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Popular Culture

Starting Lineups: Modernizing the Iconic Collectibles

You may have heard that after a 21-year hiatus, Fanatics has partnered with Hasbro and Panini to bring Starting Lineups back, with upgrades for the modern era that include NFT trading cards. We will dive in to that later in the article.

If you grew up in the 80’s or 90’s, Starting Lineups figures are nothing new to you. In the days before NBA2k and twitter, having a mini-figure of your favorite NBA player was one of the furthest extents that fandom went.

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The History of Starting Lineups
Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

Starting Lineup action figures were actually conceived by former NFL wide receiver John McInally, who was known for his savvy intinution. He was the only player to ever get a perfect score on the Wonderlic test, an aptitude test all NFL prospects are given. In a toy store, McInally noticed all the G.I. Joe action figures, but none of famous athletes. His vision of famous athletes on toy shelves became a reality in 1986, the last year he’d play professional football. 

These figures also wisely included a trading card in the box, as the late 1980’s was in the midst of an explosive boom in that hobby. The combination of a toy and a card made for a perfect pairing, and they flew off the shelves.

In 1989, Starting Lineup released their NBA Slam Dunk Series, which featured NBA legends such as Michael Jordan or Larry Bird. What was special about these action figures is that they were more like figurines. Each player would be shown dunking on an NBA hoop, even with the hardwood beneath their feet. 

By the early 1990’s it looked as though Starting Lineup had issued and sold an action figure of every significant sports star. With a lack of innovation, people began to lose interest in the collectibles. Today, some of the Starting Lineup figurines that have a low population count are heavily sought after by collectors. 

Since Legacy One Inc. acquired the trademark for Starting Lineup in 2017, physical Starting Lineup action figures have generally been exclusive to sporting event giveaways, I.E if you are one of the first 5,000 people in the stadium you get an action figure of the team’s best player. 

Starting Lineups Can Sell For Big Money!

Because most kids decided to rip them out of the box and play with them–or display them on their shelves–some of the figures in the original packaging can be worth quite a bit of money. Even highly-graded examples of just the cards that came in the boxes have also sold for some big numbers.

For now, to illustrate how collectible just the cards have become, check out this list of the top 10 Starting Lineup card sales:

1. Michael Jordan 1988 Kenner Starting Lineup PSA 10 – $15,100
CardLadder

To kick off this list, we have a card from one of the most collected Starting Lineups ever.  

The 1988 Kenner Michael Jordan card is his first with the brand, and it features a young MJ gearing up to make a play in transition.  The accompanying figure has His Airness donning the iconic white Bulls uniform.  However, the card brings in a pretty penny when graded well; check out this PSA 10 copy that sold for over $15,000 in 2021.  

2. Michael Jordan 1991 Kenner Starting Lineup “Dribbling” PSA 10 – $9,300
CardLadder

Our next Starting Lineup card is a rare variation from 1991’s Michael Jordan figure.  This POP 5, yellow-bordered card shows another action shot of Jordan driving to the basket.  The “dribbling” variation, as it is called, has sold for up to $9,300It remains one of the rarest MJ Starting Lineup cards to date.

3. Michael Jordan 1989 Kenner Starting Lineup “One on One” PSA 10 – $7,250
CardLadder

Next, we have Jordan’s second-year Starting Lineup card.  This stunner shows MJ doing a solid impression of the NBA logo.  The card was a part of the “One on One” set, and it came with two figures: Jordan and longtime rival Isiah Thomas.  This PSA 10 copy shown above sold for $7,250 last year, and it’s unlikely that we will see another gem mint copy for sale anytime soon.

4. Michael Jordan 1993 Kenner Stadium Club Starting Lineup BGS 9.5 – $5,925
CardLadder

This card is the first on the list to collaborate with another popular set, Stadium Club.  MJ’s 1992 Stadium Club card is one of his most iconic poses;  we get a glimpse of His Airness as he attempts to posterize Patrick Ewing.  The card is also an extremely tough grade, which may be why a BGS 9.5 copy has sold for as high as $5,925.

5. Michael Jordan 1990 Kenner Starting Lineup “Yellow” PSA 10 – $3,330
CardLadder

Number five on the list is one of two cards used in the 1990 Starting Lineup.  This one, bordered in bright yellow, features a shot of Jordan during his rookie campaign.  Then a 21-year-old, Mike would go on to win Rookie of the Year for the 1984-85 season.  While the card may not have been produced during that inaugural year, it is still very rare and tough to grade. It sold for $3,330 in March of 2022.

