The Kevin Durant sweepstakes heats up

Amidst reports that the Spurs are interested in picking up Kevin Durant, the Thunder are about to play the most important game three of their existence. Durant did a good job of killing any questions about his possible Free Agency destinations all season, but with every loss to the Spurs it’s getting tougher to avoid the possibility of KD  playing for a different city in a couple of months.

The smart move for Durant financially would be to wait stay with the Thunder for one more year, and then test his options in the free agency when the cap explodes and he could stand to make up to $40 million more than if he signed a max somewhere next year. There is obviously no shortage of teams that would be willing to shake up their rosters in order to afford the most lethal shooter in basketball. Durant’s height and skills allow him to get a shot up anytime he wants, and his ability to play almost every position in a small ball lineup makes him a once in a lifetime kind of free agent.

So what are the likely destinations for the slim reaper? I don’t buy that Durant will want to go back to his hometown. The Wizards are not a championship contender with Kevin Durant, not as long as LeBron is still playing at high level. As much as I would love to see Durant play with the Celtics young and hungry core, I’m not sure if he wants to be THE GUY in the clubhouse night-after-night.

A sign-and-trade with the Clippers for Blake Griffin makes some amount of sense, but are the Thunder interested in taking on Blake Griffin? How would a team with Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin work? The Thunder are going to be such a bad shooting team if Durant leaves, they struggle to find guys who can hit shots with Kevin on the team. Of course having to figure out how to install an All NBA caliber player into your lineup is a million times better than losing KD without any compensation. If the Thunder get any sense that Durant is leaving for sure, they will do anything in their power to try to figure out a sign and trade. Remember, Russell Westbrook will be hitting free agency in 2017, and rumors of him flying the coup have been swirling for what seems like years at this point.

The two clear favorites in the Durant sweepstakes are the Warriors and Spurs. Both teams have shown interest in adding him to their rosters, and while it would take some work to make the cap numbers work, both have capable front offices that could pull it off. The question both teams have to ask is how much are they willing to lose off of their championship caliber rosters to get Durant’s services.

For the Warriors it would mean losing the likes of Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli. Ezeli showed in game two of the Warriors/Trail Blazers series just how dominant he can be when surrounded by good shooters and capable passers. Harrison Barnes is a guy who wants a max contract but has not shown that he can be a go-to guy over the course of an entire game. That has a lot to do with the team he plays on, but even when Thompson and Curry are not on the floor Barnes has not shown the ability to be the best player on the court. His three point shooting and basketball IQ are extremely valuable assets to a team like the Warriors, but if losing Barnes means getting Durant I think Golden State says goodbye to Harrison.

We saw this last off season that the Spurs are more than willing to get rid of core players if it means picking up a star. The math is a little trickier if they want to pick up Durant next year, assuming the cap shots up to around $90 million. I could see them moving Danny Green and/or Patty Mills to free up some more cap room, as much as those two guys give to San Antonio, their skill sets are replaceable. What’s not replaceable is having a team that features the best all around player in the game (Leonard) the best all around big man in the game (Aldridge) and possibly the best all around scorer in the game.

The idea of Kevin Durant playing with this current Spurs roster is bone chilling. My gut is telling me that Durant wants to play for franchise that is set up for success from the top down. I think he is fed up with playing for a team that can’t surround himself and Russell Westbrook with enough talent to get to the Finals. When the Thunder decided to trade James Harden to the Rockets for a couple of draft picks and Kevin Martin, it felt like they were being cheap. When Harden became an MVP caliber player in the ensuing years it felt like OKC’s front office was just incompetent. This summer when they got rid of Scott Brooks and brought in Billy Donovan I started to think it was the end of the Durant era in Oklahoma City.

There’s no doubt that Durant and Westbrook will fight like hell to get back to the NBA Finals this year, but barring a complete meltdown from the Spurs and Steph Curry missing the Western Conference Finals with his bad knee, I’m guessing we have reached the twilight of Durant’s days in OKC. Even if he does stick around for one more year it would be a financial decision, not a personal one. Unless a lot of flukey events transpire in the next couple of weeks, the Westbrook/Durant era will go down as one of the biggest what-ifs in the history of the NBA.

