Can the Warriors Survive the Second Round Without Curry?

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What are the chances the Warriors will be upset in the second round without Curry? The Clippers and Blazers will prove to be interesting challenges.

With Stephen Curry at least out for two weeks due to a sprained MCL, the big question on Warriors and NBA fans’ minds is whether or not the Warriors will still capitalize on their record-setting 73 win season and finish with a NBA title. Or will the Warriors have the biggest letdown in NBA history and not even make the Finals, let alone win the championship?

With their reigning (and possibly repeating) MVP possibly out for an extended period of time, there is major concern in terms of how the Warriors will fare in the coming rounds of the Western Conference playoffs. Though it is not over, the Warriors should close out the Houston Rockets will relative ease, which brings the focus to the second round of the playoffs. Yes, I know everyone is looking ahead to the Western Conference playoffs where a Spurs-Warriors “Super-Matchup” looms (though don’t count out the Thunder who are playing great “F***You” ball right now (especially Kevin Durant, who was all kinds of salty and spitting straight fire to Mark Cuban after their Game 5 win) after dismantling the Mavericks after a Game 2 let down), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Every round counts, and there are still two possibly dangerous (though flawed) opponents waiting in the second round that could give the Warriors trouble, especially sans-Curry.

So, with that being said, let’s take a look at the possible matchups for the Warriors in the second round and how big a threat they pose to the Warriors from making into the Western Conference Finals.

 

The Los Angeles Clippers

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A week ago, this matchup would have had the Warriors and Warriors fans sweating. Without Curry, the Warriors would be depending on Leandro Barbosa and Shaun Livingston matching up against CP3. Add that problem along with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, not to mention a playoff-experienced (though insufferable) coach in Doc Rivers, as well as some fiery history between the two franchises, and the Clippers seemed poised to pull off an upset for the ages in the second round.

However, that has all changed in the past couple of days. Blake Griffin was ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs, and then Chris Paul broke his hand in Game 4 against the Blazers, ruling him out until the NBA Finals should the Clippers get that far. That means the Clippers will be relying on DeAndre Jordan, who is only a shade better than Andre Drummond when it comes to shooting free throws, JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Green to carry them to victory against the still-loaded Warriors. Losing Griffin is a tough blow, but in all frankness, the Clippers got through most of the regular season without him. Losing Paul however is a death knell. To not have their floor general and main facilitator, and replacing him with Austin Rivers is a MAJOR downgrade. Livingston and Barbosa should not be able to just handle him, but they most likely will outplay him extensively on the offensive and defensive end of the ball.

Now, this could be a breakout series for Jordan. After all, he nearly left the Clippers because he wanted to be the “main guy” on the team and didn’t want to be in the shadow of anyone (hence a dig at Paul and Griffin until they came over with some Raising Cane’s and mended the turmoil in one hilariously chronicled night on Twitter). Ironically, Jordan will now get the chance to do what he could’ve in Dallas (be the main man), though I’m sure that’s not what he expected when he re-signed with the Clippers this off-season. Jordan will need to be a beast on both ends, and go up and above what he normally contributes to give the Clippers a chance in this series. Redick and Crawford are good, but Redick is more of a complimentary player, and Crawford is a streaky player who can rescue a team one night and sink them the next.

What keeps me from thinking though Jordan will reach “Superstar” status and help the Clippers upset the Warriors in this series though is his free throw shooting (or lack thereof). Yes, Drummond of the Pistons replaced him as the “Superstar player you can’t play in the 4th quarter because he is so dog crap with free throws.” However, Jordan still is pretty sub-par in a pretty essential category, as evidenced by his 43 percent FT percentage this season, and his 619 free throws this season were a career-high, which is evidence that teams have caught on to his glaring weakness, and fouled him in key moments to give themselves an advantage to stay in games or preserve leads. I don’t see Jordan turning around that miserable stat in the second round, which means that the Clippers might not have anybody on the floor at times in the 4th that they can really go to with any confidence in crunch time. That’s a huge detriment to their team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s one of the reasons why the Clippers fail to get out of the first round against the Blazers.

