Durant’s versatility has nothing to do with position, just greatness

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This is not about positionality. It’s not about the transcendence of Kevin Durant’s athletic ability and basketball skill to cross-over to any spot on the floor. And it’s certainly not about the antiquated conditions of position that too often limit where and how we think of players and both their potential and liabilities.  It’s about the individual nature of Kevin Durant, and his progress. A progress that is both terrifyingly supplementary and drastically necessary.

I’ll explain.

You’ll remember earlier this week when the Daily Oklahoman reported on Kevin Durant being used at all five positions. All the talk was of how the young superstar is learning to play different slots on the floor. How he’s learning to orchestrate the offense as a point guard or work as a bigger power forward, a position he says he has to make up for with “heart. ” But the reality of the situation is this. Durant isn’t learning to be Chris Paul. He’s not working on emulating Tim Duncan. And he’s not stretching what it means to be a center. It’s the evolution of his specific game. It’s being Kevin Durant, only wearing different outfits. Or, as a better analogy, it’s a lot like when Mario would don the different suits in Super Mario Bros. 3. Just because he’s throwing hammers doesn’t make him a turtle. Mario is still Mario, and KD is still KD. He’s just doing different things as he continues his role as KD.  That’s partially out of respect to his talents, and partially because those talents simply can’t be transformed.

When we talk about players adapting to new positions, we usually mean they’re actually playing those roles. For example, when Dwyane Wade plays point guard, he’s actually setting up the offense, calling out plays, actually weaving through pick and rolls to find open shooters. Rashard Lewis moving to the three has entirely different meanings than what Durant is doing. When Amar’e Stoudemire slides down and plays the five, it’s because the Knicks need a role filled. That’s not what’s happening with Durant. With Durant, it’s the exploration of his potential as a small forward, or more accurately, as a player. It is, to be honest, a stunningly similar situation to what LeBron has evolved into.

Both LeBron and Durant play small forward, but they’re so much more than that. Because they’re so talented, they receive the ball in a myriad of ways. High post. Wing. Top of the key. Off the cut. Low-post. All of these positions are classically maintained by positions other than the one they occupy. And that’s the genius component. LeBron is able to post a small forward defending him as a power forward. Durant is able to take a small forward off the dribble as if he were a point guard. It doesn’t mean that Durant actually is a point guard, anymore than it means that Kevin Durant is a small forward at this point. He may need to be surrounded by two bigger players, and two smaller players, but that still doesn’t make him a small forward.

What Durant is, is a franchise player and a scoring behemoth. There’s just not a lot he can’t do with his skillset. He’s not the distributor that James is and he never will b.e But what he can do is do what he does (score) in any conceivable fashion. He just has to learn how. And that’s what this is about. Take Chauncey Billups, for example. Billups is a point guard who doesn’t weave through traffic with the greatest of ease, doesn’t whip behind the back passes or fancy alley-oops all that often. But he’s reliable in what he does, and in addition to his perimeter shooting, floor leadership, and system management, Billups can back that smaller guard into the post and bury him from the block. It’s an element that so few of his defenders have. Durant is extrapolating this to its furthest degree. Force the other team’s small forward into a helpless position, be it on the perimeter or in the paint, and you’ve just forced the defense to alter their lineup specifically to stop you. And once that’s happened, as long as your teammates are competent (which Durant’s are), you’ve won the battle.

The biggest element in all this is less about what position Durant is playing, but more about how he’s playing his own. Kobe Bryant took lessons from Hakeem Olajuwon to learn how to better play in the post. Many players look to Mark Price specifically to shoot better. Durant already shoots well. What he’s doing now is learning to do those things in different ways. Again, we’re brought back to what was a very formative experience for Durant, the Lakers series. Durant got the ball in the three positions he most often did during the season. Top of the key, perimeter wing, and extended-elbow face-up. And it was in those places that Artest managed to detonate his abilities. He was limited, because as good as he was, he was only good in three ways, essentially. This new work will enable him to adapt to his opponent. If Durant is “running point” it doesn’t mean that the opponent’s point guard will spend much time on him. If they do it’s because they’ve switched to a huge lineup, not simply because Durant is doing the dribbling. It’ll still mostly be players who can physically match him.

And those players won’t react well when taken off the dribble as LeBron James was last Friday. They won’t be able to adjust to his  post-play or work on the offensive glass. Durant isn’t becoming anything else with this evolutionary position shifting. He’s simply becoming the best thing he can be. It’s a complete approach to the game. And if you’re not scared of that, you live in Oklahoma City.