6. Michael Jordan 1990 Kenner Starting Lineup PSA 10 – $3,150
CardLadder

The other card in Jordan’s 1990 Starting Lineup showcased his acrobatic skills around the rim.  It is another PSA 10 with a low pop, and it sold for $3,150 in a PWCC auction. While the other card was a callback to MJ’s rookie year, this copy showed 23 as he began his first Finals run.  The Bulls would go on to defeat the Lakers in the following summer, and the rest is history.  

7. Magic Johnson 1988 Kenner Starting Lineup PSA 10 – $2,200
CardLadder

We have reached the first card on this list that doesn’t have Air Jordan on it.  Magic Johnson’s first Starting Lineup also rolled out in 1988, which makes this rare PSA 10 copy a hot commodity.  The series was released when Magic and Bird were still the faces of the league, and both were battling it out almost every year for a championship.  This card sold for $2,200 this year, and it still serves as a remnant of the “showtime” era of basketball.  

8. Larry Bird 1989 Kenner Starting Lineup “One on One” PSA 10 – $2,150
CardLadder

At number eight, we have our first card of Celtics legend Larry Bird.  “The Hick From French Lick” only has a few known Starting Lineups.  His “One on One” set with former foe Magic Johnson is arguably the most popular.  The supplemental card shown above sold for $2,150 back in July, and it currently stands as a POP 14 as a PSA 10.

9. Ken Griffey Jr. 1990 Kenner Starting Lineup “Baseball Extended” PSA 10 – $1,670
CardLadder

This is the only baseball card on the list, yet it makes so much sense to see Griffey up here with names like Jordan, Magic, and Bird.  Junior’s collectible market is well documented, which explains why this POP 1 PSA 10 sold for $1,670 last December.  The corners and edges of these cards are hard to find in such pristine condition, so seeing this copy with a 10 beside it is astounding.

10. Kobe Bryant 1996 Skybox Premium Starting Lineup “Extended Series” PSA 10 – $1,560
CardLadder

Our last spot on the list is the only one to feature the Black Mamba.  Although Bryant’s action figures may not have been as prevalent as Jordan’s, they are still must-haves for Kobe collectors.  This 1996 Skybox Premium rookie was included in all of his rookie Starting Lineups, and it has sold for as high as $1,560.

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Starting Lineup Re-Launch
Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

On September 22, Hasbro + Fanatics + Panini partnered to bring the iconic Starting Lineup figures back to market. They were made available for pre-order only on the Fanatics network of websites.

“We’re thrilled to be bringing back one of the most beloved sports collectibles brands of all time, Starting Lineup, and to be teaming up with Fanatics for its highly anticipated return this fall,” Eric Nyman, President and COO of Hasbro, said in the release. “The fast-growing sports collectibles category presents great opportunities to connect with fans of all ages, and we’ve got many exciting announcements to come from the brand in the months ahead.”

Eight of the NBA’s top players were featured in this launch including:

• LeBron James

• Luka Doncic

• Ja Morant

• Stephen Curry

• Trae Young

• Giannis Antetokounmpo

• Jason Tatum

• Joel Embiid

Gone are the more simple figure designs of the past. These new figures have a futuristic and sleek look, with improved packaging and extremely realistic details–all the way down to each players branded sneakers. For example, LeBron’s figure sports his LeBron 19 Low Nikes.

Also included in the packaging are additional accessories including two pairs of additional hands and a flight stand with base that has the modernized Starting Lineup logo on it.

There will also be a physical exclusive Panini trading card in the box, while consumers will also receive a link via email for digital NFT trading cards–a feature we will get in to greater depth later in the article.

According to Fanatics, these will be shipped to consumers on or around December 1st, 2022.

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So It Comes With an NFT?!
Starting Lineups

Panini recently made the decision to expand to the blockchain in 2022. The company says it did so to carry forward the legacy of Panini Collectibles into the digital era, as well as give users the highest degree of legitimacy for the digital collectible they own.

As previously mentioned, these new Starting Lineup figures will be accompanied by a physical and digital trading card. Each NFT trading card will be sent to buyers via email link. These digital collectibles will contain different rarity levels. Most will receive a common base card, but they might also get a rarer edition.

