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Kevin Durant

Love Lost

in NBA by
NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Miami Heat

The prominent theory when it comes to building a contender in a small market is that the team needs to bottom out and nab a superstar in the lottery in order to start down the path towards success. Coastal cities will inevitably attract star power as well as aging veterans looking to string out their careers with the added bonus of enjoyable scenery, so the best shot for the little guy is to build from within.

The San Antonio Spurs are the model franchise in this respect. They landed the number one overall pick back in 1997 and, despite some flirting with the Magic in 2000, Tim Duncan has been in San Antonio for 16 years. Even as Duncan had his team at the top of the standings each year, the Spurs were able to mine talent from unfamiliar territories to surround him with and they had the best coach in basketball to put everything together.

But as much as we want to admire San Antonio for being able to escape the confines of its market, doing so creates an impossibly high standard for every other small market franchise in the league. Over the last decade or so, the only other franchise that has been able to replicate San Antonio’s success was Oklahoma City, and not surprisingly they did so by hiring a young executive that grew up in the Spurs organization.

Another common thread between Oklahoma City and San Antonio that makes them more outliers than the standard is that the superstars that they built around were incredibly humble and devoted individuals; a different breed in today’s hyper, egotistical world of professional sports. Duncan almost went to Disneyworld back in 2000, but since then he’s never wavered in his loyalty to San Antonio, even taking massive paycuts in order to give his general manager financial flexibility. Durant is yet to enter his prime, but everything he’s said seems to indicate that he loves the quaint mid-western town that he’s in.

Those kinds of superstars are rare, and what’s even rarer is that the same front office that lucks into the top pick necessary to draft a Duncan or Durant is also capable of building a title contender around them. More often than not, the draw of being able to play with a star isn’t enough to offset the financial or lifestyle sacrifices that such a move would necessitate.

Thus, there is increased pressure on the executives to build through the draft. Oklahoma City was far better off than the Spurs since they landed the 4th overall pick in 2008 and the 3rd overall pick in 2009, which allowed them to take Russell Westbrook and James Harden, whereas the Spurs have yet to have a lottery pick of their own since they got Duncan. But because the Spurs are able to extract efficient production from just about anybody and because they’ve had so much success with foreign prospects, they also represent an uncommon string of effective personnel decisions that few teams can ever replicate.

This reliance on outstanding draft success as a substitute for big free agent signings has led to a severe decrease in championship windows for small market teams that draft players that would normally be considered capable of leading a team on multiple deep playoff runs.

LeBron James was able to get the Cavs to the Finals just once during his seven years there and he’s one of the 10 best players of all-time. But Cleveland never could put a roster together that complemented him as well as Miami’s roster, even without Dwyane Wade, does. Ditto for Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who carried the Magic to a Finals appearance before a series of dumbfounding decisions by Otis Smith had Dwight fleeing for Los Angeles and, eventually, Houston.

The latest causality is Minnesota Timberwolves, who appear to be on the verge of having to trade their star power forward for the second time in seven years. Kevin Love’s “people” have reportedly told the team that he will walk away from the franchise next off-season when he’s able to opt out of his current contract, which means the T’Wolves would be smart to start listening to trade offers so they can get something in return rather than seeing Love walk away for nothing.

It’s saddening, to say the least, that more small market teams that land superstars in the lottery wind up losing them rather than holding onto them for the majority of their career. It’s not about money; Bird Rights have been implemented for the specific purpose of giving small market teams the advantage when re-signing players by giving them an extra year to offer. And in the social media age, it’s not about endorsements or building a brand; LeBron was Nike’s co-star alongside Kobe from the day he entered the league, Howard was Adidas’ biggest endorser in Orlando and Love is already on your TV selling you Taco Bell.

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Rubio’s selfless, endearing style may not be enough to keep Love in Minnesota.

More often than not, these divorces are related to poor supporting casts, and big cities act as a safehaven since, even if the front office is incompetent, the city and the opportunity to play with stars can sell itself to other big-time players. In the case of Minnesota, they have multiple opportunities to surround love with a strong supporting cast. After he got the best of Memphis with a draft night trade that landed Minny Love’s draft rights in exchange for O.J. Mayo back in 2008, David Kahn swung and missed in the draft three years in a row, including his infamous mishandling of his four first round picks in 2009.

