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NBA PM: Kevin Durant Playing Like MVP

Kevin Durant has been spectacular in recent weeks. Most people around the NBA believe he’s the frontrunner to win MVP.

Alex Kennedy

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For years, Kevin Durant has been one of the best players in the NBA. This year, one could make a strong argument that Durant has been the best player in the NBA.

In recent weeks, the 25-year-old has been playing the finest basketball of his career. He has eight straight games of 30 or more points. He has the four highest point totals of any player in the 2013-14 season (54, 48, 48, 46) and they’ve all come in the last 10 games.

This season, Durant is currently averaging 30.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.5 steals. His efficiency rating (30.94), estimated wins added (16.2) and value added (484.5) all lead the league by a wide margin.

Durant because just the third player in the past 25 years with four or more 45-point performances in a 10-game span, joining Kobe Bryant and Bernard King. And how efficient has Durant been during that stretch? He raised his shooting percentages to 50.2 percent from the field, 41.1 percent from three and 88.1 percent from the free throw line, which means another 50-40-90 season is possible. In his last three games, he has 130 points on just 68 shots.

The best part of Durant’s individual success is that it has translated into victories for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team has been playing much better since Durant started dominating, winning their last four games and seven of their last 10, including wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets among others. The Thunder are currently 32-10 and just a half game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top seed in the Western Conference (with a nationally televised game between Oklahoma City and San Antonio set for tonight).

Durant is having a monster campaign and, if the season ended today, many people around the league believe he would take home the Most Valuable Player award. That’s right, this could be the year that Durant finally rips the trophy out of LeBron James’ hands after finishing second in voting three times. While Durant won’t acknowledge the MVP buzz, the rest of the league certainly has.

“That’s premature, man. It’s still early in the season,” Durant said of possibly winning MVP. “I try not to think about that type of stuff. Of course as a player, you’d love to win an MVP award. I can’t think about that, can’t take my focus off the team. Every day I’ve got to just keep chipping away, keep enjoying the process and we’ll see what happens.”

The Blazers got to experience firsthand what a pissed off Durant can do. He scored 11 points in the final three minutes and 30 seconds to propel Oklahoma City past Portland. Durant hit a number of threes and wasn’t going to leave the building without a victory. After the game, the Blazers marveled at Durant and he received some more MVP support.

“The guy is the best player in the world right now. What can you say about him?” Nicolas Batum told NBA.com. “When you watch him on TV, like, he is the best. When you guard him in the game, sometimes you have two guys on him and he makes the shot anyway. He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP. I mean, six years I have been in this league I have never seen a [performance] like that. Six years.”

“MVP performance,” Terry Stotts told reporters after last night’s game. “To score 46 points on 25 shots, six of seven from three, and I think he got a couple of his shots blocked. It was a remarkable performance. He made shots when they mattered. He took his time and didn’t force it. He took what was there, and he made some great shots.”

“When the basket’s an ocean, you can’t really do much about that,” Wesley Matthews said. “He’s been on a roll.”

“He did what he’s been doing the last two weeks,” Damian Lillard said of Durant. “He’s hitting 50, 45 and 50 again. We knew coming in he’s been shooting the ball well and confident.”

Durant, who is the epitome of a team player and truly one of the nicest guys in the league, is just happy to see the Thunder winning games. Some players would make this comment and not mean it. With Durant, it’s 100 percent true that his scoring outbursts don’t mean anything to him if they come in a loss.

“As a leader my main objective is to serve my teammates,” Durant said. “How can I help them out. Some nights I’ve got to put it up, I’ve got to score. Some nights I’ve got to do other things. … I just try to survey the game and see what my team needs me to do. I see how I can help my teammates. Some nights it’s going to be scoring, some nights it’s going to be facilitating, rebounding and playing good defense. We’ll see. I just try to take it one possession at a time and try to help the team out as much as I can.

“I just try to be aggressive at the rim and put pressure on the defense. If they draw in, I kick it out. If not, I try to lay the ball up or take a good shot. When we’re moving the ball like that and everybody’s touching it and feeling good, it helps [our offense] and helps our defense as well.”

One thing has been noticeable during this recent stretch of must-see TV from Durant is that he seems to be enjoying himself on the floor. He’s smiling and having a good time, along with his teammates.

“I’m just having fun out there,” Durant said. “Every moment I’m on the court is fun for me no matter how the game is won. You play this game and you look to the bench and see your teammates are so happy for you. All I could do was smile because I know their joy for the team. It’s a great feeling knowing that you have your group of brothers out there supporting you no matter what. So that’s what I was smiling for.”

