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.
Fixing The Detroit Pistons
David Yapkowitz looks at how the fading Pistons can turn things around moving forward.
We wrap this week up with another installment of our “Fixing” series here at Basketball Insiders. The next team up is the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons came into this season with playoff aspirations after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them regress instead of building on their playoff appearance the season before. To begin the season, they looked like they were on their way to accomplishing that objective. Then Reggie Jackson got hurt and the season began spiraling out of control.
They tried to inject some life into the team by trading for Blake Griffin, but it hasn’t worked out as expected. The Pistons have gone 8-12 since acquiring Griffin and the postseason looks like a pipe dream at this point.
What Is Working
Not a whole lot. Despite trading for a superstar player, the Pistons have tumbled down to the point where playoffs are looking extremely unlikely.
If there’s one thing that’s a welcome sight, it’s the bounce back of Andre Drummond. After being named to his first All-Star team in 2015-16, Drummond had a bit of a let down the following season. This season, he was once again an All-Star while putting up career-highs in rebounds (15.7) and assists (3.2). Drummond is still only 24 years old and has his best basketball years ahead of him.
The Pistons have also received encouraging signs from rookie Luke Kennard. A lottery pick in last summer’s draft, Kennard he’s been one of the few bright spots at times for the Pistons. About a week ago, his playing time had diminished some and he racked up a few DNP’s, but Stan Van Gundy has since reinserted him into the rotation.
They’ve also gotten solid production out of Reggie Bullock. When Bullock came over to the Pistons in a trade with the Phoenix Suns almost three years ago, he was little more than a seldom-used wing with the potential to become a solid 3&D guy. This has been his year, however. He’s the best shooter on the team at 43.5 percent from the three-point line. His numbers, 10.8 points per game and 49.1 percent shooting from the field, are career-highs.
What Needs To Change
Quite a bit. Acquiring Griffin was a move the Pistons needed to make. On the verge of losing control of the season, they needed to make a move to try and turn things around. It’s been a disaster thus far, however. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and although they’re in ninth place, they’re falling farther and farther away from eighth.
Who the Pistons are really missing is Reggie Jackson. Ish Smith, who has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an NBA player, just isn’t Jackson. They desperately need Jackson’s playmaking abilities to help take the pressure off everyone else. Even if he returns this season, it’s already too late. The Pistons need to focus on getting him healthy and ready for next season.
The Pistons also need to improve their offense. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both points per game (25th) and offensive rating (24th). A big part of that is Jackson’s absence, but they could also benefit from additional outside shooting. Right now they have one long-range threat on the roster and that’s Bullock.
Focus Area: The Draft
To make matters worse, the Pistons will likely give up their draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Griffin trade. The only way the Clippers wouldn’t acquire the Pistons’ pick this year is if it falls in the top four, and that’s not going to happen.
The Pistons will have a second-round pick though. The draft is never 100 percent guaranteed, and the second round is even more of a crapshoot, but talented players can definitely be found. That’s what the Pistons’ main objective in the draft should be. It sounds silly, but they truly need to buckle down and do their homework in hopes of finding that one overlooked guy in the second round. That’s pretty much all they have to look forward to come draft night.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The Pistons are going to have a couple of minor decisions to make this summer regarding their free agents. Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, and Anthony Tolliver are all unrestricted free agents. Out of the three, Ennis has given the team the best on-court production, but it isn’t necessary that any of them are brought back.
Bullock and Dwight Buycks have non-guaranteed contracts, and those are the two guys that the Pistons should work towards bringing back in the fold. Both should have their contracts guaranteed for the following season. Bullock is their only three-point threat. Buycks began the season as a two-way contract player splitting time between the Pistons and the Grand Rapids Drive of the G-League. He’s since been converted to a standard NBA contract and has done enough to earn his spot on the team next year.
In terms of adding new players to the roster, as mentioned before, the Pistons need outside shooting. Marco Belinelli and Wayne Ellington are possible options that the Pistons might be able to afford. Joe Harris is another option, but it will be interesting to see what the market is for him after the strong season he’s been having in Brooklyn.
It’s tough to gauge the Pistons’ true potential without Jackson. If he returns before the season ends, it will be too small a sample size to accurately assess the team. There are only 14 games left. Although things look pretty bleak right now, it can’t be argued that injuries haven’t played a big role in the Pistons disappointing season.
The team deserves a shot at seeing how a healthy Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond trio looks on the court together. If they start off next season the same way despite all three being healthy and in the lineup, then it would be time for serious changes.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.
NBA Daily: 76ers’ Ben Simmons Enters Rarefied Air
Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second in rookie triple-doubles.
As the Philadelphia 76ers continued their playoff push with a come-from-behind victory over the woebegone New York Knicks Thursday, rookie Ben Simmons joined some NBA legends in the record book. With his eighth triple-double of the season, Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second all-time in triple-doubles among rookies. According to ESPN’s Ian Begley, Simmons is only the third rookie to record 1000 points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists.
After the win over the Knicks, Simmons told reporters that the process for him has been to disregard the expectations thrust upon him as a scorer and focus on his ability to contribute in a variety of ways.
“I try not to get carried away with what people say,” said Simmons. “People want me to be a scorer or a player that I’m not right now. I can score the ball, but I can also rebound and pass the ball. I’d rather do that and do what I’m pretty good at than force things.”
Simmons was clearly aware of the gravity of what he had accomplished in the postgame locker room. He spoke with reverence of the legendary players his name will always be associated with, including Oscar Robertson, whose record of 26 triple-doubles as a rookie may never be challenged.
“It’s surreal knowing the game’s been played for a long time,” said Simmons. “So many greats have been through. I’ve set a record with Magic and Oscar Robertson, which is surreal to me.”
Before the game, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek described how Simmons’ combination of size, speed, and court vision make him especially difficult to guard.
“He’s got the speed, he’s got those long strides and he’s got the vision as a passer to pick you apart,” said Hornacek. “You’ve got to kind of collapse and kind of create a wall to not let him get in [the paint], but then he goes ahead and throws it out to the shooters that they have on his team.”
Begley also quoted 76ers coach Brett Brown during the pregame discussing how Simmons’ assignment to the point guard position was debated within the organization.
“I’m so pleased that the organization, he, the coaching staff, had the courage to try him as a point guard,” said Brown. “Because, let’s face it, that was highly scrutinized.”
It seems it was the right decision, as Simmons’ 507 assists easily leads all rookies. Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball is second with 325 while Dallas’ Dennis Smith follows with 289, De’Aaron Fox of the Kings has 262 and fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz has 236. Simmons leads the 76ers with 7.7 assists per game and is third in scoring with 16.2 points, trailing leading scorer Joel Embiid (23.6) and veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick (16.6). His 7.8 rebounds per game trails only Embiid (10.9) for the team lead.
The 76ers are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference, but could easily move up with only three of its final 15 games coming against teams in playoff position. Philadelphia trails the third-seed Pacers by a mere two games, so home court advantage in the first round is definitely in play. Meanwhile, Simmons said at a practice over the weekend that he hasn’t experienced a rookie wall.
“I don’t think there’s a wall,” said Simmons. “I wake up every morning and I love what I do. You’re going to have great games and you’re going to have some bad games, but that just comes with it.”
With history notched into his belt and no signs of slowing with the playoffs looming, Simmons’ All-Star snub could look even more ridiculous as time passes. Magic posted an eerily-similar 18 points, 7.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game as a Lakers rookie. He was an All-Star starter and became the first rookie to be named NBA Finals MVP.