NBA Playoffs: Ron Artest was too strong, too smart for Durant, Thunder

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artest_durant.jpgIn a year, maybe two, teams are not going to be able to do this to Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant. Then he will be stronger; the team will be more experienced. But right now they can, and Ron Artest and the Lakers did.

Los Angeles simply out-muscled, out-hustled and out-thought the best player Oklahoma City has got. With Ron Artest on him, Kevin Durant was just 4 of 18 shooting on the night (7-24 overall). Durant usually still makes some of those well-covered shots, he will as the series goes on, but Scott Brooks and his team need to come up with other actions to get Durant open, or things will not get a lot better.

After rewatching the game and focusing on the Artest/Durant battle, it was clear the Lakers did several things to shut him down.

The first was keeping the game in the half-court. In an uptempo game, the young and athletic Thunder would steamroll the Lakers, and Durant would get easy points filling a lane on the break. His confidence would grow. The Lakers held the game to 87 possessions, six fewer than the Thunder averaged this season  — and about six less than the Lakers, it’s just that LA is better able to adjust their game.

Part two of the plan was what everybody is talking about — Ron Artest.

Artest is a pit bull of a defender. First off, he is relentless, he never quits, never gives up. Second, he is physical and strong, and knows how to use it. The Oklahoma City team — not just Durant but also the team — were not prepared for this.

Artest tried to deny Durant the ball in any spot on the floor he likes. That’s always his modus operandi. And he is too strong for Durant to hold his position on his own. Artest tries to do the same things to players like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony but has less success because they are strong enough to hold him off and get some angles they want. Durant needs more muscle on the frame to do that.

To help Durant out, the Thunder ran some simple plays right out of every NBA playbook — some cross screens, some pindowns — trying to free Durant up on the strong side. Artest just blew those up and was in Durant’s grill the whole time. Two reasons for that. First, Artest has been seeing those since he entered the league. Artest is a smart player, a savvy one. If he knows it’s coming, you’re not going to succeed with it very often. You have to do better than the basics to catch him off guard.

Second, there isn’t a player strong enough on the Thunder to set a pick Artest can’t run through, especially on the screen-and-roll. Much like Durant himself, this is a young and lanky team. That serves them well in transition, not as well in a game of physical half-court sets.

The Lakers bigs also defended the picks well, they showed out on Durant enough until Artest arrived, which was not long. The Lakers were well prepared for this part of the Thunder playbook.

Brooks and his staff have to figure out ways to get Durant free. That may be better putting Durant on the weakside then using quick ball rotation to get him the ball in isolation. They can’t keep running basic sets and keep Durant on the strong side.

They have to do something different. The Thunder need Durant to win in this series, and Artest and his somewhat creepy blond hair are not going away.

Mark Cuban explains some, though not all, of his role in Mavericks’ hostile work environment (video)

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As a result of the investigation into his team’s hostile work environment, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will donate $10 million “organizations that are committed to supporting the leadership and development of women in the sports industry and combating domestic violence.” The Mavericks will also report to the NBA on structural changes to their organization.

And Cuban showed accountability by granting an interview to Rachel Nichols of ESPN:

I appreciate Cuban sitting for this interview with Nichols, who grilled him. I appreciate him apologizing to the actual victims. I appreciate him taking responsibility for the wrongdoing that happened beneath him. I appreciate him explaining what he did wrong and what he learned. I appreciate him, along with Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall, explaining the changes they’re making to rectify the situation.

But, though he explained his logic and subsequent lesson from handling Earl Sneed’s domestic violence, Cuban gave no real answer to how he let former CEO Terdema Ussery – found to be an serial sexual harasser – remain in power for 15 years. Taking Cuban at his word – that he was blind to the sexual harassment prevalent in the Mavericks business office – means shattering his image as a great businessman. The sharp and in-charge owner Cuban presented himself as would never grant Ussery such unchecked power for so long. “If I was in our business office five times in 15 years, that was a lot,” Cuban told Nichols. “I mean, it’s embarrassing to say.”

And that’s the benign explanation. Embarrassing is nothing compared to the alternative – that Cuban was as involved as he portrayed, which would mean he knew about Ussery’s misconduct and excused it. The choices are that Cuban’s first-rate businessman image was fraudulent or that he’s directly complicit in Ussery’s sexual harassment.

More than anything, hopefully Cuban has truly learned how not to repeat his prior errors.

Report: Clippers emerging as frontrunner to sign Kawhi Leonard

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Does Kawhi Leonard prefer the Clippers or Lakers in 2019 free agency? Reports have been mixed, though credible journalists have increasingly favored the Clippers since LeBron James signed with the Lakers. Yet, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN held out on the Lakers being Leonard’s top choice.

Now – with Jimmy Butler reportedly preferring a trade to the Clippers – Wojnarowski appears to be coming around on the Clippers.

