Steph Curry is Warriors' breaking point

NBC Sports

Steph Curry is Warriors' breaking point

Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have made it clear. They’re moving on from last week’s profanity-laced incident and as a team, the Warriors hope to do the same.

But there’s a reason this cut so deep, and why Green’s scathing words might linger. Strip away the expletives and you’ll see there’s some truth to what Draymond shouted at KD. 

“We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave,” Green brandished at Durant, according to Yahoo! Sports.

There’s more than a kernel of truth in those first two sentences. But the Warriors might not know how true they really are -- especially for this iteration of the team -- without a closer look at the team’s track record.

Green, and the rest of the Warriors, already know they won the 2015 championship without Durant. Green was also the fiery fulcrum of the record-breaking 73-9 team that beat Durant and Russell Westbrook in the 2016 Western Conference Finals en route to the 2016 Finals.

But what Dub Nation might not know is just how declarative the numbers are on this subject. There’s a mountain of evidence that Stephen Curry, not Durant, is what makes this team special. And with each passing day, that mountain is only getting bigger.

* * *

One way to see Curry’s greatness is to see what the Warriors do without him. This season, it hasn't been pretty. Secondly, you must understand how dominant the Warriors are no matter who is next to Curry.

It’s no coincidence that Green and Durant’s argument bubbled to the surface when Curry was sidelined. They're struggling without him. The Warriors, with three All-NBA players suiting up, probably shouldn't have needed a last-second bucket to top the Los Angeles Clippers in the first place (they lost by five). Nor should they have gotten blasted 107-86 on national TV by the Houston Rockets, who entered with a 6-7 record. 

So far this season, the Warriors are 2-4 without Curry, but that follows a larger trend that’s becoming harder to ignore. Since 2014-15, Golden State is just 23-22 without Curry in uniform, outscored by a troubling 53 points in the middle of a dynasty.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you go deeper into the numbers with regard to Curry's presence, that’s when things go from interesting to downright fascinating. 

You can pluck All-Star after All-Star off the court like flower petals, and the Steph-led Warriors will still dominate like a champion. He's that transcendent of a player.

Since KD arrived at the start of the 2016-17 season, Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green have played 1,921 minutes as a group on the floor, according to the powerful database. During that span, the Warriors are plus-16.9 per 100 possessions with that foursome on the court. When people complain that the Warriors are unfair, this is what they’re talking about -- a plus-16.9 point differential is the stuff of legend. (For reference, only three teams in the past decade have crossed the double-digit zone for a full season: the 2015-16 Warriors (who won 73 games), the '15-16 Spurs (who won 67 games) and the '14-15 Warriors that won (67 games).)

Now, let’s call back to Green’s outburst and examine the Warriors when we take Durant off the floor. What happens? Probably a big drop-off, right? I mean, the guy's an MVP, two-time Finals MVP and fifth all-time in career scoring average. 

Actually, without KD, the Warriors are still super dominant. Golden State is plus-14.8 in 672 minutes with Curry, Thompson and Green playing without Durant. 

We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.

But Durant is not the only pending free agent in the Bay. Klay Thompson is headed to the open market in July, as well. What happens when you also remove Thompson and sit him on the bench next to Durant? 

Same result: The Warriors are still juggernauts, registering a plus-13.9 in 526 minutes with Curry and Green on the floor without the help of Durant or Thompson. 

Now comes the mind-blowing part -- let's take Draymond out of the equation and leave Curry by himself a cast of role players. No Durant. No Thompson. No Green.

With Curry rolling solo, the Warriors are still plus-14.3 in 216 minutes of action. That’s without the help of an MVP, a former Defensive Player of the Year and perhaps the second-greatest shooter ever not named Stephen Wardell Curry. The offense scores 116.6 points per 100 possessions in these lineups, which would be the league-leading offensive rating this season. 