Durant’s teammates and coaches are thrilled to be on wearing the same colors as the 25-year-old superstar. They are enjoying the team’s success, but they are also thrilled to see their brother having this type of success and finally getting the recognition that he deserves.

“I have played with some pretty good players, but what he is doing right now is on a whole other level,” Kendrick Perkins said of Durant. “His confidence in the threes he hit, he is just in the zone. Like I said, he is in the zone and I am just happy for him.”

“There’s no question we are seeing an amazing player develop in front of our eyes,” Scott Brooks said of Durant. “That’s one of the big reasons why I started wearing my glasses during the game so I can see that. I didn’t miss the 54-point night and I didn’t miss tonight. There’s not much I can say about him that I have not already said. He’s an amazing young man who takes a lot of pride in what he does, how he plays and how he represents our city. He’s just a prideful person, he was raised the right way and cares about doing the right things. He’s a smart player, a great player and a great teammate. There are not a lot of other adjectives that you can use that haven’t been used before, but I love the guy and I’m proud of the way he represents us. He does it every night and that’s not easy to do. Regardless of how he plays, he steps up and challenges himself to always do well the next night. … KD is a special player. Some nights he’s going to have a high-scoring game, but I just like the way he thinks. He thinks about the team. He [takes] great shots and everybody else gets involved. Everybody else has a chance to score because he commands so much attention. But he’s not looking to score every time and that’s what I love about what he brings to our team night in and night out.

“There are so many things that I love about KD, but especially the fact that he is an amazing teammate and wants to win. He wants to help his teammates have success. He has a gift of scoring, but he also has a gift of playmaking and helping his teammates score. His assists have gone up every year, he’s rebounding the ball at a high clip and he’s defending. He’s a two-way player and those are the special players in the league, the guys who can impact the game at both ends of the floor. He can.”

Possible Return to Chicago for Luol Deng?

Prior to being traded by the Chicago Bulls, Luol Deng said all of the right things about being loyal and striking a deal with Chicago when he hit free agency this summer. He made it clear that he would’ve loved to finish his career with the Bulls and had nothing but positive things to say about the organization.

Then, the team traded him to the Cavaliers in exchange for three picks and significant salary savings.

Today, Deng was asked a good question – would he still consider signing with the Bulls when  he hits unrestricted free agency in July?

“I don’t know. Maybe they will offer me three years, $30 million,” Deng said with a laugh about that last Bulls offer that led to his trade, according to Sam Smith of Bulls.com. “That might be an option to take. I don’t know, it might be. … I have nothing against [anyone]. What happened, happened. I love Chicago. I’ve been there 10 years. There’s no bad blood or anything. What happened, happened. It is what it is. But for me to sit here and say, ‘I’m taking Chicago out of the equation,’ that’s stupid. I was there for 10 years.

“I’m definitely going to miss [his former Bulls teammates] throughout the years to come, but it’s nothing to be emotional about. It’ll be good to see the guys, good to see the coaches. Those guys have really helped me a lot with my game. Not only the players, but also the coaches. The hours we’ve spent together working and everything. So it’ll be strange, something that I’ve never done before. I’m not used to it. I haven’t been traded that many times. This is the first time really. So I don’t know how it’s going to be.”

Deng also spoke about the Cavs team that he’s a part of, where he’s a wise, old veteran at 28 years old.

“It’s crazy,” Deng said with a laugh. “I’m 28 and I’m like one of the old guys here. So it’s weird. But it’s a role that I’m really comfortable with. It gives you confidence that the guys want you to lead and they believe in you. It’s a great group of guys. They’ve got a lot to learn, but it’s a lot of talent here. It’s just learning how to finish games, putting wins together and I’ve been on teams that were very similar to this. We had to learn how to win and become who we are now.

“Very similar to the ‘Baby Bulls,’” Deng said of his team that also featured Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon. “Now it’s the old Bulls, I guess. I see some things and try to help the guys out. A lot of stuff that matters to you when you’re young and as you get older, you realize if you knew that earlier, it would have helped you a lot more. So I’m just trying to let the guys know from experience. It’s been great. It’s been really great. And it takes me back to how much I’ve learned because I’ve been there. And it’s really strange because sometimes you don’t realize how much you’ve learned and then coming here, and some of the stuff they’re doing and you’re trying to help them out. You just realize you made that transition without even realizing.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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