San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Six

Kevin Durant: Preordained

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It was always going to be like this.

Build your skill set in the comfort of a rebuilding team with low expectations. Take the next step as an exciting bad team in a new environment with a surprisingly rabid crowd. Make the jump to the playoffs and put a shock on the champs, showing that you’re coming. Learn what disappointment is in a Conference finals loss to a stellar team that would go on to win the NBA championship. Come back stronger. Smarter. Better. Win your division. Beat the team who beat you last season. Beat the team who beat you the year before. Beat the standard bearer in the West.

Advance to the NBA finals with a rousing 107-99 comeback victory.

Take your place.

This is Kevin Durant, and he was always destined for this.

From the moment he stepped onto the scene, from D.C. to Austin, Texas to Oklahoma City, this was coming. He even came with the big debate about him or another player who wound up star-crossed. This is how legends are built in the NBA, and now it’s Durant’s time for ascension.

There will be no questions about Kevin Durant going without a field goal in the fourth quarter of Game 6. Because Wednesday night was not about one game. It was about five years of building, five years of development, five years of smart drafting and player development by Thunder general manager Sam Presti, five years of a small city buying in, five years of Durant game-winners, big shots, and prolific performances.

There will be comparisons to Michael Jordan in 1991, to the greats in this game over time. There will be questions of whether he’s ready to win the NBA finals, or whether this team can really get it done.

But do not be confused. What has happened in the middle of the okra fields in Oklahoma is not some smoke-and-mirrors job. It’s not about a falsehood built on a dream. This is reality. It’s been coming for years.

Durant’s game is a force of its own now. It’s not just the swift shooting, the range, the quick release. He has added so many weapons. He’s able to make the smart play. He’s able to slip the screen. He finishes with authority, he presses when he senses vulnerability and he hesitates when the defense adjusts. And he defends. Tenaciously, using those long arms and quick feet. He’s no longer the skinny-waist kid throwing up threes. He’s the skinny-waist man playing a complete game. This is the nexus of Kevin Durant and it’s a sight to behold.

When the Thunder faced a double-digit deficit at halftime on Wednesday and it appeared the Spurs would push the series back to San Antonio and a miserable Game 7, Durant set the tone. Immediately in the third, he sparked the team. He finished with 14 points in the quarter, missing two shots and a field goal on 11 total attempts from the field and stripe.

Durant can do all those other things now, that’s why he’s a different player. But he’s also the same. He’s a scorer. That’s his core.  And these playoffs have been about huge shots from Durant, his range burying the opponent, his length rattling them. Durant is the best offensive weapon in the league, and that’s why the Thunder are moving on.

Who’s to say the Thunder won’t get beaten in the finals, another step that Durant and company have to live through in his career? What if the Thunder’s good fortune runs out? No one remembers teams that make the finals and lose. Durant could fall by the wayside, could become just another team that reached the gates but couldn’t get through — another almost st0ry.

But somehow, this feels different, this year or next, the year after or the year after. This is all part of the plan. This is the story of Kevin Durant.

And it was always going to be this way.

Ryan McDonough: Suns plan to be ‘major players’ in 2017 free agency

Ryan McDonough
AP Photo/Matt York
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The Suns have swung big in free agency the previous couple years, chasing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in 2014 and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.

But 2016 appeared to be the year Phoenix really eyed.

The Suns structured the contracts of multiple players – including Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris – to have salaries that dipped this summer. Time that flexibility correctly, and it can really pay off.

Phoenix big prize? Jared Dudley.

Dudley is a nice player, but he’s hardly the star the Suns seek. So, they’ll try again next year.

Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

That’s been one of our frustrations this summer. We were kind of on the sideline for some of the marquee free agents. But as you know, Woj, it wasn’t the deepest free agent class.

Potentially, it’s a very strong free agent class next year. And one of the things we’ve done with our contracts is we’ve lined them up to have max cap space next year without really touching the core of our roster.

I think and I hope at this time next year, we’re major players in free agency. Because as you mentioned, the Phoenix Suns are a destination franchise.

The 2017 free agent class won’t be as strong as hoped.

LeBron James locked in for multiple years with the Cavaliers. Russell Westbrook signed a contract extension with the Thunder. Kevin Durant indicated he’ll re-sign with the Warriors. So has Stephen Curry. Blake Griffin is reportedly “adamant” about re-signing with the Clippers.

Teams will almost certainly match any offer for the top restricted free agents – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel – if they don’t extend their contracts first.

That still leaves several quality unrestricted free agents – including Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap – but Paul and Lowry are point guards. Phoenix already has Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and Devin Booker looks like the shooting guard of the future. So, forget simply sliding Bledsoe or Knight to off guard. It’d take a major shakeup for Paul or Lowry to make sense with the Suns.

Still, McDonough’s approach is logical. If he can keep kicking the can down the road, perpetually selling that his plan is a year from taking it hold, it’ll make it easier for him to retain his prestigious job.

But if he has to make his 2017 free agency plan work rather than deferring to 2018, it could be difficult.

The Suns project to have about $17 million in cap space (under a system that could change significantly with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement). Renouncing restricted free agent Alex Len could clear about $12 million more, and just $500,000 of Leandro Barbosa‘s $4 million salary is guaranteed. Trading Tyson Chandler, Bledsoe and/or Knight could open even more space. Losing Len isn’t ideal, but for the right free agent, the upgrade would be worthwhile.

