. Without a healthy Andre Roberson, Russell Westbrook would be guarding the point guard, but without Steph, Russ will have even more time to rest on defense, which would be a huge benefit for OKC. Their biggest strength in the matchup without Curry on the court would be their staunch defense. Without the pace that Curry brings on offense, OKC will have a much easier time getting stops, and creating fastbreak opportunities, of which Westbrook and Paul George would salivate for.

Utah, Minnesota, New Orleans and San Antonio just don’t have the star power to match ¾’s of Golden State's. They’ll also lack the all important wing defender to try to stop Durant. If the Wolves can get Jimmy Butler back, it could smell trouble, but it’s no sure thing that he would be fully healthy. So to revisit those two all important words I noted up earlier, it’ll all come down to Kevin Durant.

Who will be the Bulls' top dog?

Hello Bulls fans,

We have enjoyed the growth and development of young players this whole season despite being hurt that Jimmy Butler was traded to the Timberwolves. When Jimmy Butler was here he was unquestionably the number one option on offense. Dwyane Wade even said that he would defer to Jimmy Butler, rightfully so because he was the best player on the team with the most longevity. With the implementation of all young new players there is no established “top dog” for the other players to differ to. In order for a team to have sustained success in the long run there must be a player that others differ to in crunch time. If you need a bucket then you go to this guy to either make a shot or go to the basket.

A lot of fans were under the conception with the trade that Zach LaVine will automatically be the go-to guy for the Chicago Bulls when he got healthy. What we didn’t count on was Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn developing into very serviceable starters who are still ascending. Yes the trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves as good for that franchise because they lacked a leader, and these three players being brought in was good for Chicago as well but a leader is still needed. The offense appears all over the place in important situations sometimes because one guy hasn’t stepped up yet.