Mixed re­views for War­riors’ pur­suers

National Post (National Edition) - - SPORTS - RYAN WOLSTAT rwol­stat@post­media.com

Sin Toronto ev­eral Western Con­fer­ence squads loaded up this sum­mer in pur­suit of the pow­er­house Golden State War­riors, a team heav­ily favoured to re­peat as NBA cham­pi­ons.

Min­nesota added Jimmy But­ler, per­haps for­merly the East’s best two-way player, while Ok­la­homa City gifted reign­ing MVP Rus­sell West­brook with both Paul Ge­orge, an­other great two-way threat, and Carmelo An­thony, one of the pre-emi­nent scor­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. Chris Paul, one of the best point guards to ever play the game, joined MVP run­ner-up James Harden in Hous­ton.

It is far too early in the sea­son to make any de­fin­i­tive calls, but the in­stant analysis of the moves show mixed re­sults.

At 8-5 (all stats prior to Tues­day’s games), Min­nesota is off to its best start since 2003-04, a sea­son that saw the Wolves win a fran­chis­ere­cord 58 games and fall to the Lak­ers in six games in the con­fer­ence fi­nals.

But­ler has taken a step back of­fen­sively (a whop­ping 7.7 fewer points per game than when he did ev­ery­thing for Chicago last year) and has not played up to his usual stan­dards there yet, but he is tak­ing pres­sure off of young fran­chise cor­ner­stones Kar­lAn­thony Towns and Andrew Wig­gins. The of­fence has been great (eighth in ef­fi­ciency), the de­fence a tire fire (26th), but for once, you can see the shape of some­thing of sub­stance start­ing to emerge in Min­nesota.

While Ok­la­homa City’s 6-7 record makes it ap­pear to be among the big­gest early dis­ap­point­ments, don’t be fooled. OKC ac­tu­ally has been solid, with three of the losses com­ing by four points or fewer. Aside from com­pletely dis­in­te­grat­ing in the clutch (un­like in 2016-17, when West­brook boosted his MVP case by clos­ing con­tests like prime Michael Jor­dan), the Thun­der has mostly looked good, with only the Bos­ton Celtics al­low­ing fewer points per 100 pos­ses­sions, per stats.nba.com.

OKC is third in the NBA in net rat­ing (points scored per 100 pos­ses­sions mi­nus points al­lowed) in the first half of games, just 12th from there.

Hous­ton has been the odd­est story. De­spite los­ing Paul to in­jury fol­low­ing open­ing night’s one-point win against Golden State, the Rock­ets roared into an 11-3 start prior to Tues­day’s meet­ing with the Toronto Rap­tors.

Harden has been in­cred­i­ble, with re­cent lines of 56 points and 13 as­sists, 26 and 15, 35 and 13 and 38 and eight. Harden ranks first in as­sists per game, sec­ond in scor­ing, first in win shares and value over re­place­ment player. So, can Paul ac­tu­ally help him carry the load, or will he just get in the way once he re­turns to ac­tion?

New Or­leans made its move late last sea­son, ac­quir­ing DeMar­cus Cousins and pair­ing him with fel­low dom­i­nant big man An­thony Davis and the re­sults have been en­cour­ag­ing. The Pelicans have gone against the grain in this small-ball era by build­ing around a pair of mon­strously skilled gi­ants. A peren­ni­ally dis­mal fran­chise is now solidly in the play­off mix at this early stage, mostly thanks to Cousins and Davis. They al­ready have a pair of games in which each notched at least 30 points and 10 re­bounds, the first time a duo has man­aged that since Charles Barkley and Moses Malone in 1985-86. No team­mates have ever av­er­aged 25 and 10 for an en­tire sea­son and only nine have man­aged 20 and 10. Imag­ine if they ever get team­mates who com­ple­ment their strengths (that is, shoot­ers). ROS­TER CLAR­ITY FIBA changes to the world qual­i­fi­ca­tion process and sched­ule have neutered Canada’s com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tages for years to come. The NBA’s sec­ond-lead­ing provider of play­ers won’t have those play­ers avail­able to com­pete for their coun­try for most qual­i­fi­ca­tion pe­ri­ods due to the NBA and EuroLeague com­mit­ments.

How­ever, the depth of tal­ent in this coun­try has al­lowed Canada Bas­ket­ball to an­nounce an im­pres­sive pre­lim­i­nary list for the start of FIBA Bas­ket­ball World Cup qual­i­fy­ing nonethe­less.

For­mer NCAA stand­outs like Melvin Ejim, Dyshawn Pierre, An­thony Ben­nett, Brady Hes­lip, Xavier RathanMayes and Duane No­tice dot the po­ten­tial pool (com­mit­ments are not guar­an­teed based on a num­ber of fac­tors), along with ex-Car­leton stars Phil and Thomas Scrubb, na­tional team vet­er­ans Jer­maine An­der­son, Joel An­thony, Olu Ashaolu and Levon Ken­dall, and oth­ers such as Rap­tors 905 play­ers Kaza Keane, Richard Amardi and Aaron Best.

Canada plays host to the Bahamas in Hal­i­fax on Nov. 24, then trav­els to the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic. The U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands also is in Group D, with seven teams emerg­ing from 16 com­peti­tors in the Amer­i­cas with World Cup berths.

Ry­er­son’s Roy Rana is the head coach, and his as­sis­tants are Michael Meeks, Jack Sikma, Dave Smart and Nathaniel Mitchell.

“I ad­mire (the play­ers’) com­mit­ment to Canada and I hope all Cana­di­ans will sup­port us loudly in Hal­i­fax and across the coun­try,” Rana said in a re­lease. AROUND THE RIM LeBron James had a lot of fun rid­ing the sub­way in New York City this week, then help­ing his Cavs storm back from a huge deficit to stun the Knicks, be­fore tak­ing to In­sta­gram. Knicks cen­tre Enes Kan­ter tried to get in the last word, though: “We al­ready have a king (of New York, which James pro­claimed to be). It’s Kristaps Porzingis,” Kan­ter de­creed … Dur­ing the come­back, James eclipsed 20 points and 10 as­sists in a vic­tory for the 130th time in his ca­reer. Only Magic John­son, Paul and Isiah Thomas have done that more of­ten. na­tion­al­post.com

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