Kahn’s decision to take Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn back-to-back with the 5th and 6th overall picks in 2009 will haunt the franchise forever. Rubio is a good player but his brilliant aesthetics and overall effectiveness are neutered by his never-ending search for a jumpshot, and Flynn was a total flop that didn’t last three full seasons in the league. To make matters worse, with the pick right after Flynn, the Golden State Warriors landed themselves a franchise changing talent in Stephen Curry, leading to a tremendous what-if regarding the potential trio of Rubio, Curry and Love.

Things didn’t get much better from there. Armed with the 4th overall pick in 2010 and the 2nd overall pick in 2011, Kahn drafted two players that are no longer on the roster, one of which played for the league minimum this season: Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams. Minnesota’s streak of misses continued even after Kahn was gone, as Flip Saunders’ first move as team president was drafting Trey Burke and trading him for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. While Dieng had a strong run to close the season, Muhammad, the higher selection of the two, seems to be a long way from lottery-like production.

Even with a strong coach like Rick Adelman, the Timberwolves struggled to survive in the rugged Western Conference. Granted, they dealt with some severely unfair injury issues over the past two seasons, but given the state of their roster relative to the rest of the conference, it’s safe to assume that a playoff berth would have been the extent of their accomplishments. And as much as you want a player like Love to stay in Minnesota and keep the franchise relevant as he enters into his prime as one of the brightest stars in the league, can you really blame him for pursuing a shot at success?

It will be interesting to see if the league deems this a problem big enough to address when the new CBA is up for negotiations, if they decide it is a problem at all. At the end of the day, the result of these superstar fallouts it getting ultra-talented players to places that maximize their earning potential. And even as the Timberwolves would be set back for five or six years as they try to hit the lottery again in the draft, a team like Milwaukee will experience a brief upswing up until Andrew Wiggins decides to bolt for the beaches. It’s a cyclical process.

But perhaps the league is right not to address the increased number of fleeting small market stars since the underlying and most prominent issue is inept front offices and coaching staffs. Had Kahn drafted like Sam Presti and had Danny Ferry and Mike Brown crafted a culture like the one they experienced during their time in San Antonio, perhaps Love and LeBron are still pumping money into those small market economies.

Then again, maybe the Spurs and Thunder have just gotten our hopes up. Their success inspires other small market franchises to follow their blueprint, but in reality, they are deviations from the norm whose commendable coups still pale in comparison to those of the Lakers and Celtics and whose admirable triumphs are far less likely to sustain past a generation than a franchise whose arena is within a few miles of beaches or Broadway.

It’s Going Down!

in NBA by
NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors

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The scene was set for a historic afternoon of Raptors basketball, with the city of Toronto showing up in huge numbers to support their team in its first post-season appearance since the Vince Carter era. The Air Canada Centre was filled to the brim and another 10,000 raucous fans waited outside the arena watching the game on a big screen. There was a palpable energy in the building from the tip and you could tell that everybody in the stands was waiting for that one moment that would allow them to blow the roof off of the building.

But that moment never came. The closest the Raptors came to giving their home crowd a reason to to go crazy was when Greivis Vasquez nailed a three to give the Raptors the lead with five minutes to go. The lead wouldn’t last for long, though, as Joe Johnson answered immediately on the other end. And that’s when Brooklyn’s wily ole vets, who had struggled just like most of the team throughout the afternoon, helped seal the game for the Nets with some tremendous crunchtime shot making that remind us that, though their glory days are past, they are still two bad dudes.

Kevin Garnett got things started with a turnaround jumper from the post, and then Paul Pierce, Boston’s closer for so many years, took control. Pierce nailed a three off one of Brooklyn’s most effective actions, a 1/2 screen-and-roll with Williams on the left side of the floor, which forced Toronto’s weakside defenders to slide into the paint for just a second, allowing for Pierce to slide up to the right wing, with Garnett setting a brilliant backscreen on Pierce’s man to get him free. Then Pierce rescued a poor Nets possession by driving into the lane late in the shot clock for a lay-up, though it’s hard to say he didn’t travel. And finally, with Toronto managing just two points over the last three minutes of game action, Pierce drilled a fallaway mid-range jumper off an inbounds pass to put the game away for good.

