Our weekly look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First Quarter: An appreciation of the Warriors
The NBA was supposed to have its most exciting season ever, with so many extreme makeovers, HGTV should’ve been involved.
But instead of renewed interest due to parity, the Nielsen ratings have showed a steady decline.
LeBron James, the game’s biggest star, is in the NBA’s No. 1 market (because, New York, you know) and the Lakers are playing elite basketball. The Celtics are back to the land of the living, producing more brand familiarity to the common fan.
The Golden State Warriors as we know them are no more, stripped of their powers due to injury and departures. Surely that would be enough to bring fans back to their televisions in droves, because everybody has a fair chance, right?
To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup from “A Few Good Men” some 20-plus years ago, “You want the Warriors on that wall, you need them on that wall!”
So much time was spent opining about how this group came together — or more specifically, how Kevin Durant joined the Warriors via free agency — and how their on-court demeanor crossed over into arrogance.
Did they separate the haves from the have-nots?
Did it ramp up expectations and turn the regular season and early July into an arms race to catch them? Sure did.
Teams weren’t allowed to spoon-feed careful messages to their fans about trying to go for it, while keeping their fingers crossed. Fans knew the difference and forced teams to bring all their chips to the table.
Chasing those Warriors was the greatest challenge and the prospect of beating them presented the greatest reward.
Does Masai Ujiri go all-in for Kawhi Leonard with the boldest move this last half of the decade if not for the Warriors? Or is it easier to stay the course and hope to catch lightning in a bottle with continuity?
The NBA’s success with the mainstream isn’t like the NFL’s, which is a league that thrives off variance in the regular season and playoffs. The NBA needs identifiable brands for fans to follow, love or loathe.
Whether it’s free agency, television fatigue, illegal streaming or other issues, things haven’t yet clicked. Teams will begin to take shape to the common fan soon enough and we’ll have a greater sense of interest — once fans identify the heroes and villains.
Whether it was Durant’s superpowers or Stephen Curry’s assassin-with-a-smile routine or even Draymond Green’s habitual line-stepping, fans knew exactly what to expect when tuning in.
In fact, it’s what they tuned in for, and now they’re missing it.
That’s the biggest plot twist of all.
Second Quarter: Mavericks have a third option
A few short weeks ago, Dallas Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was better known for being a salary throw-in to make the Kristaps Porzingis trade work last season than anything he was doing on the floor.
Porzingis wanted out — and the Knicks did, too — so the business end hit Hardaway in January when he was shipped out for cap space.
"At the end of the day, it is a business, technically,” he said. “Wherever I’m playing, I’ll play to the best of my ability, and in New York, I did that. I hope the fans understand that. I was just as surprised as anyone.”
The surprise extended to this season, when Hardaway wasn’t even seeing consistent playing time under coach Rick Carlisle, a puzzling situation when you considered his shooting ability and willingness to let it fly. He started the season off the bench and didn’t look aggressive or comfortable being the sole scorer on the second unit.
Something clicked, though, in the last 10 games. The Mavericks have gone 8-2 since Carlisle inserted Hardaway into the first five, and he’s playing the most efficient basketball of his young career.
It’s a small sample size but his splits of 54-48-92 feel sustainable to some degree. He’s found a chemistry with Luka Doncic in the backcourt, spotting up or getting to the open spots on the floor even when Doncic is being his wonderfully random self in the halfcourt.
In their eye-opening, 14-point win in Houston on Nov. 24, Hardaway scored a season-high 31 points with five triples, feasting off the attention on Doncic the same way the Rockets’ Eric Gordon does when James Harden is on the floor.
“It’s all about adaptation,” Hardaway told Yahoo Sports earlier this season.
It was a far cry from his first visit to New York this season, when he talked about how his $71 million contract weighed on him.
“You have to play the same way you did, to get that contract, to get that payday you’ve been dreaming about,” Hardaway said. “Nothing should change. You probably add a couple things here and there in the offseason. But how you play and how seriously you take the game, it should speak volumes on how you got that contract.”
