MIXED REVIEWS FOR PURSUERS OF WARRIORS
Thunder, Timberwolves made big additions, but moves are showing mixed results
Several 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 franchise-record 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 onepoint 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 (i.e. shooters).
FIBA changes to the world qualification process and schedule have neutered Canada’s competitive advantages for years to come. The NBA’s secondleading 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 Rathan-Mayes 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.
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.
Jimmy Butler has taken a step back offensively this season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he is taking pressure off Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.