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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 Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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