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Three Things to Know: Durant’s pending free agency looms over Green suspension

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Kevin Durant’s pending free agency looms over Draymond Green suspension. It has been the subtle — and, at times, not so subtle — subtext to the entire Golden State season, the cloud casting a shadow over everything:

What is Kevin Durant going to do as a free agent next summer?

That was the foundation of what Draymond Green used to go back at Durant after Green did not pass him the ball on the final play of regulation against the Clippers, with Green saying Durant was making the season about himself. It was the foundation of why GM Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr came down so hard on Green with a one-game suspension (costing Green more than $120,000).

It shows the cracks in that Warriors foundation.

Maybe not big enough ones to keep them from winning the title this season. The players on the roster are too good and too professional for that. However, the cracks may well be big enough to break the team up next summer and send Durant elsewhere.

After the Warriors, without Green or the still-injured Stephen Curry, barely held off the Atlanta Hawks for a win Tuesday night, everyone around the team played down the incident.

It all came to a head when a frustrated Durant called out Green on the bench after the final play of regulation against the Clippers, which we all have seen — Green got the rebound and decided to go coast-to-coast and create himself, rather than defer to Durant, who was clapping his hands and calling for the ball.

Green is vocal, emotional, and will defend himself even when he knows he is wrong (and he was wrong not to give up the rock in that situation, other teammates called him out for it, too). Green, apparently showing off a built-up frustration (that, reportedly, is not just his own) came back hard at Durant calling him a “b****” and that is officially what got him suspended.

But Green also stomped into the space where all season the Warriors organization top-to-bottom has walked on eggshells — Durant’s looming free agency. Green reportedly said Durant has made it the season all about himself by very publicly keeping his options open (right out of the LeBron James playbook). Klay Thompson is a free agent next summer as well but has made it clear at every step he doesn’t want to leave the Warriors. Green is a 2020 free agent but has followed Thompson’s path. Durant has gone a different direction, and now all the Warriors have to answer media questions about KD’s future at every road stop.

Mentally, the Warriors players and organization are prepared for Durant to leave next summer. However, when Green threw Durant’s free agency out in the middle of the room and threw a light on it, the organization felt it had to signal to Durant it has his back. Ideally, the Warriors want to keep KD and the suspension — rather than a fine and handling it internally — was part of that. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a unique player and that emotion is part of what makes him one of the top 15-20 players in the league. Management felt Green crossed a line this time, but it’s also a message to Durant that the Warriors will back him.

All of that still hangs in the air in the Warriors’ locker room. How Green responds to this long-term — how pissed will he be the franchise backed KD? — now hangs out there, too.

Don’t think that this will get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together. These are adults and professionals, they can work together enough to get past it.

But next July when free agency hits, remember all of this.

2) Rockets win in Denver shows they have found their stride again. Maybe. Tuesday night up in the Rockies an interesting Xs and Os battle was going on.

In the first half Denver did what a growing number of teams have tried with Houston this season: Rather than switch when James Harden gets a high pick (allowing him to isolate on a big man or the victim of his choice), they double and trap Harden, taking the ball out of his hands. The idea is “make someone else beat us, not the MVP.”

Denver’s gambit worked in this sense: Harden didn’t get his first bucket until 5:22 was left in the second quarter, and he was officially 1-of-5 with three points in the first half. However, Denver’s strategy didn’t work in this sense: Chris Paul had 14 points in the half, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon each had 9, the Rockets still put up 54 points with a 117 points per 100 possessions net rating. The other guys did step up and looked like they might beat Denver.

Sensing it was not working as well as hoped, and because the Rockets were adjusting and getting better looks, early in the second half Denver went back to switching. Harden predictably tore the Nuggets apart and finished with 22 points, and 11 assists and the Rockets pulled away late for the 109-99 win.

That’s not why the Rockets seem to be finding their stride again. Rather, for the last couple of games Houston’s defense has looked better — not great, but close to last season’s version than we have seen this season. If the Rockets start defending well then they will be a threat again.

3) Good news: Caris LeVert’s injury not nearly as severe as it looked. When you watched the video of Caris LeVert’s injury, you couldn’t help but flash back to Gordon Hayward and Paul George and some of the other more gruesome and terrible injuries we have seen in the NBA, and in sports, in recent years. It looked that bad for the young Nets star, so bad other players were crying on the sideline.

Fortunately, it out it was not that bad. LeVert’s diagnosis is a dislocated right foot, but without a fracture and with relatively minor ligament damage. No surgery is required and the Nets said he is expected to be back on the court this season.

That is amazing news.

Report: Tim Connelly rejects Wizards, staying with Nuggets

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Nuggets president Tim Connelly could have led the Wizards’ front office, worked close to his native Baltimore and presumably gotten a raise from his reported $2 million salary.

Instead, he’s stay in Denver.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This is a huge win for Denver and even bigger setback for Washington.