If Paul and Jordan were in this series, I would be worried about the Warriors without Curry. But not only will the Warriors be able to neutralize Rivers, Redick and Crawford without Curry, but the Clippers’ biggest strength (Jordan) will also be neutralized by the Warriors’ depth in the post with Andrew Bogut, Mareese Speights and Festus Ezeli. Bogut and Ezeli will be able to bang with Jordan down low, and Speights can stretch Jordan out of the paint with his outside mid-range shooting, which will clear the lanes for the Warriors’ perimeter players, especially Green and Thompson. And if worse comes to worse, James Michael Mcadoo can come in, foul the crap out of Jordan without regard (I mean he has six fouls for a reason, right?) and give breathers to the trio above as they watch Jordan apply for membership to the Bricklayers Union at the line.

And remember…Cole Aldrich is the Clippers’ backup center.

Yikes.

Projection if it’s the Clippers: Warriors in Four (Five at the most, if the Warriors shoot like a crap house in one game).

 

The Portland Trail Blazers

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This series is definitely the more intriguing second-round matchup for NBA fans, and probably a lot more worrisome for Warriors fans. Unlike the Clippers, who will be relying on Jordan in the post to succeed in the playoffs from here on out, the Blazers biggest producers come from the guard positions. While Rivers should be easy to contain for Livingston and Barbosa, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will be much tougher tasks, as they are the main focus of the Trail Blazers offense. Furthermore, the Blazers also had one of the more dynamic wins against the Warriors, as they beat the Warriors 137-105 in spectacular fashion at the Moda Center on February 19th. To show how big Lillard and McCollum were in that series, Dame and CJ were responsible for 72 of the Blazers 137 points (with Lillard scoring 51) and 46 of the Blazers’ 97 shot attempts. And that is with Curry on the floor. It is frightening to think what the Blazers will do without Curry in the lineup this series.

However, there are a couple of things to consider this series that will work in the Warriors’ favor:

  1. The Blazers lack depth, especially in the post. The Blazers play a nine-deep lineup, and the lack of Meyers Leonard this series is going to hurt them. Ed Davis is a good physical hustle player and Mason Plumlee is a serviceable starting center, but he should be neutralized against the Warriors trio of Bogut, Speights and Ezeli. And though Noah Vonleh has stepped up in Leonard’s absence, I don’t trust the second-year player to do much damage, especially considering he has showed issues with keeping his composure at times on the floor. If there is one thing the Warriors do very well, especially in the post, is that they “dirty” it up much more than one thinks. The Warriors have a reputation as a “finesse” team because of Thompson and Curry, but when you go beyond the duo, the Warriors actually are one of the more physical teams in the league, especially in the post. I can see the Warriors frustrating the hell out of the Blazers’ post players, and I don’t think the Blazers will be able to combat that, especially considering this Blazers team is pretty green when it comes to deep playoff experience.
  2. I think the Warriors hold multiple advantages beyond the guard positions. As big a surprise as Al-Farouq Aminu has been, I don’t know how he will do against Draymond Green, who is such a versatile and physical player. Furthermore, I think Allen Crabbe, Mo Harkless and Gerald Henderson will have their issues, not just against Green, but against Klay Thompson as well. And, as crazy as it sounds, while I think Dame will get his share of point (as well as big time moments) in this series, I think the Warriors will really focus on shutting down McCollum this series with a combo of Thompson and Green (with them alternating matchups with Aminu). While Dame has had his highs against the Warriors in their season series (Dame also scored 40 in their first game with the Warriors this season), McCollum hasn’t hit the 20 point mark in any of their four games this year. Add that with an much more intense playoff atmosphere, and I doubt he’ll crack 20 in the playoffs, which I think is needed if the Blazers realistically think they can win four games this series against the defending champs. I think Dame will have a big game, and he may win a game or even two in this series by himself. But the Blazers will need McCollum to really shine above and beyond for the Blazers to pull the upset, and I don’t see that happening. I think the Warriors perimeter players, knowing they will need to step up without Curry on the floor, will focus even more so on the defensive end in terms of stopping McCollum, thus making the Blazers more of a one-man show, which will not be enough.

