The Inbounds: Kevin Durant says his time is now. It had better be.

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In an interview with the Washington Post, Kevin Durant takes the subtle leap forward from “all humble all the time” in interviews to “No, really, I’m exceptional at basketball.” Specifically, Durant says that he’s done with people talking about how eventually he’ll have the league in his grasp, that it’s here, it’s now. The future and present are one, and no matter what happened in June, it’s Kevin Durant’s world.

“I’ve heard a few times, in three or four years, this league is going to be yours. . . . I don’t like that. Because I think I’m established now. My time is now,” Durant said. “I feel as though I’ve proved myself these last five years that I can be one of the top players in the league. I’ve got a long way to go to being the ultimate best, but I think my time is now. And I’m starting to enter my prime.”

via Kevin Durant: ‘My time is now’ – The Washington Post.

It’s true that Durant can be considered “there.” This is the prime of his career, he’s just now getting there, and he’s got such a long way to go with it at just 23 years of age. But there’s a subject that should probably be gently unearthed here. It’s just the Thunder’s third season in the playoffs. It’s just their second of title contention. They’ve moved closer each year, taking significant steps forward.

But if they don’t get it done this season, there’s a very real possibility the window closes.

That concept sounds preposterous considering they were just a few good quarters away from stealing the Finals. The Thunder are going to have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka together for the next four years at least. They could very well have James Harden as well. They have no albatross contracts. Kendrick Perkins’ is pretty close, but they have retained their amnesty clause in the event they need to use it there. The four primary members of the core are only going to get better.

But how many times have we seen a young core never get there in their first few seasons, and then have the future robbed? You have to make the climb, and you have to reach the summit. Victory serves as a pacifist for things that can derail a team; unrest, injury, the desperation trade and the like. Sam Presti has been exceptionally patient with this group, but there’s now going to be the lure of that which has ruined so many young cores, the chance at a superstar gamble, a major move, a huge upgrade. The fact that the Thunder are so good guards against that to a degree, but eventually , the pendulum swings and teams find themselves looking “to make a change” for whatever reason.

The Blazers in 2008, the Magic in 2009, the Bulls in 2007, the Wizards in 2007. None of these teams look now like they’re in the same league as the Thunder and in many ways, they aren’t. But their falls were not foreseen. They had either young or stable cores, limitless potential, and players in the elite ranks. They and countless teams before them seemed destined for great things, if not a championship. That’s how quickly these windows close. Yes, you have the Spurs and you have the Mavericks, who kept cores essentially intact for over a decade but those teams stand out precisely because of that longevity, not as standard bearers.

Durant could wake to find himself as the best player on the planet in three years, but surrounded by talent that cannot get it together to compete. This is not built as an “anything is possible” kind of postulate, but as a simple reminder that contending teams that do not win a title seldom are able to keep the core together. Things fall apart, so to speak. Durant can talk to any number of stars about the situation. Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Brandon Roy, it seemed all would inevitably win a title (Garnett later would — when he was traded to another team). The Thunder play in a small market, and while Clay Bennett has been the very model of a modern major owner for OKC (not so much for Seattle), there’s still a lot to learn about how Bennett will react if the luxury bills start piling up.

Durant will be great no matter what, barring injury, knock on wood. He’s going to get better in every phase of the game. But the kind of youthful “golly, we’re just excited to be here” enthusiasm in the Thunder locker room is already shifting to a more focused, determined desperation to win the title, to get over the hump. Most stars don’t win a title before 27. Experience wins, traditionally, in this league. The Thunder are trying to buck that, and they have a great chance. But they have to get past that final hurdle. They needed to make the playoffs, then they needed to advance in the playoffs, then they needed to make the Finals. They’ve done that, but the last step is hardest to climb, especially with how the Heat have built themselves and the Lakers’ standing in the West ready to cause mayhem.

Durant said over the weekend that the Lakers are impressive “on paper.” But think back to how many teams thought they were great the season after they made the Finals only to discover that it was a fleeting moment in the sun, and that the league passed them by. Durant doesn’t have to go down like that, to toil for years. But he’s got to get there. Winning begets winning, stagnation begets change.

The expectations have caught up with Durant. His time is now. It has to be. It better be.

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: “it would mean a lot”

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).

Kevin Hart plays Shaq, Saturday Night Live takes on Inside The NBA

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Notoriously undersized actor — and NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game MVP — Kevin Hart playing the notoriously oversized Shaquille O’Neal is brilliant.

That was at the heart of it when Saturday Night Live took on Inside the NBA on its Christmas show Saturday night. Hart was into it poking fun at Shaq’s penchant for going off with his own word salad during the show.

Charles Barkley and Shaq are rich satire targets, and SNL went right at them. Well done.