NBA Finals: Season over, but LeBron/Durant rivalry just beginning

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For years, the LeBron/Kobe rivalry was the most compelling one in basketball, but we never truly got to see it play out on the court. Sure, their teams would play each other twice a year, and people would try to extrapolate conclusions from those biannual meetings, but there was never really anything substantial on the line during those games, even when Christmas-Day bragging rights were up for grabs.

Ultimately, the LeBron-Kobe rivalry had (has?) more in common with Mayweather-Pacquiao than it does with Ali-Frazier: while there have been literally millions of arguments about which player was superior to the other in comments sections and sports bars and on message boards, the two players never faced each other for a title when they were almost unquestionably the two best players in the world. They had four decent chances at it, but James’ team failed to make it out of the Eastern Conference in 2009 and 2010 and Bryant’s team failed to make it out of the West last season and this season. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.)

The good news is that we don’t have to mourn the fact we didn’t get a LeBron-Kobe Finals (yet-as a rule, I never count out Kobe or Jerry Buss) too much anymore, because the LeBron-Durant rivalry is already shaping up to be an all-time classic. For five wonderful games, the NBA’s best all-around player went toe-to-toe with its best pure scorer, and neither of them disappointed, dominating in their own ways en route to a classic, if short, NBA Finals.

All series long, James picked apart Oklahoma City’s defense while Durant simply disregarded Miami’s. James used his combination of size, speed, and passing ability in a way we’ve never quite seen him do before — he was completely hell-bent on getting to the paint time and time again, either by blowing by Thunder players on the perimeter or using his refined post game to back them all the way down. When he got to the paint, he’d either finish, draw contact and go to the line, or kick it out to a wide-open teammate for an easy score. He was also an absolute monster on the boards, and he finished the finals with eye-popping averages of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game, although he did turn the ball over more than he normally does. After the Finals, LeBron was given his first Bill Russell Trophy, and he more than earned it.

As good as LeBron was, however, Durant was nearly as impressive. The Thunder didn’t run many screens for Durant or get him the ball of pick-and-roll sets very much — apart from transition baskets, Durant got the ball almost exclusively in isolation situations with a Heat defender directly in his face, usually LeBron James or Shane Battier. Battier has been one of the most intelligent and effective perimeter defenders in the league for years, and James has become an absolute monster on defense. He is almost universally considered the best perimeter defender in the league, and received more votes than any other player for the All-Defensive Team. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, he neutralized Derrick Rose when he guarded him in fourth quarters, and he held Paul Pierce to 34.4% shooting in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Kevin Durant, who is all of 23 years old and was playing in his first ever NBA Finals, simply did not care about any of that one little bit. Durant would either pull up straight over his defender before dribbling towards the basket and make a long-range shot, take a few dribbles towards the hoop and pull up for an unblockable pull-up or floater, or get down near the basket and swish a turnaround jumper like he was shooting in an empty gym. Durant, who is freaking 23 years old and was facing some of the best team and individual defense in the league and was not getting set up with many easy looks, scored 30.6 points per game while shooting a disgusting 54.8% from the floor and 39.4% from beyond the arc.

What’s more, it never looked like he was on the verge of blinking, let alone sweating. And he never disrupted the flow of the Thunder offense — if anything, it would often seem like Durant had barely been involved in the Thunder offense before you realized he already had 25 points. Early-20s LeBron took our breaths away with his combination of size, athleticism, and pure basketball talent and IQ, but Durant’s size, skill, and seeming inability to be fazed on the court are just as breathtaking.

James drew first blood what I’m hoping will be a long string of NBA Finals played between the Thunder and the Heat, but Durant proved himself to be a more than worthy competitor for James’ crown as he finally officially grabbed his. There are a million variables that could prevent a James-Durant rematch, both next year and in the years to come, but I’m hoping we get enough of them to make this one of modern basketball’s great rivalries.

Draft is next up during NBA’s dizzying days of deals

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NEW YORK (AP) — Markelle Fultz is ready for the NBA draft. He’s already learned about life at the trade deadline.

During a dizzying few days of deals around the NBA, the presumed No. 1 pick had his Saturday plans – not to mention his future destination – change when the Philadelphia 76ers brought him in for a workout. They then completed a trade with the Boston Celtics and are expected to take the Washington guard to begin the action Thursday night.

And if the last few days are indication, what follows might be a wild night inside Barclays Center.

“It’s been a little crazy last couple days,” Duke forward Jayson Tatum said Wednesday.

Teams seem to have one eye on the draft and future stars like Fultz and Lonzo Ball, while the other is firmly focused on jockeying for proven veterans. Former and future No. 1 picks have already been dealt this week in what feels like the trade deadline, free agency and draft all rolled into one frenzy.

“It just shows you what the NBA is about. I mean, you can get traded in the blink of an eye, without knowing,” Fultz said. “It just shows you how this business is and like I said, I just go with the flow. I’ve got an opportunity to play basketball and that’s all I ask for.”

Though Fultz heads what’s widely regarded as a strong draft class, the young stars have had to share the spotlight this week with veterans who are – or could be – on the move. All-Stars and Olympic champions such as Paul George and Jimmy Butler are front and center in trade talk that usually isn’t this heavy until February. Dwight Howard was dealt and D'Angelo Russell – who just two years ago was on the same stage the players will walk Thursday as the No. 2 pick – was dealt by the Los Angeles Lakers, presumably to clear the point guard spot for Ball and salary cap space for the future.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of crazy things. They’ve been coming through my phone with the ESPN app,” Kentucky guard Malik Monk said.

