NBA

Kerr optimistic about Warriors' future as injured players eye return

By Sports Desk July 19, 2021

It has been a long two years for the Golden State Warriors since falling to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, but head coach Steve Kerr is taking an optimistic view of what lies ahead. 

Kerr has been busy this summer as an assistant coach for the US Olympic team, but he told The Athletic in an interview at Team USA's camp last week there are positve developments around Klay Thompson and James Wiseman as the pair return from injuries, leaving him "really excited" to get going again.

Thompson has not played for the Warriors since tearing his ACL in the decisive Game 6 against the Raptors in June 2019, rehabbing from that injury only to tear his Achilles tendon in a pickup game last November. 

The five-time All-Star is not back to full speed yet, but he is getting close. 

"He’s still aways away from actually playing basketball in a 5-on-5 setting," Kerr said. "But there’s a big step with the Achilles when you can actually start running again. It’s a huge psychological boost. The rest of the body gets going, you start feeling the soreness and aches and pains that actually feel good when you’ve been out for a while. He’s at that point."

Wiseman, the second overall pick in last summer's NBA Draft, played in only 39 games as a rookie and saw his season end in mid-April due to a torn meniscus, but Kerr said the 20-year-old is "right on schedule" to be ready for the start of training camp.

Their injuries and other issues made last season a struggle for Golden State despite an MVP-caliber campaign from Stephen Curry, who set career highs with 32 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and willed the Warriors into a shot at the postseason.

After winning seven of their last nine regular-season games to make the play-in tournament, the Warriors dropped both games there and failed to advance, but plenty of positives have emerged heading toward next year -- not least of which is Golden State holding two of the top 14 picks in the upcoming draft. 

"I'm really excited. I feel like we got our mojo back at the end of the year," Kerr said. "The offseason has been productive in terms of Klay now breaking through. He’s on the court, he’s running, he’s feeling really good. I talked to him last week. He’s just in a completely different mindset. The light’s at the end of the tunnel.

"Steph (Curry) and Draymond (Green) are both in a great place after that close to the season, feeling like they are on top of their games.

"Andrew (Wiggins) had a really good season for us. Jordan Poole emerged. Juan (Toscano-Anderson) has turned himself into a rotation player, perfect for our style.

"Now we get a training camp with James, a whole season of development, plus seven and 14 in a deep draft."

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  • Tokyo Olympics: Lillard says Team USA shock loss will be received 'like the end of the world' Tokyo Olympics: Lillard says Team USA shock loss will be received 'like the end of the world'

    Damian Lillard predicted Team USA's stunning defeat to France at the Tokyo Olympics would be portrayed as "the end of the world" but vowed the gold medal was still a target.

    The Portland Trail Blazers star was one of a host of under-performing players in blue as Gregg Popovich's team were beaten 83-76 at the Saitama Super Arena.

    France's shock win meant the US team's 25-game winning streak in men's basketball at the Olympics came to an end, raising doubts about their ability to challenge for glory at these Games.

    Exhibition defeats to Australia and Nigeria ahead of the Olympics getting underway were red flags, but most expected the Americans to find match-winning form once the stakes were raised.

    "I think we have a history of dominance and, maybe not always blowing people out, but we have a history of winning," Lillard said.

    "It's not often that you see Team USA go out there and lose, especially to start. So, I think that's why a lot of people make it seem like the end of the world.

    "But our job as professionals and this team, representing our country in these Olympics, we got to do what's necessary, and we still can accomplish what we came here to accomplish, and we got to make sure we keep that in mind."

     

    Evan Fournier of the Boston Celtics starred with 28 points for France.

    Fournier began the 2020-21 NBA season with the Orlando Magic and averaged 19.7 points per game, before that figure dropped to 13.0 for his outings with the Celtics following a trade in March.

    Here he served up a reminder of how he can perform, and the US opposition suffered.

    Lillard, who made just three of his 10 field-goal attempts, said: "You know who we see each night sometimes in the NBA, they are completely different when they play for their countries.

    "They got more freedom, and the comfort level is obvious. So we put ourselves in a dogfight, and they made plays to win it."

    Kevin Durant called it "a make-or-miss game".