It reflects a work ethic to deliver the best of what Durant is, not become something else entirely. In this way, Durant is the very polar opposite of Anthony Randolph. Randolph is still lauded as having the potential to be anything, take on any role, yet in reality he’s so incomplete and scattered he’s almost nothing identifiable. He’s nondescript in his prolific near-versatility. Durant is the opposite. He’s able to be what he is in every way, playset, and situation. And most importantly it changes the answer to the question that helped the Lakers beat the Thunder in April. The question was how do you stop Kevin Durant? And with his skillset at that time, there were a series of deliberate mechanisms Artest and the Lakers’ defense employed to limit the things he was good at. But now Durant is learning to be more than those things, even as he remains what he is: the league’s most devastating scorer.

So now the question is: “How do you stop Kevin Durant?”

And terrifyingly, the answer is getting closer and closer to: “You can’t. “

Houston billionaire Dan Friedkin expresses interest in buying Rockets

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We’ve seen the flashy names – Beyonce and Hakeem Olajuwon – interested in buying the Rockets.

But what about someone who can actually afford a majority stake?

Mark Berman of Fox 26:

Houston billionaire Dan Friedkin, owner and CEO of Gulf States Toyota and the president and CEO of the Friedkin Group, acknowledged in a statement released to FOX 26 Sports that he is interested in buying the Houston Rockets franchise.

“I’ve expressed interest in exploring the purchase of the Houston Rockets,” Friedkin said in a statement released by his company.

Forbes pegs Friedkin’s net worth worth at $3.1 billion and the Rockets’ value $1.65 billion. So, while he might be able to buy the team outright, it’d likely be a stretch of his assets.

More likely, if Friedkin is serious about purchasing the team, he’ll do so as part of a group. Whether he’d spend enough to be the controlling owner is an open question.

Memphis coach David Fizdale calls confederate monuments in city “unacceptable”

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Confederate President Jefferson Davis has a statue in Memphis. So does Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man who went on to be one of the early members of — and reportedly the first grand wizard of — the Ku Klux Klan (he would later deny to Congress any involvement with the group). Both men lived in Memphis.

The Memphis City Council voted in 2015 to remove those statues — part of a growing trend nationally to remove Confederate monuments — but it was stopped because the statue is under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Historical Commission, which denied the request. The city is still fighting that legal battle.

The removal issue has been divisive is Memphis, but in the wake of violence in Charlottesville by white supremacists and Nazis — ostensibly about the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in that city, but really about much more than that — Grizzlies coach David Fizdale spoke out on the issue. He was interviewed as part of the MLK50: Justice through Journalism program, with the translation courtesy The Commercial Appeal‘s Geoff Calkins.

“Fifty years later (Martin Luther King Jr.) is speaking to us from the grave and telling us to stand up to this crap that we’re seeing, that’s festering in our country, that our president has seemed to deem OK and label as equal as people who are fighting for love and fighting hate and bigotry and all of those things. We’ve got to listen to Dr. King. There’s no way, with me being the head coach in the city of Memphis, that I will sit on the sidelines and disgrace his legacy, my grandfather’s legacy, and let somebody destroy something that we built in America that I think can be exemplary.”

“I can’t sit and watch this, not in a city where Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago, where we have, even today in our city a statue of a known Klansman, right here in the beautiful city of Memphis with all these incredibly wonderful people. It’s unacceptable. It will no longer stand. I think you’re seeing it all over America people are not standing for it anymore. It’s a black eye on our history.”

David Fizdale is not known for holding back his feelings — “take that for data!” — and he is spot on here on a far more important issue. Good on him for using his platform and voice to speak out.

These are statues dedicated to men who fought to uphold slavery as an institution, and as a nation that something we fought a war over. The north and the Union Army won the military campaign more than 150 years ago, but we are still fighting the Civil War in this nation in terms of ideals. Fizdale understands that. Removal of those statues is a step in the right direction, away from glorifying an ugly past built on the notion that one man was not equal to another, that one man could own another.

Don’t expect Fizdale to be quiet on this issue. Nor should he be.

US men’s basketball enters a new world – without its stars

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The jerseys say USA, though that’s about all that will be recognizable.

When the U.S. men’s basketball team returns to action later this month, fans might be left wondering, “the red, white and who?”

