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On the NBA’s perpetually underpaid non-scorers

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It doesn’t take too much game-watching acumen to follow the ball as it goes through the hoop and praise the shooter who put it there, but there’s a certain concentration that’s required in following the game’s off-ball action. The gravitational pull of a basketball is undeniable; the most amazing things on the court happen in the immediate area surrounding that sphere, and the eyes of most every observer of the game trace its movements through crossovers, jumpers, and even more complex sleight-of-hand trickery.

Yet what goes on away from the ball, while not quite as amazing, is crucial for the implementation of actual basketball strategy. The best NBA defense are sophisticated machines, and the most fluid offenses require all kinds of movement and screening to create a single open shot. Each of these actions and skills are valuable in their creations; scorers are obviously required to win games, but having players capable of setting quick, effective screens, snatching up offensive rebounds, or slashing to the bucket to draw a defense’s attention are also incredibly valuable. The age of accessible internet video (and in particular, the incredible utility of services like Synergy Sports Technology) has made certain elements of the NBA game easier to appreciate and analyze than ever. We’re gradually moving away from a world that judges player worth in points per game in part because of all the information and footage that’s available on a wide scale, but it’s worth considering if the salary structure of the NBA will ever truly allow for skills that aren’t quantified in the traditional box score to be valued appropriately.

Obviously not every owner and general manager in the entire league puts the same weight on the same skills, but box score statistics remain the simplest way to determine a player’s direct impact on the floor. It makes sense that players who grab oodles of rebounds or dish out a ton of assists would be paid accordingly. But why not players who defend the pick and roll expertly or lock up the opponent’s best scorer? The smartest NBA clubs in the room keep track of all kinds of quantifiable skills that don’t show up in the public sphere — ranging from things like deflections to merely making a smart read on a play — so it’s not like we’re dealing with abstractions here. The numbers are at their fingertips, and yet non-scorers continue to grab reasonable salaries, but ones dwarfed by those capable of scoring 15 points per game.

The simple reason? The economics of the NBA dictate that some players have to get a short end of the stick, and though the collective logic of the league favors unconventional talent more than ever, the baseline perception still puts money in the hands of scorers. That means that non-box score contributions like defense, while essential, can be bought on the cheap while the Corey Maggettes of the world regularly rake in eight-figure salaries. The owners of the league are indeed speaking with their wallets; every team needs scorers, and that simple desire to put points on the board has led some scorers to pull more of their team’s resources than their contributions actually suggest they should. Yet under the shade provided by lofty salaries afforded to those scorers, the smartest NBA GMs and owners make a killing by exploiting the current market dynamic. Skills that show up indirectly in the box score or fail to at all are still essential for team success, and those with the means — be they statistical or merely observational — to most accurately assess those skills are usually the ones scooping up valuable contributors on the cheap.

The precedent has been set that scoring gets players paid, and reversing that trend is more complex than simply increasing awareness of the value of non-scoring contributions. This is true primarily because those best positioned to shell out money to deserving non-scoring players are encouraged to play the free agency game by its current rules. After all, why should the owners and managers who embrace a holistic understanding of the game pay any more than the market dictates they have to? So long as capable non-scorers remain underpaid, they’ll fill up less of a team’s cap space while largely being courted by only those in the know. There are real contributors in the league who simply produce in ways not accurately measured by the box score — and not encapsulated by trope tags like “championship experience.” By reinforcing the current NBA values, savvy execs are able to find said contributors in the bargain bin. Fair or not, the current system provides a notable advantage for those willing to dig in to the minutiae of the game, and one that would be surrendered if those same owners made an honest attempt to balance the pay scale for non-scoring skills.

The NBA market is stilted, but what empowered owner or manager would seek to establish equilibrium?

Report: Kevin Durant told Russell Westbrook he’d re-sign with the Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook #0 look on prior to game six of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant said he had to distance himself from Russell Westbrook entering free agency. Yet, Durant listened to the Warriors recruiting him all season and had clearly been interested in Golden State for months.

The writing was on the wall.

Except, a few days before taking meetings in the Hamptons (which led to signing with the Warriors), Durant dined with Westbrook.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Three weeks ago, Kevin Durant’s sitting there at dinner, telling him “Hey, I’m coming back, man. Don’t worry about it.” And now, Russell Westbrook has been kind of thrown into this in having to decide his future a summer earlier than expected.

Kevin Durant, more so than even that, was telling people, “Hey, yeah, I mean I’m coming back.” Like I said in there, a week before Kevin Durant sat down in the Hamptons, he was in Oklahoma City ready to make an offer on a multi-million-dollar house. So, the guy was pretty serious about coming back, and then things turned rather quickly for him to leave. And there’s no doubt that the organization felt a little bit burned by this.

Maybe Durant said that. Maybe he meant it in the moment. Maybe he was just trying to appease someone he didn’t want to let down. Maybe he was unclear. Maybe Westbrook read too much into a more clear statement.

