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.”
NBA Daily: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role
Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.
It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.
Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.
Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.
Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.
“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”
The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.
His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.
“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”
Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.
In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.
“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”
Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.
“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”
The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”
With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17
Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.
The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.
By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.
For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.
A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.
6. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)
Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.
This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.
Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.
Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.
Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.
The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.
In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.
After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.
Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.
Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.
Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.
Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.
At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.
The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.
Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.
As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.
After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.
No big deal.
That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.
Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.
Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.
The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.
James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.
Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.
What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.
On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.
LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.
NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?
The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?
At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work
The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?
Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.
All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:
Not Enough Touches
The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.
That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.
It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.
That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.
Russ Has To Be Russ
When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.
The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.
Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.
Where’d Offense Go?
The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.
Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.
It’s Not A Selfish Problem
The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.
Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.
But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.
All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.
It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.
That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.
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