January 4, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) celebrates with forward Andre Iguodala (9) against the Portland Trail Blazers during the first quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
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After the NBA dominated headlines in 2016, what does 2017 hold for them? What will this year’s headlines be?
2016 saw a number of prominent NBA headlines grace the pages of newspapers and websites around the world. As the league grows in popularity and brings on fans from nearly every country, the impact of those headlines only increases.
No headlines were more celebrated than those proclaimed in mid-June, as the Warriors gave up a 3-1 series lead to lose the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “LeBron brings it home” and “The Curse is Reversed” are examples of the statements in the wake of LeBron James winning the first title for the Cavs franchise, and the first championship for the city of Cleveland in 52 years.
Other headlines exploded into our memories, from “Stephen Curry the league’s first unanimous MVP” to “Zach LaVine wins greatest Dunk Contest in All-Star history.” The Golden State Warriors became the first team in NBA history to win 73 games. This July the NBA landscape was rocked by the simple “Kevin Durant to sign with the Golden State Warriors.”
Some headlines are more lighthearted in nature, such as “The Banana Boat Boys have reunited for 2016 offseason,” or more serious with “Chris Bosh may never play in the NBA again.” Some have a veneer of insanity — “Derrick Rose declares the New York Knicks a Super Team,” for example — and others a cloak of pride and respect: “Tim Duncan announces retirement.”
With the door closing on 2016, one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, a new door is opening on the year to come. Which headlines will 2017 have in store? Are they the ones we expect – or the ones that will shock us, excite us, and make us continue coming back for more?
Jan 3, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins (15) during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Kings won 120-113. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Into the Desert: Demarcus Cousins hopes to start fresh after trade to Phoenix
The marriage between All-Star center Demarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings has been foul from the start.
Although Cousins has been excellent as a player, his outbursts on and off the court have caused no small amount of friction between the center and the organization. Combined with Sacramento’s complete inability to surround the Kentucky alum with a playoff-caliber team, this relationship is about to dissolve.
The Kings are currently in line to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade, but with three teams within two games of their spot in the standings it seems unlikely Sacramento will be the team to emerge on top. Their track record suggests things will continue to erode, and come February the Kings will be ready to make a move.
Sacramento could delay trading Cousins until this summer or even next season’s trade deadline, but the closer they get to Cousins’ 2018 free agency the less return they will get. With a cupboard bare from countless empty drafts, they cannot afford to lose their one real asset for nothing. By February’s trade deadline, both Cousins and Rudy Gay will be suiting up for different teams.
While there are a number of potential destinations for Cousins – Denver, Boston, Miami, potentially even Toronto or Los Angeles – Phoenix is a dark horse candidate that should not be ignored.
Phoenix has a host of assets compiled from drafting well over the last half-decade, and they have every reason to cash those in for an All-Star player. Cousins is young enough that his prime can coincide with Devin Booker’s, and their pairing has the potential to fit like a glove. Kobe-Shaq lite is a comparison that will be lighting up the imaginations of Phoenix officials.
A deal that includes Brandon Knight and one of the team’s young frontcourt players – be that Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, or Alex Len – would be the foundation, with a number of the Suns’ draft picks to level things out. Not only does Phoenix have a top-7 draft pick heading their way this season, but they own all of their own picks and two of Miami’s picks down the road — picks that are becoming more valuable by the day.
Cousins would give the Suns the interior presence they have lacked, and his ability to draw double teams will open up the perimeter for Bledsoe and Booker. If the Suns retain Bender, he could become the perfect stretch-4 alongside Cousins that Sacramento was unable or unwilling to acquire.
Sacramento would get both players and picks to keep the team from hitting rock bottom, and give them a chance to rebuild their team and find another star, one that causes them less headaches and can be the cornerstone for the next chapter of the Kings’ franchise. Demarcus Cousins will not be part of that chapter, whether they trade him or not, so their best move is to get as much as they can, and now.
