Kevin Durant

Trimester Awards: A Naughty and Nice List

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Can you believe it? The NBA season is somehow a third of the way finished, which means it’s probably time to take stock of what we’ve seen so far this year. We’ll give out some awards — ’tis the season and all that — but we’ll also dish out some coal. After all, what are the holidays without some grinch-style bitterness and crushing disappointment?  Here are your NBA Trimester Awards:

Most Improved Player: Andray Blatche, Brooklyn Nets

After six long seasons with one of the most dysfunctional teams in all of sports, Blatche was written off as a guy who would never get it; a knucklehead, a waste of talent. The Nets were universally laughed at for picking up Blatche for the veteran’s minimum earlier this year, and now look where we are. Blatche has a PER of 23.2 (8th best in the entire league) and is posting career highs in *deep breath* field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, all rebounding percentages, points per36 minutes, and PER. If you believe the most improved player should be someone who has been around for a bit (i.e. not a second year a guy), then Blatche is your choice over other worthy candidates like O.J. Mayo, Eric Bledsoe and Kemba Walker.

Least Improved Player: Gerald Green, Indiana Pacers

This guy is all over the place. After bouncing around the league for years, Green was a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player last season when he tore it up in his last 31 games. But for as good as he was at the end of last year, he’s been just as bad in 26 games this year with Indiana. In Danny Granger’s absence, Green has shot a dreadful 37 percent from the field and is notching a career-low in points per36 minutes. Of players who average more than 20 minutes a game, Gerald Green is second only to Austin Rivers for lowest PER. That’s pretty brutal, especially given Green’s immense athletic gifts.

Defensive Player of the Trimester: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

He doesn’t have the reputation, but Duncan is one of the greatest defenders ever. You’d expect a serious decline at 36-years-old, but Duncan’s numbers speak for themselves. He’s 4th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage (which should absolutely factor in to this discussion), first in individual defensive rating, second in defensive win shares and 10th in block percentage. He’s anchoring a Spurs defense that’s posted the 7th best defensive efficiency rating in the league, which is pretty impressive considering the Spurs don’t have Kawhi Leonard on the wing yet. Smart back line defenders are so critical to defenses these days, and Duncan is showing once again why he’s absolutely one of the best.

Matador of the Trimester: Michael Beasley, Phoenix Suns

An honorable mention goes to Andrea Bargnani, but Michael Beasley’s on/off numbers clinch this award. The Suns are a staggering 23.4 net points better per 100 possessions when Michael Beasley is off the court — one of the worst marks in the league. His opponent’s effective field goal percentage is 7 percentage points higher than his own. He has .02 defensive win shares, well below the legal limit. The Suns as a team are bad defensively (25th in defensive rating), but Beasley serves as a direct contrast to Jared Dudley and P.J. Tucker — guys who actually, you know, try to stay in front of people on the wing. Phoenix is at a monstrous disadvantage whenever he takes the floor.

Coach of the Trimester: Mike Woodson, New York Knicks

Woodson has devised an offense that his guys love to play in. His one-in, four out scheme built around Tyson Chandler pick-and-rolls and Carmelo Anthony isolations has netted the Knicks the 2nd best offensive rating in the league behind Oklahoma City. They’ve been historically good in multiple areas, but more specifically, the Knicks are currently shooting above 40 percent from behind the arc, which is something only eight other teams in NBA history have done. Although some of this may be unsustainable, Woodson will get back Amar’e Stoudemire (say what you will, but he’s at least as good as Kurt Thomas, right?) and perhaps more importantly, defensive ace Iman Shumpert. Rick Adelman and Mark Jackson deserve mention as well, but Woodson’s Knicks are the story of the year so far.

The “Bad News Bears” Coach of the Trimester: Keith Smart, Sacramento Kings

The Kings have gone 8-17 to start the year, but more importantly, they’re already imploding. Some of Smart’s more notable follies include his refusal to play Isaiah Thomas, his failed implementation of a Triangle offense, and the construction of the league’s 28th worst defense. Is the roster bad? Yes, it’s awful. Are the owners bad? Yes, they’re awful, too. But let’s be honest — Smart hasn’t done anything to get DeMarcus Cousins to stop chucking up 18-footers and he hasn’t improved a young roster or even held them very accountable. It’s ugly in Sacramento right now.

MVP: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

Somehow, he just keeps getting better. Durant could very well become the first player in league history to lead the NBA in scoring with percentages of 50-40-90 — a testament to how frighteningly efficient he is as a high usage perimeter player. Although LeBron James possesses the better PER by a fingernail, Durant leads LeBron in win shares and offensive rating so far this season. You can’t go wrong with either guy, but Durant gets the slight nod for leading his team to the better record thus far. If this holds, this could be the most hotly contested MVP race yet.

LVP: Kendrick Perkins, Oklahoma City Thunder

The scariest thing about the Oklahoma City Thunder? They could very easily be better if they replaced Kendrick Perkins with even an average player, or better yet, with Nick Collison. Oklahoma City is 5.4 net points per 100 possessions worse with Perkins on the floor, and a net 10.2 points better per 100 possessions when Collison is on the floor. But let’s focus solely on Perkins, who has a -8.7 PER differential, which contributes heavily to the Thunder ranking 29th in PER differential at the center position. Perkins is a 7 point, 7 rebound per 36 minute player who makes 7 million dollars a year for a small market team that can’t afford to pay that. It’s a nice thought that Perkins is the “Dwight Stopper”, but that’s a pretty price to pay for someone who marginally contains a single player. Check out the numbers:

Here are Howard’s averages in 25 head-to-head meetings with Perkins: 16.5 points and 12.8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting.

