NBA Finals: Season over, but LeBron/Durant rivalry just beginning

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For years, the LeBron/Kobe rivalry was the most compelling one in basketball, but we never truly got to see it play out on the court. Sure, their teams would play each other twice a year, and people would try to extrapolate conclusions from those biannual meetings, but there was never really anything substantial on the line during those games, even when Christmas-Day bragging rights were up for grabs.

Ultimately, the LeBron-Kobe rivalry had (has?) more in common with Mayweather-Pacquiao than it does with Ali-Frazier: while there have been literally millions of arguments about which player was superior to the other in comments sections and sports bars and on message boards, the two players never faced each other for a title when they were almost unquestionably the two best players in the world. They had four decent chances at it, but James’ team failed to make it out of the Eastern Conference in 2009 and 2010 and Bryant’s team failed to make it out of the West last season and this season. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.)

The good news is that we don’t have to mourn the fact we didn’t get a LeBron-Kobe Finals (yet-as a rule, I never count out Kobe or Jerry Buss) too much anymore, because the LeBron-Durant rivalry is already shaping up to be an all-time classic. For five wonderful games, the NBA’s best all-around player went toe-to-toe with its best pure scorer, and neither of them disappointed, dominating in their own ways en route to a classic, if short, NBA Finals.

All series long, James picked apart Oklahoma City’s defense while Durant simply disregarded Miami’s. James used his combination of size, speed, and passing ability in a way we’ve never quite seen him do before — he was completely hell-bent on getting to the paint time and time again, either by blowing by Thunder players on the perimeter or using his refined post game to back them all the way down. When he got to the paint, he’d either finish, draw contact and go to the line, or kick it out to a wide-open teammate for an easy score. He was also an absolute monster on the boards, and he finished the finals with eye-popping averages of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game, although he did turn the ball over more than he normally does. After the Finals, LeBron was given his first Bill Russell Trophy, and he more than earned it.

As good as LeBron was, however, Durant was nearly as impressive. The Thunder didn’t run many screens for Durant or get him the ball of pick-and-roll sets very much — apart from transition baskets, Durant got the ball almost exclusively in isolation situations with a Heat defender directly in his face, usually LeBron James or Shane Battier. Battier has been one of the most intelligent and effective perimeter defenders in the league for years, and James has become an absolute monster on defense. He is almost universally considered the best perimeter defender in the league, and received more votes than any other player for the All-Defensive Team. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, he neutralized Derrick Rose when he guarded him in fourth quarters, and he held Paul Pierce to 34.4% shooting in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Kevin Durant, who is all of 23 years old and was playing in his first ever NBA Finals, simply did not care about any of that one little bit. Durant would either pull up straight over his defender before dribbling towards the basket and make a long-range shot, take a few dribbles towards the hoop and pull up for an unblockable pull-up or floater, or get down near the basket and swish a turnaround jumper like he was shooting in an empty gym. Durant, who is freaking 23 years old and was facing some of the best team and individual defense in the league and was not getting set up with many easy looks, scored 30.6 points per game while shooting a disgusting 54.8% from the floor and 39.4% from beyond the arc.

What’s more, it never looked like he was on the verge of blinking, let alone sweating. And he never disrupted the flow of the Thunder offense — if anything, it would often seem like Durant had barely been involved in the Thunder offense before you realized he already had 25 points. Early-20s LeBron took our breaths away with his combination of size, athleticism, and pure basketball talent and IQ, but Durant’s size, skill, and seeming inability to be fazed on the court are just as breathtaking.

James drew first blood what I’m hoping will be a long string of NBA Finals played between the Thunder and the Heat, but Durant proved himself to be a more than worthy competitor for James’ crown as he finally officially grabbed his. There are a million variables that could prevent a James-Durant rematch, both next year and in the years to come, but I’m hoping we get enough of them to make this one of modern basketball’s great rivalries.

Report: Top draft prospects trying to avoid Kings

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The Kings – with their image as “basketball hell” – struggled to get top draft prospects to work out for them in 2016 and, to a lesser degree, last year.

This year, Marvin Bagley went to Sacramento and declared, “I love it here.”

That differentiated Bagley from Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mohamed Bamba – to the point the Kings are increasingly expected to draft Bagley No. 2 overall.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN on The Lowe Post podcast:

Who even wants to go to Sacramento? Because a lot of the top guys in this draft are openly trying to avoid going there. Jaren Jackson, Mo Bamba, Doncic – no medical for Sacramento. So, if they’re going to take one of these guys, they’re taking him blindly without knowing, what is this person’s medical status going to be down the road?

The one guy who wants to go there is Marvin Bagley. He actually went out there to work out, and they have his medicals.

He’s the kind of guy that he dreamed of being the No. 1 pick his whole life. And so if he’s not going to go No. 1, then he has to go No. 2.