  1. Red: 1 out of every 100 people who purchase a Starting Lineup will receive a red parallel.
  2. Blue: The blue parallels will be sent to 1 out of every 200 buyers
  3. Green: The green parallels will be sent to 1 out of every 500 buyers
  4. Gold: One lucky person will receive an ultra-collectible one of one gold parallel of each player.

It will be interesting to see how much these cards sell for on the open market, and if the gold parallels top the prices of some of the older Michael Jordan cards we previously highlighted.

The digital Starting Lineup NFT trading card offer is valid on purchases from September 22, 2022 through 11:59PM EST on April 30, 2023 (or while supplies last).

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Sports

Tony Romo Wins American Century Championship; Survives A Sudden Death Playoff

While the reality of multi-sport athletes is ordinary, it’s still exciting to watch one-sport athletes switch it up. This weekend (July 8th-10th), the 33rd annual American Century Championship witnessed various athletes step on a surface they’re rarely seen at– the golf course. But when it was over, Tony Romo emerged victorious, surviving a sudden-death playoff against Dallas Wings defenseman Joe Pavelski and former MLB All-Star pitcher Mark Mulder.

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The acclaimed CBS commentator, who’s also a former Pro Bowl quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, is now a three-time winner of this event. And while the rest of the field consisted of other talented part-time golfers– including reigning 4x NBA Champion Stephen Curry, and NFL star quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen– Romo’s consistency and clutch play were unmatched by his peers as he finished with a score of 62.

But more impressively, the 2022 American Century Championship caught some of the attention of sports fans despite it being a jam-packed weekend– men’s and women’s Wimbledon finals, Yankees vs. Red Sox, the NBA Summer League, and WNBA All-Star Weekend. But with highlights like this, how could you turn away from it?

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And what’s an golf outing without Charles Barkley?
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Salute to the American Century Championship for hosting another fun event!

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Sports

Steph Curry Can Be A Conventional Superstar, Too

Stephen Curry is not like those other stars. He’s not Lebron James, dictating the movement of the other nine players on the court like a traffic cop; he’s not Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, who turned isolation scoring into high-stakes morality plays. In his game, there’s none of the dribble-dribble-dribble burden that James Harden and Luka Doncic carry, nor the rimward aggression that’s made Giannis Antetokounmpo the reigning Finals MVP. Instead, Curry’s signature play is him running around, playing tag with his defender until he finally gets open enough that Draymond Green passes him the ball, which he then almost immediately shoots. 

Whereas other stars usually provide every signal and cue for their team, Curry has never really had to shoulder that same ball-dominating load. Playing alongside Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Green, Curry was long able to follow his bliss, the hardwood version of a trust-fund kid being free to become an artist or a public defender or, uh, a sports blogger rather than joining a money-making, soul-sucking corporate machine.

For the first time since the beginning of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty in 2014/2015, Curry is playing the exact style that he’s long eschewed. While a simple Curry pick-and-roll has always been the Warriors’ ace-in-the-hole, it’s been shelved only for the most important moments—abusing it would be indecorous, if not downright gauche. But piloting a barren roster against a historically great Boston Celtics’ defense that’s daring Curry to beat them on his own, he’s ramped up his pick-and-roll volume to career-high levels. During his virtuosic Game 4, Curry ran 45 pick-and-rolls, after ending just 6.7 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler during the regular season. In doing so, Curry poured in 43 of the most impressive points in NBA history.

The thing that makes Curry such a dangerous pick-and-roll player is that he turns normal defensive schemes into utter nonsense. NBA defenses are calibrated to address a specific list of possible problems, none of which are relevant against Curry. Trying to guard Curry the same way you’d guard DJ Augustin or Chris Paul is about as effective as trying to defeat an earthquake with karate; there’s not much you can do once your entire team is dragged out onto unsteady, shifting ground. 

If most teams focus on limiting Curry at the expense of letting his costars run amok, the Celtics have done the inverse. Accordingly, they’re the first team in recent postseason memory to play drop coverage against Curry and the Warriors, albeit a bastardized version of drop coverage where the big man still ventures way out beyond the three-point line. This is not only a bet on their personnel to hold their own against Curry, but that it’s not humanly possible to win a playoff series with a heavy diet of vertiginous 30-foot pull-up jumpers. It just can’t be, right?