Wojnarowski:

The Clippers have two max contract slots available in July, and are emerging as a front-runner for Toronto’s All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard when he becomes a free agent in July, league sources said.

Leonard and Butler would form a tantalizing tandem.

Butler reportedly wants to showcase himself in a big city while Leonard seemingly wants both to be in Los Angeles but remain out of the spotlight. Together, maybe they could both get what they want.

Though Butler’s demanding style has worn on teammates in Minnesota, nobody has ever accused Leonard of lacking work ethic or competitiveness. I bet Butler would respect Leonard.

They’re both elite defensively and at least very good offensively. There could be issues with how often each likes to isolate, but get all that talent to L.A. then figure out the rest later.

The question for the Clippers: Do they trade for Butler now or wait to try signing both stars in free agency next summer? The latter option carries more upside, allowing the Clippers to preserve assets. But it also risks Minnesota trading Butler and his Bird Rights to another team and him re-signing there.

The Clippers have several veterans – Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari – who might appeal to Tom Thibodeau, who seemingly wants to win now. L.A. could also offer 2018 lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Alexander. However, the Clippers can’t convey a first-round pick until 2021 at the earliest.

I don’t know whether they’ll trade for Butler, but if the Clippers do, I know we’ll crank up the Leonard-Clippers speculation even higher. There’s value in putting that in Leonard’s mind while the Raptors are trying to woo him first-hand over the next year.

Reports: Jimmy Butler’s trade preference is Clippers, Knicks less interested

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Knicks president Steve Mills said New York wouldn’t trade its draft picks and wouldn’t trade for players it could just sign in free agency. In other words: No more Carmelo Anthony– or Andrea Bargnani-type deals.

Then, Jimmy Butler – who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer – requested a trade from the Timberwolves and put the Knicks on his list of preferred destinations (with the Nets and Clippers).

Will Mills hold firm in his patient plan?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Brooklyn and the Clippers appear motivated on Butler, while the Knicks have been firm all summer that the team does not want to part with assets and instead prioritize signing free agents outright, according to sources.

The Knicks should be reluctant to trade for Butler now. Especially with Kristaps Porzingis injured, Butler is unlikely to help New York win meaningfully this season. It’d be much better to sign him next summer and preserve assets.

But there’s no guarantee the Knicks sign him next summer. Whichever team has his Bird Rights and ability to offer him a larger contract will have the upper-hand. There is value in trading for him now.

Perhaps, the Knicks can find a worthwhile Butler trade that includes trading picks. The only way to find out is negotiating with Minnesota.  For New York to eliminate the idea outright because the team made mistakes in similar situations would be misguided.

But Knicks are going to Knick.

At least New York isn’t Butler’s first choice.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Might that other max slot go to Kyrie Irving?

First, L.A. must make the best offer to the Timberwolves and one acceptable to a reportedly reluctant Tom Thibodeau. Then, the Clippers must lure Irving – or any star (Kawhi Leonard?) – from his team.

It’s easy to imagine. It’s far more difficult to turn into reality.

Report: Jimmy Butler less enthused about Lakers after they signed LeBron James

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In 2014, Jimmy Butler said, “I like being a role player. Star has never been next to Jimmy Butler’s name. It never will be. I’ll always be an under-the-radar dawg.”

Then, Butler kept getting better and better. He started to appreciate his stature within the game. He took a leadership role on the Bulls. He embraced celebrity.

Maybe his trade request from the Timberwolves – ideally to the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets or L.A. Clippers – is the next step in this evolution.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

He is enamored with the idea of playing a central role in a big market, sources said. Butler had once imagined playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, but LeBron James‘ arrival as the franchise’s cornerstone made it less appealing for Butler in the prime of his career, league sources said.

Playing with LeBron isn’t for everyone. Kawhi Leonard reportedly became more reluctant to join the Lakers once they got LeBron. (Interestingly, Leonard is reportedly dissuaded by the hoopla LeBron would attract while Butler apparently believes he wouldn’t get enough of a spotlight).

And of course, Kyrie Irving requested and received a trade from LeBron’s Cavaliers last year. Irving and Butler are friends, and maybe Irving warned Butler about the perils of playing with LeBron.

I’m not sure how this report fits with Butler wanting to play with Irving, though. Irving is more popular than Butler. Perhaps, Irving holding a smaller stature than LeBron is enough for Butler. Maybe playing with Irving would be the exception to Butler’s desire to have his own team in a big market.

Or maybe Butler still winds up in Los Angeles with LeBron. Butler was reportedly open to it, though that’s a pretty low standard.

No matter what, Butler should pursue what he wants. NBA careers are short. Players should make the most of theirs, whatever that means to them.

Butler has so far shown he can balance working hard and playing well with stardom. He has earned the right to seek a larger public profile without major consternation about what it’d mean to his on-court production.