Advertisements

The Dion Waiters shove that broke the internet

If you fell asleep before the end of the Oklahoma City 98-97 thriller over the San Antonio Spurs, you missed one of the greatest moments in modern NBA history. The Spurs started the game shooting 1-13 from the field, fell behind early and scrambled back into the game late. LeMarcus Aldridge played one of the best games of his career, dominating Serge Ibaka in the post on his way to 41 points, 10-10 from the free-throw line and 15-21 from the field.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both got back on track in game two, Durant finished with 28 points on 11-19 shooting and Westbrook finished with 29 points, 10 assists and 7 rebounds. Steven Adams had a solid game down low, scoring 12 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. Yet the rest of the Thunder looked legitimately terrified when they were called upon to make plays. There was a possession in which rookie point guard, Cameron Payne nearly went into the fetal position when Kawhi Leonard put him in straight jacket 35 feet from the basket.

Somehow the Thunder held a five point lead with 30 seconds left. That’s when things started to get crazy. The first play that made the game interesting, was this mind boggling behind the back pass from Tony Parker to a wide open LeMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge drains the three to make the score 96-94 with 25 seconds left.

Next we have Russell Westbrook getting intentionally fouled, and after Russ makes both of his free throws the the lead is back up to four, 98-94.

On the ensuing possession, the Spurs go back to Aldridge – a guy who shot 0-16 from three during the regular season, and had made his first three pointer of the postseason in the prior possession – for the game saving shot. Aldridge pump fakes from beyond the arch as the shot clock is ticking down, and Serge Ibaka goes for it like a moth to the flame. Aldridge leans into the airborne Ibaka, drawing the foul, and goes to the free throw line for three shots. This play just highlighted how much Aldridge owned Ibaka in this game. He knew that Ibaka was going to go for the fake.

Aldridge makes all three free throws, bringing the score to 98-7. Oklahoma City calls a 20 second time out, and we are all set up for the craziest 13 seconds in of professional basketball in recent memory.

The first thing to take note of on this play is that Billy Donovan elects to have Dion Waiters be the inbound passer on a game deciding play. Donovan was horrible in his lineup decisions tonight, but there may be no more unforgivable decision than having Dion Waiters throw the ball in.

Let’s see the final possession play out in its entirety before we start dissecting.

On first blush it looks like Waiters throws a bad imbounds pass, which gets intercepted by Green, leading to a missed shot by Parker, a follow-up missed shot by Aldridge – who may or may not have been fouled – and a final scrum for the ball as the clock runs out.

What an ending right?

But wait, there’s more! After the clock has ran out Chris Webber immediately calls out Waiters for pushing off on Ginobli before the inbounds pass. Let’s check that out!

Whoa! Hey ref, you are standing three feet away, how do you not call that! There is very clearly a shove from Waiters, which is needless to say an offensive foul. The internet was in an outrage from the second the no-call was exposed. Vines sprung up like so many weeds in an untended garden. My twitter feed was painted with the frowny faces of a thousand emojis. Such injustice, what a disgrace to the game!

But then, just the self righteousness reached peak levels, this screen shot showed up on my feed.

Wait? Is that Ginobli’s foot on the line before the inbounds pass is thrown? Yes, yes it is. That changes everything, because as we all know, in accordance with the Official NBA Rule Book as stated in Page 39, Rule No. 12, Section II, #5

“EXCEPTION (5): In the last two minutes of the fourth period and last two minutes of any overtime period, a technical foul will be assessed if the defender crosses or breaks the plane of the boundary line when an offensive player is in a position to inbound and prior to the ball being released on a throw-in.

Ouch. So if the referee was actually paying any attention to what was happening three feet in front of his face he would have noticed Ginobli’s foot was over the inbounds line. The Spurs would have been issued a technical foul, and this whole mess would not have happened. This new evidence was championed by the smug, cool headed rationalist among the NBA Twitter elite, but it’s not as fun as becoming irate over Waiter’s shove. I mean, just look at that shove! How does anyone get away with a shove like that!

