Durant And His Free Agency
A lot was made this week about a Stephen A. Smith report in which he suggested that Thunder star Kevin Durant wouldn’t necessarily be listening to a lot of teams in July regarding his upcoming free agency. In an ESPN First Take segment, Smith intimated that the L.A. Lakers would be Durant’s first choice if he opted to leave the Thunder.
“Regardless of how senseless it may [sound], in one breath I’m hearing that if Kevin Durant doesn’t stay in Oklahoma City, L.A. is his primary objective and landing spot as opposed to South Beach or even his home of Washington, D.C.,” Smith said.
This prompted a response from Durant, who was asked by Anthony Slater and Erik Horne of the Oklahoman, and his response was somewhat scathing.
“I don’t talk to Stephen A. Smith at all. Nobody in my family, my friends, they don’t talk to Stephen A. Smith. So he’s lying,” said Durant.
“If you ask me a question, I’ll talk about them. But like I said before, I have people who I talk to about everything and I know for a fact they didn’t talk to him, so he’s making up stories.”
Smith later clarified that he never said he spoke with Durant or anyone in his camp, and that his commentary was based on sources he spoke with about the situation.
He said, she said is never fun and there is some truth to both arguments.
While Durant may have never spoken with Smith, that does not mean people in this business who feel like they have a sense of Durant’s motivations are not talking to reporters.
Personally, I have had league sources talk candidly with me about what they believe Durant will do this July, many of them are in a position to know what the prevailing thoughts are. That does not mean any of these sources are truly connected to Durant. It simply means that some people believe they have a feel for how this will play.
From Durant’s point of view, he’s been very clear that he is keeping his circle small. The only people he is sharing information with are those few people closest to him and if the story isn’t coming from them, then it’s not a real story.
Neither side of this is truly wrong. This is the nature of “predictive” reporting. It’s our job as reporters and insiders to talk to as many people as we can, to gather as much credible information as possible and to share as much of that with the reader/viewer/consumer as possible.
Time will tell how accurate Smith’s sourced reporting is. In this case, it’s actually pretty hard to call this reporting, because this was Smith simply restating what he’s heard in a candid sort of way.
Durant’s free agency is going to play out like this regardless of how much he is trying to keep the news insulated and to stay focused on the task at hand, and that’s finishing this season healthy and trying to get the Thunder back to the NBA Finals.
Being the top free agent in a particular free agent class is going to prompt questions. In Durant’s case, he alone could swing the balance of power for virtually every team in the NBA. While Smith may have been the first big voice to speculate on where Durant ultimately lands as a free agent, he will not be the last.
Playing The Value Game
Over the last few months in this space, we have covered the precarious position NBA teams find themselves in trying to properly value talent in a ballooning NBA economy.
With the salary cap going up in massive increments over the next two years, teams are faced with either meeting crazy price tags that account for the bump in the cap or passing on, and potentially losing, talent as the numbers get crazy.
The Milwaukee Bucks reached a multi-year extension with big man John Henson valued at four years and $44 million, with an additional $4 million in what’s called “unlikely” bonuses tied to team and individual performance.
Henson’s new deal actually decreases in value over the four years of the deal with a starting salary next season worth $12.26 million. The following year is worth $11.42 million. The third year is worth $10.57 million, while the final year is worth $9.73 million.
The Bucks structured the Henson deal to somewhat overpay in the first year to create breathing room for future extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker.
The beauty of the inflating cap is it will allow some teams to be ultra-aggressive in the first year of a new deal to win talent, while structuring the back end of the deal differently to preserve flexibility.
This concept becomes somewhat relevant to the on-going contract dispute between the Cleveland Cavaliers and big man Tristan Thompson.
Thompson’s camp is playing a tough hand of poker trying to get the Cavaliers to come up from their five-year, $80 million offer. While the Cavs offer is often talked about as $16 million per year, the Cavs offer does not start at $16 million; it starts a lot closer to $13.8 million.
If John Henson just got $12.26 million, is Thompson at $13.8 million market value?
What Thompson’s camp is trying to bank on is the notion that next summer, Thompson could find a team willing to go near full max in the first year of a deal to lure him away from the Cavaliers. Full max next year is likely going to clock in around $20.5 million.
