Kevin Durant sat down at the podium. With Russell Westbrook sitting to his left, the drawstrings on Durant’s white hooded sweatshirt appeared to be choking the life out of him. Glossy eyed and visibly shaken, Durant took his seat and his eyes circled the room. He stroked his goatee, anxiously tapped his fingers on the table, clenched his lips, swallowed and audibly exhaled.
“It hurts losing. It hurts losing, especially being up 3-1,” Durant said after his Oklahoma City Thunder lost Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors.
Before the assembled press, as he shrugged his shoulders, he probably replayed each one of the 11 three-pointers that Klay Thompson converted during Game 6.
“Everybody fought hard every single minute they were on the court,” Durant said.
Apparently, though, after nine years, even he was tired of fighting.
* * * * * *
As he marched into the Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, LeBron James told the world of his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. James was ridiculed for taking the easy way out, but was joining a team in Miami that was a blank slate. The HEAT hadn’t won their conference two years in a row, hadn’t won a championship the year prior and hadn’t approached 73 wins in a season. The HEAT didn’t have the NBA’s Coach of the Year or the first unanimous MVP in league history.
So no, comparing Durant’s fleeing to Oakland is not at all like James and his decision to go to Miami. Comparing the two is almost like comparing Deron Williams to Chris Paul.
Durant will be labeled soft, he will be called a quitter. He will be ridiculed and he will be chastised by a great many people. But in the end, true to himself, Durant only cared about winning. And the truth of the matter is that he only cared about winning because that’s all we care about, too.
In the NBA today, we are witnessing the coming of age of an entire generation that grew up watching Reggie Miller, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and Vince Carter. Each was an all-time great in their own right, but for years, we collectively overlooked their contributions and ultimately boiled their legacies and legitimacy down into one question.
“How many rings did he win?”
Almost overnight, by virtue of leading his Cavaliers to the championship, we went from calling LeBron James a choke artist to declaring him one of the top five players of all-time. It was as if his 13-year body of work transformed by virtue of him putting together three of the most valiant NBA Finals performances we have even seen.
So as we continue on in the modern NBA’s talent arms race—as we see Durant decide to form a super team with the Warriors—ask yourself whether you would have truly appreciated him and his contributions to the game of basketball had he never won a championship as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Ask yourself: if you were Durant, what would you have done had you been put in the same predicament?
And then ask yourself whether you would have been willing to recommit to the Thunder without knowing what the future would hold for Russell Westbrook.
* * * * * *
Drafted just one year apart, Durant and Westbrook have been virtually inseparable over the course of their eight years as teammates.
Next summer, Westbrook is likely to be the most coveted free agent on the market and will likely have the opportunity to supplant Mike Conley as the owner of the league’s richest contract.
Had Durant returned to the Thunder this season, even on a two-year contract with an option for the second season, he would have re-entered an unstable situation. Another year of questions would have ensued and, even worse, they would have impacted both Westbrook and Durant.
One year from now, had Durant returned to Oklahoma City and Westbrook opted to return home to Los Angeles as a member of the Lakers—a scenario many feel is plausible—what then? Would Durant have also decided to join his friend in Los Angeles? Would he have remained in Oklahoma City? Would he have scoured the market and joined different situation? Would the new situation have put him in a better position to win a championship than the one he is joining in Oakland?
Maybe. Maybe not. It was a great unknown that—love him or hate him—Durant was somewhat wise to avoid.
In professional sports, there is no such thing as a guarantee, but from where Durant sat, he probably looked around and realized that his future and his legacy were tied to a franchise in Oklahoma City that has mostly only proven that it is capable of trading quarters for dimes and to a running mate in Russell Westbrook whose own uncertain future put Durant in an unenviable predicament.
We will probably never know what conversations Durant and Westbrook had in the days and weeks leading to his departure, but if you were Durant, you probably would have had a vested interest in which way your running mate was leaning. It’s quite unlikely that the two didn’t speak and although we may never know the contents of their conversation, it’s probably safe to assume that Westbrook left room for doubt in the mind of Durant.
In no walk of life is uncertainty welcomed. That’s exactly why players are encouraged to take the longest contract possible for the most money they can get. The unknown makes us uncomfortable. Control is divine. And it sure is comforting.
Here and now, perhaps for the only time in his career, Durant was presented with a monumental opportunity, and in the face of an uncertain future, he opted for the road that appears to be more lavish with rewards. By making his own decision and joining the Warriors, if nothing else, Durant decided not to gamble on anyone else. He took the bull by the horns, made his own decision and is, no doubt, welcoming the ire and expectations that come with it.
