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Donovan Not Interested in Changing Durant, Westbrook

New Thunder head coach Billy Donovan stressed that he’ll let Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook be who they are.

Susan Bible

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There is a discernible buzz right now in Oklahoma City, and the reason is clear: The Thunder’s 2015-16 NBA season is about to start and the team looks like a legitimate title contender. The Thunder organization, as well as its supporters, are ready to erase the memory of last season and the ridiculous amount of injuries that occurred, and now simply focus on the return of their elite basketball team.

With the deepest-ever Thunder roster in place and all players returning healthy – including, most importantly, former league MVP Kevin Durant – championship expectations have never been higher.

Journalists gathered at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on Monday for the team’s media day. One by one, players paraded in to face the media’s onslaught of questions about last year, the offseason and what to expect this season.

First and foremost, Durant declared: “I feel great. I’m ready to go.”

The Thunder’s decision to replace head coach Scott Brooks (who led the team for the past six seasons) with former Florida coach Billy Donovan was a topic discussed with most of the players. In fact, Basketball Insiders was the first to get Durant’s thoughts on how he is getting to know his new coach.

“It’s been fun,” Durant said. “I enjoy him. Great basketball mind, but more so, a better person. We’ve hit it off from the beginning, and [I’m] just excited to play for him. I’m excited to go through the first day of training camp with him.

“It feels like he’s a rookie. Well, he is a rookie, but he’s been coaching forever. In our league, it’s a little different, so I’m excited. I’ve built a great relationship with him, and I know it’s only going to grow by us getting on the floor.”

Durant is right. Donovan has no previous experience in the NBA at any capacity (not counting, of course, the briefest of stints in 2007 when he agreed to coach the Orlando Magic and changed his mind days later). He took the Gators to four Final Four appearances and won two national championships during his 19 years as their head coach. He’s well-respected on all fronts and, as Durant said, is known for having a great basketball mind.

Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager and executive vice president, pulled the trigger on the coaching change. He elected to go in a fresh direction that hopefully sends a message to his players (specifically Durant, who is in his final contract year, and Russell Westbrook, who has only one more year remaining on his contract following this one) that he’s doing everything possible to make this a title-winning team.

Donovan spoke at length about Durant and Westbrook and what he’s observed between the two.

“Those two guys have a tremendous relationship,” Donovan said. “I’ve had a chance to witness it up close and personal. I think there’s a great mutual respect and care for one another.”

When asked about balancing the two stars when they take the floor together, Donovan said something that is sure to be music to Thunder fans’ ears.

“I think the thing I would try to do as a coach and try to help those guys is to allow them to be who they are,” Donovan said. “Russell is a very, very competitive, attacking, aggressive point guard, and I think that’s what makes him special, what makes him great. So I don’t think you want to take that away from him and change who he is.

“For Kevin, I know he’s very anxious to get back on the floor and start to play again, because he hasn’t been out there in a competitive situation in quite some time. So I want to try and help him and put him in a situation where he can be effective and be who he is. I think the biggest thing is to let those guys be who they are.”

Soon after his hiring, Donovan set about meeting each of his players, understanding that creating relationships before the season begins is key.

“I spent a lot of time this summer traveling around and getting a chance to spend time with all the players,” Donovan said. “I’ve been able to do that and connect with all the players at different points during the summer. They’ve been just a great, great group of guys. Certainly with Kevin’s rehab, he was around a lot more early before he got fully cleared.”

Each of the players raved about Donovan and discussed their encounters with him.

“Obviously him coming in and trying to create a relationship with all the guys is important,” said Westbrook, who also shared he didn’t realize his level of intensity until meeting him.

“As a person, I had an opportunity to talk with him over the summer,” Serge Ibaka added. “And he’s a good guy. He wants us to get better, and he’s excited to be here. I think we’ll have a lot of fun together.”

“He seems great,” Nick Collison said. “He’s got a pretty good pulse on what’s going on, what’s gone on with our team in the past. He’s done a lot of work this summer. He’s got a lot of energy, I can sense that already.”

Collison was frank in sharing his thoughts about what Donovan can bring to the table with his mix of college basketball experience and newness to the NBA.

