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NBA Sunday: Kevin Durant’s Easy Decision

After coming within one game of the NBA Finals, Kevin Durant’s best play is remaining with the Thunder.

Moke Hamilton

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The dichotomy was stark.

LeBron James stood out at center court. I keenly remember describing the look on his face as that of a seven-year-old child meeting his puppy for the first time on Christmas morning. In Miami, after ousting the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games, the king had risen.

I remember speaking with a member of James’ entourage after the game and hearing about how dark the past year had been for him. And there, after being on hand for the 2012 NBA Finals at Miami’s American Airlines Arena, before my very eyes, I saw LeBron James become a new man.

And one of the memories that will always stick with me from the 2012 NBA Finals is Kevin Durant.

As Dwyane Wade left the podium with the Larry O’Brien trophy cradled underneath his left arm, Durant prepared to address the media. All alone, with a few eyeballs watching and even less ears listening, Wade embraced Durant, encouraged him and promised him that his time was coming soon.

Four years later, Kevin Durant is still waiting.

* * * * * *

The Oklahoma City Thunder became the second Western Conference team in two years to squander a 3-1 series lead and now, as Durant faces free agency on July 1, all anyone has wanted to discuss is what they believe Kevin Durant will do. Few have weighed in on what he should do.

Over the years, even as Durant has seen some talented players exit — James Harden, Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson are but a few — he has seemingly gotten closer to the championship that eluded him back in 2012. With Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters among those comprising he and Russell Westbrook’s support staff, one could make the argument that Durant now has the best supporting cast he has enjoyed since his time in the league.

This summer, Thunder general manager Sam Presti and his staff will take a long look at their roster. They will have to make a decision on Waiters and simultaneously try to figure out how to upgrade their roster to give Durant (assuming he stays) another crack at the Western Conference crown next season.

For Durant, though, the correct play is clear as day: he should re-sign a “LeBron James” deal with the Thunder — a two-year contract with a player option on the second year. In effect, this is a one-year deal.

Aside from maximizing Durant’s earning potential — the numbers have already been run by our Cody Taylor — Durant would both allow himself the option of reevaluating his options next summer when Russell Westbrook also becomes a free agent and utilize an incredible amount of leverage yielded by this contract option.

* * * * * *

Over the recent course of the NBA’s collective bargaining history, the guaranteed contract has become shorter and shorter. In the very recent past, players enjoyed seven-year guarantees from the teams that had their Bird rights, while today, the longest a player can sign for is five years. For the most part, this is regarded as a positive for teams, as they are tied into guaranteed contracts for shorter periods. In a situation where a team overestimates the potential of a player and overpays him, this could be a blessing.

In the alternative, though, having a franchise pillar signed to a shorter-term contract can be a major con, and it’s something that hasn’t come to light until recent years, as players have traditionally signed the longest allowable contract in order to guarantee themselves the richest paydays possible.

As LeBron James competes in his seventh NBA Finals, at the end of the day, what I will take most from his legacy is a cautionary tale to the superstars of future generations. Before James, Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett each lived through inept front offices that were unable to surround them with the necessary talent to consistently compete at the highest level. James dealt with that in his first go round with the Cleveland Cavaliers and seems intent on not allowing himself to be put into a similar predicament. When a superstar signs on the dotted line for the maximum allowable term, front offices are allowed to breathe a sigh of relief and take a more patient approach to rebuilding or constructing a winner. Inevitably, there is bound to be less of a haste to build a winner and if a player finds himself saddled with a front office or a franchise that is cost-conscious to the point where they are averse to consistently being a luxury tax team, his want and the want of his front office may be in direct opposition to one another.

Make no mistake, a general manager should take a long view of what is in the best interests of his franchise, but his superstar — knowing that he is playing for his legacy and that his prime will only last five to eight years — wants to win right now.