This possible second-round matchup will definitely be a more entertaining series than the Clippers one (especially considering the Blazers’ willingness to push the pace). However, even without Curry, I think the Warriors’ depth will simply be too much for the young Blazers to handle. The youth is just too much of a detriment, I don’t necessarily see the Blazers matching the Warriors’ physicality, and though Terry Stotts has proven himself as a mainstay in the NBA, his record is pretty suspect when it comes to the playoffs (he has never gone beyond the second round). The Blazers will put up a hell of a fight, and I think Lillard will showcase why he is one of the more underrated superstars in this league, but I think the Warriors hold too many advantages in other positions for the Blazers to pose as a threat.

Prediction: Warriors in Five (maybe six if they get two CRAZY games from Lillard). 

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Kings Retro Draft Journal: The Short, but Lasting Negative Legacy of Tyreke Evans

Despite winning Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans failed to live up to expectations in Sacramento
Despite winning Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans failed to live up to expectations in Sacramento

With the Draft coming up on Thursday, I felt it was time to look at some of the Kings’ previous draft classes. In this post, I am going to focus on the 2009 draft and specifically Tyreke Evans, the Kings’ first draft pick (No. 4 overall) out of Memphis. Though Evans was a highly heralded prospect out of college (and even high school), he is best remembered for being drafted over All-Star players Demar Derozan, Jeff Teague, Jrue Holiday (who he is teammates with ironically) and famously Stephen Curry (yes…All-Star, Regular Season MVP, NBA Champion and father of cute kid Riley Stephen Curry). And yet, Evans has been productive in his NBA career (he ranks 11th in Win Shares in a loaded draft class that also includes Blake Griffin, James Harden and Ty Lawson just to name a few) despite injuries, and he did win the 2009-2010 Rookie of the Year award, which gave a lot of Kings hope in his future initially. So he hasn’t heard total bust status in the Greg Oden or Adam Morrison mold, but it’s obvious that the Kings got hosed in what was a legendary draft class.

Let’s take a look at the brief, but lasting legacy Evans left with the Kings and if there is anything the Kings or Kings fans can learn from Evans’ four years in Sacramento.

The Theus-Natt Disaster, Looking to Rebuild and Settling for Fourth

The 2008-2009 season, you could argue with good and valid reason, was the worst in the history of the franchise. After a 6-18 start, the Kings fired second-year head coach “Hangtime” Reggie Theus and assistant Kenny Natt took over in the interim to disastrous results. Under Natt, the team finished 11-47 and 17-65 overall, the worst record in the NBA that year. The Theus-Natt-led Kings that season were catastrophic on all kinds of levels and let’s compile a list of what they were putrid at:

  • They ranked dead last in SRS (Simple Rating System) at negative-8.60.
  • They were awful defensively, as they rated dead last in defensive rating, allowing 114.7 points per 100 possessions, and were second to last in points allowed per game, allowing 109.3 ppg.
  • Kings fans noticed this too, as they ranked second-to-last in attendance. While you could contribute the empty seats mostly to a lousy team with no recognizable stars, this season was also the beginning of the Maloofs losing money and looking to sell and possibly move the Kings.

The Kings had a couple of pieces to build around. Rookie Jason Thompson had a decent, though unspectacular rookie campaign, helping satisfy fans who thought the product out of Ryder was an over-draft at No. 12. (For a while former GM Geoff Petrie was really good at drafting unheralded guys and getting the most out of them). Thompson averaged 11.1 ppg and 7.4 rpg and put up a 49.7 percent field goal percentage while average 28.1 MPG. Furthermore, Thompson was the only King to appear in all 82 games that season. Second-year center Spencer Hawes complemented Thompson in the low block, and greatly improved from a lackluster rookie campaign. In his second year, Hawes appeared in 77 games and started 51 and put up a similar stat-line to Thompson, averaging 29.3 MPG (over double his 13.1 MPG average his rookie year ) as well as 11.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.9 apg and 1.2 bpg. With his balance skill set and surprising passing ability for a big, Hawes reminded many Kings fans of Vlade Divac and Chris Webber, who also were adept passing big men during the Adelman-era Kings.