So far, the answer is that it might be. On a macro-level, the Celtics are holding the Warriors’ offense to just 110.5 points per 100 possessions, down from 117.8 points during their first three series. Through four games, Boston has more or less excised once-dangerous guys like Draymond Green and Jordan Poole from the run of play; the Celtics have refused to cede the space behind Curry that the other Warriors need to thrive.

On a micro-level, the Celtics are getting torched by Curry—his 34.3 points per game and 66.3 percent True Shooting have him on pace to claim his first Finals MVP, whether Golden State wins a ring or not. No matter how far out Boston sends its bigs to pick up Curry, they leave him with too much space. By the very nature of playing drop, the big man has to backpedal as Curry approaches, creating a window for Curry to fire.  

Over the last eight years, the Warriors have played unlike any other team in the NBA. Within their own little walled garden around Curry, the Warriors have shut out the headwinds of heliocentrism and spread pick-and-rolls. Under Steve Kerr, Golden State plays a unique, beautiful and inimitable style of basketball because they have Curry and nobody else does. Curry’s mastery of the extraordinary won the Warriors the Western Conference; his comfort with the ordinary has them in position to win the Finals. 

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Sports

The Golden State Warriors Are the Same, But Different

For the sixth time in eight years, the Golden State Warriors are in the NBA Finals. Despite the best efforts of Lebron James’s itinerant media circus, this is the defining dynasty of the last decade, a charming revolutionary that’s grown into the league’s loathsome establishment. The principle characters are largely the same as they’ve always been: Steph Curry is still shimmying; Klay Thompson is still drilling threes with a stoned zen while Draymond Green does the opposite of that; Steve Kerr is still the NBA’s cool uncle. Even with a largely new supporting cast—Andrew Wiggins! Jordan Poole! Jonathan Kuminga?—the Warriors’ stars have created such a resilient culture and vibe that it’s persisted through the franchise’s lean times.

Whereas they were a pitiable, sympathetic team last year, they’re back at their hate-able near-best. Rather than anything they do on the court, the Warriors are unpopular because of the way that their own mythology seemingly contradicts reality. Like a basketballing answer to Elon Musk, the Warriors are bullies who are incredulous that anybody would dare to consider them bullies; the team with three sons of NBA players wants you to think they’re the scrappy underdog that nobody believed in. When Steph Curry showboats in ways that would make Trae Young blush, he’s presented as a humble god-fearing father who’s overcome with joy. 

Listen to them enough and you’d believe the Warriors were little engine that could, as long as you forget that their starting line-up houses three All-Star starters and the best defensive player of this generation. Beyond merely winning games and demoralizing opponents, there are scores of petty squabbles to settle and weird grievances to air out. It’s not enough to be dominant; the Warriors need to be loved, too. In other words, after two seasons in the wilderness, the Warriors are once again the Warriors.

While the Warriors are pretty loathsome in the composite, their component parts are surprisingly likable. Everybody likes Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson is a cult hero because he seems like a chill guy. Instead, theirs is an institutional villainy, one that absorbs and assimilates anything in its orbit. 

In fact, it’s this quality that’s propelled them to their first Finals appearance since 2019. For the eighth straight year, the Warriors have played basketball that’s so flawless and entertaining that it is, frankly, super annoying. Off-ball movement and egalitarian, tiki-taka ball movement is objectively more aesthetically pleasing than the halting rock-fights that have dotted the Celtics’ playoff run, but the Warriors have somehow managed to play fun basketball without actually being fun. When the Warriors blaze through a 15-0 run to start the third quarter, it’s hard to tell if it’s more impressive or irksome.

As such, the Warriors’ success this year has turned their stubbornness into something close to prescience. At  any point over the last two years, the Warriors could have ditched their patented motion offense in favor of something simpler and—probably—more effective. By sticking to their guns, they insisted on playing the long-game even when their stars’ dwindling prime seemingly demanded more urgency; they probably cost themselves a playoff appearance by indulging James Wiseman rather than spamming Curry-Green pick-and-rolls. 

But now, that self-belief has been rewarded—Jordan Poole spent two years internalizing the Warriors’ basketball sensibilities and has morphed into Curry’s mini-me; Wiggins has dropped his Maple Mamba delusions to become a game-changing role player. Accordingly, the Warriors’ offense has leveled up, scoring 117.8 points per 100 possessions. 

