The absence of head coach Flip Saunders on the sidelines will be nothing new to the Minnesota Timberwolves as they went about their preseason games and last minute practice sessions knowing he wouldn't be coaching this season due to health reasons.
But what is new is that the man responsible for leading the team from the land of 10,000 lakes to its postseason appearance in 1997, lives no more; Saunders died from cancer at age 60 two days ago.
The new season however,is just hours from tipoff. In the lead up to this point, several predictions and projections of most likely outcomes have been made. Pundits from the media world and the General Managers of teams in the league have opined on a plethora of topical issues such as who wins the Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player of the Year et al.
The General Managers survey conducted some days ago had a majority picking the Cleveland Cavaliers as title favorites. Should that prediction happen at the end of the 2015-2016 season, the current defending champions the Golden State Warriors will not be privy to an exclusive club of consecutive winners of the Larry O'brien trophy.
Last season, the Warriors were peerless for long stretches without even breaking a sweat. Their star man Steph Curry wasn't seen much in games as they wrapped things in preceding quarters.
Their 67win season-just 5 wins shy of the all time record 72wins set by Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in 1996- would have meant nothing had they not replicated the same dominance in the playoffs.
They duly did so by beating the New Orleans Pelicans in four straight games, the Memphis Grizzlies in 6 games and the Houston Rockets in five games to advance to the NBA Finals.
In the Finals, they beat Lebron James' Kyrie less and Love less Cavaliers in 6 games to win their first title in 40 years.
Having lead the NBA in many categories ( best offensive team having averaged 110 points per game, had the NBA’s best point differential of +10.1last season according to ESPN) , kept the same group of players intact sans David Lee and Justin Holiday and now more in tune with Head Coach Steve Kerr's tactics-blends Phil Jackson's triangle offense, Mike D'Antoni's run and gun and Gregg Popovich's interpositional ball sharing offense-, many including me and Clippers Coach Doc Rivers think the Warriors were lucky to be Champions.
One main reason is the issue of health. Nine out of ten times, the health champion becomes the NBA champion; thus the team with the cleanest health bill tends to win the title.
This was exactly the case with the Warriors. In the playoffs, backup Power Forward(Power Forward) or Center Marrese Speights was the only Warriors playerto miss major minutes to injury.
It must be noted , the Warriors had double portions of health luck since they didn't have too many injuries but their playoff opponents-excluding the Pelicans were riddled with injuries.
Their Western Conference semifinal opponents, the Memphis Grizzlies had their chief architect Mike Conley miss the first game with a fractured face but win two games on his return visibly looking some notches below his usual self.
The Houston Rockets were the opponents come the Conference Finals. Their Power Forward's Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas missed part of and the entire playoff series respectively.
Starting Point Guard Patrick Beverley also missed the entire playoffs and starting Center Dwight Howard averaged 16.4 points in the series despite playing with a torn meniscus in his knee.
Moving into the Finals, they came up against a Cleveland Cavaliers team which had just LeBron James left of their "Big 3" as Kevin Love had already had surgery to repair his separated shoulder and Kyrie Irving was a no show after the Finals game 1 due to a broken knee cap.
The Golden State Warriors did something crazy last season by playing 6 foot 7 inch Forward Draymond Green at Center in a "small ball" lineup that ripped through the NBA with blistering pace and a level of unselfishness only rivaled by the San Antonio Spurs.
If one wants to know the shock level this system gave the NBA, they winning 20 games with just 2 defeats to open the season is one to look at it.
Unfortunately, the NBA is notorious for being a copycat league;one move yields results and in no time everyone jumps on the bandwagon- unless you are the Spurs or the Timberwolves.
Having been the best example of what the NBA like in the 80's and 90's, the Indiana Pacers shunned this identity by doing away with their frontcourt bigs Roy Hibbert and David West to play at a faster pace by pushing Small Forward Paul George to the Power Forward position and trading for Shooting Guard Monta Ellis whilst retaining Solomon Hill, C.J.Miles and Rodney Stuckey.
Heck even the Memphis Grizzlies have made provision to go "small" when they come up against teams with a similar make. Grizzlies Coach Dave Joeger can play Jeff Green at Power Forward, Matt Barnes and Jordan Adams as Small Forward and Shooting Guard respectively and new acquisition Brandan Wright at Center.
So don't expect the Warriors to be tearing away from opponents like they used to.
The San Antonio Spurs were the winners in the offseason. For starters, they signed the best player on the market LaMarcus Aldridge, replaced solid rebounder but offensively limited Thiago Splitter with double-double machine David West whilst retaining Danny Green, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard and long tenured veteran Tim Duncan.
The Los Angeles Clippers retooled their second unit by signing Lance Stephenson, Wesley Johnson, Josh Smith, Paul Pierce,Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich. The Rockets traded for Ty Lawson.
Effectively,the Warriors quest just got harder as teams out West look better at least on paper than they did last season.
Last season, the Warriors easily beat the Rockets after five games to reach the finals due to inadequate creativity on Houston's roster.
With Point Guard Patrick Beverley missing, James Harden had the arduous task of scoring and initiating offense. This tactic played right into the hands of Golden State as all their NBA best defense had to do was double team him and force force him to find streaky shooters on his team.
On good nights like their miraculous comeback from 1-3 to advance 4-3 ahead of the Clippers. On bad nights, Harden had to do it on his own which made him inefficient and turnover prone. In game 5 of the series he tallied a record 11turnovers against the Warriors.
Now having Lawson, an excellent distributor but solid scorer on the side eases lots of pressure on Harden and allows him to focus more on catch and shoot situations.
Beverley's return to the squad will improve Houston's perimeter defense. According to Synergy Sports, Beverley is in the 85th percentile among all players in on-ball defense.
In isolation situations, opponents shoot just 27 percent when Beverley is defending.
I don't take anything from the Warriors;they are a magnificent team who last season topped the NBA by doing the business on both ends of the floor in a dominant way not seen since the days of Coach Kerr's former team- the Chicago Bulls.
But one can not help but wonder what the Warriors Championship run would have looked like had a few lucky bounces not gone their way.
Source: Yaw Mintah/ email: [email protected]
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