Beyond Thompson and Hawes though, things looked rather bleak roster-wise. The Kings the past couple of years tried to toe-the-line in NBA no-man’s land, trying to still be competitive as a playoff team even though they didn’t have the firepower to get past the first round. Theus kept the team respectable in his initial season as coach, helping the Kings go 38-44 after the 1 year disaster of Eric Musselman when the Kings went 33-49 after making the playoffs the year previously. But it was obvious that the Kings needed to go a different direction after 3 seasons with Ron Artest (i.e. Metta World Peace) and playing in that 8-12 seed level. The Kings traded Artest to the Rockets before the season, and as the team floundered, they also traded John Salmons and Brad Miller (a long-time Kings standout) for practically peanuts (i.e. Drew Gooden, Andres Nocioni, Michael Ruffin and Cedric Simmons). Martin was heralded as the “star” of the group and he put up gaudy numbers (24.1 ppg and team-leading 19.1 PER and 4.7 win shares), but he only played in 51 games, and his frail frame and lack of defensive value made Kings circles wonder if he really was the “man” going forward.

Due to a mixture of incompetency and subtle tanking, the Kings earned the worst record and thus, the most ping-pong balls in the lottery. It was obvious that Blake Griffin was going to go first, and even though the Kings were already set with Thompson and Hawes in the post, Griffin was such a special player that they could make room for him amidst their crowded front court. However, as typical with the Kings, luck bounced them out of the Top-3 (LAC, Memphis and OKC earned the top-3 picks), and they had to settle for the fourth pick, which put them out of the franchise-changing Griffin sweepstakes.

“Stuck Between a 1 and 2”: Evans vs. Curry

With Griffin out, it was obvious that the Kings needed to focus on the perimeter (Center Hasheem Thabeet was a consensus Top-3 pick, but with Hawes, he wouldn’t fit in the Kings’ plans anyways). Beno Udrih was expendable, as he put up a lackluster 12.3 PER and 1.2 win shares in 73 appearances the previous season. So, the shift focused on upgrading the point guard position, (James Harden was known as the most polished player in the draft, but with Martin manning the same position, there didn’t seem to be a lot of outcry for Harden from Kings fans at the time).

That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as the draft was loaded with point guard prospects such as Ricky Rubio, Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, just to name a few. However, the “pure” point guard prospects certainly had their concerns. Rubio wasn’t averse to playing in Sacramento, but he was still signed with his Spanish club DKV Joventut, and he would have required a $6-8 million dollar buyout to come state-side. Though Rubio certainly had the most upside out of any of the point guard prospects in the draft (he was only 19, and he impressed people with his performance with the Spanish National Team in the Olympics the previous summer), it didn’t seem like the Kings were all that hot on Rubio sporting a Kings hat on Draft Day. Jennings was another impressive prospect who ended up skipping out on college to play a year in Europe, but stories about his struggles with Roma as well as maturity issues seemed to push him out of the No. 4 pick discussion.

So the discussion centered on two guys who were considered point guard prospects in the draft but really weren’t pure point guards in college: Memphis’ Evans and Davidson’s Curry.

If you look at Evans and Curry’s Draft Express profiles, it is funny how they both are labeled “stuck between 1 and 2”. Evans made the transition to the Point midway through the year at Memphis and helped Memphis rally to a No. 2 seed in the tournament (though they did get bounced in the Sweet 16 by Missouri). Evans size and ability to get to the rim was lauded and pointed out as a key reason why Memphis was able to not miss a beat after their National Runner-up campaign a year ago. Furthermore, Evans’ strong season at Memphis was constantly compared to Derrick Rose, who led the Tigers as the point the previous season. Evans averaged 17.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 3.9 apg, and some people at the time preferred Evans to Rose due to Evans’ size and rebounding ability, which was superior to Rose in college.

As for Curry, he was known for his strong performances in the 2008 tournament, but he played mostly off-guard that year and had a much deeper, polished Davidson team. In 2009, with a lot of players gone, Curry took the reigns as point, and suffered some growing pains, as the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament after making the Elite 8 the previous year. Despite missing the tournament, Curry was lauded for carrying the shorthanded Wildcats, as he averaged 28.6 ppg and 5.6 apg his junior season, all career highs.

