The team on the cusp of contention with a full roster is typically a bad omen for some deep-reserve player or another; in their efforts to improve via trade or free agency, teams almost inevitably have to release players as a space-creating endeavor, getting nothing in return but the freedom to go about their transaction business.
Such is the case with the Portland Trail Blazers’ Armon Johnson, who from this moment on will be former Portland Trail Blazer Armon Johnson. In order to consummate the signing of free agent center Joel Przybilla, the Blazers will waive Johnson, who has played only five minutes this season and was only briefly a relevant member of Nate McMillan’s rotation last year.
The roster-clearing decision essentially came down to the release of Johnson or former No. 1 overall pick/walking NBA tragedy Greg Oden. The Blazers opted to keep Oden, but as noted by Jason Quick of The Oregonian, the decision was hardly made on the basis of hope or sentiment. Oden’s contract simply makes for better trade filler, and as the Blazers eye further improvement before the impending trade deadline, his $1.5 million deal could prove helpful in completing a transaction on financial terms. It’s horrifying what a run of bad luck and a seven-foot frame can do to a promising player and an entire franchise, but this is where Odom and the Blazers are at present: contemplating a pragmatic split in order to bolster emergency depth. The hopes for better days and careers resurrected has run its course, and if the possibility of Oden’s release alone doesn’t signal that Portland is ready to move on, I don’t know what possibly could.
As for Johnson, the 23-year-old guard sits in a curious position. According to Ben Golliver of Blazers Edge, a league source intimated that the Blazers shopped Johnson pretty aggressively at the D-League showcase, but received no interest whatsoever in their pursuit of a second-round pick in return. Considering Johnson’s minimal salary and relentless on-ball defense, one would think he would be able to latch on somewhere as a waiver candidate. Yet that reported lack of interest casts Johnson’s immediate NBA future very much into doubt; the league still has little patience for nominal point guards with minimal offensive skills, and Johnson’s inability to either score or create plays with any consistency could push him out of the league entirely for the time being.
The Kobe Bryant farewell tour has gone all around the NBA, but some stops are more emotional than others. His final trip to San Antonio certainly qualifies — the Spurs and Lakers have played each other in the playoffs eight times in his career, including twice in the Western Conference Finals (the Lakers won both times). The only player who has rivaled Bryant’s longevity is Tim Duncan, and the Lakers and Spurs were the two most dominant teams of the 2000s, winning nine of the 12 championships from 1999 to 2010 between them.
So, of course, the Spurs had an elaborate tribute video planned for Bryant. The video ran two and a half minutes and featured narration from Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Watch it below:
The Clippers are without Blake Griffin for the next few weeks as he recovers from a broken hand stemming from an altercation with an equipment manager. Now, the Clippers have lost backup point guard Austin Rivers to the exact same injury, albeit not in the same circumstances, obviously.
The loss of Rivers isn’t as devastating as the loss of Griffin, but given the Clippers’ lack of depth, it’s certainly not ideal. Now, Chris Paul‘s only backup is Pablo Prigioni.
For once, a marquee matchup involving the Golden State Warriors lived up to its billing. Their much-hyped meetings with the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were anticlimactic blowouts nearly free of drama. And for the first half on Saturday night’s 116-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it seemed like the defending champions were headed for another snoozer. They led by as much as 20, and completely outmatched the Thunder on both ends of the floor.
But the Thunder rallied behind a surprising defensive effort in the second half and some solid play from Enes Kanter. Plus, you know, Kevin Durant, who led all scorers with 40 points and gave the normally unflappable Draymond Green fits defensively. They tied the game at 104 before Golden State pulled away.
Despite the huge first-half lead, the Warriors weren’t their usual selves. Stephen Curry shot 1-for-8 from behind the three-point line, and triple-double machine Draymond Green scored just nine points. Golden State’s most consistent player was Harrison Barnes, who has probably read the speculation that the Warriors would have to dump him to land Durant this summer. He hit three three-pointers and shot 8-for-14 overall on the way to 19 points.
The Warriors’ bench carried them for stretches, outscoring Oklahoma City’s reserves 42-17.
Despite the Thunder’s late run, this was a statement win for the Warriors. They sent the message that, even when they aren’t in total control from start to finish, they can still pull away from other elite teams. The Thunder have given them the toughest challenge of any team they’ll likely have to face in the late rounds of the playoffs this spring, and it’s to their credit that they took the first-half punch and came back to make it a game. But the Warriors are on a different level from the rest of the league, and they showed that clearly on Saturday.
It goes without saying that with the Thunder and Warriors playing each other for the first time on Saturday night, Kevin Durant free-agency talk has been at an all-time high. The hot rumor this week is that the Warriors are the frontrunners to land Durant this summer, which would shake up the league like nothing since LeBron James going to Miami.
Obviously, all parties were going to be asked about it before the hotly anticipated game. And obviously, all parties were going to downplay it. That’s exactly what happened.
Here’s what Durant said, via the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Rusty Simmons:
“Once that time comes, I’ll make that decision. I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out, but right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day. I have to be at a high level to lead every day at practices, shootarounds and games, and that’s a tough task. I can’t focus on anything else, other than that.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr also downplayed the speculation:
“I don’t know why anybody would talk about anything but the fact that we’re 45-4 and have a hell of a team,” said Kerr, who hasn’t addressed rumors about Durant favoring the Bay Area as a future destination with his players. “Why would anybody talk about some different team, future stuff and other players?
“Focus on our team. We’re pretty good.”
On both sides, that’s the appropriate way to respond publicly. Not that this is going to go away anytime soon. They play each other two more times this season, once in Oklahoma City and once more in Oakland, and this is going to get brought up then, too. And just like Saturday, nobody will give a definitive answer. Nor should they. Nobody will know anything until July 1. But until then, it will be impossible to quiet the chatter.