Three Things to Know: Kevin Durant, welcome to the modern NBA

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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 pushes back on media narrative about him and the Knicks, but that’s the modern NBA. Ever since the New York Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas, opening up two max salary slots this summer for the Knicks, the rumors around the NBA have run rampant — Durant had already signaled the Knicks he was coming. More specifically, he and Kyrie Irving were both coming. That’s not media speculation, that’s plugged-in team executives/agents talking.

Since the day of that trade, and through all the speculation around it, Durant himself did not speak to the media. The internet (and sports talk radio/televised talking head shows) abhor a vacuum, so speculation off those KD rumors filled the space.

Kevin Durant didn’t like that and lashed out at the media on Thursday night from the postgame podium at Oracle Arena.

All I can say is: Kevin Durant, welcome to the modern NBA.

KD, you don’t have to like it, but player movement — and discussion of it — is what has helped fuel the spike in popularity of the NBA (and with that drove up players salaries). It’s the new reality. When one of the handful of best players walking the face of the earth — Durant, Anthony Davis — comes upon a crossroads and could change teams, that talk grows deafeningly loud.

Durant wants to blame the “media” — a popular move for everyone from the White House on down who don’t like the coverage about them — but here’s the reality: the press doesn’t drive this, fans do.

The “media” gives the people what they want — and they want trade talk and rumors about player movement. Durant wants more talk about “the game” and I’m with him. In an ideal world, I would love to write more game stories and breakdowns, discuss why fake dribble handoffs are a hot trend around the NBA, and analyze why Portland is an entirely different team on the road than at home. The reality is those kinds of stories draw far less of an audience than a sourced report that Durant is staying/going/is still unsure about his future plans. Or that Kemba Walker could be the other star in New York. Or whatever rumor you want.

Put simply: Even during the playoffs and NBA Finals, when we will do a lot more game stories/analysis, a report about a non-Finals team’s major player planning to bolt to the Knicks/Lakers/wherever in free agency will get more traffic here at NBC. It’s the same at ESPN, Bleacher Report, independent blogs, and wherever else you get your NBA news. (And remember, the media is a for-profit business. We’re not here just to make people eat their vegetables, if they want rumors they will get them, we just try to keep them reliable.)

That’s the reality of the fishbowl Kevin Durant lives in. Again, he’s welcome not to like it — we know he hates being psychoanalyzed, nor does he like the infamy that followed his decision to go to the Warriors — but he’s paid handsomely for what he does, and the speculation about him and his future is part of that package. It’s why so many players have learned from the PR pros and give bland non-answers about these kinds of things. Durant could say “I am not worrying about free agency until July 1, I’m focused on this team getting a three-peat and that’s all I’m discussing right now” and it would help. Personally, I prefer his honesty, I like that he’s a bit raw on these topics. But the speculation would not go away no matter what he said or didn’t say.

That’s the modern NBA. Like it or not.

2) The trade deadline has reshaped the race for the final playoff spot (or spots) in the West. The Sacramento Kings are going for it. They entered this season with the longest playoff drought in the league, 12 seasons, and it was expected to extend to 13. But a funny thing happened on the way to sending their lottery pick to the Celtics — they became a pretty good team. A fun one to watch. The Kings found their identity in pace, De'Aaron Fox made a huge leap forward, Buddy Hield thrived, and the Kings have hung around .500 and hung around the playoff race in the West.

That race changed a lot in the past few days — and the Kings have gone all-in.

Right now the Clippers are the eight seed in the West, but with their trade of Tobias Harris to the Sixers (another team going all-in) Steve Ballmer and company have set themselves up for a big summer push. The Clippers have been all but stalking Kawhi Leonard and also have been linked to Kevin Durant (whether he likes it or not). The Clippers won’t quit, but without their best player this season (and with Danilo Gallinari out injured) it’s difficult to picture them holding on to that final slot.