This was an extremely tough game for the Raptors to lose. Not only did they give up homecourt advantage in this game, but they lost in the most disheartening way possible. The Nets were putrid offensively, not because they ran bad sets, but because they’d get good looks and miss them. They shot 4-of-24 from three in this game and prior to Pierce’s dagger late in the game they had missed 19 three-point attempts in a row. Brooklyn wasn’t a great offensive team this season, but most of their line-ups with Pierce as the smallball four scored at a pretty good rate, so this kind of offensive outing is not something you’d expect from them again going forward.

Meanwhile, the Nets defense was completely locked in all game. They had the Raptors scouted well and their scheme neutered almost all of Toronto’s actions. Their combined length on the perimeter deterred drives and disrupted passes, forcing the Raptors into 17 turnovers while holding them to 39% shooting. The Nets showed on almost all pick-and-rolls, taking away any space for Kyle Lowry to launch from deep while rotating quickly on the outside. Just about the only consistent success that the Raptors had offensively in this one was with Jonas Valanciunas in pick-and-rolls as he was able to make a couple of clean catches on the way to the basket for some good looks.

Other than that, though, the Raptor offense was stagnant and bogged down. Despite playing some line-ups with three shooters spacing the floor around their pick-and-roll, Toronto was still unable to find space because of Brooklyn’s tremendous defensive effort. And, perhaps most importantly, Shaun Livingston submitted a sublime individual defensive effort on DeMar DeRozan, forcing DeRozan into one of his worst shooting games of the season (3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from deep) and stifling a lot of the sets that the Raptors are used to flowing into to get DeRozan the ball in good spots. Take this play for instance, where Livingston and Pierce prevent DeRozan from getting any momentum off a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson while Livingston recovers, sticks right on the hip of DeRozan and forces him into a bad shot.

Plays where DeRozan was able to get free from Livingston in this game were few and far between, and when Livingston sat with foul trouble, Joe Johnson did an admirable job defending DeRozan. Dwane Casey will have to find ways to get DeRozan the ball in space and with momentum going towards the rim to get him going in this series, because the Nets’ pick-and-roll coverages prevent him from turning the corner off a screen, and he’s been unable to get by his man in one-on-one situations. That’s easier said than done, though, and it’s entirely possible than the potential laden DeRozan simply needs another off-season to develop the kind of one-on-one maneuvers necessary to beat the tight defense he’s going to see in the post-season over the next decade.

The Raptors were OK themselves defensively, but the numbers would have looked much worse had the Nets made even half of the many good looks from deep that they got in this game. Toronto has to be much smarter with their double teams for the rest of the series, whether that means coming earlier, changing up where the help comes from throughout the game or simply trying to let Lowry, DeRozan or Ross defend in the post one-on-one, because Johnson feasted on their second and third rotations in this game when they came to double him in the post.

This was an extremely disheartening loss for the Raptors. The fans were pumped to have the post-season back in their city and the Nets played very poorly offensively for the majority of this game, opening the door for the Raptors to start the series off on a good note. But the Raptors just couldn’t capitalize. Brooklyn’s strong, smart defensive effort kept them from every establishing rhythm and Pierce’s late-game heroics fossilized them for good.

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It’s difficult to tell if the Warriors are going to make this a series or if the atrocious officiating, which hurt both sides in this game, muddied things up so much that there’s nothing to take away from this one other than that Mark Jackson really had his troops ready to play. Blake Griffin played 19 minutes in this game because of foul trouble, Andre Iguodala fouled out in the fourth quarter after picking up four in the first half, Chris Paul had to spend more time than usual on the bench because of a few ticky tack calls and David Lee had an early hook because of some quick whistles. Rarely did both teams have their best units on the floor – and, of course, Golden State never will because of the injury to Andrew Bogut – and during the rare stints when Griffin and Iguodala were able to be on the floor, they were tentative because of how poorly the officials were calling the game.

It’s possible that Blake’s early exit threw everything out of whack for the Clippers, who have come to rely on him more than ever this season, and it’s certainly true that the Warriors can more easily find a replacement for Iguodala than the Clippers can for Griffin. If foul trouble doesn’t play a major role in game two, then the Clippers may win handily against a Warrior team that is missing its defensive centerpiece.