In today’s NBA, James has revealed the incredible amount of leverage that a superstar playing under a short-term contract wields. Durant, by following his example, can ensure that the Thunder do everything in their power to consistently field competitive teams, year in and year out. As the nucleus of young talents in Oklahoma City see their rookie deals expire and their extensions come due, Durant, by opting for a shorter contract, can keep the pressure on the front office to pony up.

The surrounding cast, of course, only matters if Russell Westbrook also opts to remain in Oklahoma City, though. And based on who you speak with, that proposition is increasingly in question.

* * * * * *

With Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge each opting to take their talents elsewhere, it is now common knowledge that nothing is guaranteed. In the case of Aldridge, he publicly stated his intent to re-sign with the Trail Blazers before doing an all-out renege one year later. Sure, Aldridge may have had his reasons, but the lesson in his defection is that you simply can’t believe anything unless it’s signed. DeAndre Jordan taught us the same thing.

Back in 2010, when the New York Knicks had their audience with LeBron James and tried to convince him to sign with them and that Carmelo Anthony would follow, James opted for the sure thing — signing in Miami. Even back then, James knew that he couldn’t take anything for granted. Again, Durant would be wise to follow his example.

Re-signing with the Thunder for multiple years this summer could — if Westbrook did decide to depart next summer — tie Durant to the Thunder in such a way that he would waste away prime years of his career while the Thunder attempted to fill the void left by Westbrook’s departure. Avoiding such a scenario is quite simple. By entering the free agent market with Westbrook next summer, Durant wouldn’t have to guess or attempt to predict the future. Together, he and Westbrook could decide that they want to continue to be running mates in Oklahoma City, decide to seek greener pastures, together, elsewhere or decide that their partnership has run its course and separate. In any event, Durant would have direct control as to whether or even how his partnership with Westbrook would go. The alternative, under a longer-term deal, would be to passively wait and pray.

That’s not ideal, and neither is Durant’s partnering with another franchise.

* * * * * *

With professional athletes being taught to protect their brands and maximize their marketability, we begin speaking of “legacy” from the earliest goings of a career. If Durant were to leave Oklahoma City this summer and strand Westbrook there, even if Durant were eventually to win a championship with the team he left for, the same dark cloud that hovers over LeBron James’ legacy would follow. The haters would argue that Durant took the easy way out, and the point wouldn’t be without merit.

If the two opted to leave together, however, the masses would collectively understand Durant’s decision to leave. Instead of “abandoning” Westbrook, the sentiment would be that Durant had no choice but to leave, because without Westbrook, the world knows that the Thunder wouldn’t be able to compete in the mighty Western Conference. Opting to remain in the event of a Westbrook departure would be admirable on the part of Durant, but certainly not smart.

Smart, in this instance, would be following the lead of LeBron.

* * * * * *

As the Thunder enter a long summer pondering what could have been and what may have gone wrong, the franchise will have some very important questions to answer.

What may serve the Thunder best would be acquiring a floor general who could share the floor with Durant and Westbrook and appropriately feed the two in the decisive moments of a game. What haunted the Thunder over the course of the final three games of their series with the Warriors was questionable decision-making and shot-taking when things were hanging in the balance. It may be easier said than done, but the answer there seems to be putting the ball in the hands of a better decision maker when things matter.

I don’t know who that player may be and I don’t know how the Thunder will acquire him, but what I do know is that, even with that mighty flaw, Durant and his team were one win away from playing for the 2016 NBA Championship.

In the NBA, 95 percent of players would take that, and 99 percent of players would not leave that.

The only way you would leave that would be if you knew for certain that your running mate wouldn’t be returning with you, and this summer, it’s impossible for Durant to know that for sure.

But with the opportunity to reenter the free agency market next season, the decision is in his hands. For his sake, let’s hope he executes better here than he did down the stretch of the series that will ultimately be remembered for the “Klay game.”

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New Orleans Pelicans and Cliff Alexander Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The New Orleans Pelicans and free agent forward Cliff Alexander have agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

The addition of Alexander will give New Orleans 20 players heading into training camp.