Connelly has put the Nuggets into a great position. They’re young and good in a combination rarely seen in NBA history. Connelly drafted Nikola Jokic in the second round then built around him a short time later. This season, Denver won 54 games and reached Game 7 of the second round with 24-year-old Jokic flanked by Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

More decisions always lie ahead – notably Millsap’s $30 million team option for next season. But the Nuggets’ core is already in place and mostly under team control.

The Wizards need far more work. John Wall‘s contract is arguably the NBA’s worst. Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard are also roadblocks. Several key players will be free agents this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, Bradley Beal be eligible for a super-max extension – a tricky decision for the club.

It would have been great for Washington to entrust Connelly with all that. He has proven excellent at his job.

Troy Weaver, Danny Ferry or Tommy Sheppard might do well for the Wizards. But they’re candidates who offer far less certainty.

Kawhi Leonard tries to downplay leg issue, “I’m good”

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Toronto won a gritty Game 3 at home — and are back in the Eastern Conference Finals — because of Kawhi Leonard.

From the opening tip, he was the man guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo (although in a game with a lot of switching plenty of others also got their shot). It was the biggest adjustment Toronto coach Nick Nurse made — and it worked. Antetokounmpo had 12 points on 16 shots in the game and, according to ESPN’s tracking, was 1-of-9 when guarded by Leonard. On the other end, Leonard had 36 points, nine rebounds, and played 52 critical minutes. He was the MVP of Game 3.

And he did it all through a noticeable limp.

He landed awkwardly on a first-quarter layup and all game this clearly limited his mobility.

When asked about it after the game, Leonard shrugged it off.

For much of the season, whenever Leonard was mentioned so was with the phrase “load management.” He had missed all but nine games the season before with quadriceps tendinopathy — the treatment for that, and whether it was a muscular injury or not, was at the heart of Leonard’s discord with San Antonio — and in Toronto he missed 22 games in the regular season to help keep that issue at bay.

That may not be related to what is bothering him now, but the Raptors and Leonard had gone to great lengths to get him rest during the regular season so he would be ready for the playoffs. He has responded, being the best player in the East through the postseason so far. That includes hitting the game-winner to send Philadelphia home, then on Sunday keeping Toronto alive against the Bucks by force of will. But he has played a heavy load of minutes — physical, playoff minutes — to get there.

Will that slow Leonard Tuesday night in Game 4?

It can’t if they want to even this series. Milwaukee will play better in Game 4, keeping Antetokounmpo bottled up may be near impossible, and other Bucks had off-games as well (they shot 37.3 percent as a team in Game 3). Toronto will have to play better to keep pace. Marc Gasol will need to continue taking and hitting the threes (shots the Bucks dared him to take in the first two games), Pascal Siakam will have to have another big game, as will the Raptors’ bench.

But mostly, Leonard needs to be the best player on the floor again, the guy doing this:

If not, Toronto’s season will be on the brink.

After coaching search, Minnesota reportedly settles on owner-favorite Ryan Saunders for job

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“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]… I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”

That was Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor on his interim coach, Ryan Saunders, a statement made with about 20 games to go in the season. The Timberwolves reportedly negotiated the outline of a contract with Saunders, but when Gersson Rosas was brought in as team president, he was given the freedom to run a full coaching search.

He has settled on the guy the owner wanted, a story broken by Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

Rosas interviewed other candidates and ran a legitimate job search for the position, but it seems the smart political move for the guy new on the job to hire the guy the owner wanted, and the guy the star player bonded with.

That’s not to say Saunders is a poor choice, he earned this chance. Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler‘s sabotaging of the team’s season led to coach/GM Tom Thibodeau being shown the door. Saunders quickly developed a strong relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns, who played much better under Saunders the second half of the season. There were other signs Saunders was up to the task and would be a good hire, not just a prudent one.

Now it appears Saunders has the job.

The real task for Rosas is to give Saunders a team that can live up to Towns’ potential. It will not be easy with a capped out roster and some anchor contracts (Andrew Wiggins).

Report: Cavaliers hire J.B. Bickerstaff to John Beilein’s staff

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are still trying to figure things out. LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, and now the team has hired John Beilein to be its head coach. The team doesn’t have a top pick the way it has in years past, and barring any trades they will select 25th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

But at least they are figuring out there coaching staff Issues.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavaliers have hired former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to be its top assistant coach. Bickerstaff was apparently also in talks with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings.

Via Twitter:

Bickerstaff previously headed the Houston Rockets from 2015 to 2016, and was the top man for the Grizzlies over the last two seasons after the team canned David Fizdale.

This is a solid hire for the Cavs. Bickerstaff has been a respected assistant in the league for the past decade-and-a-half, and he should give some veteran NBA oopmh behind Beilein, who most recently coached at Michigan for 12 years and is headed into his rookie season.