But then again, the Warriors showed something in this game that is almost assuredly going to continue to cause problems for Los Angeles no matter who is on the floor for them: Mark Jackson is willing to go small again, and the Warriors play extremely well on both ends of the floor when Draymond Green is inserted at the power forward spot. The Warriors were insane defensively when Green was on the floor, limiting the Clippers to 78.5 points per 100 possessions during his 22 minutes. Even Harrison Barnes was great when he was asked to play power forward, and he had the play of the game in the fourth quarter when he blocked Chris Paul’s lay-up attempt in transition with two minutes to go before getting back on the other end and drilling a three that put Golden State up by two.

What’s even more troubling for the Clippers is that the Warriors destroyed their defense even when it was Lee and Jermaine O’Neal sharing the floor, as Lee’s expert passing in the paint helped lead to numerous defensive breakdowns of the Clippers. In the first half DeAndre Jordan was doing an adequate job protecting the rim, racking up five blocked shots, but in the second half he was nowhere to be found, sucked in often by dribble penetration with nobody else on the backline there to help the helper. Again, it’s tough to evaluate the Clippers’ overall performance because of how little Blake played, and putting Glen Davis on the floor for any length of time will lead to some defensive issues, but the Clippers had no rim protection in the second half and they got slaughtered on the boards, allowing 15 offensive rebounds for the game.

Blake is obviously one way for Doc Rivers to counter Golden State’s smallball attack as he can get him on the block and have him attack Green downlow, but another flaw emerged in this game for the Clippers, and it’s one that could wind up being fatal for the Clippers if they don’t adjust: They can’t guard Stephen Curry on high pick-and-rolls.

Curry is an offense all unto himself. A simple screen-and-roll with him up top can result in countless breakdowns for the opposition, whether it’s someone slipping up and giving an inch of space to launch a three or the backline rotations not being quick enough to recover for the big man that had to come up to prevent Curry from stepping into a shot. The Clippers chose to trap Curry on his high screen-and-rolls, and with Lee being such a great passer and decision maker on the move, the Warriors were comfortable using the pick-and-roll as an invitation to bring a Clipper big away from the rim. Curry would wait until the perfect time to hit Lee on the roll, allowing for Jordan or Griffin or Davis to come out far enough to make it difficult for them to scurry back into the paint. The result was driving lanes for Lee, who was able to get a few buckets at the rim and find shooters on the weakside as the Clippers were forced to breakdown to protect the paint.

Take a look at a sampling of Golden State’s tremendous ball movement against the trap in this one. And remember, all of this happens because the Clippers are frightened by the idea of Curry coming off one of those picks and launching a three-point attempt.

Los Angeles will have to change things up going into game two. All season long they’ve had Jordan and Griffin become comfortable sagging back on pick-and-rolls on their ICE coverage, but in this one they decided to come out and be aggressive to keep Curry from beating them. Well, even though it’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, having their bigs play a little further back and forcing Curry to beat them without getting others involved may be an optimal strategy, or at least one worth trying after their original plan was torched in game one.

The Clippers should be fine on the other end. Paul was brilliant in this game despite his late free throw misses and six turnovers and J.J. Redick was on fire from deep. If they can get Jamal Crawford’s game out of the gutter and a full performance from Blake, they have to like their chances going forward. That said, the Warriors took the fight to them in this game and Curry showed that even when he’s not lighting up the scoreboard himself, he can still have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

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Before this series, it seemed radical to suggest that the #1 seeded Pacers may have to take the player that they’ve built their entire, incredibly successful, defensive scheme around off the floor because of how he matched up with the 8th seeded Hawks, who finished the season six games under .500, but you can’t argue with it after game one. Whether it was by directly involving him in a pick-and-roll or having him hang around the perimeter to guard a spot-up shooter, the Hawks exploited their schematic advantage time and time again, running pick-and-pops with the floor spaced with shooters, putting the Pacers at odds with their principles.

Indiana wants to clog the paint and keep ball handlers out of the middle of the floor, but against the Hawks starting five, there is no weak link to sag off of to help pack the paint, and the usually statuesque Hibbert is required to leave his comfort zone to guard Atlanta’s stretch bigs. At first, the Pacers stuck to their gameplan and let the Hawks bigs get some open looks on pick-and-pops, but as the game wore on and they started drifting further and further out to guard the shooters, Jeff Teague began ripping apart their interior defense, routinely blowing by George Hill, who had no help on the backline thanks to Atlanta’s floor spacing bigs.

