By JAN HUBBARD
Although the Cleveland Cavaliers won 16 fewer games than the Warriors and 10 less than the Spurs during the 2015-16 regular season, they won the championship, which meant Golden State and San Antonio had to make adjustments in the off-season.
So the Warriors signed Kevin Durant, and the Spurs lost Tim Duncan to retirement.
Round 1 to Golden State . . . in a landslide.
But Round 2 to the Spurs. They blew out the Warriors in the opening game of the season in Oakland Tuesday night. Nobody could have quite expected such a shock to the Golden State system.
Duncan’s departure was obviously not strategic. If the Spurs had a choice, they would have preferred the discovery of a fountain of youth, or, perhaps, a time machine that could churn out the 2003 version of Duncan. That guy averaged 23.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.9 blocks, won the Most Valuable Player award and led the Spurs to the championship.
Duncan has left, and Durant has arrive, and those events set up a unique situation on opening night for the 71st NBA season. After the Cavaliers received their championship rings Tuesday in Cleveland before their game with New York, the Cavalier knocked the Knicks around and won easily. Later in the evening, the Warriors and Spurs began battle for Western Conference supremacy. The Warriors still have much work to do to get back to The Finals.
No one will be surprised if the Spurs and the Warriors also play in the last game of the Western Conference playoffs in late May.
The Warriors, it seemed, were a given. They have won the Western Conference the last two years and have one championship. They have four of the 15 players who were selected on the All-NBA first (Durant and Steph Curry), second (Draymond Green) or third (Klay Thompson) teams last season. Curry and Durant have won the last three MVP trophies.
Even without Duncan, however, the Spurs are the greatest challenge to the Warriors. With Duncan as the centerpiece, the Spurs have created a successful atmosphere and program that will be carried on as long as Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford are running the team.
Manu Ginobili may be 39 and near retirement and Tony Parker may not be the fastest guard on the planet anymore, but they have their moments and, more importantly, provide leadership.
Forward Kawhi Leonard has emerged as the franchise player. Last season, he averaged a career-high 21.2 points, was on the All-NBA first team, the All-NBA defensive first team and won his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award.
After a slow start, LaMarcus Aldridge became the offensive force the Spurs hoped he would be when they signed him to a four-year $84 million contact last year. Aldridge was the second leading scorer with an 18.0 average, led the team with 8.5 rebounds a game and made the All-NBA second team.
Pau Gasol will take Duncan’s place in the starting lineup but the Spurs lost Boris Diaw (traded to Utah) and David West, who decided to chase a championship in Golden State. Danny Green will miss several weeks with a leg injury, but it is not considered major.
“We lost a few key players that were here for a while,” Ginobili said, “but not that many, either. Four of the five starters are back. The three wings from the second unit are back, so we’ve just got to add the bigs.”
Although the young talent on several teams may eventually enable them to challenge the Warriors and Spurs, it’s unlikely this year. Because of some of the success the Clippers have had in recent years – and also because of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan – they are a curiosity.
But while they are at the highest level in their history, the Clippers still tend to be the Clippers. They have now had five consecutive winning seasons, which is easily a franchise record. Their previous best was three straight winning seasons, and that happened from 1973-76 when the team was in Buffalo and had not yet been infected by Donald Sterling.
But then there are the playoffs. To their credit, the Clippers have won three playoff series in five years after winning one in their first 27 years in Los Angeles. But it is the losses that still make them the Clippers.
In 2013, they won the first two games of a second round series against Memphis, then lost four straight.
In 2015, they had a 3-1 lead in a second round series vs. Houston and still managed to lose three straight.
And last season, despite owning the home court advantage, they lost a first-round series to Portland in six games.
With Sterling banned from the NBA for life, the Clippers no longer have an ownership stench associated with them. But in the playoffs, they simply can’t escape themselves.
Oklahoma City was devastated by the loss of Durant and there is no way they can challenge the top two teams. But they will not be like the Cavaliers, who went from 61 victories to 19 when LeBron James left for Miami.
Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban said last year that Russell Westbrook is not a superstar and perhaps we’ll find out whether or not that is true. Westbrook will no doubt be on a mission after being shocked at Durant’s departure to Golden State. And while he is often criticized for lack of ball movement, he’s finished in the top 10 in assists the last five years. If the Thunder manages to win 50 games or close to that number, Westbrook could be the MVP.
Center Steven Adams is poised for a breakout season and the Thunder acquired 24-year-old guard Victor Oladipo, who has averaged 15.9 points in his three seasons at Orlando and should add scoring.
The Blazers have a great backcourt in Damian Lillard (who Golden State coach Steve Kerr says will win the MVP award) and C.J. McCollum, but do not have the depth to challenge the top teams.
Utah and Minnesota are assembling a roster of intriguing young talent, as, to a lesser extent, are the Pelicans and Suns. Memphis has a solid corps of veterans, Houston may actually be better with Dwight Howard in Atlanta and no longer a distraction, the Mavericks are hoping Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes can join Dirk Nowitzki and add pedigree and the Kings? Well, fantasy players who have DeMarcus Cousins on their team will be thrilled.
And it seems there may be one more team in the West. Wait. Yes. There is. The Lakers, who, in fact, will provide the most intrigue in at least one area.
How many games will Jack Nicholson attend?
In the East, there is no mystery. The Cavs will be in the Finals again, which means LeBron will be making his seventh straight trip to the championship round.
It would be surprising if they did not meet the Warriors for the third straight year but, then again, in the last two decades, the Spurs have managed more than their share of surprises. Most of those were because of Tim Duncan. Could they create another one without him?
They just did on Opening Night In Oakland.
(Jan Hubbard has been one of those great Texas sports writers for more than 40 years. Jan began writing sports for the Fort Worth Press in 1975 and has since worked at newspapers in the Dallas area and New York, including the Dallas Morning News and Newsday. As a beat writer, he spent most of his career covering the NBA but has covered the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers and college football. He also spent eight years working for the NBA league office in New York. He has written three books on the NBA and was the editor of the last Official NBA Encyclopedia that was published by the league. He currently is a free lance writer based in Dallas and will contribute regularly on woodypaige.com, writing about the Big 12 Conference, the Dallas Cowboys and any other subject he sees fit to opine about.)