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.

Minnesota’s Wiggins considers contract deal without agent

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Andrew Wiggins says he feels good about a max contract offer that is sitting in front of him with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But he’s in no rush to get it signed.

Wiggins says he is going over the five-year, $148 million offer from the Wolves deliberately to make sure everything is where he wants it before he signs. He is being extra careful because he is operating without an agent after parting ways with Bill Duffy and BDA Sports in August.

Wiggins says he has only positive things to say about Duffy. But he made the decision “from a business point of view.” He says he is leaning on parents, who were both high-profile athletes.

He says he appreciates the level of commitment the Timberwolves have shown and wants to be in Minnesota for the long term.

 

Report: Carmelo Anthony adds Cavaliers, Thunder to list of teams where he will accept trade

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Carmelo Anthony wants most of all to be traded to Houston (and he has leverage thanks to the no-trade clause Phil Jackson/James Dolan gave him). However, to make the deal work the Rockets needed to unload the three-year, $60 million contract of Ryan Anderson — which the Knicks do not want, and neither did any third team without a couple high first-round picks as a sweetener. Also, the Knicks wanted quality you assets back the Rockets didn’t have (or would part with), so the deal was dead. Anthony tried to wait it out, but nothing happened, and at this point the Knicks expect ‘Melo in camp Monday.

In the face of that, Anthony has expanded his list of teams where he will waive his no-trade clause to include the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder, according to multiple reports.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN was first with the news about the Cavs.

Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time NBA All-Star, has delivered the New York Knicks an expanded list of teams — including the Cleveland Cavaliers — with which he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause, league sources told ESPN.

After the Knicks insisted that they were unable to make a deal with the Houston Rockets, his primary trade destination, Anthony and his representatives honored New York’s request and furnished at least two more teams within the past 10 days, league sources told ESPN.

ESPN’s Ian Begley filled in the details.

Cleveland was on the initial list of teams Anthony gave the Knicks (teams he would waive his no-trade for) but the Knicks wanted Kevin Love and Cleveland shot that down (that was before the Kyrie Irving deal, now Cleveland is even less likely to make that trade). The Cavaliers don’t have a lot of young talent on their roster, and that’s what the Knicks will want back in a deal, picks and players who are on Kristaps Porzingis‘ career arc.

If Cleveland was willing to throw the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick in the trade it would get done quickly, but I have been told (before this news) Cleveland would not part with that pick, they see it as “LeBron leaves” insurance.

You can bet LeBron James is pushing to get Anthony on the Cavs. Adding him and Dwyane Wade — when Wade is bought out by the Bulls (eventually) — would move the Cavaliers a little closer to the Warriors, although both Wade and ‘Melo are bad defensive matchups against Golden State.

Oklahoma City would likely use Enes Kanter in any trade because his $17 million salary helps balance the money. However, the Thunder are like the Cavs in that this is not a roster with much young talent that the Knicks would want. Guys like Doug McDermott and Kyle Singler are not going to cut it.

It could take a third team to get a deal done with either the Cavaliers or Thunder.

While there had been rumors Portland was still trying to get in — that’s a team with multiple ways to make that trade if they are willing to send Zach Collins and picks to New York — multiple reports out of New York say the Blazers are not one of the teams on Anthony’s list, something first reported by Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

Anthony may well get moved before the start of the season now, but not likely before training camp opens for the Knicks Monday. So that awkward set of questions still gets to take place.

 

We have a (very minor) trade: Troy Daniels to Suns for pick

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Memphis had more than the max 15 guaranteed contracts on the books, and the cost of unloading one of those turns out to be a second-round pick.

Troy Daniels, who is owed $6.7 million over the next two years, has been traded from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Phoenix Suns, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports and since confirmed by the teams themselves. As part of the deal, the teams swap 2018 second round picks (however the Phoenix pick going to Memphis is top 55 protected, meaning it doesn’t move unless the Suns are a top five team ext season). Basically, Memphis has three second-round picks in 2018 and Phoenix gets the middle one as the sweetener for taking on the contract.

This trade is really about Memphis clearing a roster spot and some salary space, and Phoenix being willing to take it on for a second round pick.

Interestingly, Daniels and Suns star Devin Booker got in a little war of words at the end of a game last season.

The Suns consulted with Booker about that before pulling the trigger on the deal.

Pat Riley raves about Dwyane Wade, but avoids all contract talk

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MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade is under contract with the Chicago Bulls, meaning other NBA clubs cannot openly talk about possibly signing him until he is a free agent. As such, Miami Heat President Pat Riley was cautious Friday when asked about Wade’s future.

Wade spent his first 13 seasons in Miami before leaving in the summer of 2016 and going to the Bulls, his hometown team. But Chicago appears in full rebuilding mode after trading All-Star forward Jimmy Butler – someone Wade was close with – to Minnesota this offseason. And since Wade is in the last year of a deal that will pay him nearly $24 million this season, buyout speculation has been rampant for months.

If Wade gets a buyout, he’d be free to join any team.

“I feel great about our relationship that we had over the 13 years,” Riley said. “And anything that happens from a personnel standpoint down the road, or any opportunities that are there, we’re always going to approach that. But right now he’s under contract. He’s under contract with Chicago and I wish him the very best.”

Some Heat players, including longtime close friend Udonis Haslem, have made clear that if Wade becomes a free agent they would definitely want him to consider a return.

“He knows how I feel,” Haslem said this month.

Riley – and every other NBA executive – has to be much more guarded. But Riley made no secret of the affinity he still has for Wade, even raving about his wife, actress Gabrielle Union.

“She was stunning at the Emmys,” Riley said. “And to see him sitting in the seat next to her at the Emmys, I said `Man, we both have come a long way.”‘

The Bulls hold their media day Monday, with camp opening Tuesday. Wade spent at least part of this week in Miami, where he kept his home, and worked out at least once at the University of Miami .

Bulls President John Paxson told CSN Chicago on Thursday he and general manager Gar Forman sat down with Wade when the season ended, and plan to do so again when he returns to Chicago in the coming days.

“We were honest with him. We told him, that we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Paxson said. “At that time we were not shopping Jimmy. But we also said all along that if a deal would come along that would allow us to rebuild, we’d have to look at it. We’ve said that to everybody. So with that said, Dwyane’s under contract. He has been a professional through and through. We want to talk to him when he comes in town, and we will.”

Wade is Miami’s franchise leader in several categories, starred on all three of the Heat championship teams and has kept close ties with several people within the organization since his departure. He was the MVP of the 2006 NBA Finals.

“Probably one of the greatest series that any player has ever had in a Finals,” Riley said.