The team may never reprise the highs of the Kevin Durant years, but their attack is still as variegated as any in the league. In the playoffs, Golden State has four players averaging more than 15 points per game while Draymond Green contributes over six assists. In particular, Poole’s emergence this year has juiced their offense in unpredictable ways. Attacking the gaps that Curry and Thompson create, Poole offers some off-the-dribble peppiness that the team has never had while Wiggins is the most athletic wing they’ve had during their dynasty. Curry still provides the overall architecture of this singular offense, but the team has spent the last two years reupholstering the furniture. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From December 13th-19th

While the NBA’s latest week in action got disrupted because of rising COVID cases, the on-court action managed to stand out in the end. Between history being made for the game’s greatest shooter and a team no one expected becoming the hottest across the league, the stakes continue to rise as Christmas approaches. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

Steph makes history in Steph-like fashion
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On Tuesday night, all eyes were on Stephen Curry as he was two made three-pointers away from becoming the NBA’s all-time leader in that category. And besides Madison Square Garden being the perfect place for the long-time Golden State Warrior to make history, the way he did it was genuinely fitting.

While the Warriors were trailing the New York Knicks, 10-9, Curry ran to his spot on the right-wing, and splashed a three within a matter of seconds—a sequence we’ve seen thousands of times throughout his illustrated career—and made The Garden erupt with loud cheers.

The Cavs (yes, the Cavs!) might be the hottest team in the league
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Even during an 82-game regular season, there are certain developments you didn’t expect to witness. If you were to ask anybody before this season about the Cleveland Cavaliers, their answers would have likely involved them being near the top of the NBA Draft Lottery. But the Cavaliers holding the league’s active longest-winning steak? And being the third seed in the Eastern Conference? No way.

The 19-12 Cavaliers are proving to be viable playoff contenders who could make much noise next spring. Their combination of a dynamic youth movement and impactful play by their veterans will cause further speculation of what’s next for the Central Division competitor.

Various teams are middle of the pack and can’t get out
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Through the league’s first 30 games of every season, we witness teams adjust to sudden changes, discover their identity, and experience the ups and downs of life on in the middle. But when that second part of the season begins and specific trends haven’t changed, it leads to questions about whether or not a team actually has the potential to improve.

Several teams, including playoff contenders such as the Celtics, Hawks, and Trail Blazers, are mired in a vast pack of average teams across the league and are likely to go through the rest of this season as a fringe-playoff contender or worse, a low-end Draft Lottery participant.

The league battles postponements of games and troubling test results
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Despite daily news of various players entering the league’s health and safety protocols becoming standard, so is the reality of games getting postponed. Since the start of this past weekend, the NBA has postponed five games, and it’s not a reach to believe only more games will receive the same fate.

With a growing number of players entering protocols and missing extensive action and teams struggling to field a roster of enough players, questions have come to rise about the NBA either changing its testing methods or ultimately pausing the season in the coming weeks.

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Sports Strength

Stephen Curry Breaks NBA’s All-Time Three-Point Record

Tonight, Stephen Curry turned a widely accepted belief into concrete truth: He’s the greatest shooter the world has ever seen. By nailing his 2,794th career three-pointer against the New York Knicks, Curry surpassed Ray Allen to become the most prolific and productive shooter in NBA history. Basketball is an ever-evolving sport and it’s undeniable that Curry has changed the game for good.  

No matter what shooting stat you choose, Curry is bound to dominate it. He’s made more than nine three-pointers in a game on 38 occasions, which is more than the next six players on the leaderboard  (James Harden, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kobe Bryant and Ben Gordon) combined. Of the five seasons in which a player has made more than 300 threes, Curry has produced four of them. He owns the two longest streaks in NBA history of consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer, boasting separate runs of 157 and 128 straight games. At this point, calling Curry “the greatest shooter the world has ever seen” seems to woefully undersell him; he’s the NBA’s best shooter in the same way that the Great Pyramid of Giza is the world’s fanciest coffin. 

Under Armour

Whereas Ray Allen needed 1,300 career games to set the record, Curry did so in just 789 games. Since entering the NBA in 2009, the Under Armour athlete has averaged 3.8 made three-pointers per game, far outpacing Allen’s 2.3 three-pointers per game average. Often, players break records as their careers begin to wane—perhaps the ultimate testament to Curry’s historic greatness is that he’s surpassed Allen’s mark while he’s still in his prolonged prime as a star-caliber player. Not only has Curry broken the current record, he has a chance to set a new one that will last for decades.