“I knew right before the draft something crazy was going to happen. It happens almost every year, so I wasn’t shocked about it.”

Things are expected to settle down a bit for at least the first two picks. The 76ers, selecting first for the second straight year, should take Fultz before Magic Johnson takes Ball with the Lakers again in the No. 2 spot, which is exactly what the UCLA guard and his father, LaVar, want.

“It would mean a lot to play for my hometown and learn from the best point guard ever,” Ball said.

From there it could be Tatum, Josh Jackson of Kansas, Kentucky’s De'Aaron Fox or some other player in the mix at No. 3, where the Celtics will now pick after the deal with the 76ers. Celtics President Danny Ainge said after making the trade he thought he could get the player he wanted two spots lower.

“It’s a very loaded class and I feel like especially whichever guys go at the top four, five, there may not be that much separation between (them) because everybody’s just so talented,” Tatum said.

Many of them, as usual lately, are freshmen. A record 14 were taken in the first round of last year’s draft and that number should be threatened Thursday. The Sacramento Kings have two top-10 picks, while NBA champion Golden State and runner-up Cleveland have none in the first round.

Teams chasing those two squads may make up ground quickest with a veteran player they can only get through free agency or a trade, so that may have to wait until July.

But they should be able to find someone good Thursday.

“This, I think, has a chance to be a historic draft,” Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Scott Layden said. “You look at the top end of the draft and I think there’s a chance that there’s going to be a lot of very good players, but it also runs deep into the late first round. I think that’s why there will be a lot of activity at this draft, because I think teams see potential to get a great player.”

 

Report: Cavaliers offer Chauncey Billups job running front office

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Not quite the news Ice Cube broke, but the Cavaliers are a step closer to hiring Chauncey Billups.

Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:

Owner Dan Gilbert has offered Chauncey Billups a five-year contract to head up the Cavaliers front office, but Billups has yet to accept, sources with knowledge of the talks told The Athletic.

Billups has long desired a front-office after retiring as a player. It’d be difficult to find a more exciting opportunity.

The job comes with potential peril. LeBron James could leave in 2018, Gilbert isn’t always a treat to work for.

But the Cavs are championship contenders right now, Billups – with a little tweaking and, given the Warriors’ dominance, luck – could deliver Cleveland a title next year. Connect with LeBron and convince him to stay, and Billups could keep the window open a while longer.

Billups never shied from pressure as a player. Will he again embrace it as an executive?

Steve Kerr on Warriors visiting White House: ‘It might be a good statement for us to go’

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Steve Kerr reportedly stated in November a plan to decline an invitation to Donald Trump’s White House if the Warriors won a title.

Now that Golden State won the 2017 championship and players are talking about not going to the White House, Kerr is striking a different tone.

Kerr on The TK Show:

The biggest thing, for me, is it’s about the players. This is a visit that is about the team. We have not met about it, because we haven’t been invited.

But I would want to make sure the players gave this really a lot of thought. And everybody knows I’ve been a very outspoken critic of Trump, and as a result, maybe we won’t even get the invitation. But I do think it’s very important to consider a potential invitation because I think it could have really positive ramifications if we did go.

And it’s a different way to look at it. I, like many of our players, am very offended by some of Trump’s words and actions. On the other hand, I do think there’s something to respecting the office, respecting our institutions, our government. And I think it could make a statement in a time where there’s so much divide and everybody seems to be angry with each other. It might be a good statement for us to go and to show that, hey, let’s put this aside, put all this partisan stuff aside and personal stuff aside, respect the institution.

And maybe even if one of you players wants to voice your concerns over what’s happening, what better opportunity to do so? Now, that may be incredibly idealistic. But I would want to at least bring that up with our players as an option rather than just coming out and saying, “No way. I’m not going.”

Among Kerr’s mistakes:

  • Implying that his players haven’t already considered the positives of visiting the White House before reaching their conclusions
  • Believing the Warriors visiting the White House would be significant enough to reduce partisanship
  • Thinking Trump has any interest in hearing comments that challenge his worldview

Phil Jackson: Carmelo Anthony said he prefers to stay with Knicks

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Knicks president Phil Jackson said Carmelo Anthonywould be better off somewhere else.”

That drew a huge uproar – from the players’ union with a statement, from Kristaps Porzingis with a skipped exit meeting, from other players with leaked discontent.

From practically everyone but Anthony himself.

But Jackson revealed the response of Anthony, who holds a no-trade clause.

Jackson on MSG Network:

Here’s a guy that’s really special, Hall of Fame player who’s done a lot for our organization. We know that we value him highly, and we know that the NBA does, and other teams do.

This is something that is on the long-term kind of situational thing. We’ve expressed the fact that – we’ve done a lot of things to try to put teams together than can win, and we haven’t been successful. And it might be time for him to find an opportunity to go somewhere else. He’s come back and said he’d just as soon stay.

We’re trying to start growing from the youth aspect of it. There will be conversations after the draft and after the free agency, as teams start reorganizing their rosters. So, there will be other conversations in the process.

I don’t know whether it sounds phonier for Jackson to talk up Anthony’s value to the Knicks or to the rest of the league. If Anthony were so valuable to the Knicks, they wouldn’t be trying to trade him – especially because he’ll return so little. He’s 33 and due more than $54 million over the next two years. Potential trade partners know its a closed market, Anthony’s ability to pick his destination through his no-trade clause eliminating desperate losing teams in small markets.

Resisting a trade is the same approach Anthony took before the trade deadline. Apparently, according to Jackson, Anthony hasn’t changed his stance – and that’s what matters.

Anthony controls this process.

Good luck changing his mind, Phil.