Durant’s versatility has nothing to do with position, just greatness

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This is not about positionality. It’s not about the transcendence of Kevin Durant’s athletic ability and basketball skill to cross-over to any spot on the floor. And it’s certainly not about the antiquated conditions of position that too often limit where and how we think of players and both their potential and liabilities.  It’s about the individual nature of Kevin Durant, and his progress. A progress that is both terrifyingly supplementary and drastically necessary.

I’ll explain.

You’ll remember earlier this week when the Daily Oklahoman reported on Kevin Durant being used at all five positions. All the talk was of how the young superstar is learning to play different slots on the floor. How he’s learning to orchestrate the offense as a point guard or work as a bigger power forward, a position he says he has to make up for with “heart. ” But the reality of the situation is this. Durant isn’t learning to be Chris Paul. He’s not working on emulating Tim Duncan. And he’s not stretching what it means to be a center. It’s the evolution of his specific game. It’s being Kevin Durant, only wearing different outfits. Or, as a better analogy, it’s a lot like when Mario would don the different suits in Super Mario Bros. 3. Just because he’s throwing hammers doesn’t make him a turtle. Mario is still Mario, and KD is still KD. He’s just doing different things as he continues his role as KD.  That’s partially out of respect to his talents, and partially because those talents simply can’t be transformed.

When we talk about players adapting to new positions, we usually mean they’re actually playing those roles. For example, when Dwyane Wade plays point guard, he’s actually setting up the offense, calling out plays, actually weaving through pick and rolls to find open shooters. Rashard Lewis moving to the three has entirely different meanings than what Durant is doing. When Amar’e Stoudemire slides down and plays the five, it’s because the Knicks need a role filled. That’s not what’s happening with Durant. With Durant, it’s the exploration of his potential as a small forward, or more accurately, as a player. It is, to be honest, a stunningly similar situation to what LeBron has evolved into.

Both LeBron and Durant play small forward, but they’re so much more than that. Because they’re so talented, they receive the ball in a myriad of ways. High post. Wing. Top of the key. Off the cut. Low-post. All of these positions are classically maintained by positions other than the one they occupy. And that’s the genius component. LeBron is able to post a small forward defending him as a power forward. Durant is able to take a small forward off the dribble as if he were a point guard. It doesn’t mean that Durant actually is a point guard, anymore than it means that Kevin Durant is a small forward at this point. He may need to be surrounded by two bigger players, and two smaller players, but that still doesn’t make him a small forward.

What Durant is, is a franchise player and a scoring behemoth. There’s just not a lot he can’t do with his skillset. He’s not the distributor that James is and he never will b.e But what he can do is do what he does (score) in any conceivable fashion. He just has to learn how. And that’s what this is about. Take Chauncey Billups, for example. Billups is a point guard who doesn’t weave through traffic with the greatest of ease, doesn’t whip behind the back passes or fancy alley-oops all that often. But he’s reliable in what he does, and in addition to his perimeter shooting, floor leadership, and system management, Billups can back that smaller guard into the post and bury him from the block. It’s an element that so few of his defenders have. Durant is extrapolating this to its furthest degree. Force the other team’s small forward into a helpless position, be it on the perimeter or in the paint, and you’ve just forced the defense to alter their lineup specifically to stop you. And once that’s happened, as long as your teammates are competent (which Durant’s are), you’ve won the battle.

The biggest element in all this is less about what position Durant is playing, but more about how he’s playing his own. Kobe Bryant took lessons from Hakeem Olajuwon to learn how to better play in the post. Many players look to Mark Price specifically to shoot better. Durant already shoots well. What he’s doing now is learning to do those things in different ways. Again, we’re brought back to what was a very formative experience for Durant, the Lakers series. Durant got the ball in the three positions he most often did during the season. Top of the key, perimeter wing, and extended-elbow face-up. And it was in those places that Artest managed to detonate his abilities. He was limited, because as good as he was, he was only good in three ways, essentially. This new work will enable him to adapt to his opponent. If Durant is “running point” it doesn’t mean that the opponent’s point guard will spend much time on him. If they do it’s because they’ve switched to a huge lineup, not simply because Durant is doing the dribbling. It’ll still mostly be players who can physically match him.

And those players won’t react well when taken off the dribble as LeBron James was last Friday. They won’t be able to adjust to his  post-play or work on the offensive glass. Durant isn’t becoming anything else with this evolutionary position shifting. He’s simply becoming the best thing he can be. It’s a complete approach to the game. And if you’re not scared of that, you live in Oklahoma City.

It reflects a work ethic to deliver the best of what Durant is, not become something else entirely. In this way, Durant is the very polar opposite of Anthony Randolph. Randolph is still lauded as having the potential to be anything, take on any role, yet in reality he’s so incomplete and scattered he’s almost nothing identifiable. He’s nondescript in his prolific near-versatility. Durant is the opposite. He’s able to be what he is in every way, playset, and situation. And most importantly it changes the answer to the question that helped the Lakers beat the Thunder in April. The question was how do you stop Kevin Durant? And with his skillset at that time, there were a series of deliberate mechanisms Artest and the Lakers’ defense employed to limit the things he was good at. But now Durant is learning to be more than those things, even as he remains what he is: the league’s most devastating scorer.

So now the question is: “How do you stop Kevin Durant?”

And terrifyingly, the answer is getting closer and closer to: “You can’t. “

Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship

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The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.