Beyond breaking such a storied record, the most impressive thing is that Curry is still going strong. Even as he nears his 34th birthday, Curry arguably remains the best player in the league. Captaining the NBA-leading 22-5 Golden State Warriors, Curry is in the midst of yet another vintage season, scoring 27 points per game and playing the best defense of his career.

Under Armour

With or without the ball, Curry is a terror; defenses manically contort themselves to try to account for Curry’s otherworldly scoring ability, creating opportunities for other Warriors in the process. In this sense, Curry’s greatest gift isn’t just that he drains jumpers that other players can’t even imagine taking, but rather that he’s able to uplift his teammates with his mere presence. 

At some point in the future, Curry will trade in his hoop shoes for golf cleats and start his next chapter. And we’ll litigate his bonafides as a top ten (top five?) player of all time. But that time isn’t now. Now is the moment to celebrate what Curry has done while still recognizing how much more he can still do. It’s impossible to dwell on Curry’s accomplished past when he’s busy authoring such a spectacular present.

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Sports Strength

What To Expect When Klay Thompson Returns

A famous quote states, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and it couldn’t be more accurate with how NBA fans have felt about Klay Thompson. It’s been two and a half years since we’ve seen the long-time Golden State Warrior play basketball, and we miss watching one of the game’s greatest shooters in action– even if it’s at our favorite team’s expense.

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It’s been a long road for the five-time All-Star since suffering the first of two consecutive season-ending injuries in June of 2019 (Torn ACL and then torn Achilles). And while reports have stated Thompson could make his season debut within the next month, after recently participating in full practices and scrimmages, head coach Steve Kerr remains low-key on Thompson’s return. But neither less to say, it has not stopped the excitement that’s building around the Splash Brother.

With the Warriors carrying the league’s best record (19-4) and clicking on all cylinders, it creates the conversation of how Thompson will fit in. Besides the high-powered offensive production of Stephen Curry (27 points per game), the Warriors have relied on excellent ball movement, shooting, and success in transition as a team. That is fantastic news for Thompson because he and Curry first created those successful traits during the Warriors’ previous championship run of 2015-’19.

If there’s anything underrated about Thompson’s offensive game, it’s that he can score with little to no dribbles. Standing at 6-foot-7 and possessing arguably the league’s quickest shooting release, Thompson made defense’s lives miserable, especially as a willing mover without the ball. Upon his return, the likes of Curry, Draymond Green, and Jordan Poole will be the playmakers who create Thompson’s initial shot opportunities via catch and shoot looks before he rediscovers his favorite spots to go off the dribble or attack smaller defenders.

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But for any talk about Thompson’s involvement with the Warriors’ offense, it’s what he will do for them defensively that could ultimately be the difference. Before his injuries, the former first-round pick was regarded as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders because of his discipline, length, and ability to cover anyone between the one and three positions.

Fast forward, two and a half years later, Thompson is not only rejoining a Warriors’ defense that ranks first in points allowed per game (100.2) and opposing field goal percentage (42%) but possesses multiple top-notch defenders in Green, Gary Payton II, and Andrew Wiggins who could also switch and defend multiple positions. That is noteworthy because Thompson could be assigned to cover offensive players who aren’t as involved in their offense during his first few games back.

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Sports Strength

Ranking The Top Five NBA MVP Candidates

With every team having played at least 20 games, the first quarter of the 2021-’22 NBA regular season is over. As the second stage of the season commences, it’s also the beginning of every race that involves awards and honors, most noticeably MVP. And while it’s not a surprise, there’s a large group of early-season MVP candidates, even if only a select few genuinely compete for the award throughout the season.

Down below is our ranking of the top five NBA MVP candidates right now.

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
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Curry is aging like fine wine. At 33-years-old, the former two-time MVP’s scoring average of 27.8 points per game places him amongst fine company—Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant are the only players in NBA history to average more points at Curry’s age. Not to mention, Curry is the biggest reason why his Golden State Warriors are off to an 18-3 start, tied for the best record in the league.

