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.

Three Kemba Walker trades that could work for both sides

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Kemba Walker doesn’t want to be traded.

Michael Jordan and the Charlotte front office are exploring the idea anyway.

As they should. The Hornets are stuck in the NBA’s purgatory of a middle-ground with one All-Star level player in Walker and not enough around him to make this team a threat. The Hornets are 17.3 points per 100 possessions better when Walker is on the court — when he plays they look like a borderline playoff team, when he sits they are a disaster. Because of some big contracts, that situation is not likely to change. Charlotte may finally be proactive with this — trade Walker but attach a bad contract to it, and get some pieces to jump-start a rebuild back. That’s less than ideal in a smaller market like Charlotte, but it’s the right basketball move — test the market and see if they can get an offer that works for them.

Here are three potential trades that would fit the parameters being discussed. These are not likely, but this is the kind of deals that we would see.

Kemba Walker to the New York Knicks

Charlotte gets: Frank Ntilikina, Ron Baker, and either Jarrett Jack or Lance Thomas

New York gets: Kemba Walker

The ups and downs of slowly rebuilding do not play well in New York — and right now they are in a downward spin after a fast start to the season. Still, the Knicks are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the East and Walker instantly puts them back in the playoff conversation. Walker gives New York another shot creator and scoring threat, someone to run pick-and-pops with Kristaps Porzingis, set up Tim Hardaway Jr., and just improve an offense that is middle of the pack. For the Hornets, they get the point guard of the future in Ntilikina, one building block as they move forward. This might be the best deal for the Hornets — if the Knicks would consider moving Ntilikina. That is far from certain.

Kemba Walker to the Detroit Pistons

Charlotte gets: Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson, draft picks, plus some other players to make the salaries fit such as Anthony Tolliver.

Detroit gets: Walker and Marvin Williams.

The promise of the Jackson/Andre Drummond connection in Detroit has faded, and Walker would bring the spark and scoring that the Pistons need to be a real threat come the postseason. I like this for Detroit, but less so because Jackson has two-years, $35 million left on his contract after next season, and that’s a lot of money to take on for a team trying to strip it down. That said, if the Hornets think they can develop Johnson on offense (he’s good defensively, a black hole on offense) and the picks are good, they should consider it.

Kemba Walker to the Cleveland Cavaliers

Charlotte gets: Isaiah Thomas, the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick (plus another player to make the money work such as Channing Frye

Cleveland gets: Kemba Walker, maybe another deep bench player to round out the salary.

This seems the longest shot. Cleveland wants to upgrade their backcourt, that’s why they are talking to Sacramento about George Hill. However, the talk around the league is the Cavaliers are not moving that Brooklyn pick for anything less than a total game changer who makes them a real threat to Golden State. Is that Walker? Probably not. This is also probably not a move Cleveland makes unless it thinks Thomas is not going to get back to All-Star level performance, but if they think that’s not going to happen this would be a serious upgrade. The Hornets would do this to get the Nets pick, giving them a couple of lottery picks (their own is the other) in this draft to start a rebuild.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell both make return from injury tonight

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Let’s try something different: How about some good injury news for a change?

Going through the roughest part of their schedule without their Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz have fallen out of the playoff picture in the West. The good news is Gobert is back starting Friday night.

The Brooklyn Nets took on a lot of salary (hello Timofey Mozgov) to get ahold of and see if they could develop D'Angelo Russell into their point guard of the future. However, he has been out since Nov. 12 and had to get his knee scoped to solve some issues. Now he is back as of Friday against Miami, and the Nets will again be able to get a look at him (as he heads into restricted free agency).

Neither of these returns are turning these teams into playoff teams, but they do help.

Brooklyn is not about the playoffs this season, but their gritty performances this season have picked up enough wins to frustrate Cavaliers fans (the Cavs have their pick in this draft). The Jazz are not completely out of the playoffs, but they are five games back in a deep Western conference and that will be hard to make up without some help. Getting Gobert back at least gives the Jazz a chance, and it’s an opportunity for Gobert and rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell to start to develop some chemistry.

Report: Cavaliers interested in George Hill trade with Kings

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When the Sacramento Kings made the much-maligned move to sign three veterans this summer to healthy contracts — George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter — there were three reasons for it. Two the Kings were very public about: They wanted mentors for the 10 young players on their roster, and they had to get up to the salary floor anyway.

The third, less discussed reason is those guys might make decent trade chips. Especially as the Kings move toward playing their youth more (as they should).

Enter the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are stumbling through the East right now and have reached out to the Kings about a potential trade for Hill, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

In an effort to bolster their backcourt situation, the Cleveland Cavaliers are expressing interest in a trade for Sacramento Kings guard George Hill, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Cleveland has emerged as an interested suitor, with the Cavaliers pursuing Hill to potentially slide into a dual-guard role, starting at either backcourt position or playing as a reserve, league sources said.

The Cavaliers are starting Isaiah Thomas at the point, with the assumption that he will find his groove as his conditioning improves and he gets used to playing next to LeBron James, however, they have had issues at the two spot. J.R. Smith starts there now with Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver (both really more threes) behind him, but with Iman Shumpert out due to a foot injury the Cavaliers could use backcourt depth.

George Hill appears to have taken a step back this season, but he is still a solid guard who can shoot the three (45 percent this season) and be a good floor general. He could be a better backup point guard than Derrick Rose. Hill is not a season changer for Cleveland, but he would give them some solid depth and versatility.

The problem is money — Hill signed a three-year, $57 million deal with the Kings. The Kings might be open to a Hill for Tristan Thompson and a second rounder deal (no way Hill earns a first, even a Cavs late one).

The Cavaliers are also pursuing DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Pulling off both would be nearly impossible. The Clippers will ask for the Brooklyn Nets pick, something the Cavaliers reportedly would not throw into this deal (they would throw in their own first, in the 20s), but even if they work that out it would require Tristan Thompson and his salary to make it work, and then it’s hard to  make the salaries match for Hill.

Consider it something to watch. The Cavaliers know have to get better at the trade deadline, although they have no plans to move the Brooklyn Nets pick. The Kings are open to the idea of a trade. It’s a first step.

Stan Van Gundy backs off feud with ESPN ahead of televised Pistons game

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Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy said he wouldn’t give ESPN its usual access – a private pre-game meeting and an in-game interview – in the aftermath of ESPN publishing LaVar Ball’s negative comments about Lakers coach Luke Walton.

The first test of Van Gundy’s new policy comes with today’s Pistons-Wizards game on ESPN… and Van Gundy is mostly backing down.

Van Gundy, via Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

“I got an email from Rick Carlisle of the coaches association and they want me to cooperate, so my whole idea was to boycott the thing in support of coaches,” Van Gundy said. “If the coaches don’t want that, then it would be a selfish thing, sort of a grandstanding thing.”

“I’m certainly not looking to do extra stuff with ESPN.com when those guys call and want to do things,” Van Gundy said. “They want to put themselves out there as a journalistic enterprise — they’re clearly not. They don’t have any journalistic standards. I have no obligation to do anything extra.”

Many media members have quoted Ball on a variety of issues. Coaches threw a fit over this one because they’re sensitive to coaches being criticized. It wasn’t about journalistic ethics or the source. Van Gundy and other coaches simply didn’t like Ball’s conclusion.

I’m so glad Van Gundy is no longer grandstanding. [extreme sarcasm]

He’s not obligated to speak with ESPN reporters, but when Van Gundy rails on journalistic standards as cover for disagreeing with the opinion a journalist published, he sounds a lot like the guy he loves to criticize.