Just look at how much space there is behind the initial defender and how beautifully Teague goes about getting by his man to get into the wide open lane.

Teague was excellent, putting up 28 points and five assists, and the Hawks also got a huge game out of Paul Millsap. When the pick-and-roll game stalls for Altanta, Millsap is the one player that the Hawks can count on to get something going on his own, and he wound up with 25 points and eight boards for Altanta, in addition to hitting a pair of threes. And though Kyle Korver had an off night by his standards, the Hawks got him some really clean looks off some pretty pindown and curl screen plays, and they’re likely to be there again in game two. Picking up the slack for Korver was DeMarre Carroll, who played a hell of a game, scoring 12 points, pulling down 10 boards (five offensive), hitting a couple of threes and playing some really good defense on Paul George.

The worst part about this game for the Pacers wasn’t necessarily that they lost, it’s that they got down by 20 at one point in the fourth quarter and the team started slumping its collective shoulders like we saw many times during their tumultuous stretch to close out the regular season. Coming into the game the team preached about having a clean slate in the post-season, but they showed the same signs of losing faith in each other when things got tough in this one.

And let’s be honest here, Indiana’s struggles don’t have everything to do with attitude. It plays a part, but the real issue here is that the Pacers just can’t score the basketball efficiently, and despite solid games from George and Lance Stephenson in this one, there’s just nothing else there aside from the occasional C.J. Watson outburst. George Hill is better suited for a utility role like the one he filled for the Spurs, not as the creator for an offense that doesn’t have any space, David West struggled with foul trouble and never got going, Luis Scola was 0-of-6 from the field and Hibbert has always been an average offensive player at best unless he’s got a colossal size advantage.

Indiana’s offensive ineptitude finally caught up to them when their defense slipped even the slightest bit, and against a team like Atlanta that further minimizes the impact of Indiana’s usually stellar defensive scheme, the Pacers are in big trouble now that they’ve surrendered homecourt advantage, something I’m sure can only damage what was already a deteriorating team psyche.

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You have to credit the Grizzlies for fighting their way back into a game that they trailed by 25 in during the first half. Memphis didn’t even make a shot outside of the paint for the first 23 minutes and 59 seconds of this game, finally getting a three to go at the halftime buzzer. The came out strong in the third against a Thunder team that clearly thought they had closed the coffin on them in the first half, putting together a 31-13 run that made it a game going into the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies even cut Oklahoma City’s lead to two in the fourth when Mike Miller hit a three with 8:45 to go in regulation, but that shot was just about all the Grizzlies had left in the tank. They wouldn’t score another field goal over the next three mintues of game time, allowing the Thunder to go on a 13-1 run that put the game out of reach for good.

Most of the credit for Memphis strong third quarter effort has to go to Tony Allen. He held Durant to 5-of-14 shooting, allowing just 13 points compared to the 20 points Durant dropped on his teammates on 73% shooting. His activity off the ball often prevented Durant from even getting a touch, a familiar sight after seeing Allen do this to Durant twice over the past two post-seasons, and he created turnovers that led to easy buckets for the Grizzlies on the break, which was huge for a team that struggled to create good looks in the halfcourt all game long

Even though Memphis made up some ground in this one, it still feels like the gap in talent between these two teams is too large. The Grizzlies just have no space offensively, and it’s just something have to accept because Allen, who, despite a decent shooting outing in this game, remains an impotent outside threat, is their only defender that can slow down Durant. I’m sure Conley will rebound after his poor shooting performance in this one, but the Thunder also have the length and athleticism to throw at Conley all game long and there help defenders can be aggressive in digging down on him when he drives, too. If there’s any hope for the Grizzlies in this series, they’ll need Allen to replicate those same results each and every night and hope that Conley and Marc Gasol can work enough magic in the two man game to create any kind of rhythm for their offense.

But right now, I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

X’s And Bro’s: Episode 2

in NBA/Podcasts by
bosh

Brett Koremenos joins me to recap Sunday’s national TV games between the Heat and Pacers and Thunder and Celtics, as well as a quick preview for tonight’s Thunder-Spurs game.