The Mavericks are nearly five points per game better when Hardaway’s on the floor through this 10-game stretch, and his 17.1 scoring average during the run makes him a viable third option behind Doncic and Porzingis — a chief reason why Dallas has climbed to third in the West.
His performance was tough to anticipate when a stress reaction in his left tibia ended his season last March.
“I’m happy to be healthy, 100 percent healthy,” he said, days before his hot streak began. “We’re still in the mix of things, trying to get everything right. I’m happy to be where I’m at.”
And his play since has proven it.
Third Quarter: Best teams of the decade
The turn of the decade is weeks away, and while many teams have been memorable throughout this stretch of twists and turns, reincarnations and rule changes, these five teams stand out from the rest as the best these last 10 years had to offer.
5. 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks’ run from the second round on was as surprising as any in recent memory. Sweeping the two-time champion Lakers with remarkable ease, giving a preview of the pace-and-space game that would dominate the decade, and blitzing teams with long-range threes and suffocating defense. Yes, the Durant/Westbrook/Harden Thunder were still very much in their infancy, but that team was scary and very much a threat to beat a Dallas team that had perpetually fallen short in the playoffs. And LeBron James’ Heat hadn’t yet figured things out, as the Mavericks challenged them and ran over them in the last five games of the Finals. Dirk Nowitzki went from joke to champion in the blink of an eye after many of us had written him off as a talented yet flawed superstar.
2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers: The most improbable finish in NBA Finals history was authored by these Cavaliers, ending a Cleveland championship drought that lasted well over five decades. It was aided by a Draymond Green suspension and polished off by Kyrie Irving’s right-wing triple that silenced everything in the Bay Area on Father’s Day 2016. Irving dazzled in the final games as he and James came together for historic offensive performances when the Cavaliers’ backs were to the wall. And on defense, well, James saved the day with that big block on Andre Iguodala.
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers: The last of the bump-and-grind, post-up and hero-ball NBA champions before everything turned on its head. It wasn’t pretty, as evidenced by a classic but cringe-worthy Game 7 finale against the Boston Celtics, but the Lakers were compelling with Lurch (Phil Jackson) on the sidelines for one last run, two behemoths up front (Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum), and Kobe Bryant giving us one last good run on the Finals stage. The Phoenix Suns gave them plenty to handle in the conference finals before they outlasted the Celtics to give them revenge for 2008, as well as a repeat.
2016-17 Golden State Warriors: It never looked so easy, did it? It didn’t look fair, but man did it look beautiful. A 73-win team added the game’s best weapon, and the Warriors romped through the NBA as if to personally avenge every hilarious or played-out 3-1 Finals joke. Kevin Durant fit in perfectly, the Warriors made quick work of everyone in the playoffs before doing the same to LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers in their third June installment. The Warriors weren’t tested because nobody could play well enough long enough to do more than make Stephen Curry’s crew break a sweat. What we lost in a potential Warriors-Thunder rivalry, we gained in seeing basketball at arguably it’s highest form.
2012-13 Miami Heat: It was a show every night, with a 27-game winning streak that came close to eclipsing the Los Angeles Lakers’ 33-game mark from the 1971-72 season. It was the best version of LeBron James we’ve seen, coming one vote shy of becoming the first unanimous MVP. They were champions at their peak, flaunting their mental edge in every building they walked into — comfortable being heroes or villains, with Dwyane Wade being close enough to his best self to aid James, and Chris Bosh plugging the holes of a trapping, menacing defense. They were tested in seven-game battles with the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, being saved by the shot of the decade by Ray Allen in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, which helped prove their mettle.
Fourth Quarter: Trade season
Can anyone remember the last trade made in the NBA?
It was the Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook swap during summer league. So many teams shifted shapes during the offseason, it made sense to stay pat in the early going, but Dec. 15 is a new day as players who signed deals in the summer are eligible to be moved.
It’s not a shock to see Kevin Love wanting out of Cleveland, considering his money is secured for the next three seasons and the Cavaliers are going nowhere. Sources say he’d like to get to Portland, and it’s believed the Trail Blazers will be active in the trade market.
Here are a few other teams, sources told Yahoo Sports, that are expected to explore the trade market: New York, San Antonio, Memphis and Charlotte.
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