“I really won’t know until we get in the season,” Collison admitted. “I think he’s a real high-energy guy, and he’s also very experienced. I feel like our organization does a real good job with providing everything we need. I think they do a lot of work in everything they do, so I assume a coaching change, they put a lot of work into that and feel good about him, so I’m going to put a lot of faith in that. I’ve had quite a few meetings with him already, and I like what he’s talking about. [We’ll] see how it goes. I’ve had a lot of coaches before, so the one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t really know until you get into it, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Collison was the only player who spoke directly about former head coach Scott Brooks.

“I really appreciate what Coach Brooks did, and he is a great coach,” Collison said. “He was always fair with me and honest with me, and I had a lot of really good years playing for him. I really enjoyed my time with him, but I understand that things change sometimes. Those are decisions for the front office and the ownership to make and they’ve made theirs. Now, I’ll get to know a new coach. I’m excited about it, and there will be things that are done differently, so it will be interesting to see what we do. Scotty was here a long time compared to a lot of NBA coaches’ tenure. I’m used to playing for different guys and knowing that it’s going to be different.”

The Thunder also revamped the coaching staff surrounding their lead man, adding several talented assistant coaches in former New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams, Maurice Cheeks and Donovan’s longtime Florida assistant coach (and former VCU and Alabama coach) Anthony Grant.

“I’m really excited about our staff,” Donovan said. “Certainly, as coaches, their resumes and track records speak for themselves, but they are just incredible people. I’m excited to work with them every day. I think over the last several months with the amount of time we’ve been able to spend with each other, I feel like there’s really good staff chemistry. There’s a high level of humility inside that room in terms that we feel like we can take things from each other and make us better.”

Donovan said he felt humbled by his relocation to Oklahoma City and by his reception in the heartland.

“I think when you’ve been at a place for 19 years and you’ve established so many different relationships, and now you walk into a completely unknown city, an unknown environment, no ties with Oklahoma at all and in talking with Sam and Mr. [Clay] Bennett before I was hired, they talked a great deal about the people of Oklahoma,” Donovan said. “[I’m] humbled from the fact that people will go out of their way [to help with the transition]. Like they have helped my wife and helped my kids with schools and helped us find a home.”

It’s a new era for the Thunder as they begin the season with a new coaching staff and some players who have yet to play with one another (for example, Durant and Enes Kanter). Chemistry between players and coaches may take a bit of time to develop, but all involved are motivated to make it happen quickly. A first good step, which Donovan is taking, is to let your stars be who they are.

Susan Bible covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for Basketball Insiders and writes about all NBA teams. She is a Senior Newslines Editor and contributes to fantasy basketball coverage.

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NBA Daily: Biggest Disappointments — Central Division

Basketball Insiders’ Biggest Disappointments series continues as Drew Mays explores the struggles of the Central Division.

Drew Mays

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Basketball Insiders has looked at some of the biggest surprises and disappointments to start the new season. And, now, four weeks in, the shift in perception from “The sample size is too small” to “Maybe this is just who this team is” has begun. While there is plenty of time left to justify the former, the latter has looked far more truthful for much of the disappointments in the NBA’s Central Division.

Confused in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ postseason hopes were widely known. And it wasn’t just speculation – the Bulls themselves talked playoffs from media day until the beginning of the season. But, sitting at 4-9, each passing game bears a striking resemblance to last year’s 22-60 team, one that was talented but unable to sustain any consistency.

The numbers paint Chicago’s struggles in an even more confusing light. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls take a slightly above-average number of threes and have the most rim attempts in the league. They’ve shied away from the mid-range, while they get to the free throw line and turn the ball over at standard — not great but not terrible — rates. The offense must be clicking, right?

Wrong. Chicago sits at 28th in points per 100 possessions (they’re 14th in points per 100 defensively). Their half-court offense has been stagnant, with a lot of side-to-side action but nothing much in the way of getting to the basket. The league-high rim attempt percentage is clouded by poor decision-making in the paint, where the Bulls often force shots or flat-out miss kick out opportunities.

Lauri Markkanen, arguably Chicago’s most important player, has yet to get going. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, but he’s shot just 37.7 percent from the field and 28.2 from deep. He’s scored over 20 points only once, on opening night in Charlotte.