(Coughs, Jordan. Coughs, game six)

So there you have it, a game that ended on a crazy two-way no call. Surely nothing else could make that play any more nuts…

Just kidding!

What if I told you a fan literally reached out and grabbed one of the players as they were trying to get up and make a play at the end of regulation? Would you believe it? Because it totally happened!

 

So it goes…

The game ended, and the referees grabbed their shit and got out of dodge as soon as they could, but not before Coach Popavich could get some – and I’m just making assumptions here – unpleasant remarks in.

What we have in the fallout of all the craziness is a series that is now tied at one game apiece, heading back to OKC on Friday.  The Spurs spent a hell of a lot of energy climbing themselves out of the early hole they dug in game two, and wasted what was an absolute classic performance out of LeMarcus Aldridge. If the Thunder find it within themselves to pull of an upset in this series, both teams will look back at the closing moments in this game and wonder what could have been.

The NBA is the perfect sport for the modern internet, where highlights get packaged into bite size bits of digital bliss. Tonight Dion Waiters provided everyone who follows the NBA online with a hearty feast, and for that I salute him.

Round Two – Fight!

Round Two Fight!

The slow, unstoppable march of progress drags us to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. The weaker teams are left dead along the road side. Among the dead are the teams that were held back by injuries, age, inexperience – or in the case of the Rocket’s – a real hatred, the likes of which I’ve only seen in Shaq and Kobe’s last year together on the Lakers.

Now we are down to eight teams: the Warriors, Trail Blazers, Thunder and Spurs in the Western Conference and Cavaliers, Hawks, Heat and Raptors in the East. There have already been a couple of games played in the Western Conference Quarter Finals. The Spurs and Warriors both easily won there games, leaving the world wondering which powerhouse looked more impressive. Let’s take a look at these Western Conference heavyweights.

The Spurs’ 124-94 victory on Saturday night was one of the more impressive playoff beat downs in the history of the game. If there ever was going to be a passing of the torch from the Spurs big three to the new blood of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, this was it. San Antonio’s young stars combined for 63 points on 28-36 shooting.

The evolution of Leonard continues to be one of the biggest stories in the NBA. In game one he was able to hold Russell Westbrook to 5-19 shooting, while also scoring 25, grabbing five rebounds and dishing out five assists. Most players would not be able to score more than 15 points while guarding one of the leagues most aggressive guards, but Kawhi makes playing great defense look easy. This guy has already won a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year Award, he is the centerpiece of the most successful franchise of the past ten years, and by the way, he’s only 24 years old.

The Spurs played beautiful basketball Saturday night. They ran the pick-and-roll to perfection, often bring out the Thunder’s shot blockers and exploiting the lack of defense at the rim. They were also able to utilize LeMarcus Aldridge better than I thought was possible. Aldridge was unstoppable both in the post against Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka and coming off of picks in the high post. Playing in a system in which the players are looking to pass coming off of picks, Aldridge is the kind of versatile weapon that makes the Spurs unstoppable when he is playing well.

There are no easy answers for the Thunder going into tonight’s game. They absolutely need Durant and Westbrook to play better, but it’s up to Billy Donovan to find better shots for his two superstars, and Donovan has not shown himself to be very good at making game-to-game adjustments. They got by last round by Durant making tough shots, but the Spurs are not a team that you can just brute force your way through.

The other problem Oklahoma City will have to figure out is how to get Enes Kanter enough minutes to get his points without being a total disaster on defense. Nothing excites Greg Popavich more than having an easily exploitable big man on the court. Having Kanter have to play the pick and roll against the likes of Aldridge or Diaw is like throwing a chum out to the sharks.