And here are Howard’s career averages: 18.4 points and 13 rebounds on 57 percent shooting.

There’s a drop-off, but not enough to justify Perkins playing 25 minutes a night, every single night. Although Oklahoma City is clearly having great team success, it’s hard to attribute much of that to Perkins. There are players with worse Player Efficiency Ratings than 9.2, and there are players who are much worse help defenders, but Perkins gets the LVP because he ultimately hurts a title contending team at a critical spot.

Referees miss Dion Waiters push off, multiple other calls in final seconds of Thunder’s win over San Antonio

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Manu Ginobili said it perfectly after the game: This one play, this one sequence is not why the Spurs lost Game 2 of their series against the Thunder.

However, I can’t remember a time the referees swallowed their whistles on so many calls in the final seconds of a game.

Oklahoma City was up one with 13.5 seconds left (after Serge Ibaka made a silly foul on LaMarcus Aldridge shooting a three), the Thunder just needed to inbound the ball, get fouled and hit their free throws. But it wasn’t that easy.

First and most notably, Dion Waiters was trying to inbound the ball and pushed off on Manu Ginobili guarding the inbound play. That’s a foul, or a technical depending upon which rule you want to apply. But the Spurs should have had the ball out of bounds, the referees just missed that one and both Chris Webber on the call and the TNT Inside the NBA crew harped on that one. They were right.

The officials admitted as much, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Ken Mauer, lead referee from tonight’s game: “On the floor we did not see a foul on the play. However, upon review we realize and we agree we should have had an offensive foul on the play. It’s a play we’ve never seen before, ever. We should have had an offensive foul on the play.”

The question Thunder fans are asking: Why wasn’t Ginobili called for stepping on the out of bounds line? In the final two minutes that’s a technical (the rule book says it’s a foul if he “crosses or breaks the plane of the boundary line,” Ginobili has a toe on the line). Also Leonard had Russell Westbrook‘s jersey through that entire inbounds play.

Waiters did throw a leaping inbound pass as Ginobili stumbled backwards, and he threw it to Durant — who was held as he went for the ball by Danny Green. That should have been a foul call (although Waiters’ inbound foul would have nullified it if that call had been made).

The Spurs get the ball in a scramble for the rock and end up kicking out to Patty Mills for a corner three (not sure that was the best shot), but he missed. In the rebound scramble there could have been a few calls, but the most obvious was Ibaka hacking Aldridge trying to get a putback. It was another clear foul.

All that obscured some great plays — Ginobili with the no-look, behind the head pass to Mills in the corner, or Steven Adams with an amazing closeout to get a piece of Mills’ shot, to name a couple.

I get it, the referees don’t want to decide the game with their whistle, but when it turns into a rugby scrum there should be calls, and the referees shouldn’t be afraid to make them.

Watch LeBron James make plays when it matters in fourth quarter

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On paper LeBron James didn’t have a great fourth quarter — 2-of-7 shooting, both his buckets right at the rim, and he’d been passive for long stretches of the game.

But when the Cavaliers made a 17-2 run late in the game that earned them the Game 1 win over Atlanta, LeBron was at the heart of it all. He had assists, a key steal, and a powerful and-1 dunk. You can check out LeBron’s impressive play in the last five minutes above.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.

Larry Bird on Frank Vogel’s future with Pacers: “I don’t know what’s going to happen”

MIAMI, FL - MAY 24:  Team President Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers looks on against the Miami Heat during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on May 24, 2014 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Larry Bird wanted the Pacers to play smaller and faster this season. The Pacers started the season doing that, but they weren’t defending consistently and not winning enough (dropping 7-of-11 through one stretch in December), so coach Frank Vogel started to play bigger and slower. It worked well enough for the Pacers to make the playoffs and go seven games deep in the first round against the Raptors.

Team president Larry Bird isn’t happy — he doesn’t like that Vogel changed the team’s style. For that reason, it’s unclear if Vogel — whose contract is up — will be back with the Pacers next season. Here is what Bird told Greg Doyle of the Indianapolis Star.

Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird said Monday he hasn’t decided whether to bring back coach Frank Vogel for a seventh season, telling IndyStar: “It’s no secret — I want us to score more points…

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bird said….

“Frank’s a great guy. He’s going to be fine no matter what happens. If he’s back, he’ll be fine here. If he’s not, he’s not. We’ll see.”

If Vogel were allowed to walk away, a host of other teams would line up to pay him. Houston would be an interesting fit (although that franchise reportedly has its sights set on Jeff Van Gundy).

Here’s the question Bird and team owner Herb Simon need to answer: If not Vogel, who do you have that’s better? Think about the coaches still on the market, who is better than Vogel?

Vogel gets his teams to defend like few other coaches in the league (the Pacers were third in the league in defensive rating this season with a largely overhauled roster), and that is the foundation of any winning team. Force an “offensive coordinator” assistant on Vogel if you want, but to give up one of the better young coaches in the NBA would be a mistake by the Pacers.

And if you want to play smaller and faster, get — and in the case of Solomon Hill try to keep — players who fit that style. Right now the Pacers roster is not constructed to be great that way.