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Heat, Mavericks go opposite directions after last year’s finals

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Last June, the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat were the two teams left standing on top of the NBA mountain. They were the two teams that made, it, that advanced to the NBA finals. Dallas, as we all recall, came out on top.

Last July, these two teams started traveling very different paths that lead to where they are right now.

Miami is rolling, up 3-0 in the first round on a Knicks team that was supposed to push them a little. They brought in depth, they’ve modified the system and the players bought into it, and for stretches now they play just suffocating defense. Still, they feel like a Maserati in fourth gear — they could be even more impressive.

Dallas is getting rolled, down 3-0 in the first round to a Thunder team they took out in five games last playoffs. Dallas’ owner Mark Cuban decided to look long term rather than chase a ring with the same cast, and that combined with some bad luck has them on the verge of an embarrassingly quick elimination.

It’s quite a contrast.

And it’s all about decisions made during the summer, while the NBA was locked out and soon after it returned.

Miami’s flaws were exposed in the finals — not enough depth, plus their three big stars — Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade — did not fully mesh. LeBron, in particular, was more passive during the finals and nobody could step into those shoes.

Coach Erick Spoelstra spent the summer coming up with a system that better fit his three stars — pressure defense and transition. If you have the best athletes and the best finishers, put them in positions to do what they do best. The Heat pressure and gamble on defense, they force mistakes because of their athleticism, then they turned those into highlight transition dunks. As the season wore on the Heat strayed from that plan, but they still bring it back in spurts and have done more of that in the playoffs. The Knicks have been overwhelmed when they do.

Miami also added depth — Shane Battier, Norris Cole — and got guys like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem healthy.

Right now, especially after Derrick Rose’s injury in Chicago, the Heat look like they could steamroll back to the finals.

Dallas will not be facing them.

Mark Cuban made a decision to focus on the long term — he did not bring back Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, J.J. Barea. He did not offer contract extensions to others. The result is a good long-term plan — this summer they will have the free agent money to offer a max deal to Deron Williams (or whoever else they choose). If they can move Shawn Marion, they may be able to bring in another big star.

This was not a strip-it-to-the-bone, move, this was trying to rebuild on the fly. It was a calculated risk.

It hasn’t worked out as planned and now they are paying the price. While Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are still there, this team does not have the depth or the depth of talent it did last year. Part of that is because of the Lamar Odom meltdown — they made a good gamble they could get the former Laker to come around with them, but he never did. That is a versatile, quality player who could have helped on a lot of fronts.

But it might not have mattered. The Thunder were going to get better. The Lakers have improved, as have the Grizzlies and Clippers. The West was going to be harder to get out of and Dallas took an intentional step back with its eye on the long term. Two years from now we may praise Cuban’s move as visionary — this is the kind of “make a move early rather than late” decision Jerry Buss has been making with the Lakers for years.

But it came with a price — these Mavericks are not as good as last year’s.

They are on an opposite trajectory from the team they knocked off in the finals last year. What a difference one year can make.

Report: Kevin Durant has “done his due diligence on the Bay Area”

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 6: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder attempts a free throw against the Golden State Warriors on February 6, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. 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 Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant has not made up his mind about what he will do as a free agent this summer. Until his playoff run ends, whenever that may be for the Thunder, his focus will be on bringing a title to Oklahoma City.

But even he admits he can’t help but think about free agency a little.

The buzz around the league is Golden State is at the front of the line if Durant decides to leave OKC, and he has done some research, reports Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

The Warriors play in front of an intimidating Oracle Arena crowd and are expected to debut a new San Francisco arena in 2019. Durant has quietly done his due diligence on the Bay Area, too, sources told Yahoo Sports.

His people — specifically agent Rich Kleiman and personal manager Charlie Bell — would be stupid not to have done some research on not only Golden State but on every other team he might consider: Houston, Miami, Washington, both teams in Los Angeles, the Knicks, and on down the line. Golden State, playing with Stephen Curry, certainly would have its attractions.

