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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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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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