You earn more money, and it’s prestige thing. And so, he’s been in competition his whole life with DeAndre Ayton, his former teammate. So, DeAndre is going to go one. Bagley is going to go two. We were the first ones to put Bagley at two, and Kings fans were up in arms and said, “Oh my god. There’s no way that Vlade passes on Luka. Can’t see it happening.” And, yeah, that’s the way it’s looking right now. But a lot of things can happen.

Zach Lowe:

It’s at least three or four months now that this buzz has been permeating the world, that Vlade Divac does not like Luka Doncic as a prospect.

The buzz has been so loud and so universal that it’s almost strange. So, it’s either true and Vlade has been telling everyone in the world that he does not like this guy for whatever, does not like him as a prospect, taking him at No. 2, anyway. Or it’s the greatest con job in NBA history.

Givony:

All year, it’s not just Vlade, but also his staff was very openly criticizing Luka, saying he’s not athletic enough. He’s too emotional. He’s not this. He’s not that.

Some of it might be, like we talked about, who wants to go to Sacramento? The fact that Marvin Bagley went to a workout, wore the Kings jersey and did that whole thing, I think that really put him in position to be No. 2, because I don’t know if they’re feeling that same love for Luka.

It’s just not the kind of embarrassment that they want right now. They’re really trying to show people that it’s a new Kings, that they’ve changed. It’s not the same mistakes that they’ve made two, three years ago. It’s a thing of the past. So, that potential embarrassment, I think, of him coming out and saying, “Trade me. I’m not coming to training camp,” that’s enough maybe to steer them into thinking that they shouldn’t take him.

This is hustling backward. The Kings seem to care more about their reputation than the actual things that gave them that reputation in the first place. Those surface-level fixes won’t work.

Want to improve the team’s image? Draft the best prospect available and use him to get good. Attack the substance of the problem.

Sacramento has made many ownership and management missteps that indicate a chaotic culture. But nothing lowers the Kings’ prestige more than their 12-season playoff drought (which is obviously influenced by ownership and management but is far more easily identifiable).

If that best prospect is Bagley, great. But I don’t think it is, and his eagerness to get drafted high to the point he’s embracing Sacramento doesn’t change his abilities as a player.

Fear of Doncic staying in Europe seems to be overthinking. If the Suns draft Deandre Ayton, Doncic would be my choice.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Kings are right to take Bagley.

But it seems increasingly likely they’ll pick him for the wrong reasons, which only lowers the odds of him actually be the optimal choice.

Sterling Brown’s lawsuit: Police officer involved in tasing/arrest posted on Facebook about getting same chance with J.R. Smith after NBA Finals Game 1

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Bucks guard Sterling Brown said he’d sue the Milwaukee police department over his tasing and arrest last January. The now-filed lawsuit makes the involved police officers look even worse than videos of the incident already did.

Somehow, J.R. Smith and his gaffe in Game of the NBA Finals got involved.

Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post:

Lowery posted the full lawsuit here.

There is a systematic problem where police too frequently trample on the rights of people, disproportionately minorities. Celebrating that intrusion of governmental forces is disgusting and speaks to the mindset that fuels the problem.

A few suspensions won’t fix the problem. Brown’s lawsuit won’t fix the problem.

But, hopefully, it sheds light on the bigger issue and is a step toward a solution. Unfortunately, history suggests the city will settle and just views it as a cost of doing business.

Report: Mavericks targeting Luka Doncic in draft

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It appears increasingly likely the Suns will draft DeAndre Ayton No. 1 and the Kings will take Marvin Bagley No. 2.

So, Luka Doncic – once more of a consensus top-two prospectcould fall.

All the way to the Mavericks at No. 5? They apparently hope so.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

Dallas at five, they’re asking themselves, “Can we stay at five and get Luka Doncic, or do we have to move up to get the player?” Because that is the guy they have targeted for the Mavericks.

I doubt Doncic gets past the Grizzlies at No. 4, though I wouldn’t rule it out. The Hawks could even take him at No. 3.

Could Dallas trade up with Atlanta at No. 3 to get Doncic ahead of Memphis? What about swapping picks with the Grizzlies, maybe even taking Chandler Parsons‘ toxic contract (though that’d come with complications)?

This is a common situation. The Mavericks have the No. 5 pick. They want a player most people rate higher than fifth. Many teams want players rated higher than where they’re drafting.

The big question: What will Dallas do about it?

Rumor: Chris Paul telling people LeBron James wants to join Lakers

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Chris Paul is reportedly recruiting LeBron James very hard to the Rockets.

The response?

Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:

According to my sources, several things are happening. A, Chris Paul is telling folks Lebron ain’t trying to come to Houston. He wants to be in L.A. These are things I’m getting through the grapevine. Chris Paul is saying LeBron wants to be in L.A.

That’s quite believable. LeBron reportedly said he doesn’t like Houston as a city, and we know he likes Los Angeles. Lifestyle matters.

But it won’t be the only consideration. LeBron is still in “championship mode,” and the Rockets are closer than anyone to beating the Warriors. Perhaps, Paul can still convince his friend to join Houston.

But it sounds as if Paul recognizes he’s playing from behind – and so are all other non-Lakers suitors for LeBron.