While there isn’t much of a case to be made that Thompson is “worth” max, would a team flush with new cap cash be willing to eat a big overpay in year one to lure him away? Thompson’s camp believes there are a couple of teams that would do exactly that. Even if the new team did not go all the way to max, would a new team be willing to do better than the Cavaliers’ $13.8 million starting salary this year?
This is the problem with valuation. How much is enough to get a deal done, without handcuffing yourself to a bad contract? The Cavs feel like their offer fits the bill. Thompson’s camp thinks he could demand more in the open market.
The Bucks played their hand smartly. Henson isn’t a cornerstone, but he is a big piece to the puzzle. Sliding a little extra his way in the first year made a deal make sense without having to worry about restricted free agency and contention in the relationship.
This is the question teams looking at Rookie Scale options and extensions has to weigh.
With so much new money coming into the system everyone has to reset the valuation clock, because talent that used to cost $10 million under the old system is going to be worth $14 or $15 million as the cap rises. That’s the nature of cap inflation and the potential for so many teams to have cap space to spend on a very small pool of difference makers.
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NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
Will we see Rudy Gobert win another Defensive Player of the Year Award? Or will we have a new winner this year?
In the fourth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Rankings, Basketball Insiders continues to look at the players excelling on the defensive side of the ball. The Utah Jazz continues to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference amidst a surprising season, and they will still be well represented in these rankings. But there’s another newcomer to the list, an MVP-caliber player looking to lead his team to the NBA Finals. Ready to take look at the rankings? Let’s get into it.
1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 2)
The 28-year-old center out of France is one of the best defensive big men the game has seen in recent years – and this year is another example of that as Gobert has been the anchor of the best team in the NBA. Better, he has been a vital piece to their unanticipated success by taking part in all 35 of the Jazz games thus far.
Looking at Gobert’s numbers, he is still second in the league in blocks with 2.8 blocks per game, trailing only Myles Turner in that category. Gobert has had three or more blocks in 18 games, even reaching four in 12 of them.
In the defensive rating category, Gobert ranks third in the league with a rating of 103.0, per NBA Advanced Stats. This number is just enough behind Lebron James at 102.6 and teammate Mike Conley, who leads the NBA with a rating of 100.8. These three players are also in the top three for defensive win shares, with Gobert sitting in third with a DWS of 0.154. Gobert should be the current frontrunner as he has led the best team in the NBA on defense through the first half of the season.
2. LeBron James (Previous: 4)
As a reminder, LeBron James has not made an All-Defensive Team since 2014. How about breaking that streak with a DPotY award as well? He very well could.
Without Anthony Davis, James is unarguably the tone-setter for the defense. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 is a prime example of this. During that contest, James had 3 blocks and 4 steals as the Lakers won by 9. Furthermore, James has managed to average 1 block and 1.3 steals per game since the injury to Davis.
Notably, James ranks in the top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. James is just behind Conley in defensive rating at 102.6 compared to Conley’s 100.8 rating. Keep an eye on James’s defensive impact for the defending champs as the season continues to unfold.
3. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)
Embiid has been very neglected on this list, but now is the time for him to make his appearance. Yes, it is very high for a player to debut on this list, but he’s been on a tear as of late.
In his career-high night on Feb. 19, Embiid went off for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. This is the game that put the league on notice of Embiid’s brilliant season, both offensively and defensively, as he leads the first-place Philadelphia 76ers. As things stand right now, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.
Taking a deeper dive into Embiid’s floor presence is what makes him stand out. He’s 13th in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6. He also ranks 10th in defensive win shares with 0.131, per NBA Advanced Stats. The coaching change in Philadelphia has allowed Embiid to run the Sixers’ offense and, as things stand right now, he’s certainly in both the MVP and DPotY conversation.
4. Mike Conley (Previous: 1)
Since an extended absence, Conley returned to make an instant impact in the Jazz lineup, averaging 2.0 steals over his last five games. The unexpected success has been due in large part to Conley’s improved play. Of course, Conley is high up on this year’s All-Star snub list, but his significant individual improvements won’t go unnoticed here.
Conley is currently tied for third in the league in steals per game at 1.5. He is also first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.8. Beyond that, he then ranks second in defensive win shares with 0.168. Without Conley, it’s hard to see the Jazz having the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Watch out for him as the season approaches the midpoint as he tries to become the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton during the 1995-96 season.