Nov 9, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket while guarded by San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half at AT&T Center. The rockets won 101-99. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Snuffed Out: MVP James Harden cannot solve Kawhi Leonard’s defense as Spurs beat Rockets to advance to Western Conference Finals
As has been enumerated across the Internet in recent days, James Harden has now joined Russell Westbrook at the forefront of the MVP race. While Westbrook is clinging to his triple-double average and forcibly dragging the Thunder to wins, Harden has shined as the offensive maestro for the West’s most surprising team.
James Harden is fourth in the league in points (28.2 per game), first in assists (11.9), and one of only two guards in the top-30 in rebounds (8.2, behind only Westbrook’s 10.5). While Westbrook’s averages are historic, Harden’s recent New Year’s Eve explosion was one of the best individual performances in league history. No other player had ever dropped 50-15-15, but Harden spun a line of 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds against the New York Knicks.
The other advantage Harden has is team success, as the Houston Rockets are currently third in the Western Conference, one of only four teams league wide with single-digit losses. That puts them seven full games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder, a margin that could continue to increase as the season goes on. Harden recently prevailed over Westbrook on Thursday night in the two teams’ latest showdown.
While Harden is the front-runner for MVP, and the Rockets are exceeding the expectations of even their most bullish supporters, there is one problem Houston is likely to run into come May: the San Antonio Spurs.
Not only have the Spurs compiled a better record thus far this season, but they have the solution to slowing down the Rockets’ high-octane offense: Kawhi Leonard. The league’s best perimeter defender has shown the ability to completely lock down James Harden, and for Houston that puts the onus on other players to create offense.
With Danny Green available to guard Eric Gordon, Patrick Beverly present to hide Tony Parker on defense, and a dynamic big in LaMarcus Aldridge to attack Ryan Anderson, the Spurs are uniquely structured to take down Houston’s advantages while hiding their own disadvantages.
If the two teams face off in May, that will most likely mean a level of success for Houston that they didn’t expect this season. But the most likely MVP will meet his kryptonite, and it’s unlikely the Rockets will advance any further.
Dec 21, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives to the basket against Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Lucky Sevens: LeBron James heads to seventh straight Finals appearance as Milwaukee falls short
The first part of this headline is a no-brainer; barring a blockbuster trade by the Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics, everyone expects the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the Eastern Conference. That would send LeBron James (and James Jones) to their seventh straight NBA Finals.
The latter half declares the more tenuous and exciting prediction, that the Milwaukee Bucks will continue their ascension and reach the conference finals to face those Cleveland Cavaliers. Although their current standing suggests this to be a long shot, the elite potential of the Bucks speaks to great achievements in their future.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is having an All-NBA season as he breaks into the league’s upper crust, running the point on offense and swatting shots away from the rim on defense. The “Greek Freak” is averaging 2.1 blocks and 1.9 steals per game; no other player is averaging as many as 1.5 in both categories.
When the first round of All-Star voting was revealed on Thursday, Antetokounmpo was second among Eastern Conference forwards behind only LeBron James. WIth game-winning shots and dunks beginning from impossible distances, the league’s best European player is taking over the national consciousness.
The development of third-year player Jabari Parker gives the Bucks two 20-point scorers, and the former Blue Devil has improved in nearly every facet of his game. Parker is hitting 40.3 percent of his three-pointers, shooting six times as many as a year ago. While he still struggles on defense, he is putting in full effort and coach Jason Kidd is deploying him on the wing as a sort of stopper in the absence of Khris Middleton.
Work in the emergence of rookie Malcolm Brogdon at the 2, the additions of Tony Snell and Matthew Dellavedova, and the bounce-back year for Greg Monroe and you have the makings of a very good team. Although they are currently only eighth in the conference, they rank in the top-10 in both offense and defense; no team in over 40 years has missed the playoffs with such rankings.
If they enter the playoffs as the sixth or seventh seed, an Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers is very possible. Perhaps a more reasonable outcome is a second round showdown with Cleveland from the fourth or fifth seed. Either way, Milwaukee will be flexing its muscles in preparation for next season when their young players take yet another step towards stardom.