There is reason for optimism. Markkanen is getting good looks; he should start hitting them eventually. Wendell Carter has been excellent in the middle. The Bulls’ shot chart lends itself to success. Outside of Milwaukee, the rest of the division is vulnerable. Chicago held their own against the Bucks and even the league-leading Lakers, controlling much of the game versus the latter. If not for some fourth quarter collapses, the Bulls might have a winning record.

There’s still time to turn it around. But thus far, 2019-20 has been a disappointment in Chicago.

The Last Two for Cleveland

 The Cleveland Cavaliers are frisky!

They’ve beaten two division foes in Chicago and the Indiana Pacers, and they’ve held their own in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics over the last two weeks.

Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson are both averaging double-doubles. Collin Sexton has upped his scoring and lowered his turnovers this season. Darius Garland has shown some serious flashes as a young rookie.

Defense is the toughest thing to learn in the NBA. Younger teams are usually really bad on defense – especially teams with a starting backcourt made up of a sophomore and a rookie. However, Cleveland has managed to remain in the middle of the pack on defense, ranking 15th in points allowed per 100 despite being in the bottom third in effective field goal percentage allowed.

They’re even 16th in the league in Basketball Reference’s adjusted net rating, which estimates a team’s point differential every 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent. There is a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, after defeating the Knicks and losing by one to the aforementioned 76ers, Cleveland was steamrolled in both first halves against the HEAT and the 76ers at home. They were outscored by 48 in the two halves, looked utterly outclassed and outmatched and, ultimately, lost by 11 and 19, respectively.

Growing pains were expected, especially for the young backcourt. And even after an encouraging start, two straight blowouts where the Cavaliers never had a chance is still disappointing.

The bad news with Cleveland is the same as the good news: they still have a lot of growing to do.

Detroit’s Free Fall

After starting off the season 4-5 (about what we’d expect from the perennially middling team), the Detroit Pistons have gone cold.

Their most recent loss was on Friday – Blake Griffin needed 19 shots to get to 19 points, Derrick Rose turned the ball over six times, and the Pistons fell 109-106 to Charlotte, dropping them to 4-9 on the year.

The disappointing thing for the Pistons has surprisingly been their defense. Detroit’s usual pattern has been to plod on offense and use their top-10 defense to put them in a position to win. But the script has flipped this year – Detroit ranks 9th in points per 100 possessions and 3rd in team effective field goal percentage, but they’re just 26th and 28th in those respective categories on defense.

Their biggest offensive struggle has been turnovers. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Derrick Rose are averaging almost 12 per game between the three of them, leading to Detroit’s 28th ranked turnover percentage.

The other problem for Detroit is that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far. That SOS is middle of the pack the rest of the way. If they plan on returning to the postseason in 2020, they’ll need to end this losing streak sooner rather than later.

Khris Middleton’s Left Leg

Khris Middleton is out for the next several weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion November 10 in Oklahoma City. He was averaging 18.5 points and 5.3 rebounds on a career-best 59.9 true shooting percentage before the injury.

Milwaukee cruised to a 2-0 record last week without their second banana, defeating both Chicago and Indiana. The Bucks will have to navigate at least the rest of November with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe as the only real playmakers on the roster.

Luckily, they’re built for this – questions continue to surround Milwaukee as to whether Khris Middleton as the complement to Giannis is even enough to win the East – the bench will be able to fill in around Giannis. All of the wings will see increased minutes, and Bledsoe will be tasked with a higher usage rate.

Any time your second-best player goes down, it’s disappointing. But Milwaukee has the system in place to continue winning, even without Middleton.

Again, it’s still early for all of these teams. They have played just 13, 12, 13 and 12 games each. But as 13 moves towards 20 and 25 games in the coming weeks, these disappointments are no longer early struggles – they are identities, and what the team may be left with for the rest of the season.

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Melo A Match For Offense-Starved Portland

The Trail Blazers’ problems are widespread on defense, but Carmelo Anthony represents an offensive fix more than anything else. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The Portland Trail Blazers did not have a choice.

With Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol all sidelined by injury, and with Moe Harkless now in Los Angeles and Al-Farouq Aminu in Orlando, the Trail Blazers had nowhere else to turn.

