Dan Feldman

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) and guard Russell Westbrook, right, shout after a 3-point basket by Durant in the third quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Report: Russell Westbrook apologized to Thunder for influencing Kevin Durant into being edgier

3 Comments

In 2010, Kevin Durant was hailed as a humble superstar – someone who announced his contract extension on Twitter and bemoaned other stars teaming up.

Six years later, Durant shook the NBA by leaving the Thunder for the star-studded Warriors and turning himself into a basketball villain.

What changed, and did Russell Westbrook contribute to a Durant transformation?

Westbrook apparently thought so.

At the 2015 All-Star game, Durant made waves by telling the media, “You guys really don’t know s—.” Durant later expressed regret, but that moment felt like a flashpoint to many.

Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

Fans, media and team officials weren’t the only ones taken aback by Durant’s abnormal behavior. Privately, Westbrook was so stunned by his buddy’s behavior he called his teammate to ask what was going on. The mercurial point guard felt his personality had begun rubbing off on Durant. He told his co-star that’s not him and went out of his way to apologizing to team officials for the role he might have played in Durant reveling in an edgier dark side.

Did Westbrook rub off on Durant? Probably. We’re influenced by the people around us, and NBA teammates spend a lot of time together.

In many ways, that was a good thing. Durant became a more aggressive player while playing with Westbrook, and he emphatically stuck up for Westbrook publicly multiple times.

Durant also set out to prove just how cutthroat he is. He talked up his killer instinct and lack of a filter.

Maybe that was Westbrook changing him. Maybe that was just Durant growing up. Or maybe that was Durant all along, and he just became less afraid to show his true self.

Durant has been psychoanalyzed many times since he left Oklahoma City. Does he run too quickly from a challenge? Is he too impulsive? Do others hold too much sway in his choices?

I saw someone secure in his decision, one he knew would be unpopular. Returning to the Thunder would have been safe and drawn little criticism. Where did Durant get the confidence to do what he wanted?

Perhaps, at least a little bit, from the ultra-confident and ultra-brash Westbrook.

Nikola Vucevic, amid trade and demotion rumors, off to hot start for Magic

vucevic
Manuela Davies/Getty Images
3 Comments

The Magic traded for Serge Ibaka – then called Nikola Vucevic.

The Magic signed Jeff Green – then called Vucevic.

The Magic signed Bismack Biyombo – then called Vucevic.

After each move to add to a big-man rotation that already included Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, someone from Orlando – usually general manager Rob Hennigan – explained the rationale to Vucevic. The Magic wanted to add depth, get better defensively, become more energetic and positive and find a veteran leader. And Vucevic says he endorsed all that.

“I never felt like my position was in danger,” Vucevic said.

So many others thought it was.

Numerous analysts pegged Vucevic as the odd man out, likely to be demoted from the starting lineup if not traded. Then, a funny thing happened: Vucevic has held his job as starting center and been the Magic’s best player so far this season.

He leads Orlando’s frontcourt players in points (14.8), rebounds (12.8) and assists (3.0) per game. The Magic are way better with him on the court than off – scoring 7.4 more and allowing 19.5 fewer points per 100 possessions.

The sentiment behind expecting a Vucevic trade is understandable. After all, his four years in Orlando produced four losing seasons. If he had played better, the Magic wouldn’t need such a drastic overhaul. Vucevic, a skilled offensive player with defensive deficiencies, didn’t seem to fit the new vision.

Orlando added three players with higher salaries than Vucevic who will affect his playing time. Vucevic and Biyombo are centers. Ibaka is a power forward-center. Gordon and Green are power forward-small forwards. With the exception of Green, they all defend better than Vucevic – which would seem to hold particular sway under new coach Frank Vogel.

Yet, not only is Vucevic excelling, his frontcourt teammates aren’t. Ibaka has looked lethargic on defense more often than not. Biyombo still hasn’t settled in after being suspended for the season opener. Green has been (predictably) shaky. The promising Gordon looks displaced at small forward.

As a result, early returns on the Magic’s plan are negative. They’re 1-3 and seem likely to continue their streak of aiming for the playoffs and falling short. On one hand, dealing Vucevic for a perimeter player could stabilize the rotation. But how can you trade the only big man who looks comfortable?