That should open the door for the Lakers, who have gotten LeBron James back and looked pretty good before his injury set them back. However, the drama around them — with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and every player not named LeBron being mentioned in Anthony Davis trade rumors — hit their psyche hard, as evidenced by an ugly loss in Indiana (and the Pacers were without Victor Oladipo). The Lakers also are entering a brutal stretch of their schedule, and 1-2 so far on their Grammy road trip. The Lakers are 2.5 games back of the Clippers and are they ready to make a push up the standings?

That opened the door for the Kings and they have decided to go all-in and bust through that door. They traded for the kind of big wing/four they wanted in Harrison Barnes of Dallas. We can debate the series of moves that essentially swapped out Iman Shumpert — who had a bounce-back season in Sacramento and will help the Rockets — for Barnes, but it’s a sign that the Kings — the current ninth seed in the West, 1.5 games back of the Clippers — are making a push to end that playoff drought. They are all in for this year. In an NBA where tanking isn’t a dirty word, this is good to see.

(If you believe in them, you can say Minnesota could get back in this race with a run, they are four games back of the Clippers. I just don’t believe in them this season.)

Can the Kings pass the Clippers and hold off the Lakers? Not sure I’d make that bet, but it’s going to be fun to watch.

3) They still play NBA games during the trade deadline: James Harden extended his streak, Luka Doncic had a triple-double. Let’s make Durant happy and talk about the games for a bit. There were no shocking results on Wednesday night — feisty Brooklyn at home beating Denver was as close to an upset as it got, and that’s not a huge one — but there were some impressive performances.

James Harden’s 30+ point streak extended to 28 games when he dropped 36 on the Kings in a Rockets’ win (not helping that Sactown playoff push).

Luka Doncic doesn’t have his new running mate in Porzingis yet, but the guy the fans wanted in the All-Star game did have a triple-double in Dallas’ win over Charlotte (a team that could use to make a trade for Marc Gasol).

Report: NBA won’t allow Rockets to use Nene’s contract as $10M trade chip

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Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a huge blow to Houston. The Rockets are now stuck with an over-the-hill center they can’t trade for value and can’t play much without triggering bonuses that’ll make him way overpaid.

If they had known how this would turn out, they would’ve signed Nene to a one-year minimum contract at most. At least that’d be partially subsidized by the league. Because this is is a two-year deal, Houston is on the hook for the full base salary.

 

 

The Rockets got a valuable trade chip with Nene’s contract.

At least if the deal goes through.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

Although Nene signed with the Houston Rockets on Sept. 6, the NBA has yet to officially approve the deal. The 10-day delay is a result of the NBA discussing internally whether it should disapprove details in the contract, according to multiple sources.

Nene’s contract includes a low base salary with a massive amount of likely incentives. Houston could count Nene’s full $10 million salary (base plus likely incentives) in a trade. The acquiring team would then owe Nene his base salary plus only the bonuses he actually triggers.

It’s a workaround to the typical salary-matching rules.

The bonuses are tied to individual games played and team games won. Because Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets last season, the bonuses are qualified as likely. Last year’s performance is the default way to determine whether incentives are likely or unlikely.

You can read more about the contract’s structure here.

The NBA’s apprehension is interesting. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies a procedure for challenging incentive classification when the league or union believes the prior season is not a fair predictor. Essentially, that side makes a case to an arbiter that the default assumption is “very likely” to be wrong.

However, in a funny quirk here, that challenge system lays out only how the NBA can challenge to turn unlikely incentives into likely incentives and how the union can challenge to turn likely incentives into unlikely incentives. There’s nothing about the NBA turning likely incentives into unlikely incentives, which the league is apparently considering here (and would make Nene’s contract invalid, as there’s a limit on unlikely incentives).

The CBA also prohibits circumventing the spirit of the rules. The league could rule Houston did that here. However, that’s a tough case considering not only does Nene’s contract meet all stated technicalities, there’s a section specifically on challenging these types of details. It just doesn’t apply.

The Heat opened the door for likely/unlikely-incentive shenanigans a couple years ago. We didn’t hear then about the NBA challenging those contracts, and that’s where the official challenge system would’ve applied.

It seems unfair to punish the Rockets’ creativity now.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

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We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

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After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C