Next Step For OKC: Abolishing Incorrect And Unnecessary Position Tags

in Archives by
russ

The idea of positions in basketball has been called into question a few times this year. The subject has been deemed “positionality” and most people are starting to believe that the traditional PG/SG/SF/PF/C lineups are becoming outdated due to the advancement of NBA athletes and the way coaches use those athletes.

One of the biggest storylines of the 2011 NBA playoffs is the play of Russell Westbrook. Because Westbrook is the Thunder’s “point guard,” having him take more shots than Kevin Durant in some of the Western Conference Finals games bothered a lot of people who thought Durant should be taking 25+ shots a game. Even though it was Durant’s fault for not getting enough attempts because he was not working hard enough off the ball, all of the blame fell on Westbrook for being a “point guard” who supposedly wasn’t doing his job well enough to get Durant those shots.

It is no secret that Westbrook is not a “true” point guard in the sense that he doesn’t think or play the game like Chris Paul. One could argue Westbrook is a shooting guard trapped in a tall point guard’s body. Westbrook played two guard at UCLA and the truth is that if he was just two inches taller, he’d be Dwyane Wade-lite, devoid of any criticism when it comes to distributing the ball. Instead, he is OKC’s point guard, and because his running mate is NBA Golden Boy Kevin Durant, everyone who watches the Thunder searches for a scapegoat to blame Durant’s shortcomings on.

Although Westbrook certainly wasn’t perfect in the Western Conference Finals, we saw the solution to the Thunder’s problems in Game 5 and it had nothing to do with Westbrook looking to pass more. With his back to the wall in a do-or-die, Thunder coach Scott Brooks played James Harden extended minutes with his starting unit. A lineup of Eric Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant and Nick Collison was used often and though the lack of size with that lineup did cost the Thunder big time in the fourth quarter because the Mavericks were able to outwork them on the glass for key offensive rebounds, we saw how well that lineup worked offensively because Westbrook wasn’t forced to handle the ball.

Within a few minutes it was painfully obvious that Harden was the Thunder’s best option at “point guard” but since I am advocating the removal of that term from our collective basketball vocabulary, instead I’ll say that it was painfully obvious that Harden was the Thunder’s best creator with a knack for finding the open man or a cutter. Harden was a creator in college as well and even though he didn’t have the tag of point guard attached to him at Arizona State or as an NBA draftee there’s no doubt that having Harden run the offense is Oklahoma City’s best option not only because Harden is their best passer but also because of what it allows Westbrook to do off the ball.

Because I prefer giving players descriptive tags rather than position tags (like creator/distributor for Harden), the most obvious tag for Westbrook is “attacker/slasher.” I used Wade as a comparison for Westbrook earlier and though there are some differences between the two, there are certainly a lot of similarities as well. Westbrook is either an extremely savvy player when it comes to attacking the basket in an attempt to draw fouls or a youngster with fresh legs and no regard for his own health when he goes to the rim. Westbrook is made up of some combination of those two things and that’s what makes him so dangerous off the ball.

When Westbrook was playing off the ball he was able to make viscous cuts toward the basket and Harden was on-point with several passes when Westbrook was in motion. Westbrook has a tendency to lose the ball on the dribble when he attacks the cup simply because he can be too aggressive sometimes but catching the ball on the cut allowed for Westbrook to go up immediately without having to put the ball on the floor. With Westbrook cutting to the basket, Durant and Maynor spotting up and Collison providing some interior spacing and offensive rebounding, the Thunder offense looked as good as it had all season with Harden running things.

Looking forward, it is hard to envision a scenario in which Brooks continues to have Harden coming off the bench. The defense/offense substitution has worked for some teams before, but they can’t have their best creator on the bench to start games, particularly in the playoffs. Getting into big holes was a problem for the Thunder at the start of games this season and a lot of blame goes on Brooks for refusing to alter his starting lineup. Westbrook and Durant is a deadly combo, but when there is no one on the floor beside them that can create shots or post-up, it’s hard for the team to score at an efficient rate – especially when the other three players on the floor are Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.

