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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.

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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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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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