When Omri Casspi answered the phone at midnight on July 1, he didn’t know whether to sing or dance, hug his newborn daughter, kiss his wife, run around his Tel Aviv neighborhood in his skivvies or let loose with a primal scream.
The Warriors were calling. The Warriors were calling to sign him.
How amazing was that? Having completed eight years in a nomadic career, with stops in five cities, playing for too many coaches to recall and overcoming too many career-hampering injuries to mention, the first Israeli to play in the NBA was being offered a minimum contract and a one-year pass to hoops nirvana.
“Golden State was the first team that called,” Casspi recalled. “The minute free agency began. I talked to them, talked to the owner, they showed interest. From that point on it was a no-brainer. I wanted to be around guys that were unselfish and that was my impression. The best shooters in the world, and everyone passes. I also felt like the offense fits me well and I like what they do defensively. So, of course …”
For all the hand-wringing within the league as the NBA regular season gets underway Tuesday, with executives taking one of two approaches – assemble “super teams” to challenge Golden State’s stranglehold on greatness or concede defeat and build for the future – the reality is that until someone proves otherwise, the Warriors are alone on an island.
They are too talented, too pretty, too compelling. They out-run, out-pass, out-defend, out-coach, overwhelm, overpower. In the streets, they would be the bullies of the neighborhood. In the NBA, they are the villains of the hardwood, unless, of course, you simply accept that they are superior and appreciate that perfection is fleeting. Not even The Beatles lasted a decade, remember, though Warriors coach Steve Kerr and GM Bob Myers are working around the clock to keep the band together.
“I think a lot of the teams that were able to win multiple championships were able to keep their core together,” Kerr said, “whether that was Boston with their big four or the Lakers with Magic (Johnson) and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar). Most teams that are able to sustain it, they keep their group together. Then it’s on the margins you add a piece here or there. Last year we really revamped the roster. This year we supplemented with Nick Young, (Omri) Casspi and Jordan Bell.”
The chance that the 2017-18 Warriors might be even more formidable than the championship squad of a year ago that led the league in points, field-goal percentage, assists, steals, blocks, opponent’s field-goal and three-point percentage, and forced turnovers is responsible, at least in part, for inspiring an unusually ambitious summer. Some might attribute it to desperation.
For those willing to sit back and enjoy the spectacular Bay Area scenery – and we’re talking about Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and assorted others inside Oracle Arena – the upcoming season is more of the same. For those gnashing their teeth and scheming to unseat the champs (Daryl Morey, Sam Presti, Dan Gilbert, Gregg Popovich, Danny Ainge), the view from below is daunting, but not without perks. And even the disadvantaged offer some intrigue.
Following the leader – Either via trades or free agent signings, marquee players moved around like so many houses on a Monopoly board. Chris Paul joining James Harden in Houston. Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade teaming up with LeBron James and Kevin Love in Cleveland. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in Boston. Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford rocking it in Minnesota. The real shocker of the bunch – the Oklahoma City Thunder robbing the Indiana Pacers of Paul George and adding Carmelo Anthony to a lineup featuring MVP Russell Westbrook – is television’s version of the page-turner. One ball, three scorers, keep watching.
If the San Antonio Spurs stumble, will Pop run for president? – This was an exceptionally quiet offseason for an organization that seldom takes sabbaticals, and with Kawhi Leonard ailing (quad) and LaMarcus Aldridge’s contracted extended, Popovich might be ready for a new challenge. We all know his feelings on Trump. We also know Pop is full of surprises. Hmmmm, but probably not.
That Denver Nuggets kid can pass! – You can take your dunks, your one-on-one moves, your drop steps, your 3-pointers. Give me one of Nikola Jokic’s back-to-basket, two-handed, over-the-head passes to a cutting teammate and my evening is complete. After the All-Star break, the Serbian center averaged 17.7 points, 11.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Think Walton, Divac, a young Sabonis. With Jokic arriving at training camp thinner and in better shape, veteran Paul Millsap improving the defense, coach Michael Malone pushing the pace to exploit the thin mountain air, teams once again will dread those road trips to Denver. Hold your breath on the Nuggets.
Is this the year Joel Embiid earns a paycheck? – It would be mean to pick on a player whose first three seasons have consisted of a knee injury, a twice-fractured navicular bone (see Bill Walton, Yao Ming) and a total of 31 games played. But there is no ignoring the harsh reality of seven-footers and their tendency toward career-threatening foot injuries. With Yao, it was his Achilles, but it was a crippler, too. If the dynamic Embiid somehow makes it to 60 or so games – and ditto for Ben Simmons – the Philadelphia 76ers are going to be a hit.
Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith, Markelle Fultz try to make a point – The league isn’t mean, but it isn’t kind to young point guards. Read up on Darwin.
The Kyrie Irving/Isaiah Thomas swap will be a serial drama, picked up for season after season, with both veterans too stubborn to concede anything. But for the 5-foot-9 Thomas, that hip injury remains a major concern. Can he fully recover or, at age 28, will his skills be diminished? That would be a shame.
Another passer who will turn heads – Milos Teodosic. The longtime Serb national team leader is not much of a defender, but he is a magician with the ball.
Another combination that commands attention – DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. If their immense talents mesh and the Pelicans’ large frontcourt duo proves an effective counter to the trendy lineups of one big stretch four and an open floor for cutters and 3-point shooters, New Orleans could force its way into one of the final playoff spots. The more likely scenario is that the Pelicans’ poor perimeter play clogs the middle and has Cousins looking elsewhere next summer as a free agent.
Finally, do the Cavs really have a chance against the Warriors? – Probably not. But count me among those who were shocked when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and then took them back to Cleveland.