Not only is Harden just a creator for others but, as he showed against the Mavericks, he is also capable of getting to the rim and finishing over bigs. Harden scored 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting in Game 5 in addition to his six assists and five rebounds. Harden has had himself the occasional one-of-10 shooting night in his first two seasons but becoming a consistent player is part of the rookie learning curve and the poise he showed against the Mavs leads me to believe he is more than ready for a starting job. Harden can distribute, get to the rim (and the line) and rebound. Sefolosha is a superior defender, but it is clear at this point that Sefolosha’s defensive skills don’t make up for what he lacks on the other end.

Embracing the idea that positions in basketball are no more is something the media has done over the past year or so. In order for Brooks to keep his job and in order for the Thunder to take the next step towards a title, they will also have to embrace the idea that there is no such thing as a point guard in the league anymore. Just because Westbrook is 6-3 and James Harden is 6-5 doesn’t mean Westbrook has to be the point guard and Harden is the shooting guard. It’s not a slight to Westbrook to say that Harden is the better creator – some players are born with passing instincts like Harden while others are born with a relentless desire to attack the rim like Westbrook.

If the Thunder want to make it further than the Western Conference Finals next season, they don’t need to make any major roster changes by trading one of their core players, Scott Brooks simply has to reassess the way he uses his players. If Brooks can adapt to a world without positions and put a lineup of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins on the floor to start games and a lineup of Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant and one big man (unless they’re playing the Lakers) on the floor during crunchtime, I think the Thunder will be set next season.

But if Brooks doesn’t make that adjustment and continues to rely on Westbrook to create for others, it may cost the Thunder another season of basketball and Brooks his head coaching job.

Kevin Durant Is Going To Amaze This Year

in Archives by
durant1

For weeks and weeks, I have been watching Kobe Bryant mix videos on YouTube that were made with Kanye West’s “Amazing” playing in the background. I soaked it up as if he was the only player on the planet that would be as fun to watch despite playing the most fundamentally sound basketball that anyone has ever seen.

However, after spending some time with and watching Kevin Durant, I have realized that there might be a new guy on the block that has just as much talent as Kobe already (he’s in just his third year in the league), is fun to watch, has the desire and passion to be the best, and has a ceiling that could extend to a player that we have never seen before.

Not Kobe. Not Michael. Even Better.

Durant was in Las Vegas for the 2009 USA Basketball Showcase, a three-day program designed for the Team USA coaching staff to see the talent they would be dealing with over the course of the 2010 World Championships and 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Entering the three day mini-camp, Kevin was the favorite for earning a spot on the Redeemed Team. He had already been close to making the 2008 Team, so a couple of solid practices would ink his name onto the roster.

Durant had been in Vegas for a week or so before the mini-camp, watching and rooting for the Oklahoma City Thunder Summer League Team while getting to know some of his soon-to-be teammates. It must have fun for Duarnt to sit and watch a team of Summer Leaguers play for a roster spot at the ages of 21 and 22, while he sat and watched as a 20-year old NBA superstar.

At 20, his time in  Vegas consisted of basketball, more basketball, some UStream from his hotel room at the Wynn, and then more basketball.

On the first day of practice for Team USA, Durant entered a high school gym with a pair of headphones, flip-flops and a gym bag hanging on his shoulder. He quickly changed shoes, put his cell phone away and hit the court before anyone else finished chatting it up.

The media (me!) was allowed to approach the players for a 15-minute time frame before the actual practice began. Since Durant was already shooting around, I figured I’d catch him coming back to the bleachers. After talking to Derrick Rose, David Lee, Greg Oden, O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay and others, I had some interesting conversations. But they were nothing compared to the four minutes I used to speak with Durant.

I walked up to him as he was shooting three’s from out of bounds and started the conversation with an icebreaker. I asked him how he felt graduating from Texas (Well, basketball wise anyways. We all know that none of the degrees from UT can actually be acknowledged by the general public.) and playing in Sooner territory.

“It’s fun,” he said with a chuckle. “The fans there are great.”

After asking him about adding James Harden in the draft, which he said helped make the roster complete and added a defensive presence on the wing that lightens the load on him when they play someone by the name of Bryant, my final question to him went something like this: “Most people think the Thunder are a team of the future. Do you think that you guys can surprise by winning this upcoming season?”