    "And we didn't hit the shots that we were supposed to late in the game in the fourth quarter, but I think we will be better next game," Durant, who scored 10 points, added.

    There are Group A games to come for the Americans against the Czech Republic and Iran, and those could allow Durant, Lillard and co to find form ahead of the knock-out rounds.

    Team USA have won the last three gold medals at the Olympics, and Bam Adebayo, who scored 12 points and had a team-high 10 rebounds, pointed to French desire for a slice of such glory as being a telling factor on Sunday.

    "You can definitely tell they're tired of the USA winning," Adebayo said. "Everybody wants that feeling of getting that gold medal. And we can't rely on talent all the time to just bring us home."

  • Tokyo Olympics Recap: Popovich insists France loss should not come as a surprise Tokyo Olympics Recap: Popovich insists France loss should not come as a surprise

    United States men's basketball coach Gregg Popovich insists his side's defeat to France in their first outing at Tokyo 2020 should not be considered a surprise result.

    Team USA have won gold in the last three Games, but they saw a 25-game winning streak in the tournament come to an end on Sunday against an inspired France side.

    Les Blues, who also beat a much-fancied USA in the World Cup quarter-finals in 2019, are ranked seventh in the FIBA rankings but proved too strong for the world's top team with an 83-76 win at the Saitama Super Arena.

    Despite his side's long unbeaten run in the competition coming to an end, Popovich – taking charge at his first Games – was quick to put the loss into some perspective.

    "People shouldn't be surprised that we lost to the French team or the Australian team or the Spanish team or the Lithuanian team," he told reporters. 

    "It doesn't matter who it is – the gap in talent shrinks every year, as there are more and more great players all over the world. 

    "And you need to give the French team credit for playing well. They were more consistent than we were at both ends of the court. It's as simple as that."

     

    STARS ALIGN FOR HISTORY-MAKING ZOLOTIC

    Sunday was a positive day on the whole for Team USA – especially compared to Saturday, when they failed to win a medal on the opening day of a Games for the first time since Munich 1972 – as they picked up four gold, two silver and four bronze.

    That haul includes a maiden gold in the women's taekwondo thanks to teenager Anastasija Zolotic, who beat Tatiana Minina of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) in the final of the -57kg weight category event. 

    "My eight-year-old self was running around the schoolyard saying I was going to be Olympic champion but she could never have imagined what this moment is like," Zolotic said. 

    "It's unbelievable. It really hasn't sunk in yet. I can't believe it. I'm in a bit of shock. I'm just trying to wrap my head around it. It feels wonderful. I came here confident and ready to take the gold. The stars were aligned."

    Zolotic's win came on the back of two-time Olympic champion Jade Jones suffering a shock elimination to Refugee Olympic Team member Kimia Alizadeh in the last 16, denying the Team GB athlete a shot of winning a historic third gold.

     

    BILES BOUNCES BACK, CHUSOVITINA WAVES GOODBYE

    A lot of focus has been on Simone Biles heading into the Games, though she had a rare off day as the USA finished behind ROC in the women's gymnastics qualifying.

    Biles, who won four golds and a bronze in Rio, was penalised on both floor and vault but still scored a respectable 14.166 to book a spot in the final.

    While Biles still has time on her side, both in Tokyo and in the long term, the 2020 Games will be the last for Uzbekistan's Oksana Chusovitina, who bowed out on Sunday after a record-setting eighth appearance at the Olympics.

    Chusovitina, at the age of 46, just missed out on qualifying for the vault event and was given a standing ovation by the small number of people inside the arena.

    To put Chusovitina's remarkable run of appearances into perspective, she made her debut at the Games in 1992, some five years before Biles was born.

    "It was really nice. I cried tears of happiness because so many people have supported me for a long time," she said. "I didn't look at the results, but I feel very proud and happy. I'm saying goodbye to sports. It's kind of mixed feelings.

    "I'm alive, I'm happy, I'm here without any injuries, and I can stand on my own."

    KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY

    Japanese pair Uta and Hifumi Abe made Olympic history as they became the first siblings to win gold medals on the same day of a Games in an individual sport, both enjoying success in judo on day two in Tokyo.

    Uta won the women’s 52kg competition, defeating France's Amandine Buchard. A closely contested bout went to a golden score, with Abe crucially claiming ippon to settle the final in her favour.