Portland had to call Carmelo Anthony.

The Blazers do not even have a G League affiliate to raid, instead shipping specific players back-and-forth to the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate, this season.

This is what it took for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer to find himself on a roster. Two young stars, Nurkić and Collins, needed to be sidelined for months by leg and shoulder injuries, respectively. A veteran, Gasol, needed to be sidelined by his own foot injury, in addition to years of mileage. A $145 million salary sheet needed to prevent Portland from stocking its bench with suitable forwards during the offseason.

And the options on its bench had to struggle immensely on both ends of the floor, torpedoing a season with title hopes into one that elicits headlines like “Is This Damian Lillard’s Lost Season?

More than an eventual criticism of Anthony’s contributing prospects, this is a harsh reality of the Blazers’ supporting options as constituted.

Skal Labissière has spent three years in the NBA without offering much reason to think he could be a reliable resource off the bench now, and his 49.0 effective field goal percentage fits that past evidence.

Anthony Tolliver has gone from being a three-point specialist to a three-point liability, currently hitting 24.2 percent of his shots from deep. Mario Hezonja is, well, Mario Hezonja. This year that means he is shooting 33.3 percent from 2-point range. Lastly, Rodney Hood simply cannot bang with power forwards while carrying only 208 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.

Portland has no forward option better than Carmelo Anthony at this point, so it had no choice but to call him despite his year off of active rosters. The team needs someone to take the pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. As well as Anfernee Simons has played — and the second-year guard has, averaging 19.3 points per 36 minutes with a 55.9 effective field goal percentage — relying on him comes at the expense of Lillard and McCollum, not in conjunction with them.

Someone needs to take the defensive focus away from the Blazers’ backcourt duo, at least nominally. That was, in some respects, supposed to be Tolliver. When he could shoot from deep, a defender at least had to stay near him, giving Lillard and McCollum space to operate. With that ability seemingly stolen away by Space Jam’s Monstars, Tolliver’s defender now freely ranges away from him.

In theory, and that theory will not be proven until Tuesday at the New Orleans Pelicans or Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks — after Anthony passes his physical — Anthony can at least knock down open shots from deep. Even as his career began to spiral, he could always shoot. In his final three seasons, Anthony shot 35.6 percent from 3, including 32.8 percent in his aborted Houston Rockets stint in 2018.

The concerns around bringing in Anthony, even on a non-guaranteed contract, come on defense. The concerns around Portland’s 5-8 start also hinge on defense, where it ranks No. 19 in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating, as of Monday morning.

In Anthony’s 10 games with the Rockets to start last season, they were outscored by 63 points with him on the court, even as he averaged 13.4 points per game. In those 294 minutes, Houston’s defensive rating was 112.2.

Some of that obviously stemmed from other issues with the Rockets then dealing with their own personnel problems — as well as newly-implemented, and soon-abandoned schemes. But some of it was undeniably because of Anthony, never exactly known as a defensive ace.

Maybe in that respect, Anthony fits the Blazers both in need and in ethos. Portland’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals did not come from outstanding defense; it relied upon Enes “Can’t Play Him” Kanter, after all. The Lillard and McCollum era has long been defined by offensive deluges surrounding moments of defensive worry.

Anthony should fit that perfectly, if he chooses to. Shooting strokes are one of the last skills lost with age. Even at 35, he should still demand attention in that respect. That alone will be an improvement for the Blazers and make life a bit easier for Lillard and McCollum.

A defensive rating of 109.3 can be survived when the offensive rating is third in the league at 113.7, as Portland enjoyed last season, part of the recipe that produced a 53-29 record. It cannot be survived when the offensive rating is No. 13 at 108.4, where the Blazers sit currently in that category.

Portland did not call one of the greatest individual scorers in league history to fix its defense.

The Blazers have no choice but to hope Carmelo Anthony can aid their offense.

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NBA Daily: Walton Working Smart In Attempt To Land Role With Clippers

David Yapkowitz speaks with Los Angeles Clippers point guard Derrick Walton about his different experiences around the NBA and how playing overseas helped provide him with wisdom necessary to his growth.