To recap, the Warriors go from plus-16.9 to plus-14.8 to plus-13.9 to plus-14.3 as you keep removing an All-Star from Curry. But as these numbers show, Curry is impervious. He's teammate-agnostic. For those that think Curry would struggle in another organization or in another system, it’s clear: He is the system.

* * *

Now, let's take Steph off the floor. What happens when Durant, Thompson and Green go without him? Uh, oh ... plus-4.9 in 591 minutes without Steph. So, you take Durant off the floor and the Warriors are still juggernauts (plus-14.8). But you take Curry away from the equation? They go from dominant to merely solid.

What if we looked at what happens with a solo Durant? If he truly is a better all-around player than Curry, it would stand to reason that he’d be able to fill in more gaps without stars around him. Remember, solo Curry still obliterated opponents without the help of other stars.

The scoreboard with solo Durant: Minus-0.5 in 417 minutes. Yes, a negative point differential. And that makes sense given the loss of starpower, but Curry has shown he doesn’t need others to win.

It gets even more stark when we isolate the Warriors’ four superstars. To fully capture the power of Curry, here’s the scoreboard with each Warriors solo act:

Lineup Net Rating Minutes
Solo Steph Plus-14.3 216
Solo Klay Plus-4.3 402
Solo KD Minus-0.5 417
Solo Draymond Minus-2.0 209

Each one is playing around .500 ball in their minutes -- except Curry. For those that believe Curry wouldn’t be Curry if it weren’t for the stars and system built around him, it’s hard to make a case considering opponents can’t stop him no matter who is flanking him.

Don’t believe these in-game lineup numbers? With Curry active and no Durant over the last three seasons, the Warriors are 24-3, outscoring opponents by 353 points for an average win margin of 13.1.

Remember when the Steph-led Warriors uncorked a 13-game win streak when Durant hurt his MCL in 2016? Believe it or not, that win streak is still rolling. In fact, the Steph-led, sans-Durant Warriors have won 21 straight games, with 16 of those victories registering by double-digit margins.

We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.

* * *

The Warriors, of course, should want Durant to stay. This is Kevin freakin’ Durant. He won two Finals MVPs and has been a very public part of the organization’s run-up to the Chase Center’s grand opening next season. Some might argue that the Warriors don’t win the last two Finals without him. Green might argue otherwise. (It’s worth noting that Green’s public statement did not include an apology for what he said.)

But there’s a pile of evidence that, for the Warriors, Durant is a luxury, not a necessity. These last few games are a reminder that Durant-centric teams aren’t nearly as dominant as the Curry-led formations. If Durant leaves as a free agent, the organization can rally around the fact that they’re running it back, like the good ol’ days. That might be refreshing reset for a Warriors fan base that has used #StephBetter as a rallying cry over the last few seasons. (And yes, the postseason numbers show the same on/off ultra-dependence on Curry).

There was truth in Green’s words. The Warriors have won without Durant. They don’t need him. What’s been clear this year, and every year of this dynasty, they need Steph.

Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

NBC Sports

Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

Bradley Beal isn’t going anywhere.

That was the message Washington Wizards officials insisted on for months even when it seemed, from the outside, that Beal was facing an unpalatable situation, at best.

Consider the ominous backdrop. The Wizards missed the playoffs in 2018-19 despite Beal’s career year. The search to replace Ernie Grunfeld as the Wizards’ chief decision maker took nearly four months. Fellow backcourt star John Wall tore his Achilles and likely will miss the entire 2019-20 season. 

Not only that, but Anthony Davis -- who was picked two spots ahead of Beal in the 2012 draft -- just orchestrated an ugly exit from the franchise that drafted him. All the while, Beal’s name kept surfacing in the rumor mill as a potential trade target following a historic free agency bonanza that was sure to leave some teams desperate for a splashy move. 

Beal must have had his bags packed, right? 

Quite the contrary. The message I was hearing from the Wizards’ side of things was steadfast: We’re going to keep Beal -- not just for the season. He’s going to want to commit to what we’re building long-term.