Curry had the shooting touch, NBA pedigree (his dad was long-time NBA sniper Dell Curry) and the “star” value to merit the No. 4 pick in the draft, but Evans had the size, the tutelage (Calipari was being dubbed a “point-guard whisperer after getting successful one and done season from Evans and Rose back-to-back) and the versatility that attracted Kings fans more. Even if Evans didn’t pan out as a point guard, the thought amongst Kings fans was that he would develop into a versatile enough wing that would eventually push Martin out-of-town, and then the Kings could get the point they wanted down the road. In Mock Drafts, the consensus seemed to be Evans at 4, even with the sharp-shooting Curry available.

Quick Start, Regression and Internal Strife Lead to Departure

For a season, it looked like the Kings made the right decision. Evans got off to a hot start with a couple of buzzer-beaters, and his strong, confident demeanor was backed up by an impressive 20.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, and 5.3 rpg line in 72 games for the 25-57 Kings. Evans was most impressive in the beginning of the year, as were most of the Kings, as they got off to an 8-8 start and were 18-34 at the All-Star break, not bad considering that was 1 win better than they had all season a year ago. But new head coach Paul Westphal failed to keep any momentum as they struggled in the second half (they went 7-23 post All-Star break) and on the road (7-34 away from Arco). Evans also suffered regression after the All-Star break, with his scoring declining (from 20.3 to 19.8) and shooting regressing as well (53.8 to 51.3 True Shooting pct. from first to second half). The silver lining in all of this? Evans’ rebounding jumped (from 4.8 to 6.2) as well as his assists (5.1 to 6.9). Despite all the concerns with his “tweener” status, Evans showed hope to Kings fans that he could be the Kings primary playmaker (the assist jump was a nice sign) as well as bring different strengths to the Kings lineup (such as rebounding).

Despite Curry’s solid campaign (17.5 ppg, 5.9 apg, 43.7 3-PT percentage), Evans’ hot start and gaudy triple category numbers (points, rebounds, assists) earned Evans the Rookie of the Year award. After that season though, Evans simply struggled to replicate his rookie year in the subsequent seasons with the Kings. Evans battled through injury (he suffered through plantar fascitis) and played in only 57 games through a rough 24-58 campaign. Evans’ numbers tumbled down as his PPG (17.8), RPG (4.8), True Shooting (48.2%) and PER (14.4) all regressed greatly. And to make matters worse, the Kings, hoping Evans would turn into their versatile point guard of the future, rarely played the position. After earning 10% of his floor time at point his rookie year, Evans only played the position 1% of the time his sophomore season. This proved to be a trend, as Evans hasn’t played point guard more than 1% of the time until this season (where it bumped up to a whopping 2%).

As Evans floundered, Curry improved, posting 18.6 ppg and a 19.4 PER his sophomore campaign under Keith Smart. But a coaching change to Mark Jackson his third season, who gave Curry more leash and ability to be creative really marked the difference in Curry going from fringe-star to bonafide-star. Since his third season, Curry hasn’t posted a PER less than 21.2 and has totaled 49.1 Win Shares from his third-year on. And Curry has been a two-time All-Star, won a MVP award and helped the Warriors win their first title since 1975.

As for Evans, well he didn’t quite have the continuity in Sacramento that Curry benefited from in Golden State. Though the Kings upgraded in talent the following year by drafting Demarcus Cousins, the two never really fit and struggled to concede Alpha Dog status in the three seasons they were together in Sacramento. And it made sense. Cousins needs the ball to be productive, and Evans, who showed glimmers of ability to be a playmaker, ended up showing his true colors: as a score-first guard. These two styles were bound to clash (which they did) and considering where both players were at in their careers (just starting out) and without good leadership on the coaching staff or front office, it was just bound not to work out in the long run for both of them despite their talent. Add that with the fact that Evans never seemed to mesh with either Paul Westphal or Keith Smart (who replaced Westphal in the middle of the 2011-2012 season and coached the entire 2012-2013 season as well), and the emergence of another shoot-first guard (Isaiah Thomas) and Evans, who was originally seen as the cornerstone of the franchise, seemed expendable.