    The two-time world champion cried tears of joy in the aftermath, admitting: "I don't know, maybe it may not have been appropriate but I couldn't hold myself back."

    Older brother Hifumi made it a family double, overcoming Vazha Margvelashvili of Georgia to triumph in the men's 66kg final.

    "This has turned out to be the greatest day ever," he said. "I don't think we, as brother and sister, could shine any brighter on this stage known as the Tokyo Olympics. I'm so happy."

     

  • New York Knicks: Cause for optimism at last but Julius Randle reliance a worry New York Knicks: Cause for optimism at last but Julius Randle reliance a worry

    It did not end as they might have hoped, but the 2020-21 NBA season was undoubtedly one to remember for the New York Knicks.

    Playoff basketball returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years, even if a typically passionate crowd could not carry their team beyond the first round. The subsequent show of strength from the Atlanta Hawks – the fifth seeds behind the Knicks – should cast a 4-1 series defeat in a slightly different light, though.

    And New York's progress under Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau, led by Most Improved Player Julius Randle, can only encourage optimism. The 25.1 improvement in win percentage from the previous campaign (31.8 to 56.9) was the largest in the franchise's history.

    But Thibodeau and the front office have work to do this offseason if they are to ensure the Knicks do not fall short when it really matters again next year.

    Time to assess the franchise's situation with the campaign now over...

    Randle raises the level

    Well established as a leading defensive coach in the NBA, it came as little surprise that Thibodeau's influence was most clearly seen on that end of the floor. The Knicks had given up 112.3 points per game in 2019-20, ranking 18th in scoring defense. That improved to a league-best 104.7 last season.

     

    On offense, though, Randle's ascension to All-Star selection and the fringes of the MVP debate made all the difference. The former Kentucky forward joined New York for the 2019-20 season and contributed 19.5 points per game – his total of 1,248 making up a team-high 17.9 per cent of the Knicks' points. Marcus Morris Sr (12.0 per cent) was the next most influential Knick despite leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers after 43 games.

    Pessimism at that stage was understandable. Randle had also scored the most points on his previous teams across the prior two years – the pre-LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers and a New Orleans Pelicans outfit Anthony Davis decided was not worth sticking around for – and neither of those came close to making the playoffs. It was a miserable trend that seemed certain to continue.

    However, Randle was determined not to let that happen and put in the work to improve his game heading into the new season, focusing particularly on his three-point shooting. "Obviously, the big thing was the three," Thibodeau said in May. "It stood out right away during the summer, but you're in the gym where there's no defenders. It looked a lot better coming off his hand, the arc was better, and he looked real comfortable with it." The Knicks' leading scorer went from shooting 27.7 per cent from three the previous year to 41.1.

    Randle's free-throw percentage also improved by nearly eight points to 81.1 per cent. "I thought he would have a good year, but I didn't see this level," his coach added.

    While Randle's increased output (24.1 points per game) saw him supply 22.2 per cent of his team's points – ranking sixth in the league in that sense – and his usage rate rose to 29.3 per cent, he also provoked better performances from his team-mates.

    "That was a big concern, the three-point shooting for our team," said Thibodeau. "Not only for Julius, but that was huge for him and our team. All the other guys put in the extra time as well. Julius set the tone for that. You see him work on it every day. He's in early, he stays late. He comes back at night, and we have a number of guys that do that. If you put the time into it, usually you’ll get a good result."

    No team improved their accuracy from beyond the arc as dramatically as the Knicks, up from 33.7 to 39.2 per cent.

    With increased options around him – including RJ Barrett shooting 44.1 per cent from the field and 40.1 per cent from three in his second year – Randle also had a career-high 6.0 assists per game. Of his 427 assists, 115 were for Barrett and 117 for Reggie Bullock. Considering he was assisted by Barrett on 68 occasions and then a further 55 from Elfrid Payton, Randle was involved in the Knicks' four most common assist-scorer combinations.

    Following a narrow late-season defeat to the Lakers, Davis said of his former Pelicans team-mate: "I think he's an MVP candidate, he for sure should win Most Improved, what he's doing, got this team in the playoffs right now for a team who hadn't been in the playoffs for a while. He's playing his a** off and you can do nothing but respect him."