Has Durant taken the easy way out? Sure.
But if put in his predicament, I’m not sure I would have made a different choice.
* * * * * *
Kevin Garnett sat at the podium. His soft spoken nature before the media belies the fiery competitiveness he displayed on the court. And in one of his most humane and honest moments, back in 2010, Garnett said it best when asked whether he would offer any advice to the still toiling LeBron James.
“Loyalty is something that hurts you at times, because you can’t get youth back,” Garnett said. Facing his free agency decision, back in 2010, James was faced with the decision of remaining in Cleveland and fighting to deliver a championship to his fans, or seeker greener pastures elsewhere.
“I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I’d have done it a little sooner,” Garnett said.
It wasn’t until after he won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 that Garnett received the adulation and and reverence that his basketball career and contributions warranted. Now, as his career draws to a close, his retiring with only one championship remains one of the cruelest tricks that the basketball gods have ever played.
A few weeks after Garnett’s comments, James relocated to Miami and has played in the NBA Finals each year since then.
Sure, winning the 2016 Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers put James in a new stratosphere, but by virtue of his success as a member of the Miami HEAT, the educated observer already anointed him as an all-time great.
In contemporary sports culture, we aren’t taught that winning is everything; we’re taught that winning is the only thing. In subscribing to that line of thinking, Durant is merely a victim of a generation that has no concept of history and no respect for the pursuit of greatness. The result is more important than the fight.
As the final press conference of his Oklahoma City Thunder career came to an end. Durant looked around the room one last time. He slowly rose up from the table and exhaled one more time before exiting the interview room at Oracle Arena.
We all knew that this wouldn’t be the last time that Durant would be here in the Western Conference Finals. We just didn’t expect that the next time we saw him in Oracle Arena, that he’d be a member of the home team.
Indeed, in a world where the rich keep getting richer, it’s a dark day for competitive balance in the NBA. For Durant personally, though, after nine long years of fighting and chasing something that seemed too difficult to obtain, he gave up the fight.
In the end, he simply couldn’t risk being grouped with the other greats who were never able to win it all.
And in the end, where one is taught to win at all costs and to pursue the ultimate goal, all things considered, I simply can’t blame him.
NBA Daily: Kaiser Gates Determined To Silence His Doubters
He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Kaiser Gates knows what he’s made of.
If you’re looking to further your career at the next level but coming out of college as a prospect on the fringe, you’d better be willing to work twice as hard to draw attention from the basketball world.
Attending the Preparation Pro Day in Miami with team representatives and scouts watching, Kaiser Gates wanted to show everybody who was there that the chip on his shoulder would drive him to silence his doubters.
“I feel like I have a lot to prove,” Gates said in Miami. “I feel like a lot of the guys in the draft this year, I’m just as good if not better than (them), so I gotta show that.”
After three years at Xavier University, the 22-year-old decided it was time to move on from the program and passed on his senior year to enter the NBA Draft. The news came as a surprise to many, considering he might’ve gotten the opportunity to earn an even more expanded role next season with the departure of Musketeer favorites Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura.
The numbers across the board weren’t exactly eye-catching. Primarily a wing, Gates knocked down 37.8 percent of his threes as a junior. He averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in almost 24 minutes per game.
Looking at conference play in the Big East, those figures took a dip. Gates shot less than 30 percent from deep and really struggled to contribute offensively for Xavier against tougher opponents.
There was an incredible discrepancy in shot selection over his three-year collegiate career. Astoundingly enough, 300 of his 409 career attempts came outside of the arc. The other 109 tries were twos, which he converted at a 54.1 percent rate.
It’s hard to ignore statistical evidence when it comes to evaluating players, but misuse and fit could have been more prominent factors in this case. It’s something that happens quite a bit at school programs with prospects, and Gates believes that he could be added to that list of mishandled talent.
“I don’t think I’m inconsistent at all,” Gates said. “At Xavier, I know my stats showed that I was inconsistent. Playing at that school it was a great experience—great guys, great coaches.
“Just kinda like my situation and the way I was playing at that school didn’t really allow me to showcase my full talents, and with that being said, it’s kinda hard to stay consistent not doing something I’m used to doing.”
Furthering the point, it’s not easy to be judged off that information, which some use as the only indication of what you’ll bring to the pros. Gates plans on using that as motivation whenever he meets with different teams.
“I would come in and people would just assume like, ‘Oh he could shoot a little bit, play defense, a little athletic.’ But I know on the flip side, I know what I can really do and like, my full potential.
“So when I know that and see what teams already think, already have in their head, just now it’s up to me to prove to them what I can do and show them what I can do.”