There’s a lot of room for imperfect recollection/interpretation. We’re dealing with human beings.

Likewise on the house. Who says Durant was “ready” to make an offer? That’s an awfully difficult assessment to make outside his head. Just as the Celtics had a list of players Durant wanted them to add, it seems he was preparing for all contingencies. It’s hard to nail down rather he was house hunting because he was certain he wanted to stay in Oklahoma City or whether he just wanted a new place if he stayed in Oklahoma City.

So much of what we know about Durant’s process for picking the Warriors suggests a rational decision. He considered them for months, met with multiple teams, conferred with his inner circle then made a choice.

If Durant told Westbrook or anyone else he’d re-sign with the Thunder, that obviously changes the equation. But I’m left wondering:

How many people in Oklahoma City heard what they wanted to hear rather than what Durant actually said?

How many people are incentivized to paint Durant as impulsive, because the alternative — Durant thoughtfully deciding the Thunder weren’t his best option — indicates deeper flaws in the franchise?

Watch Carmelo Anthony put up 16 points in third quarter on China

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Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and DeMarcus Cousins are pretty much locked in as four of the Team USA starters come the Olympics. But who gets that fifth slot, the one for a wing player? Paul George? Jimmy Butler?

Don’t be shocked if Carmelo Anthony gets that slot.

He helped make his case Tuesday, scoring 16 in the third quarter alone on China in an easy Team USA victory in a pre-Olympics exhibition. Mike Krzyzewski likes to reward veterans, and ‘Melo is one of the old guy leaders of this team who has collected two gold medals already. Don’t be surprised if ‘Melo is a starter in Rio (Draymond Green started Tuesday, but only because the game was at Oracle Arena and Coach K likes to give guys a bigger role in front of the local crowds where they play).

DeMar DeRozan just missed spectacular in-game 360 poster dunk (VIDEO)

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Can a missed dunk attempt be brilliant?

DeMar DeRozan says yes.

The Toronto Raptors guard almost pulled off an in-game 360-dunk over a defender during the USA’s latest rout of China in an Olympics tune-up game. How impressive was the dunk? Ask LeBron James.

Kevin Durant shines in first game at new home Oracle Arena, USA routs China again 107-57

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Cheered all night long by his basketball-crazed new fan base, Kevin Durant knocked down a 3-pointer on the Americans’ first touch and slammed home a dunk the very next time down the floor.

Then, another pretty one-handed jam just a few minutes after that.

What a performance for Golden State’s latest big star to help lead the U.S. Olympic team past China 107-57 on Tuesday night for a third dominant victory in as many exhibition games.

Durant, who finalized his two-year contract with the Warriors on July 8, scored all 13 of his points during a 13 1/2-minute span of the first half while playing his first game at his new home, Oracle Arena.

He was the first American player back on the floor after halftime to get in some more shots, all while Warriors general manager Bob Myers stood close by along the sideline.

Booed in Los Angeles a couple days back, Durant received a far more friendly reception in the Bay Area he will now call home. He emerged for pregame warmups to huge roars. He departed the court before the game to a swarm of autograph hounds hanging over the railings in the tunnel – and kindly obliged. One person held a sign that read, “KD is not a Villain.”

Durant received a rousing standing ovation when introduced along with Warriors All-Stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

Also cheered was former Golden State forward Harrison Barnes, part of this past season’s runner-up team that squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers to miss out on a repeat title.

The sellout crowd went nuts again when Durant checked back into the game at the 2:32 mark of the third quarter.

Mike Krzyzewski’s latest star-studded roster sure looks untouchable just more than a week before the Rio Games begin.

Chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” greeted Durant in the building where Stephen Curry has won the past two NBA MVPs, becoming this first unanimous winner last season.

Curry – who opted out of playing for the Americans in their Rio Olympic run – had a courtside seat to watch with his wife, Ayesha.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist and former Warriors star Chris Mullin was in the house sitting next to Mitch Richmond.

Warriors assistant coach and former member of the Thunder staff Ron Adams was an early arrival to watch Durant’s warmup routine. At his introductory news conference, Durant joked, “Ron Adams was the only reason I came.”

Before joining Golden State, Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. He is ready to chase a championship with Curry and Co.

Green, joined on the court by Durant and Thompson, took the microphone before tipoff to thank the fans.

“We appreciate the support,” he said. “We look forward to going on to Rio and winning the gold.”

It will be the second straight Olympics the Americans have three teammates on the roster. Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook represented the U.S. four years ago at the London Games.

The next stop for Krzyzewski’s team will be in Chicago to face Venezuela on Friday night at United Center before wrapping up its pre-Olympic tour against Nigeria on Monday in Houston.

China, which lost to the Americans 106-57 on Sunday, and the U.S. also meet in their Olympic opener Aug. 6.

A moment of silence was held for former Warriors great Nate Thurmond, a Hall of Famer who died earlier this month at age 74 after a short bout with leukemia.