I don’t see this series ending in a sweep, and there will probably not be another 30 point blowout in this series, but the flaws that San Antonio exposed on Saturday Night are fatal for Oklahoma City, and there is no throwing a bandaid on them. It’s going to take legendary performances out of Durant and Westrbook for the Thunder to win this series. If this is the last time we see the most dynamic duo in the NBA play together, let’s hope they go out fighting.
While the Spurs performance in game one was utter domination, the Warriors showed in their 118-106 over the Trail Blazers that they are only getting better. In the context of a team that won 73 games in the regulars season, that has to terrify the rest of the NBA.

We still don’t have a solid timeline as to when Steph Curry will return to play. In his interview during the game Curry seemed optimistic that he would at least be a game-time decision for Saturday’s game three.

We are starting to see Draymond Green become the ultimate point-forward, being able to set up the offense and get his teammates the ball where they are most lethal. Green had another triple double in game one, scoring 23 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 11 assists. With Draymond taking more of play making role in the Warriors offense, Steph Curry will be able to get more open looks coming off of screens and off of weak side action. This is going to be a huge theme if/when Curry gets matched up with the likes of Kawhi Leaonard next round.

Green also continues to be the master key that allows Golden State to play any style of basketball they see fit. Draymond is so adept at switching onto smaller players in the pick-and-roll that it can completely gum up an opposing teams offense. There was a possession yesterday in which Green switched on to Lillard off a pick and roll, stayed step for step with his man on the drive, then switches back onto the man he was originally defending to contest his shot. This all happens in flow of the game so seamlessly that you have to watch it multiple times to truly appreciate what Green is doing.

Green has mentioned his true joy as a defender is locking down bigger players in the post. He completely destroyed Mason Plumlee yesterday, holding the Trail Blazers big man to one point on 0-7 shooting. This play is pretty good representation of how Green treated Plumlee all game.

You can’t talk about the Warriors win in game one without mentioning how brilliance of Klay Thompson. Much like Kawhi Leonard, Thompson is asked to both defend the opposing teams best perimeter player as well as be the engine that drives his team’s offense. Of all the players who have benefited from Curry’s absence I think Thompson has improved the most. We all know that Klay is a dangerous spot-up shooter, but in game one the lone splash brother was making shots off the dribble both from range and at the rim. he finished the game with 37 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and from deep. He drained seven three pointers, many of which were contested and a few were shot from ranges that would even make Curry blush.

The defending champs are playing incredible basketball right now without their best player. The defense that has been come-and-go in the regular season has turned up a notch in these first playoff games. The Trail Blazers will not win a game this series if they can not free up Dame and CJ who were a combined 13-43 from the field in game one. The Warriors are not good enough to win a title without Stephen Curry, but they will be a better team because of this stretch of games without the MVP. The only real flaw I see with this team is what happens when they have to play guys like Ian Clark and Brandon Rush for extended minutes, but that problem solves itself if-and-when Curry gets back on the court.


I want to leave everyone with a lasting image of Paul George, who was the best player of the first round. His team may not yet ready to be a true contender but PG is absolutely talented enough to be the best player on a championship squad. Here is George throwing down a 360 dunk in the midst of the Pacers 101-83 loss to the Raptors. It was an audacious dunk, and while some will probably argue that it was disrespectful, I loved it. George thanked the fans of Toronto on Twitter after the game for being awesome. He is a stand-up guy. But sometimes you have to let the people know that you are not to be trifled with. I tip my hat to you Paul George, you have earned all of my respect this postseason.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking more about the Cleveland Cavaliers and their seemingly inevitable run to the NBA Finals. Tonight Cleveland plays Atlanta at home in game one of their series and the Spurs look to go up 2-0 on Oklahoma City. Enjoy the games everybody!

The Spurs and Cavs just played some great basketball

i.jpg
photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Last night the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers played a meaningful game in early January, with the Spurs pulling out hard earned 99-95 win.

The NBA Regular Season is long… probably too long, and it’s rare that one gets to see teams, especially veteran contenders like these two, come at each other with playoff level intensity in early January.