So what does that exactly entail?
“My first few years or so, I’ll probably be more of a three-and-D guy—stretch the floor, play defense make hustle plays, rebound the ball, things like that,” Gates said. “But as I’mma grow, (I’ll) look to expand on my game. Maybe work out the pick-and-roll a little bit and expand from there.”
Thus far, the 6-foot-8, 228-pounder has reportedly worked out for multiple organizations, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. He is enjoying the draft process and his growth as a player since it started.
He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Gates knows what he’s made of. And if he can attract the right set of eyes, he’ll be in good shape.
“You could get 30 workouts and that one team could fall in love with you,” Gates said.
“That’s what [my agent] Aaron Turner’s always talking to me about. He’s always said, ‘It only takes one team.’”
NBA Daily: Second-Round Draft Steals to Watch
Several possible second round picks have a chance to make an impact at the NBA level, writes David Yapkowitz.
The NBA Draft is upon us this week. The hopes and dreams of many basketball players will become reality. Each year there are players who are drafted in the second round who end up outperforming their draft selection spot.
A premium has been placed on draft picks in recent years. Even second round picks have become extremely valuable. For a team like the Golden State Warriors whose payroll might limit their ability to sign quality rotation players (veterans taking discounts to win a ring notwithstanding), smart drafting has seen them scoop up steals like Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell. Both those players have emerged as key rotation guys on a championship team, and both were taken in the second round.
The second round is an opportunity to pick up overlooked young talent on cheap contracts. Sure, it’s rare to get a Manu Ginobili or an Isaiah Thomas or a Draymond Green that goes on to become an All-Star caliber player, but plenty of quality contributors can be found.
Here’s a look at a few guys who have a great chance at becoming second round steals.
1. Allonzo Trier – Arizona
Outside of DeAndre Ayton, there may not have been a more valuable player to the Arizona Wildcats last season than Allonzo Trier. He was the Wildcats second-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game. There have been questions about his supposed selfish style of play, but he’s been a solidly efficient player his three years at Arizona.
This past season as a junior, he shot 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from the three-point line. Over his three years in college, he was a 47.5 percent shooter from the field and a 37.8 percent shooter from the three-point line. He’s also an 82.3 percent shooter from the line. And he did dish out 3.2 assists this past season.
Trier is a scorer, plain and simple, an efficient one at that. Despite this, his name has failed to appear on many mock drafts. The few that actually project the second round as well have him being drafted near the end. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, Trier has great size for a shooting guard in the NBA. A sixth man type scorer is probably his best projection at the next level.
2. Brandon McCoy – UNLV
The Runnin’ Rebels didn’t quite have such a noteworthy year, which might explain a little about why Brandon McCoy is flying under the radar. UNLV posted a 20-13 record and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Despite that, McCoy managed to emerge as their biggest bright spot.
In his lone college season, he led UNLV in scoring with 16.9 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting from the field. He also pulled down 10.8 rebounds per game and was their leading shot blocker at 1.8 blocks per game. For a big man, he shot a semi-decent 72.5 percent from the free-throw line.
He has good size, he’s a legit seven-footer. He moves well on the floor and with some work, can be a very good defensive player. Part of what might be causing him to get overlooked is he doesn’t have much in terms of a mid-range game, a necessity for big men in today’s NBA game. But that can be worked on. At any rate, he can be a high energy big off the bench, good to come in and block some shots, grabs some boards and clean up around the rim. Every team could use a guy like that.
3. Devonte Graham – Kansas
One year ago, Devonte Graham’s Jayhawk teammate Frank Mason III was also being overlooked in the draft. Like Graham, the major issue working against him was his status as a four-year college player. Mason went on to be one of the bright spots for the Sacramento Kings, establishing himself as a legit NBA point guard.
This summer, Graham is looking to do the same. Mason was also a bit on the shorter side, coming in at 5-foot-11. Graham has little more size than that at 6-foot-2. He was the Jayhawks best player for most of the year, putting up 17.3 points per game while shooting 40.6 percent from the three-point line. He also dished out 7.2 assists per game.
Most mock drafts have consistently had Graham being drafted early to middle second round. Being a college senior, he has leadership abilities. He’d be perfect for any team looking for a solid point guard off the bench.
4. Chimezie Metu – USC
For much of the mock draft season, Chimezie Metu’s name appeared as a first round selection. But in recent weeks, as other names began to climb up the draft ladder, Metu it appears has fallen back into the second-round. It’s interesting though, as his skill set for a big man appears to project well in today’s NBA game.