    Julius just too important?

    Of course, this reliance on Randle is all well and good so long as the former seventh overall pick is delivering. Worryingly, though, a debut postseason series prompted an apparent regression to the mean – or worse.

    Although that three-point practice kept his shooting from dipping below 33.3 per cent from beyond the arc, Randle slumped to an alarming career low from the midrange, a miserable 14.7 per cent. He was also 44.4 per cent at the rim as the Knicks struggled to get points in the paint – Hawks center Clint Capela averaged a double-double for the series, his 13.4 rebounds including 10.4 on the defensive end – and ended up with just 18.0 points per game in 36.0 minutes, even as the usage rate ramped up even further to 31.8 per cent.

    No team can afford for their superstar to go missing in the playoffs. Randle had posted 28, 44 and 40 in three wins over the Hawks in the regular season, but he was swiftly stifled in round one. Meanwhile, Trae Young, revelling in the role of villain in New York, established himself as one of the league's most exciting scorers.

    Young's 29.2 points against the Knicks set the standard for his postseason as a whole, the Hawks beating the Philadelphia 76ers and only losing to the Milwaukee Bucks after their point guard was injured, having repeatedly risen to the occasion. The contrast with Randle was stark.

     

    Randle had entered the playoffs all but certain to be the subject of a hefty contract offer from the Knicks one year out from unrestricted free agency. Now, that deal is not quite so secure, with the team perhaps pondering their options.

    Big spenders or big savers

    As in 2020-21, when Thibodeau and the front office chose not to gamble, the Knicks are set to have the most cap space in the NBA, projected at $51.3million. With money to spend in a big market, New York will – yet again – be the subject of speculation involving the league's top free agents heading into the new season, especially if a Randle deal is delayed.

    This is a somewhat underwhelming free agency class, though, with two notable exceptions. Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul both have player options – the latter an interesting name given the Knicks' issues at point guard.

    Thibodeau finally lost patience with Payton after 13 playoff minutes, one point and one assist, while Frank Ntilikina appeared fleetingly in three games. That meant Derrick Rose starting at the point; although he led the team with 19.4 points per game in the postseason, they lost all three of his starts and badly missed his consistent contributions from the bench. The trio are all on expiring contracts and only Rose is likely to be retained. It is a position that must be reinforced.

    Despite their repeated attempts to strike a blockbuster deal, a move for Paul or similar would represent a step into the unknown. The Knicks are far more familiar with blooding draft picks and will hope Barrett (2019), Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin (both 2020) will be boosted by getting a taste of the playoffs, albeit if the experience was brief.

    Ideally, third-year center Mitchell Robinson would also have had that opportunity. He has the best career field-goal percentage on record among NBA players with 400 or more attempts all-time (70.5) but fractured his right hand in February and his right foot in March.

    A rare watching brief

    The free agency rumour mill might continue to churn, but Knicks fans have this year at least been spared the pain of sitting through another draft lottery.

    While not be able to take Cade Cunningham, just as they were not able to select Zion Williamson in 2019, this time that is due to their own on-court achievements, rather than the luck of the draw. Two first-round picks – 19 and 21 – should still see New York able to bolster their roster.

    Verdict: Evolution

    Why would the Knicks do anything but build on the foundations of a popular, hard-working, fast-improving team? Whether Randle signs or not, whether a player like Paul can be tempted to MSG or otherwise, the bulk of this roster will remain the same. They have enough room under the cap to bring back a number of key pieces regardless of any expensive, eye-catching additional business.

    A new man running point would allow Rose to return to leading the second unit. Another way to add scoring depth might see the arrival of a wing who can compete for minutes with Bullock, whose accuracy from the field, three-point range and the foul line tailed off in the postseason.

    Up the middle, despite the team's struggles against Capela and Co, Robinson remains under a team option and both Nerlens Noel ($6m last year) and Taj Gibson ($1.7m) should be cheap and useful enough to return. In 1,547 regular season minutes, Noel had the third-best block percentage (8.7) and 23rd-best steal percentage (2.3) in the league.

    New York may still be some way off contention, but this must be a patient process. Another playoff campaign should be regarded as a success, particularly if they can be more competitive. That will require tweaks, not a drastic overhaul.

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