David Yapkowitz

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Every season, multiple players come into NBA training camps with non-guaranteed contracts. For many of these players, being cut is just a mere formality. Most teams already have their rosters set, and these players are little more than practice bodies or potential G League assignees.

But for some of these players, a coveted NBA roster spot is an actual possibility. Some teams have a spot or two open, and the few players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed battle it out in training camp for the right to remain on the team going into the regular season.

Derrick Walton Jr. is no stranger to that battle. Following a strong four years at Michigan in which he was named the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player his senior year; he went undrafted in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He played with the Orlando Magic that year in summer league and had an impressive outing to the tune of 10 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. Despite needing some help at point guard, the Magic opted to look elsewhere.

After spending the 2017-18 season with the Miami HEAT on a two-way contract, Walton found himself again looking for a team at the end of that season. He was in camp with the Chicago Bulls last year, but was ultimately cut during preseason.

This year, he came into camp with the Los Angeles Clippers on an Exhibit 10 contract, meaning he was likely destined for the G League. He had a decent showing in the preseason with 7 points , 3 assists and 1.6 rebounds per game. The Clippers opted to convert his contract to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, essentially solidifying his place on the opening night roster.

Having been through this before, it wasn’t like there was anything particularly different for Walton.

“It was pretty normal to me, just competing every day for the most part,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing out of the extreme ordinary, I was just trying to pick up on things as fast as possible and implement them in games for the most part.”

Heading into the season, the Clippers were a little bit thin at point guard. Patrick Beverley was the incumbent starter, with Lou Williams capable of sliding over if need be. But after that, the point was where the Clippers didn’t have as much depth as they did elsewhere.

That appeared to leave a potential opening for Walton to grab the 15th and final roster spot. Despite the seeming need for the Clippers to strengthen their point guard corps a little bit, Walton wasn’t always sure that he had a good shot at making the team.

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say yeah, but I’m always silently confident about everything,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Nothing is ever for sure until it actually happens, so I would be lying if I said yeah. Now I’m just ready to build on everything for the most part.”

Although Walton initially started his NBA career with the Magic, it was the HEAT that gave him his first real shot in the NBA. Miami has had a history of success with undrafted players, including Walton’s current Clippers teammate Rodney McGruder. While Walton was on a two-way contract, injuries to Miami’s rotation during the 2017-18 season forced him into some immediate action.

He did spend a good portion of that season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G League affiliate, but he was around the team enough to pick some things up here and there. He saw playing time in a total of 16 games in Miami and shot 41.2 percent from the three-point line. Miami ended up extending a qualifying offer that summer, making him an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately withdrew the offer.

The HEAT have been something of a standard-bearer in the NBA for being a professional organization, and Walton definitely learned some things that have helped in his professional career.

“I think just being a professional about everything overall. It’s always being ready,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Working hard is always the status quo at this level, but I think working smart and being a professional for the most part is what I learned.”

This past season after being cut by the Bulls, Walton opted for something a little bit different. He headed overseas and joined Zalgiris Kaunas in the Lithuanian Basketball League. He had some success and put up 8.4 points and 4.4 assists per game while in Lithuania, but left the team this past February and joined Alba Berlin in the EuroLeague.

Walton had heard stories about playing overseas and the possible hardships that may have come with it. But he didn’t quite understand it until he experienced it in person. It helped him grow as both a player and a person and helped toughen him up.

“I think it made me grow up a little faster. Overseas, I got to see some things, experience some things that you can only experience in person. Word of mouth can’t make you experience it,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Going through that type of stuff, I feel like it gave me a lot of wisdom overall. I feel really battle-tested like nothing fazes me at this point.”

And now, Walton is back stateside trying to carve out a role with the Clippers. He’s already been assigned to their G League affiliate, the Agua Caliente Clippers, but was recently recalled due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley. In a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Walton played seven minutes and hit his only shot, a three-pointer.

Barring any major injuries, it’s unlikely that Walton sees much playing time with the Clippers this season. But in any case, he’s staying ready and is confident in what he can bring to the team should his number be called at some point.

“I think I can space the floor of course. I can make big plays and be like a coach on the floor,” Walton told Basketball Insiders. “Overall, just be a pest defensively and just try to make an impact on the court anyway possible, I’m one of those guys.”

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