The Cavaliers are heavy favorites to win the Eastern Conference this year. They were coming into this game on an eight game winning streak, on the heels of a great overtime win against the Mavericks on Tuesday night. They’ve been on the road for the past couple of weeks and have a huge game coming up next Monday against Golden State. You could forgive Cleveland for playing a little sluggish in this one, and yet LeBron and company came out of the gates swinging. James made a point to get to the basket early and often, scoring from close and setting up good looks for Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. The Cavs took an early lead and never trailed in the first half.

San Antonio grabbed an early second half lead by turning up the heat on defense and mercilessly attacking the paint. Tony Parker was the head of the spear, playing as well as I’ve seen from him in years. He finished the game with 24 points on 11-18 shooting, and was a magician in the paint. Parker is having one hell of a season. He’s coming off a 31 point game on Tuesday and is shooting at 53 percent for the season, a season in which most basketball minds thought he was going to fall off dramatically.

The Spurs got a ton of mileage by picking on Kevin Love in the second half. Tim Duncan hit a couple of huge shots down the stretch with Love trying to man him up one-on-one. It’s no secret that Love is a huge minus on the defensive end for the Cavs, a minus that can be hid against most teams, but when playing a team with as many talented bigs as the Spurs, it’s a mismatch that is going to be exploited time-and-time again.

The biggest boost to the Spurs in the second half came from Kawhi Leonard. After a poor shooting first half he finished the night with 20 points, 10 rebounds a slew of disruptive plays on defense Then there was this dunk late in the fourth quarter that was – well – see for yourself:

 

Leonard is the player that makes the Spurs newfound, defense first philosophy work. No loose ball is safe when he is within 10 feet of it. Coach Popovich has the luxury of throwing him at the likes of Stephen Curry and LeBron James knowing that he can hold is own without the need for double teams. Chuck said that Kawhi is the best player in the league right now, and while I think Curry and LeBron are still better, more polished players, it’s hard to argue that Leonard is not at very least the most disruptive player in the game.

The Spurs have now won 10 straight, and sit just 2.5 games behind Golden State. They have the best point differential in NBA history at the moment and against the Cavs they showed that they can put the clamps on one of the league’s best offenses. This was the biggest game of the regular season so far, and the Spurs played like a team hell bent on winning one more title.

Some Notes:

  • Has anyone else noticed that 90 percent of Matthew Dellavedova is driving down the right side of the lane and throwing a lob to whichever big man Cleveland has closest to the basket? Sure he can also hit an open three or two, and play gritty – read, dirty – defense, but the fact that Delly plays so many minutes for a championship contender is astonishing to me. The only player who irks me more by his very presence on the court is Austin Rivers, but I can at least see the – flawed – reasoning for him getting so many minutes on a contender.
  • It’s always fascinating to watch how Pop works in some of his less experienced players into these big regular season games. Kyle Anderson and Jonathan SImmons both got some run tonight, and both ended up positive in net +/-. San Antonio is like a factory that produces nothing but players that can contribute to a winning team.
  • It was so nice to have a game like this to distract me from the parade of hatred and stupidity that was the GOP debate. Coming to the game late gave me a good reason to stay off Twitter, thus giving me a reprieve from all of the foolishness.
  • My reaction to seeing Jimmy Butler’s stat line in the Bulls 115-111 OT win over the 76ers:

 

Spurs Special Forces 3

This video has been making the rounds online today, and boy it it great. The premise is that Phil Jackson has held up Spurs Head Coach, Greg Popavich in a hotel room in order to sabotage San Antonio’s chances of signing free agent forward LeMarcus Aldridge. It’s up to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, who are actually part of an A-Team like force, hiding in plain site as the most boring team in the league, to save the day. Rest assured, hijinks ensue, and the Spurs take care of business in their usual Spursian way.

Big shout out to Matt Hill for putting this video together. It definitely won the internet today.

 

Golden State Gift Guide

Good afternoon! I hope that everyone is having a happy Serial Season 2 Release Day! It’s taken all of my willpower to keep from listening, but with the long hours of holiday driving right around the corner it is important to remember what the true purpose of Serial is – to keep loved ones sane after driving back from their umpteenth Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza/Festivus party.