Jun 10, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) and forward Andre Iguodala (9) celebrate after a three point basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the fourth quarter in game four of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Return of Chef Curry: Warriors avenge Finals loss, top Cavaliers as Curry named Finals MVP
Since the moment the Cleveland Cavaliers hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy in Oracle arena amidst confetti and downtrodden Warriors fans, the rubber match was a foregone conclusion. Golden State and Cleveland have been destined to meet again in June, and all of the games in between are just opening acts for the main event.
No two teams in NBA history have ever met three times in a row in the Finals, but any other outcome would be surprising, if not downright shocking. Both teams lead their current conferences and are only improved from last year.
The Cavaliers are about to add Kyle Korver as another elite shooter around LeBron James, and Kevin Durant joined a 73-win roster and has been their best player thus far.
The San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets have both defeated Golden State this season, and one figures to meet the Warriors in the Conference Finals. Despite going 6-0 in the Western Conference playoffs the last two seasons, this iteration of the Dubs has not faced Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers during that run. Their last two playoff losses were to the Spurs and Clippers, and the most diehard of fans may think the Warriors are vulnerable as a result.
In the East, Toronto is trotting out an offense better than any in the East, and Boston has the defensive chops to match up with the Cavaliers. The Milwaukee Bucks are a year or two away, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the second-best player in the Eastern Conference this season.
But these are storylines to keep the media machine running, not real threats. The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to meet in the NBA Finals. And the Warriors are going to win.
This is not the foregone conclusion, the matchup is; the Cavaliers are clearly the second-best team in the NBA, and they have defeated the Warriors the last four times they have played, including a Christmas Day nail-biter.
But Stephen Curry has been going through a prolonged slump since returning from injury during the Western Conference playoffs. Although there have been moments of brilliance, overall Curry has been a step below his MVP self. By the time the playoffs roll around, Curry will be more comfortable with the new superstar dynamics on the Warriors and will take control of the league.
With Curry draining shots from everywhere and destroying switches, the Cavaliers won’t be able to contain him and lock down Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Their advantage the last few meetings has come from a slower Curry.
A supernova-level tear through the playoffs will win Wardell Stephen Curry the Finals MVP, and the Golden State Warriors the rubber match against their Eastern Conference foes.
Jan 6, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; The Boston Celtics Green team holds signs during the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Cashed In: New-look Boston Celtics enter season as favorites to win the Eastern Conference
For years the Boston Celtics have been in the mix for a superstar trade. With a war chest of draft picks and value contracts giving them the best collection of assets in the league, it has seemed a foregone conclusion that general manager Danny Ainge would again pull the trigger to bring in superstar talent.
Perhaps to Boston’s benefit, Ainge has been reluctant to make a trade that the Celtics would not clearly win. But with the Raptors fielding an historic offense and the Bucks rising daily towards the top, Boston will act from a greater sense of urgency in making a move.
It would take a little bit of cap mechanics, but they could feasibly trade for disgruntled big man Nerlens Noel and still make room for a max contract. The connection between head coach Brad Stevens and Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward is strong, dating back to their years at Butler together.
While Hayward has said the right things about staying in Utah, they have a lot of players to pay and a core that hasn’t won a single playoff game. The allure of a star-laden Boston franchise could be too much for a player ready to win.
With a starting lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and Nerlens Noel the Celtics would be able to match Cleveland toe-to-toe. The shine of a newly formed super team could give Boston the edge in preseason prognostications.
That group of players would still need to prove itself, but the fit looks great on paper. Bradley and Noel are low-usage defensive stars, while Hayward and Thomas can share playmaking duties. The team will have lost some of the young talent and picks in acquiring Noel and making room for Hayward, but they have enough in the cupboard to still field an elite-level team.
Regardless of the outcome of this season’s playoffs, Cleveland will have a timer set in the East as Boston continues to draft elite prospects or trades for stars. Next season could see the next super team form in the Northeast and challenge LeBron for his Eastern Conference throne.