The Americans are cautiously entering a whole new basketball world, one in which not only are the best U.S. players not available, but neither are any in the NBA. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and the stars might show up in a few years for the Basketball World Cup and Olympics, but only if a group of minor leaguers can get them there.

It’s all part of FIBA’s new qualifying format and the road starts at the AmeriCup 2017. It’s a tournament the Americans don’t need to win – and aren’t sure they can – but one they have to play to make themselves eligible for the events that will matter.

“It’s going to be really interesting,” USA Basketball men’s national team director Sean Ford said. “We don’t know. We’re flying blind a little bit.”

Even the Americans’ best-known commodity is a bit of an unknown now.

Jeff Van Gundy coached in the NBA Finals and is analyst for them every year on ABC, but he’s leading the U.S. team as an international basketball rookie. He is busy brushing up on the nuances of a game that can be played and officiated completely differently than in the U.S.

He begins Thursday in Houston for training camp, where he will seek the 12 players who will travel to Uruguay and possibly Argentina for the AmeriCup and the potentially better-prepared opponents who wait.

“What we have to do is match and exceed their passion, how hard we play, how together we are as a group,” Van Gundy said, “because when the U.S. has not succeeded in international competitions, it’s because there wasn’t as much maybe sacrifice as you need, or maybe you were deficient in one skill that was important.”

It’s the Americans’ first appearance in the former FIBA Americas tournament since 2007. Their starting lineup in that romp to gold – James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Jason Kidd and Dwight Howard – was one of the strongest the U.S. has ever assembled.

The 17 players in camp with Van Gundy include Kendall Marshall, Reggie Williams, Darius Morris and Marshall Plumlee, players good enough to play in the NBA but not stick.

The Americans haven’t needed to play in their zone championship since because they’ve won every Olympic and world title, exempting them from qualifying. But FIBA has revamped its qualification system to look more like soccer’s, where national teams will play home-and-away games against teams in their pool.

But some of the windows are during the NBA season – the opening games are scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend – and players under NBA contract won’t be permitted to play. So the Americans plan to primarily use players from the NBA G League, with perhaps some who have been playing overseas.

“Look, no one’s going to feel sorry for us. But we know that this is different and we’re going to have to figure out how to be successful in a different model,” Ford said. “There’s always unknowns, but there’s probably more unknowns because No. 1, we don’t know how good we need to be. We don’t know how good we can be.”

Ford considers the prospective players a notch below the NBA, calling them “survivors, grinders, competitors.” That’s far from the level that suited up for Mike Krzyzewski for a decade or would play for Gregg Popovich in 2019 and 2020, but Van Gundy is eager to work with them in his first coaching assignment – not counting his daughter’s youth league – since he was fired by the Rockets in 2007.

“There’s very few LeBron James of the world – obviously one – or great players who have it easy. These guys’ careers have not been easy and so I really admire their persistence, their grit and their determination,” Van Gundy said. “To get to work with them and coach them, that was part of the pull for me.”

With limited time and options, the Americans know the AmeriCup could be a challenge. Ford said they hope to reach the semifinals in Argentina and see what happens from there.

They will need to start winning come November, when they open their first-round pool that includes Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba.

The U.S. has to finish in the top three there, playing their other windows of games in February and June-July, to advance to another pool that will include three teams among Argentina, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay, from Sept. 2018 to Feb. 2019.

Another top-three finish then would clinch their spot in China in 2019.

They will have a deeper field of candidates later who will be in shape from playing with their G League teams. But, they also could lose a player they like if he plays well enough for them in August to get a contract in the NBA or overseas.

There are many uncertainties, though Ford said there is one constant.

“From a USA Basketball standpoint,” he said, “if we’re going to put a team together, we’re going to try to put the best team together that we can and go out and try to win.”

Former Lakers forward Tommy Hawkins dies

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tommy Hawkins, the first black athlete to earn All-America honors in basketball at Notre Dame and who played for the Los Angeles Lakers during a 10-year NBA career, has died. He was 80.

Hawkins died Wednesday in Malibu, according to the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom he once worked as director of communications.

He graduated from Notre Dame in 1959. Hawkins was inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor and his 1,318 career rebounds remain the oldest record on the books in Fighting Irish basketball history.

Hawkins was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers in the first round of the 1959 NBA draft. He played for them as well as the Cincinnati Royals, and notched 6,672 career points and 4,607 rebounds.