On Thursday morning, that level of confidence was justified. Beal agreed to a two-year extension, first reported by ESPN, totalling $72 million through 2022-23 and lining him up for a potential record-breaking five-year, $266 million contract when he’s eligible for the 10-year pay bump in 2022, if he exercises a player option following the 2021-22 season.

This is an absolute home run for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and his revamped front office structure led by general manager Tommy Sheppard and chief operations and planning officer Sashi Brown. Selling Beal on the team’s vision going forward was the top priority of the franchise.

Not only does it mean, by league rule, that Beal can’t be traded until July 2020, but the extension avoids the sticky situation of Beal becoming eligible for supermax money next summer if he landed on an All-NBA team this upcoming season (or won MVP or Defensive Player of the Year). In 2021-22, Beal is set to earn $34.5 million, about $10 million less than he could have gotten if he inked the supermax contract, a la Wall.

Beal could have demanded a trade like his draft classmate Davis. He could have tabled talks and gunned for an All-NBA selection this season to maximize his earnings. He could have kept this hanging over the Wizards all season. But instead, he signed off on the pitch outlined by Leonsis, Sheppard and the Wizards’ front office. 

Getting Beal’s commitment wasn’t going to be easy considering the strong league-wide current pulling the other way. Beal had to be assured that things would be different going forward. Beal had, at times, been frustrated about the lack of accountability in the front office, according to sources. Those feelings reportedly boiled over in a November practice in which he levied strong words at Grunfeld.

Leonsis’ decision to promote from within was met with surprise by some around the league. While Sheppard was highly-regarded throughout league circles, he also stood loyally by Grunfeld’s side for 16 years. Could Sheppard really convince Beal in a short time that he’s not Grunfeld 2.0?

The answer to that question is loud and clear. After years of shedding longer-term assets for quick fixes, Sheppard and the front office made a play for decade-long sustainability. 

They drafted Rui Hachimura with the No. 9 overall pick and added Admiral Schofield at No. 42 via a deal with Philadelphia. What followed draft night was three shrewd cap moves to acquire talent for next to nothing. The team plucked Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones and a second-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, who needed to offload money to acquire Davis. Then, Sheppard absorbed former Spurs sharpshooter Davis Bertans when San Antonio needed to move salary in order to sign Marcus Morris, who ended up backing out of the deal to sign with the Knicks. 

To further establish a new culture, the team swapped Dwight Howard’s contract for another veteran sharpshooter who was rehabbing from injury in C.J. Miles. In a season where several contenders will likely look to add talent at the deadline, both Bertans and Miles could be moved for picks.

Sheppard and the front office weren’t done making plays with the long-term future in mind. Rather than pay big money to retain restricted free agents Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, the team moved on. They inked 22-year-old Thomas Bryant to a three-year deal for backup money after an impressive season as the team’s starting center. The final tally at the outset of free agency: The Wizards acquired seven players under the age of 23 (Jones was waived Wednesday).

Evidently, Beal was impressed with the reset, turning down the opportunity to be the biggest name on the market this season and signing for less than he could have if he made All-NBA. 

At the age of 26, Beal is a consummate franchise pillar. The two-time All-Star averaged 25.6 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds last season, one of six players to reach those marks last season. The other five -- LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Kevin Durant -- have all won MVP awards. Beal has played all 82 games in each of the last two seasons, a feat almost no one thought was possible after he battled stress fractures early in his career. 

The extension will take Beal under contract through his age-29 season, when he will be reaching the apex of his career, about the same phase that Curry, Harden and Kawhi Leonard are in now. The Wizards may not make the playoffs this season, but under revamped leadership, there’s at least a roadmap to contention. The Wizards just needed to buy some time to see it through. Beal’s extension, which at multiple points seemed unlikely, gives them that. And affirmation that the Wizards have something here.

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Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

USA Today Sports

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

They knew what it meant. 

The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

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