The bigger issue is winning. Phoenix has struggled to lure top free agents, because the team has missed the playoffs six straight years. That’s unlikely, though not impossible, to change this year. If the probabilities hold, what does McDonough sell then?

He always has the option of using cap space to facilitate uneven trades, a route he previously broached. Depending on the deal, that could encroach on 2017 cap space.

But if his plan holds, the Suns will keep their books relatively clear until next summer.

Wesley Matthews: ‘I’m a whole different person’ further removed from injury

DENVER, CO - MARCH 06:  Wesley Matthews #23 of the Dallas Mavericks controls the ball against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 6, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Mavericks 116-114 in overtime. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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After Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles in March 2015, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle preached caution and suggested Matthews could be out until Christmas.

Matthews said he’d play opening night.

Matthews was right.

He played in Dallas’ first game and 77 others last season. The problem: He didn’t play that well. Matthews meandered through arguably his worst pro season.

Matthews, via Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com:

“I’m a whole different person,” the 29-year-old Matthews said. “I’m a whole different player, and I’m really just excited to get out there and show it, and just to be who I know I can be and just to continue to grow. Obviously, it was different coming off of an Achilles (injury) and not having four or five months to prepare and all that stuff, and jumping right into the season being physically able to play every single game and play heavy minutes. It took until about after the All-Star break for me to get my legs back, because I play both ends of the court. And I feel better than when I got hurt.

I’ll need to see it to believe it.

Considering Matthews age, time might not be enough to return his production to pre-injury levels. He did improve after the All-Star break, but not enough to put concern behind him.

The stakes are high for the Mavericks, who still owe Matthews $53,652,528 over the next three years. Not only could Matthews’ decline hinder their ability to win a reasonable amount in Dirk Nowitzki‘s final years, it could limit their inevitable post-Nowitzki rebuild.

Hopefully, Matthews feels as good as he says, but players tend to be overly optimistic in these situations. On the other hand, Matthews backed up his similarly daunting declaration last year.

Report: Nets paid record $3 million to move up 13 spots in draft for Isaiah Whitehead

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Isaiah Whitehead #15 of the Brooklyn Nets poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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In 2010, the Thunder paid the Hawks $3 million for the draft rights to No. 31 pick Tibor Pleiss. That, according to Bryan Fonseca of Nets Daily, is the most ever paid for a player’s draft rights.

The Nets matched it this year – and they didn’t even get a fresh pick. They just paid to move up 13 spots in the second round.

Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders:

Nets sent $3 million and the 55th pick (Marcus Paige) to the Utah Jazz for the 42nd pick (Isiah Whitehead)

That’s a sizable commitment to get Whitehead, who has the size and raw skills to thrive at guard in the NBA. He was just so inefficient at Seton Hall, I have major doubts about his approach to the game. It will be up to Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson to refine Whitehead’s style.

If owner Mikhail Prokhorov is willing to pay for that opportunity, good for the Nets. Brooklyn has bought several extra draft picks over the last few years. The Nets don’t have an exceptionally high hit rate on those selections, but every extra swing increases their odds of finding quality contributors – especially important because they dealt away control of so many of their own first-rounders in doomed trades with the Celtics and Hawks.

Report: Incentive bonuses in Yi Jianlian’s Lakers contract would septuple his salary if he plays 59 games

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14:  Jianlian Yi #11 of China controls the ball as Nikola Kalinic #10 of Serbia defends during the preliminary round game at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Yi Jianlian’s unconventional contract terms with the Lakers had slowly emerged. He’ll earn somewhere between $250,000 and $8 million next season, $1,139,123 just for remaining on the roster through Jan. 10.

But that left a huge sum to unknown incentive bonuses.

Now, they’re known.

Yi can trigger $2,286,959 bonuses for hitting three benchmarks based on games played, according to Basketball Insiders. Here’s the running total for those incentives:

  • 20-39 games played: $2,286,959
  • 40-58 games played: $4,573,918
  • 59+ games played:$6,860,877

Whether or not he plays or is even active, Yi will earn $6,701 each day he’s on the roster from Oct. 25 until Jan. 10 (with a guaranteed minimum of $250,000 in total income). Then, if he’s still on the roster Jan. 10, Yi will lock in another $623,167. That’s his base compensation.

But the bonuses – for actually playing in games – are far more lucrative.

Here’s how Yi’s salary would increase throughout the season, which begins Oct. 25 and ends April 12, if he plays every Lakers game:

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Of course, Yi might not play every game.* So, those three big jumps can be slid back accordingly. The Lakers did well to build Yi’s contract around incentives they have complete control over.

*If Yi doesn’t trigger his first games-played bonus so quickly, his base salary ($6,701 per day) would pass his guaranteed minimum ($250,000) Dec. 1.

The NBA Constitution calls for the trade deadline to be the 17th Thursday of the regular season, which would be Feb. 16 this year – before Yi can earn his third bonus and maybe before he earns one or two. This makes him an intriguing trade chip. Because his cap number will be $8 million throughout the season, he could help fetch a higher-priced player in a trade. Then, the team that acquires him could waive him and pay only what he had earned to date.

But before it gets to that point, Yi will try to fight his way into the rotation.

There’s a lot on the line.