Durant smiled again and said, “We can definitely win this season. We’re hungry for it. I’m hungry.”

***

When Durant says “We’re,” he is referring to his team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Looking at this group of guys, whose core consists of Durant. Russell Westbrook (age 20), and Jeff Green (age 23), you can see what the foundation of a championship franchise looks like in it’s early stages. Drafting Durant back in 2007, Thunder GM Sam Presti decided to build around Durant instead of inserting him into a situation where the talent around him was going to be in the mid-30’s by the time Durant could legally pick up an alcoholic beverage, which is the mistake the Cleveland Cavaliers made with LeBron James and have yet to realize their mistake to this day,  signing 34-year Anthony Parker and a 37-year old Shaq who has more tread on his tires than Britney Spears to deals this off-season.

Instead, Presti put young players with a whole lot of potential around Durant for him to grow old with. So now, when Durant hits 27 and is in his physical peak, his teammates will also be in the prime of their careers.

Durant’s relationship with Westbrook and Green is another reason that we could see something very special out of this kid. All three guys were attended the Showcase in Vegas and all three of them were pushing themselves through every drill. Last season we saw Kobe Bryant and the Lakers win a championship playing primarily with focus and tenacity. Durant and the Thunder may open up a whole new type of winning style by doing so while having fun and playing as hard as then can.

KD seems like a kid when he is on and off the court. And heck, he is still just a kid.

***

Despite questions about his strength during his pre-draft workouts, Durant has the perfect body for the small forward position in basketball. He’s 6-foot-10, has a perfect shot, and can jump as high as anybody in the NBA.

He has developed an effortless stroke from beyond the arc to compensate for his lanky frame and lack of a physical post-game. Durant’s long arms will also allow him to become a premier perimeter defender in the league, so long as he improves his defensive knowledge first.

As far as numbers go, last season, Durant averaged 25.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 steals a game. He shot 48% from the field, 42% from beyond the arc and 86% from the charity stripe. Although I’ve said it several times in this article before, I feel it needs to be said again:

He’s just 20 years old.

Durant’s national coming out party occurred twice during NBA All-Star Weekend last year. The way that he took over the H-O-R-S-E contest (heroically coming back by beating Joe Johnson who had no letters while he himself had four letters) and dominated the Rookie-Sophomore game with a record setting 46 point performance.

(Even then Durant was big on team. His quote after that game: “I had a blast,” Durant said. “I’m just happy I’m here and I’m glad I won MVP … to have Jeff [Green] and Russell [Westbrook] there to watch me hoist the trophy felt great. It shines a lot of light on the organization.”)

InFebruary of last season, Durant went of on a tear that should have ripped through the headlines. In 10 games, Durant averaged 33.1 points per game, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists. His percentages were deadly too, as he shot a 54% clip from the field, 51% from deep, and 87% from the free throw line.

The standard shooter’s formula, which is basically adding all of those figures together, denotes a player that totals 180 as “great.” Durant’s shooting number was slotted at 192 for that month and his total for the season was 176.

This is Durant without even filing out physically or learning all the little intricacies of the game that make the great ones legendary.

Durant’s impressions on me at the mini-camp allow me to imagine a player in the coming years who will put up numbers we thought were impossible. Projecting logical player progression combined with Durant’s physical skills make this line possible: 35 points a game, 58% from the field, 45% from three, and 90% from the line.

Mind you, this is what I think he will do in the next two seasons at the ages of 21 and 22, so you can only imagine what he could be doing at age 27. I know those expectations are steep, but I would be shocked if he averaged anything less this season.

***

Watching Kevin Durant for the next few years is truly going to be one of the best treats that the NBA can give us.

Unfortunately, the NBA really wet the bed with their national TV schedule this season, with the Thunder playing no times on standard TV (ABC), once on cable (ESPN) and twice on extended cable (NBA TV). Their one game on ESPN isn’t a huge match-up either, it’s against the Mavericks.

I can’t believe that TNT or ESPN didn’t pick up one of the four match-ups between Kevin Durant and Kobe, which occur on normal NBA broadcast days of Sunday, Tuesday and Friday.

But really folks, if you ever needed a reason to purchase NBA League Pass, Durant may be it. This kid is something special and it’s going to be a pleasure watching him play 82 games this season.

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