5. Myles Turner (Previous: 3)
Despite a slip in the standings for the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner has been a very bright spot for the team defensively. He leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game and has a pretty sizeable lead over Gobert in that category. Add in the fact that he is averaging 1.1 steals per game, it’s easy to see why Turner is so high in these rankings.
If the Pacers can manage to get things back in order amidst a sub-.500 record thus far, Turner could rise into the upper part of these rankings again.
Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: N/A)
While voter fatigue may hinder the chance of Giannis earning his second consecutive DPotY award, he should be in the conversation again. The Milwaukee Bucks are amongst the top three in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to the stellar defensive play from the two-time MVP.
It will be interesting to see where he finishes in the voting after the season’s end. Maybe he gets this award for a second-straight year, while the voter fatigue towards him takes place in the MVP ballots.
While these rankings have gotten competitive as of late, there’s still plenty of time for rising and falling in Basketball Insiders’ weekly Defensive Player of the Year rundown.
NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?
The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.
After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.
Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.
But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.
Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.
Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.
Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.
It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.
Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.
If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.
The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.
NBA Daily: Should Toronto Add A Big?
The Raptors have started to thrive with their small-ball lineup. But, with some intriguing options available, should they look to add a traditional center?
After a rough start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have hit their stride. They are now .500 and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve tinkered with their lineups for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to inconsistent play at the center position until coach Nick Nurse decided to just play small.
Aron Baynes’ play has been a huge disappointment. Brought in to be a serviceable replacement for Marc Gasol, but his play has dropped off after a career year with the Phoenix Suns last season. The starter to open the season, Baynes lost his job after failing to produce; his 35 percent three-point percentage from a season ago has dipped to an abysmal 23 percent in 2020-21. Alex Len was also signed to give the Raptors solid minutes but similarly disappointed, as he played just seven games in Toronto before he was released. Len’s defense was an issue and that left the Raptors with only one other candidate at center.
Enter Chris Boucher, who has easily been the best big on the roster. Despite his thin frame, Boucher has been an effective defender on the inside and, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to start him, Boucher has become one of the NBA’s best bench players, averaging 13 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 44 percent from three despite the unique form of his jump shot.
That said, since Nurse won’t start Boucher, the Raptors have turned to a starting five of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. It’s turned their season around and was a group often turned to last postseason. Versatile and easily switchable, defensively, the lineup can also provide significant firepower on offense. Together, they’ve posted a net rating of plus-11.1 in 51 minutes, per NBA.com, Toronto’s best among groups with at least 50 minutes together.
Pascal Siakam, who struggled to start the season, has benefitted from the lineup in particular. Spending more time than ever this season at the center-spot, the Raptors’ versatility has ensured Siakam a favorable matchup in almost any situation, which has helped both his efficiency and overall production.
With that in mind, should Toronto look to add a more traditional center?
In short, yes — but only if the price is right. Boucher has been excellent and, while he’s struggled, Baynes can still impact the game in short spurts, especially on the defensive end. There are certainly some intriguing names available, such as DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond, but neither would seem to be a great match for Toronto.
Cousins, once at least a passable defender, has become a huge liability. Injuries have sapped his ability and Cousins would not only struggle to stay in front of quicker guards but would provide little rim protection. Offensively, he’s shooting 33 percent from the three-point line, below the league average. Cousins has also struggled to finish around the rim this season, as he’s only made 44 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, per NBA.com.
Andre Drummond is a more intriguing option, but only if he were to buy-in. Drummond is an elite rebounder and the Raptors, dead last in rebounds per game, could certainly use help on the glass. The issue with Drummond, however, is that he’s always tried to do too much on offense, which isn’t his strength. If he could settle into a role, rather than try to be the focal point of the offense, he could be a great fit — that said, he has yet to do that in his nine NBA seasons, so there’s little reason to believe might now. Adding him after a potential buy out, rather than trading for him, might make a Drummond gamble worth it for Toronto.
Their best lineup will always be their small lineup and should give them a chance against just about anyone. But the Raptors, if only to eat minutes throughout the rest of the regular season, will likely need to acquire another center at some point. As for the postseason, being able to throw some size at players like Joel Embiid, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo could prove integral to Toronto’s success as well.