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NBA AM: Is Trading Durant Really “Ludicrous”?

The Oklahoma City Thunder are shooting holes in the idea that they’d ever trade Kevin Durant… Players pass on NBA’s cap smoothing plan. Is it smart?

Steve Kyler

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Presti Shoots Down Durant Talk:  The power of ESPN to influence the discussion is always amazing. However informed or uninformed, if it runs on ESPN there is a sense among many that what was said is likely to happen or, worse yet, under consideration.

ESPN analyst Tom Penn, a former NBA executive, suggested recently that if Kevin Durant wouldn’t commit to the Oklahoma City Thunder long-term, the team might consider trading him.

It’s not a crazy assertion, because at some point every team has to embrace the fear that a would-be unrestricted free agent can walk away and leave the franchise with nothing. It’s the reason many marquee players ultimately get moved.

However, Durant is very unique in that he is arguably one of the top players in the game and there is almost no scenario in which the Thunder could get anything remotely close to Durant’s value in return in a deal.

Thunder General Manger Sam Presti usually avoids the pitch in the dirt, but because it was from a somewhat credible voice, Presti did address the notion of trading Durant and dismissed it with a heavy hand before last night’s game.

“It’s ludicrous to assert that we would trade Kevin,” Presti told Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. “There’s no way to measure what he represents to our organization on and off the floor. He has helped build this organization from the ground up and personifies the Thunder: past, present and future. When he’s done playing there will be streets named after him throughout the state and younger generations of Oklahomans will learn about the role Kevin has played in elevating this community in ways beyond basketball.”

While those are certainly aggressive and poetic notions, there is a reality that Durant can make his own decision and has not informed the Thunder one way or the other what his thinking about the long-term is.

The Thunder’s stance is they will give him every nickel they possibly can for as long as Durant will take them. There is no doubt that the Thunder intend to do whatever it takes to retain Durant beyond his current deal.

The good news for the Thunder is Durant doesn’t necessarily crave the spotlight of a bigger city. There was talk around All-Star Weekend that New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and Durant were seen together and that Anthony may have been applying the soft-sell on Durant. There is no doubting that recruiting by other marquee players is going to be a big part of Durant’s life for the next 477 days.

As for Durant, he has said countless times that he really enjoys what OKC has been for him and his family. He likes living in Oklahoma City, admitting that the offseason is long enough for him to return home to Baltimore and Washington D.C. or to experience larger markets like Los Angeles or New York.

Durant hasn’t had a problem securing endorsement deals, despite being in one of the smallest NBA media markets. He is one of the top earners in the NBA and has more commercials than any other player. In the last two years, he has inked more than $500 million worth of endorsement deals including a Nike deal said to eclipse the $300 million mark, which included a sizable upfront payment to the tune of $250 million. Money will be the least important factor in Durant’s free agent equation.

The wrinkle for the Thunder is Durant’s representation with RocNation. They are not a typical sports agency and they have gone about handling Durant is a very different way, which has yielded some out-of-the-box endorsement and business deals that have favored Durant.

There is a sense among NBA insiders that as long as the Thunder are competing and challenging for a championship, Kevin wants to remain in Oklahoma City long-term. However, there is also a belief that if the Thunder are not in the hunt, the voices in the equation that may want Durant elsewhere may have the means to sway him if he’s not playing deep into the postseason not only this year but next.

The Thunder for the first time are going to be luxury-tax payers. For the first time in a long time, they traded a first-round draft pick – usually considered gold to the Thunder – in order to land Dion Waiters in a trade earlier this year.

Everyone involved in the equation understands that setting the stage with the best path to a championship in OKC is a vital part of the free-agent pitch to Durant.

One league executive was asked recently about the idea of trading Durant; the comment back was that no one believes Presti would ever trade Durant. If Durant walks, the defense is always “he left us, we never left him” and that’s likely a smart stance to take considering that any trade for Durant would be pennies on the dollar at best and the Thunder still have 477 days to make their case as a contender.

NBA Acknowledges Players Won’t Agree:  During the All-Star break in February, the National Basketball Players Association announced that it declined the NBA’s proposal to “smooth” out the massive increases in the salary cap that are expected as a result of the NBA’s new TV rights deal.

Conservative estimates peg the jump in the cap in 2016 to go from an estimated $67.4 million next to year to somewhere between $78 and $85 million.