2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
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The man who’s also known as “Easy Money Sniper,” is not only playing arguably the most efficient ball of his career ever, but he’s the heart and soul of a Nets team that’s reigns first in the Eastern Conference. And remember, Durant is doing this without star point guard Kyrie Irving and former MVP James Harden being inconsistent every night.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
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The reigning NBA Finals MVP has tapped into another level of play as his production (27 PPG, 11 RPG, and 6 APG) is powering the Bucks to an eight-game winning streak, the second-longest across the league. And for those who value a player’s performance in the clutch, Antetokounmpo made the game-winning layup to defeat the Charlotte Hornets in a thrilling 127-125 victory on Wednesday night.

4. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
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Ever since his arrival in the desert over a year ago, CP3’s greatest contribution to the Suns has been his play during crunch time. Fewer players, let alone guards, impact the game in every way possible like this future Hall of Famer. Plus, when your team is riding the league’s longest winning streak (17 games) and your latest win is against the previously 18-2 Warriors? Your name is rightfully in the MVP conversation.

5. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
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Even though most of the attention has shifted towards the Warriors, Suns, Nets, and Bucks, the noise coming out of Chicago has remained loud, and it’s because of DeRozan. Besides averaging his second-career-best point per game (25), the former long-time Raptor’s production in the clutch and quickly-established chemistry with his star teammate Zach LaVine are why the Bulls have a 14-8 record right now.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From November 8th-14th

While we’re at that time of the NBA season where everyone prematurely claims a specific player or team to be “back,” the Golden State Warriors indeed appear to be the team they once were a couple of years ago. And in the spirit of confirming one’s return or new status solidified across the league, there is much to discuss between the likes of the Washington Wizards and Paul George. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action!

Yeah, the Warriors found their swagger back
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Even though various fans, media members, and even the rest of the NBA enjoyed Golden State’s struggles over the previous two seasons (59-83 in the regular season and no playoff appearances), an organization of the Warriors’ caliber wasn’t going to struggle for much longer. As we’re approaching the end of the NBA’s opening month, the Warriors aren’t only good; they’re potentially the best team in the league.

Whether it’s because of Stephen Curry leading the way and producing another all-time MVP-caliber season in the process or because of their deep collection of depth and youth, the Warriors’ 11-2 start is legitimate. And amid the Warriors’ hot start, you should remember that they’re doing this without All-Star guard Klay Thompson, who is inching his way back to the court following two consecutive season-ending injuries.

Put some respect on Paul George’s name!
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As easy as it has been for NBA Twitter and other viewers to criticize and make fun of Paul George’s failures consistently, it’s only right his success gets highlighted the same way! PG13 has elevated his game to begin this season following his redemptive postseason performance this summer, and the Los Angeles Clippers couldn’t be more grateful about it.

Alongside averaging 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists per game while also providing two-plus steals per game, George’s leadership and clutch play have lifted the Clippers into early postseason contention at 9-5, which included a seven-game winning streak. With fellow star teammate Kawhi Leonard still out with a torn ACL, George has and will accept the responsibility of leading the Clippers until further notice.

James Harden is slowly but surely regaining his rhythm
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In recent weeks, one of the more common things to watch and react to as NBA fans is players getting used to these new foul rules. The league’s greater focus on not calling fouls created by unusual moves by ballhandlers has impacted various stars, most notably James Harden. But despite his slow start to this season, the Brooklyn Nets superstar might be heading in the right direction.

Harden had his best game of this young season by producing a 39-point and 12-assist performance against the New Orleans Pelicans last Friday night (yes, we know it’s the Pelicans) while also maintaining a solid mini-stretch of basketball. Since Nov. 7th, Harden has averaged 23/8/9 while shooting 47% from the field. And as for the free throws? The “Beard” did attempt 15 freebies against the Pelicans.

The Suns are playing like the team who made the NBA Finals

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For any of the teams that made the NBA Finals and lost, it was customary for them to have a slow start the following season, and the Phoenix Suns joined that group because of their 1-3 start. But unlike their counterparts, the Suns have flipped the switch, and as winners of seven consecutive games, they’ve looked every bit of the team that not only made last year’s NBA Finals but was two games away from winning it all.

In between obtaining notable wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies, the Suns currently have six players averaging double-digit points per game, and that number could reach eight if Cameron Payne and JaVale McGee round out their scoring production to double digits too.