Alexander spent last season playing 40 combined games with the Erie Bayhawks and Long Island Nets in the G-League, where he averaged 15.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game. Alexander also shot 52 percent from the field and blocked one shot per game.

The 21-year-old forward was a McDonald’s All-American and won MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic in 2014 before attending Kansas University. Alexander played 28 games as a Jayhawk and averaged 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 17.6 minutes per game before declaring for the draft.

After going undrafted, Alexander played in eight games for Portland during the 2015-16 season and received a 10-day contract from the Brooklyn Nets in April.

For more information on the salary cap and roster situation for the New Orleans Pelicans, click here.

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Atlanta Hawks and John Jenkins Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The Atlanta Hawks and free agent guard John Jenkins have agreed to a training camp deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

The addition of Jenkins will give Atlanta 20 players heading into training camp.

Jenkins drew interest from several other teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks.

The 26-year-old guard began his career in Atlanta after the Hawks selected him 23rd overall out of Vanderbilt in the 2012 draft. For his career, Jenkins has averaged 5.1 points in 12.8 minutes per game while shooting 45 percent from the field overall and 36 percent from beyond the arc.

For more information on Atlanta’s salary cap and roster situation, click here.

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NBA

Golden State Warriors 2017-18 Season Preview

The Golden State Warriors remain the cream of the NBA crop, even after several franchises went all in this offseason. Can anyone really beat the Warriors in a seven-game series? We look at the Warriors in this final NBA season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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After losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors were highly favored to win the 2016-17 championship with the offseason addition of Kevin Durant. In the Warriors’ third straight Finals match up with Cavaliers, Golden State, with plenty of help from Durant, over-matched Cleveland in last season’s NBA Finals. This year, with Durant taking a pay cut, the team did a masterful job of bringing back just about all of the key players from last year’s championship run. Now the team is primed to wreak havoc on the league once again.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It’s almost comical at this point how the best team in basketball keeps getting better.

After adding Kevin Durant last summer, and then completely decimating the entire NBA, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, all the Golden State Warriors did was go out and add two players in Omri Casspi and Nick Young who almost perfectly fit their brand of “you’re not out-shooting us” basketball.

The powers of the NBA all shuffled around their rosters this season in hopes of trying to assemble some type of “anti-Warriors” remedy, and when it’s all said and done, those moves will be all for naught. Expect Golden State to ride their legendary roster to another NBA title.

1st place – Pacific Division

– Dennis Chambers

What do you need me to say about the Warriors that you don’t already know? Two of the best five players in the league are on the roster, as well as arguably the top defensive player in the league and a cast of reserves that fit perfectly with the superstars running the show. Even JaVale McGee is shooting three pointers now. The Warriors are unstoppable and in some ways even better than the team that won a championship a few months ago. It’s going to be a long season for every other team in the league. They’re all playing for second place.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

The road to the NBA Finals obviously goes through Oakland, especially after the club managed to re-sign JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Nick Young will give the team some additional firepower, but they probably don’t even need it.

So long as these guys stay healthy, they’ll probably find their way to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, and with the Clippers having lost Chris Paul, the Warriors should have a relatively easy time winning the Pacific Division for the fourth straight year.

I’m usually longer-winded than that, but I’m not sure much else needs to be said about the Warriors.

