Oklahoma City’s big mistake was Perkins trade, extension

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We all have at least a little bit of stubbornness in us. Not asking for directions? A common mistake rooted in pride. Going down a random, unmarked dirt road for five miles after not asking for directions? A little more foolish. Ending up out of gas in the middle of a field hoping the hills don’t have eyes? Now that’s the level of stubbornness shown by Oklahoma City’s front office.

This isn’t about the end result of having to trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Considering the circumstances — small market owner unwilling to pay a highly punitive tax, and a young star unwilling to take less money because of it — the Thunder did alright here. Kevin Martin is the lemonade; an efficient scorer who should be able to come close to replicating Harden’s primary function as a second unit scorer.

In a vacuum, both sides win here. The Thunder get something for someone they were going to lose and stay true to their ideology of building with the best value in sports (the rookie deal) and pick up at least three bonus chances to do so with Jeremy Lamb and the two first round picks. And the Rockets? They finally get the star they’ve been longing for. So what’s the problem here?

The problem is, it didn’t have to come to this. This wasn’t caused by an owner with a tight wallet, or a player getting “greedy”, or even by the new CBA. This was a mistake that was compounded instead of rectified, even when there were multiple opportunities presented. Losing James Harden wasn’t Oklahoma City’s big mistake — keeping Kendrick Perkins was.

February 25th, 2011: Oklahoma City Thunder trade Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson.

When the Thunder originally acquired Perkins, it made sense. The Lakers stood tall as the Thunder’s biggest foe, and it was becoming more and more clear that Jeff Green was not the solution. Even though some believed Perkins was simply a product of Boston’s defensive system, at the very least, most agreed he was a formidable post defender. With Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum blocking out the sun, Presti and the Thunder wanted to bring someone in to move them out of the way.

March 1st, 2011: Before he plays a single minute in a Thunder uniform, Perkins is signed to a 36-million dollar, 4-year extension.

A little foreshadowing — the Thunder lock up Perkins before they see how he fits with the team, simply because they know they can’t afford to lose an asset and receive nothing in return but cap space. They were committed, but it was to the idea of Perkins instead of what he actually was.

May 25th, 2011: Oklahoma City falls to Dallas in the Western Conference Finals, 4-1. Perkins plays 28 scoreless minutes in the series clinching game. 

Here’s where the warning signs should have started to really go off. Tyson Chandler out-rebounded Perkins in every game of this series, and rendered the biggest strength of Perkins — post defense — obsolete by scoring almost exclusively on pick-and-rolls and lobs. While Chandler buzzed around the floor, Perkins moved like a dinosaur the majority of the series.

December 8th, 2011: NBA Lockout ends. The amnesty provision is included in the new CBA, along with more punitive luxury tax and changes to player extensions, among other things. 

June 21st, 2012: The Miami Heat defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 in the NBA Finals. Perkins finishes the playoffs averaging 4.7 points and 6.2 rebounds a game on 41.6% shooting.

Matched up against Chris Bosh, Kendrick Perkins gets drawn out of the lane defensively and again offers little help in the way of scoring. Nick Collison, routinely one of the league’s plus/minus leaders, plays less minutes than Perkins in every game. Perkins finishes his court time during the series a -19. Collison finishes +13.

July 17th, 2012: The NBA’s amnesty deadline passes. Kendrick Perkins remains with the Thunder. 

This is when the Thunder truly lost James Harden. If the Thunder amnesty Perkins here, they can comfortably sign Harden to a max deal after the season. That’s all it would have taken to keep the young core of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden together for at least the next few years.

So why didn’t it happen? The Thunder surely have access to the numbers, which scream for Collison to play over Perkins. And if they ignored the stats and went simply on the eye test, they had to have seen what a little extra stretch can do for your offense after Miami bludgeoned them into submission with jump shots. Keeping a plodding big man with declining skills that are going out of demand over a young star on the rise? That’s not logical — especially when you’re contending for a title. It’s just not.

But it’s human. Thunder GM Sam Presti has shown that he can come in and fix someone else’s mistakes with the best of them. But admitting and fixing your own? That’s not as easy.

Kevin Durant coming up ‘big’ for Warriors

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DETROIT – Soft. Scared. Cupcake.

Kevin Durant can’t help but hear his detractors.

“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”

That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.

Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.

Durant just didn’t play like it.

He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.

Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.

When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.

Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.

His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).

“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”

The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.

Many of his post touches come on split cuts, an action Kerr popularized in Golden State. A player – often Andrew Bogut when Kerr first implemented the play – posts up while a teammate screens for another teammate on the perimeter. Most teams would kill to have a shooter like Durant set or receive the screen. But the Warriors have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to do that. So, Durant serves as the post man, surveying the screen carnage and occasionally just taking matters into his own hands. This video from Eric Apricot of Golden State of Mind excellently shows a few variations:

Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:

Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:

“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”

Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.

But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.

It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.

The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.

Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.

His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.

Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.

“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.

“Maybe even a five,” I said.

“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”

Listen to what LeBron James told Lonzo Ball on court (video)

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LeBron Jameson-court conversation with Lonzo Ball after the Cavaliers beat the Lakers last night quickly became a fascination.

With LeBron-to-the-Lakers rumorsfueled by Ball himself – swirling, did LeBron tip his plans for free agency?

Here’s what LeBron said after the game:

LeBron:

I don’t see the reaction, because I don’t get involved in it. I don’t do it to get a reaction.

I do it because he’s said over and over since he was growing up and who he modeled his game after. And who was his favorite player? And it was me, and I was humbled by that. So me wishing him a happy birthday was kind of a salute back to him.

I see all the stupid noise that happens, and I can’t buy a place in L.A. I can’t live in L.A. It’s funny noise. But I don’t get involved in it, because when I post things, I don’t look at comments. I’m so far removed of the white noise and the noise doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me.

Were you mentoring Ball or giving him advice? LeBron:

None of y’all business.

Unfortunately for LeBron, a microphone picked up most of the conversation (hat tip: reddit user IT-3):

LeBron, best I can tell:

Find your zone and just stay f—ing locked in. The media is going to ask you what I told you right now. Tell them nothing. Just be aggressive every single day.

It’s white noise to you. That’s all it is. Alright? Let’s go.

LeBron was never going to say something controversial in front of all those cameras. He knows better, especially after attention drawn by his on-court conversation with Dwyane Wade a few years ago.

Unsurprisingly, LeBron’s words directly to Ball mirror what he told the media after the game. There’s no secret plot here – just someone who has been in the spotlight for years trying to help someone going through it now.

Who needs good form? Hawks fan nails halfcourt shot for $10k (video)

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Former Hawks owner Bruce Levenson didn’t want guys like this shooting this shot.

I’m so glad this fan got the opportunity. This was Atlanta’s biggest highlight while losing to the Pistons — and John Collins had a nice dunk over Luke Kennard:

Kevin Durant kisses fan hit by ball (video)

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Kevin Durant‘s final line in the Warriors’ win over the Mavericks: 36 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks… and one kiss.

He has done this before.