Vucevic said he didn’t need the offseason phone calls, but he appreciated the reassurances. That has translated to a confident player – one who publicly stated that he should start over Biyombo and has backed it up on the court.

“I knew what my value is. I knew what I can bring to this team,” Vucevic said. “And so, I wasn’t afraid that my role or something was going to get hurt by that.”

Before this offseason, Orlando had given Vucevic every reason to believe his place is secure.

The Magic have had five players eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension under Hennigan. They traded one (Maurice Harkless), let another become an unrestricted free agent and leave (Andrew Nicholson) and made two restricted free agents and re-signed them (Evan Fournier and Tobias Harris). Vucevic is the only one to receive an extension.

That four-year, $53 million pact looked lofty at the time, but the new national TV deals have made it a bargain – part of the reason Vucevic appears to tradable. He’s making just $11.75 million this season and $25 million over the next two.

The market for centers has cooled, but at that price, many teams would love to have a big man who possesses crafty moves in the paint and a steady mid-range jumper, skillfully drops dimes and gobbles up rebounds.

Vucevic steals some rebounds from teammates, but Orlando rebounds much better with him on the floor. His on-off numbers are boosted by playing with other starters, though there’s a reason he’s untrusted with those minutes. He’s due for some regression to the mean, especially defensively, but he has already pleasantly surprised his new coach on that end.

“His natural talents are on the offensive end. There’s no doubt about that,” Vogel said. “But all you can ask of all your players is to give maximum effort, and he’s doing that right now.”

Said Vucevic: “I’m not an explosive, high-jumping guy that’s just going to go and get the ball on top of the backboard. It’s more about just being in the right position at the right time.”

The trade speculation probably won’t go away. If the Magic remain dismal, they could seek a shakeup. If they improve, they could lean more on the sparkling new additions and younger players and deal Vucevic.

But in a way few expected before the season, Vucevic might actually just be in the right position at the right time.

Now, Vucevic must keep it up, and the rest of the Magic must catch up if this isn’t going to be another lost season in Orlando.

Rudy Gobert posterizes Justin Anderson (video)

Leave a comment

Poor Justin Anderson. He never had a chance against Rudy Gobert.

NBA: Hassan Whiteside should’ve fouled out on play with DeMarcus Cousins (not that one)

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) fouls Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016, in Miami. The Heat won 108-96 in overtime. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
AP Photo/Alan Diaz
4 Comments

DeMarcus Cousins fouled out of the Kings’ loss to the Heat on Tuesday, exiting the game on a controversial call – offensively fouling Hassan Whiteside with 30.6 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

After review, the NBA ruled that call correct.

Last Two Minute Report:

Cousins (SAC) initiates contact to Whiteside’s (MIA) arm and holds it through his drive to the basket, affecting Whiteside’s ability to defend. Even though Whiteside makes contact to Cousins’ hip during the drive, the offensive foul is correctly called.

Video of that play:

HOWEVER, Whiteside would have never been in position to draw that foul if officials had made a correct call earlier in crunch time. Whiteside should’ve fouled out while jostling with Cousins for a rebound with 1:50 left in the fourth. Last Two Minute Report:

Whiteside (MIA) clamps the arm of Cousins (SAC) and affects his ability to retrieve the rebound.

Video of that play:

The Heat were in the penalty, so instead of playing out an offensive possession – which ended with Cousins missing and Miami securing a defensive rebound – Cousins would’ve gone to the free-throw line for two attempts.

In reality, the Heat used that stop to reach overtime. A should’ve-fouled-out Whiteside made his only shot, grabbed three rebounds and blocked a shot in the extra period. With Cousins sidelined, Miami outscored Sacramento 17-5 in overtime for a 108-96 win.

LeBron James tells Cleveland Indians to keep their heads up after World Series loss

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Richard Jefferson and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers react in the eighth inning in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
4 Comments

LeBron James knows a thing or four about losing in the championship round.

So, the Cleveland Indians’ most prominent supporter offered them some praise after they fell to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

LeBron, via Uninterrupted:

If you’re looking for more thoughts on the Indians from NBA players who’ve been there before, see Draymond Green on 3-1 leads.