1st place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

At this point, what’s really left to say? The Warriors had arguably the best basketball team ever assembled last season, and that was while dealing with minor role concerns and dealing with Kevin Durant’s midseason injury. Then they went out and improved this offseason, adding the likes of Omri Casspi and Nick Young as perfect end-of-roster pieces. Combine that with what most would expect will be even better fit and chemistry across the roster this season, and the Warriors stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league even with several squads making big power moves to try and bridge the gap. Anything but a third title in four years will fail to do justice to the incredible, historical talent on this roster.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

The best team in the NBA went out and retained key players and signed Omri Casspi and Nick Young to round out the roster. As has been the case for several years now, the Warriors enter the upcoming season with the most overall talent, improved chemistry, good health and every ingredient necessary to win an NBA championship. Several other contenders pulled off some impressive moves to try and bridge the gap between themselves and the Warriors, but Golden State still holds the advantage against every other team in the league. So long as the Warriors are playing up to their potential, or anywhere near it, the other contenders are out of luck. Unless the Warriors face some serious injuries this upcoming season or some internal discord, we should expect them to win their third championship in four seasons.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant

Don’t knock me for not clearly choosing a single player here. The individual excellence of both Stephen Curry and Durant cannot be stated enough. While Curry’s statistics did take a bit of a step back from the year prior, he still led the way for the Warriors last season. Last year, Curry led the team in points per game (by a slim margin), three-pointers made, assists and usage percentage. Keep in mind, Durant was excellent but Curry still commanded the offense for the most part. However, Durant was right on Curry’s heels and in the playoffs actually slightly surpassed Curry in points per game. In addition, Durant remains as tough to cover one-on-one as anyone in the league. Regardless, both players are unbelievable individual talents and would easily be the top offensive player on just about any other team.

Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green

For the foreseeable future, Draymond Green has this category on lockdown for the Warriors. Green uses a combination of length, strength, timing and sneaky athleticism to smother his opponents. Green’s versatility allows him to guard a range of positions in the post and switch to guard guards and forwards on the wing effectively as well. His versatility is the lynchpin of the Warrior’s vaunted death line up that uses Green at center and brings Iguodala off the bench to close games. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year race came down to Green and Utah center Rudy Gobert. In the end, Green’s versatility as well as his ability to guard the rim effectively made him the top choice in voters’ minds. Expect Green to be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year this upcoming season as well.

Top Playmaker: Stephen Curry

When the Warriors added Durant to the roster, many wondered, even for a team as unselfish as the Warriors, how would Stephen Curry and Durant manage to share the ball? That question was answered when Curry took a step back and allowed Durant’s individual offensive brilliance to shine. Curry’s points per game dropped (30.1 to 25.3) as did his usage percentage (32.0 to 29.2). Curry’s individual excellence continued regardless as he remained the Warriors’ top distributor (followed closely by Draymond Green). In addition, Curry garners so much attention that his simple presence on the court creates more room for teammates to operate. Curry’s ability to pull up from virtually anywhere on the court and willingness to make the extra pass to teammates makes him a nightmare to cover and the Warriors’ top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry

Once again, you could give this award to either of the Warrior’s two best offensive players. Curry dominates most of the advanced statistics when breaking down clutch play, defined as the last minutes of a game within 5 point or less, per nba.com. However, based on Durant’s size, length and ability to get off a shot in isolation, he makes for an excellent clutch player in just about any situation. Either is an extraordinary option and their play in crunch time continues to be critical to their championship fortunes.

The Unheralded Player: Klay Thompson

Klay Thompson is a phenomenal talent who does a number of things well. He’s an unbelievable three-point shooter and defends elite point guards to alleviate the pressure on Curry. For a team with two elite offensive players, having Thompson as your third option on offense is just unfair to the rest of the league. Thompson lights up the league with his ability to hit outside shots without needing to dominate the ball. Don’t just count on Thompson to score as he takes pride in his defense and his ability to lockdown on defense.