The NBA’s plan was hinged on the notion that the players are contractually obligated to receive 51.4 percent of revenue, and that in setting a lower cap number, any shortfall from what’s paid in salary and benefits in a lower cap environment would be paid to the NBPA in a lump sum at the end of the season and the NBPA can disperse that to its players however it sees fit.

The NBPA passed.

There are a couple of things to note about the plan. First, not every team in the NBA is flush with cash; some teams have very tight restrictions on how much they are permitted to spend and while there is a lot of money coming into the NBA as a result of the new rights deal, until that cash actually comes in some teams may not be able to meet an $80 million team salary on their existing revenue streams alone.

The notion of “smoothing” is that it allows the NBA and its team to pay a large chunk of the money after the season, after that new TV money is paid to them, removing the undue burden on owners to either self-fund the first year of the cap jump or to finance it through lines of credit.

While many of the NBA’s owners are billionaires, they are also part of complex ownership structures that makes floating a few million here or there a little challenging and complicated. NBA teams are not sole proprietor arrangements, they are complicated partnership structures.

The other idea in smoothing is it would be a means for every player to gain from the new jump in the cap environment since the NBPA could disburse money to everyone, including rookie-scale players who likely won’t see benefits from the new cap environment for years.

So why would the Players Association pass on such a plan?

One reason is that there is a sense of, “Why help the owners?” The NBPA feels like they have made so many concessions in the owners’ favor that there is no need to give even more, not with franchise values soaring and revenues flowing in.

The belief is that with such a large number of players hitting free agency and those players having structured deals around the projected salary cap jump, those players and the ones to follow should be able to maximize their earning against the formula agreed to.

This sort of comes down to money earned now, versus money earned or paid later.

Take LeBron James, for instance – he will be eligible for 35 percent of the salary cap. If the cap were artificially suppressed to say $75 million, that’s a first year salary of $26.25 million. If the actual cap comes in at $85 million, his first year balloons to $29.75 million. The belief is James is owed that $3 million and should be paid it, as should every player eligible for free agency.

There are a few flaws in the process.

There are currently eight NBA teams operating below the current $63.065 million salary cap – some by design as they have young teams and do not need to spend at this point.

There are currently five teams over the $76.82 million luxury tax line, with the average payroll across the 30 NBA teams being $69.595 million.

While some teams may immediately embrace the new higher spending ceilings and spend to the new lines, there are a large number of teams that either won’t spend or don’t need to spend at those levels, especially if it means financing the new expense.

Whether the players want smoothing or not, if NBA teams don’t meet the 51.4 percent required by their contract, the shortfall will be paid in a lump sum at season’s end regardless. By not agreeing to cap the process, the NBPA is allowing for the free agents in 2016 to consume more of the pie with the likely understanding that the balance can then be split among the other players.

Maybe that’s the best of both worlds, knowing full well some teams won’t spend and there will be something of a shortfall check to share with those who are not free agents.

Is that smart? The NBPA has been showing its teeth on a number of issues in advance of an expected labor fight in 2017. Wouldn’t giving every player a sizable check have been smarter politics? They could have issued that check with a note saying, “Put this away, we’re going to win our labor fight.”

Like many things with the new leadership at the NBPA, there doesn’t seem to be an understanding of what’s coming; rather they are taking a “just say no” stance.

The players are getting their money, whether it’s issued as a contract or paid as a shortfall payment. The players as a group will get every nickel of the 51.4 percent they are owed.

There was a window for compromise that could have led to many things. Some agents close to the process saw the “smoothing” issue as a means to reach a new labor deal. This is the first time in a very long time that the players have had something the owners wanted and there could have been room to make a better deal as a result and avoid a nasty labor fight altogether.

Unfortunately, the NBPA’s stance is one of defiance and dissent and that historically has never worked in previous fights. It may be a popular stance to take among players who feel the labor deal has wronged them in some way, but let’s keep a couple of concepts in perspective. Michael Jordan is considered the greatest player to have played in the modern era and he earned $90.235 million in salary in his NBA career. Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have both crossed the $300 million mark in career earnings.

Hard to make the argument that the system in the NBA is that broken. Could they have earned more? Maybe and that seems to be the NBPA’s stance, that passing on smoothing could allow individual players to earn more now. But it may not work out quite as expected.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA, @iamdpick, @jblancartenba, @johnzitzler, @CodyTaylorNBA, @MaryStevensNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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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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