Speaking of the Holidays, there are few presents I want under my tree more than watching an undefeated Warriors team put their streak on the line against the Cavs in Cleveland on Christmas day. Golden State, as you may have heard, is 23-0 as of this writing. This run is already the single greatest in the history of America’s big four professional sports, and is almost unfathomable for a team that is coming off a championship run.

The stats for this current Warriors streak speak for itself. Golden State is scoring a league high 115.8 points per game, with a point differential of +14.6. That’s a jaw dropping 3.4 points higher than the second place San Antonio Spurs. They also lead the league in three point percentage and assists per game. Their Net Rating of 16.3 is the highest I’ve ever seen. Which is all to say that there has never been a team quite like this year’s Warriors. To watch them play during this current streak is like watching a big cat play with its prey.

It seems like anytime a team is able to keep the game close going into the fourth quarter Golden State is able to unleash their version of the Kracken –  a small ball lineup that features Draymond Green at center, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes at forward, and the Splash Brothers.  This lineup has the best +/- in the league, and is currently shooting an otherworldly 63.6% from the field and (I had to double check this) 62.5% from three. The NBA has never seen a lineup as unguardable as this.

Then there’s the question of Stephen Curry, and what do we make of this season that he is having. When you watch a lot of basketball it’s easy to become jaded by everyday greatness. LeBron James has been the best basketball player on Earth for around a decade, and somehow his current stat line of 26/7/7 seems almost pedestrian, because we’ve seen him dominate for such a long time. It’s human nature to take things for granted. That’s why I feel like it’s important to keep reminding people that what Steph is doing this season deserves to be treated like the marvel it is.

Curry is averaging 32 points per game this year with a shooting line of 53/46/90. His current PER of 34.7 is on pace to demolish Michael Jordan’s current record of 27.91. His .700 True Shooting percentage is so far ahead of historical records it almost makes the stat seem obsolete. That’s what Steph is doing right now, he’s making the entire league look like a flip phone and he’s the iPhone 7. He’s having the kind of season that destroys comparison. Michael Jordan in his prime could never fathom shooting the way Curry does, or playing as efficiently. He wouldn’t know how even if he wanted to try. This may be my favorite thing about the current Curry era. It feels like the death nail in the “next Jordan” quest. When you talk to kids who love basketball, they no longer want to be like Mike, they want to dribble and shoot like Curry.

There are other teams around the league that are trying to emulate what the Warriors are currently doing, but you cannot emulate a style that relies on the skills of a Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. I find it really interesting that the Spurs, a team whose space and pace style of the last few years was a huge inspiration for the current Warriors juggernaut, have zigged where everyone seems to be zagging. San Antonio is currently leading the league in points against (88.7) as well as three point percentage allowed (.309).  They are averaging the fourth lowest possessions per game at 95.7, which is a far cry from the past couple of years. Coach Pop knows that you can’t beat the Warriors at their own game, and is quietly forming an immovable object to counter Golden State’s unstoppable force. I’m already salivating for a potential Western Conference Finals between these two teams.

Ankle sprains to both Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson will pose the biggest challenge to the Warriors streak for a league record 33 straight wins. Barnes is expected to miss the next couple of games, and Klay will be a gametime decision when Golden State goes into Boston on Friday to play an increasingly frisky Celtics squad. If the Warriors can get out of Boston with a win they their schedule sets up almost perfectly for a Christmas showdown with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in what will be one of the most hyped Christmas games in years.

Even if the Warriors streak ends on Friday in Boston, it does not lessen what is happening this year in the Bay Area. I don’t think there has ever been a team that has played the game so close to perfection when it comes to sheer aesthetic beauty and cold blooded efficiency. There is no statistic that can capture the excitement of Stephen Curry going NBA Jam for a quarter, or watching Draymond Green lead a fast break flanked by four deadly three point shooters. This is basketball of the highest order. Every game this team plays feels like a gift from the basketball Gods.