Best New Addition: Omri Casspi

Overall, the Warriors have had an unbelievable stretch of luck when it comes to injuries, which will hopefully rub off on Omri Casspi this season. With his length, versatility and the ability to stretch the floor, he can slide into either forward spot. His addition strengthens the team’s ability to survive the grind of the regular season and lessen the minutes of the starters. Casspi fills a lot of needs for several teams that are looking to challenge the Warriors, so simply keeping him away from those teams is an added benefit to his signing.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr continues to be the perfect coach for this team. He helps to keep the players focused on their individual roles within the larger team structure and has so far prevented major dissension and discord. Kerr took the team that Mark Jackson previously coached and helped to transform the team into champions. Credit is deserved for his part in successfully orchestrating the move of former All-Star Iguodala to a bench role and meshing Durant’s individual brilliance with the Warriors’ pre-existing, pass-happy offense. Kerr has missed significant time due to his botched spinal surgery, but if he can manage his health, count on Kerr to keep the Warriors a well-oiled machine.

2. Nick Young

Nick Young is a player that has had an up-and-down career. Credit Young for carving out a relatively successful career as a journeyman three-point shooting wing. Keeping Young focused and unlocking his full range of talents has been difficult for many organizations. The Warriors are up next and will give the 11th year pro an opportunity to do what he does best — knocking down three-pointers. As a career 37.6 percentage three-point shooter, Young will have a chance to get more open looks from distance than he has previously in his career. Like JaVale McGee, Young will also have a chance to transform his reputation if he proves to be a disciplined, effective contributor to a championship team.

3. Jordan Bell

What’s the perfect piece for a rebuilding team in need of young talent to build around? Jordan Bell, selected with the 38th pick in this year’s draft), is just that sort of player. The Warriors acquired the pick from the Chicago Bulls for cash consideration. The Bulls loss is the Warriors gain as hopes are high for the young talent from the University of Oregon. The Warriors will take their time with the 6-foot-9 forward and hope that he will build on and develop his defensive talents and one day be a reliable contributor for Golden State.

4. Shaun Livingston

Shaun Livingston is many years removed from the knee injury that nearly ended his professional career. While Livingston has played for nine teams in his career, he continues to be loyal to the Warriors, the team with which he has experienced the most success post-injury. Livingston continues to do whatever the team requires as he slides into either guard slot when needed and provides reliable production from the bench. Opposing backup point guards often get caught being posted up by the lengthy 6-foot-7 guard. Count Livingston as another essential cog who will do whatever it takes to help the Warriors win at all costs.

– James Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Warriors are a major spender at $135.4 million in guaranteed salary, resulting in at least $32 million in luxury taxes. Golden State used its Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to sign Nick Young at $5.2 million for a season. Having re-signed on one-year deals, Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee can block any trades.

Before November, the Warriors need to decide on 2018-19 team options for Kevon Looney and Damian Jones. Next summer, Kevin Durant can opt out again but now the team has his Early Bird Rights and the ability to give him a raise in the $35 million range. The Warriors seem willing to pay for a winner but for how long as luxury taxes grow progressively as the team gradually becomes a repeat offender?

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

This team continues to have everything you could want in a modern NBA team. An electric point guard who is nearly unstoppable, a 3-and-D wing with a killer three-point shot, an unstoppable one-on-one player who can score from anywhere, a dominant and flexible defensive forward who can play center and a defensive wing who is a great glue guy. That’s just the five players that are normally used to close out games. The rest of the roster has a number of key contributors ready to do whatever the team needs. Oh, and they also have a great coach to keep everyone on the same page. With all the pieces a team could want, expect the Warriors to again push a possible record-breaking pace in the regular season on their way to the playoffs and likely the Finals.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The easiest answer here is none. Eventually the injury bug might hit the Warriors but for now they have everything they could want to continue their excellent play. Perhaps some players may lose a sense of urgency in the regular season after breaking records and dominating the last few seasons, though that seems unlikely. On paper, this team is not afflicted by any major weaknesses.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can anyone stop the Warriors?

Other teams continue to make moves to get better. On September 23, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded agreed to terms on a deal to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. With that move, count the Thunder, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and the Cavaliers as the biggest potential obstacles in the Warriors’ path to repeat. One of these teams may beat them, but the Warriors are the heavy favorites and the team most likely to win the championship next year.

– James Blancarte

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