I’m still in the camp that Durant signs a 1+1 deal to stay in Oklahoma City (meaning he can opt out after one more season, in 2017), and it’s all about the cash. While he could get 30 percent of a $90 million cap this summer (about $27 million a season to start), with one more year of service in 2017 Durant could get 35 percent of $108 million ($37.8 million to start). That’s a lot of cash. Plus he gets one more chance at a ring with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who both are 2017 free agents.

But you can be sure whatever Durant decides, it will be well researched and thought out. And he’s not going to announce it in a live special on ESPN.

Byron Scott expected to start D’Angelo Russell after All-Star break, but hasn’t talked to him about it

Byron Scott D'Angelo Russell
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Communication.

When we talk about Lakers’ coach Byron Scott’s questioned player development skills with young players Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and particularly D'Angelo Russell, it is his old-school lack of communication that comes into question. It’s what is different from what Gregg Popovich or Quin Snyder or other guys developing strong young players have done. From the outside (we’re not in practices/film sessions), we see Scott was not letting Russell play through mistakes — feeling that was rewarding bad behavior — but then not doing a good job communicating what the player is doing wrong.

This comment from Scott, via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, sums it up perfectly.

Scott plans to start Russell after NBA All-Star weekend (Feb. 12-14). But Scott said the two have not talked about that issue.

“He’s not old enough for me to have a meeting and discuss, ‘What do you think?’” Scott said.

I would say you should have that meeting — it’s called a teachable moment. “What do you think? Well here is what I see that is different.”

Part of what is going on with Scott and Russell is the concern from some in the Lakers’ camp that Russell is a little too full of himself, that his ego is too big, and it could become a problem. So they are trying to take him down a peg. I would say that for a smart player — and Russell is that — the game is humbling and will take care of the ego issue. But you’ve got to give him run to develop him.

Play him, and then communicate with him. It’s a system that does worth with modern players.

Nikola Vucevic hits fade-away game winner for Magic against Hawks

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The Hawks almost came back and won this — Atlanta went on an 8-0 run in the final minutes to tie the game at 94-94 with Orlando. The Magic had one last chance with 2.2 seconds left.

Nikola Vucevic nailed it.

Can’t blame Al Horford‘s defense on this one, he pushed Vucevic out and contested the shot. But in a make-or-miss league Vucevic nailed the game winner, Orlando wins 96-94.

If that looks familiar, Vucevic knocked down pretty much the same shot against the Lakers earlier this season.

LeBron James on Super Bowl: “Got to go with the Carolina Panthers”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, right, embraces Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James after the Cavaliers defeated the Charlotte Hornets in an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 27, 2015 in Charlotte, N.C. The Cavaliers won 95-90. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
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We know Stephen Curry — who spent many of his formative years in Charlotte and still thinks of the city as his hometown — is all in on the Carolina Panthers today against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 30.

On this, he and LeBron James agree.

LeBron sounded like the politically cautious, image-conscious version of himself at the start of this quote from Uninterrupted on Facebook, but as he gets going, you can quickly see who he wants in this game (hat tip Eye on Basketball).

“I don’t know if I quite got a prediction but I definitely want to see a great Super Bowl,” James said in the video. “But if it was a life and death situation and I had to choose one team and one player, I got to go with Killah Cam. Got to go with the Carolina Panthers, they’ve been playing the most consistent football all year round. Both offensively, defensively and special teams. Got to go with Cam and one of my boys plays for them too as well, Ted Ginn Jr., that’s been showing out all year as well.

“No disrespect to the Broncos. I love their team. They got the legend at quarterback, they got that defense that’s out of control. They got some receivers that be balling out as well. They’re really well coached as well and that’s the reason they are in the Super Bowl. But I’m rolling with the Carolina Panthers today.”

A lot of NBA players like the way Cam Newton plays — with exuberance, wearing his heart on his sleeve, dancing and celebrating. That’s how Curry and LeBron and other NBA players want to play their game, and they feel reined in by the league. They relate to Cam Newton and the ridiculous role model/celebration debate.

We’ll see how much celebrating the Denver defense lets Newton do.