He was the Trojans’ best player as a junior this past season. He put up 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting from the field. He pulled down 7.4 rebounds while averaging 1.7 blocked shots. Although the percentages may not reflect that, he has an improving jump shot. He’s quick and mobile defensively.
He’s got all the tools be able to guard the post as well as switch out and guard other positions if need be. With a little more work, he can be a good jump shooter. With the evolution of today’s game, Metu has the perfect build and talent to find success as a modern NBA big man.
5. Tony Carr – Penn State
Tony Carr has been a consistent second round pick in most mock drafts. There has been the occasional one here or there that had him being drafted at the end of the first-round, but the second round is most likely where he’ll hear his name called.
Carr was the best player for a Nittany Lions team that ended up winning the NIT. This past season as a sophomore, he put up 19.6 points per game and shot 43.3 percent from the three-point line. He was able to pull down 4.9 rebounds per game and he dished out 5.0 assists.
He can play both guard positions and create for himself or his teammates. There have been question marks about his athleticism and ability to defend at the NBA level, but all a team needs for him to do is come in off the bench, run the offense a bit and get a few buckets. He’s definitely capable of doing that.
NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019
The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.
The NBA world nearly stopped last week when reports circulated that Kawhi Leonard wanted out from San Antonio.
All of a sudden, within a few days, both he and Kyrie Irving were both reportedly open-minded about taking their talents to New York.
And while either (or both) of the two would look great as Knicks uniforms, they’d look much better in orange and blue in 2019.
After all, only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.
Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.
If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right, but one thing that not even Max Kellerman could argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s exactly why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.
So if Leonard or Irving wants to eventually take up residence in New York City, they can prove it… Next year.
If there’s one thing the Knicks historically imprudent front office should have learned from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s that.
This summer, after hiring David Fizdale, Scott Perry will have another opportunity to prove that the job at Penn Plaza isn’t too big for him, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he even publicly entertains the idea of attempting to make a splash this summer or whether he continues to hold steadfast to the belief that there are not shortcuts on the route to contention.
The right play for the Knicks is to follow the route that the Lakers took as it relates to Paul George—refrain from dealing valuable assets for players that you could sign for free. Danny Ainge hit home runs with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and by essentially adding each of them to an existing core of young talent—and more importantly, refraining from acquiring either via trade—the Celtics now have an embarrassment of riches.
The Knicks don’t have those kinds of problems, and as it stands, have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. That could be paired nicely with Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and the ninth overall pick that they’ll have in the 2018 draft.
In other words, one year from now, the Knicks could have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level. Let the young guys play, let them develop and then carry them into the summer of 2019 with a clear plan in place.
That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.
If they play things right, and if the team managed to unload either Courtney Lee or Joakim Noah, they could open up the very real possibility of landing both Leonard and Irving, but instead of trading the farm for them, they’d have a realistic shot at signing them. They’d be adding them to the core instead of sacrificing it for them. Imagine that.
From where most people sit, Irving seems to have an ideal situation in Boston, and his entertaining the idea of taking his talents elsewhere seems curious, at best… But so did the choice of leaving LeBron James.
Irving has been consistently rumored as having real interest in playing in New York when he’s able to test the market next July, and depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern in Boston that he could opt to take his talents elsewhere.
Growing up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden, the young guard knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Probably not. But one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.
As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team, even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.
And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.
Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’ll continue to unfairly carry the reputation of being someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. He’s no Steve Nash, but he is truly special. Just don’t tell the national media that.
Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.
Still, even if Irving and/or Leonard end up elsewhere, the summer of 2019 will feature other free agents including Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, too.
Going from Leonard and Irving to Walker and Butler might seem like a sad story of riches to rags, but one could very easily make the argument that adding two high-quality All-Star caliber starters to a core featuring Porzingis, Ntilikina and two lottery picks would do more to make the Knicks contenders than unloading the cupboard in an attempt to bring one in.
If that sounds like exactly what the Celtics did, that’s because it is. The Lakers, too. There’s a reason why they’re the most winningest franchises in NBA history, it would seem.
One thing we know for sure in the NBA: there will always be marquee free agents. The Knicks just need to do a better job of being able to attract them.
So this summer, if Perry wants to continue to earn favor with Knicks fans with even half a brain, the best thing to do might actually be to do nothing.
In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson and Danny Ainge.
So if word eventually gets to Perry that Leonard’s interest in the team is real, and if Irving decides that he wants to take up residence in his backyard to try to succeed where Patrick Ewing, Stephon Marbury and Patrick Ewing fell short, Perry’s response should be simple.
Either would look great in a Knicks uniform, but they’d look much better in a Knicks uniform in 2019.