And he was. With a new ownership (Vivek), a new coach (Mike Malone) and new GM (Pete D’Alessandro), Evans seemed to be a relic of the old guard that wasn’t worth keeping around. On July 10, 2013, Evans was traded to New Orleans in a three-way trade (along with Portland) that basically saw Evans swiped with more pass-first oriented Grievis Vasquez.

What went wrong with Evans in Sacramento?

After being traded to New Orleans, Evans signed a four-year extension worth a little over $43 million. The money really isn’t that bad when you think about it. Despite the disappointing tenure in Sacramento, he still has a career PER average of 17.3 and has accumulated 21.7 Win Shares. In terms of traditional stats, his career ppg average is 16.8, his career rpg average is 4.9 and his career apg average is 5.2. Yes, Evans struggles from beyond the arc (career 27.8 3 PT percentage), and he still seems privy to taking that shot (he shot 2.9 3 point attempts per game last seasons). But Evans finishes well around the rim (55.8 fg percentage on shots 0-3 ft out) and has demonstrated a decent mid-range (39.8 fg percentage on 16<3-pt shots) to still merit himself as an above-average NBA player. Also, his improvement defensively (he was consistently less than 1 when it came to defensive win shares, but he actually earned 2.2 defensive win shares a year ago) also demonstrates that his game is maturing and becoming more well-rounded in New Orleans than it was Sacramento.

However, why didn’t things work out for Evans after so much promise his rookie season? How come Evans didn’t progress like Curry did in Golden State? Yes, a NBA title and MVP for Evans might have been a bit of a stretch, but you think a guy who earned Rookie of the Year in that draft class would have at least one All-Star appearance in Sacramento, right?

Well, what killed Evans was management’s lack of building around him in the right way. Yes, it’s hard to argue the drafting of Demarcus Cousins, but if the organization was really serious about making Evans the centerpiece of the Kings, they would have drafted somebody more complimentary, such as a Greg Monroe, who would have complemented Evans more with his passing ability from the high post. (And I am NOT supporting drafting Monroe over Cousins BTW…I am just saying that is what they should have done if they were serious about building the team around Evans). And Cousins is really the tip of the iceberg: the drafting of Jimmer Fredette, the acquisitions of John Salmons and Marcus Thornton, these were all decisions that really clashed with Evans truly being the “man” in Sacramento. If you look at Golden State, they took the opposite route of Sacramento. Instead of getting talent that clashed with their “franchise” player, they built around him, even letting talent go (Monta Ellis) in order to build around their star player. That lack of foresight didn’t just hurt the Kings (they have consistently been a lottery team since drafting Evans), but hurt Evans as well, who was never able to find the right cast around him to succeed beyond his individual numbers.

Of course, to play Devil’s Advocate, you could argue that all the chaos in ownership and the front office hurt Evans’ development in Sacramento. You could also argue that they never felt Evans was a franchise guy to begin with, and that when they had a chance to draft Cousins, the writing was on the wall for Evans in SacTown. You could also argue that Evans was subject to bad coaching in Sacramento, and if that he had the kind of coaches that Steph Curry had in Golden State maybe Evans would have closed that gap between them a little more and maybe he would be wearing purple and black still. There are a lot of scenarios of course, and all are plausible. Evans really is a fascinating case because the talent is there, still productive and he is still young at 25 years old. One would think there is still hope for the guy even if he will never, ever touch Curry’s career heights.

And really, a comparison to Curry isn’t fair because they aren’t the same player. Curry really is a point guard who needed time in the position. Evans probably never was and was unfairly expected to be one because he played half a season in the position at Memphis in a pinch. But it’s tough to stomach for Kings fans because they were initially seen as the same type of player in the draft, they were only 3 picks apart, and they were just hours apart in terms of their respective teams’ distance. Maybe the Kings would be celebrating their title and the Warriors would be looking at the lottery if Curry and Evans swapped. Maybe the parade would be a couple of hours north in Downtown Sac rather than in the Bay Area.

It’s those kinds of things that gnaw at Kings fans. And it’s those kinds of things that really make the drafting of Evans over Curry hurt more and longer than it really should.