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

7 Comments

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).

Rumor: Lakers owner Jeanie Buss pushed Magic Johnson to draft Lonzo Ball

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
8 Comments

The Lakers haven’t made a satisfactory trade offer for Anthony Davis. It seems the Pelicans just don’t care much for Los Angeles’ young players.

Rather, New Orleans would probably rather wait for Celtics forward Jayson Tatum. Tatum went No. 3 in the 2017 NBA draft – one spot after the Lakers took Lonzo Ball.

How did the Lakers make that decision?
Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:

What I’m about to say, Magic Johnson would categorically probably deny. That’s my friend, my brother. I love him. If Magic Johnson was sitting next to me on national television and he said opposite or contrary to what I’m about to tell you, I’d tell him, “That’s a d— lie, and you know it.”

Magic Johnson would not have drafted Lonzo Ball if were not for Jeanie Buss.

Jeanie Buss needed a box-office draw. LaVar Ball, the marketing wizard that he is, put his son in our minds’ eye, had us thinking this brother out of Chino Hills starring for UCLA is going to be special in the pros.

Nate Jones:

Buss has repeatedly said how much she trusts Johnson, team president, to run the front office. But Buss also spoke of the importance of Los Angeles landing a star.

Ball, thanks to his father and strong play at UCLA, was the biggest name in the 2017 draft.

But this also seems like pro-Johnson spin.

If he were reluctant to draft Ball, Johnson went out of his way to disguise it. Johnson traded D'Angelo Russell to clear room for Ball at point guard then touted Ball’s leadership at the expense of Russell.

Besides, even if Johnson preferred to pass on Ball, would we hear about it now if Ball were playing better? These types of hindsight decisions tend to leak only when it paints someone in a more-favorable light. Otherwise, they get buried.

Still, the Lakers would be far better off with Tatum or De'Aaron Fox (who went No. 5 to the Kings). But we can’t be certain whom Johnson would have drafted if not Ball. At the time, the Lakers were reportedly also linked to Fox and Josh Jackson, who has played worse than Ball so far.

Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons, Kyle Kuzma headline All-Star Friday Rising Stars participants

Getty Images
3 Comments

A couple of deep drafts has led to young stars in big markets — and a really impressive lineup for the All-Star Friday Night Rising Stars Challenge.

The Friday night of All-Star weekend — this year in Charlotte on Feb. 15 — is when the NBA tries to highlight the future of the league with first-and-second year players facing off in a USA vs. The World format. Which, considering the international influx of talent in the past couple of years — led by Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons — makes this matchup a little more interesting.

Here are the competitors.

Kyrie Irving will be the honorary coach for Team USA, while Dirk Nowitzki will coach The World. Nowitzki should make The World players do one of his Holger Geschwindner warmups.

There’s a lot of offensive talent on the floor for this one. Which in a game that usually sees all the defense of a pre-draft solo workout against a chair should make for an entertaining show. De'Aaron Fox throwing lobs to Jaren Jackson Jr., or Lonzo Ball finding Jayson Tatum in transition. Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton being teammates, There’s a lot to like.

Plus, it’s good to see some under-appreciated good young players — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, OG Anunoby, Josh Okogie — getting a little prime-time run.

What do you think of the uniforms for the game?

The Rising Stars Challenge will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Eastern of Feb. 15, exclusively on TNT.

It is the first event of All-Star weekend, leading up to the All-Star Game itself on Sunday, Feb. 17.

ProBasketballTalks’ 2019 NBA All-Star selections

Getty Images
3 Comments

The NBA will announce All-Star starters tonight and All-Star reserves in a week.

But we’re not waiting.

Here are our picks, following the same format the league uses for starters (two guards and three frontcourt players per conference) and reserves (two guards, three frontcourt players and two wildcards per conference):

Eastern Conference

Starters

Pos. Kurt Helin Dan Feldman Dane Delgado
G Kyrie Irving Kyrie Irving Kyrie Irving
G Kyle Lowry Kyle Lowry Kemba Walker
FC Giannis Antetokounmpo Giannis Antetokounmpo Giannis Antetokounmpo
FC Kawhi Leonard Kawhi Leonard Kawhi Leonard
FC Joel Embiid Joel Embiid Joel Embiid

Reserves

Pos. Kurt Helin Dan Feldman Dane Delgado
G Bradley Beal Kemba Walker Kyle Lowry
G Kemba Walker Victor Oladipo Bradley Beal
FC Blake Griffin Jimmy Butler Jimmy Butler
FC Ben Simmons Blake Griffin Blake Griffin
FC Nikola Vucevic Khris Middleton Khris Middleton
WC Victor Oladipo Ben Simmons Victor Oladipo
WC Jimmy Butler Bradley Beal Pascal Siakam

Kurt Helin: I have left Victor Oladipo on even though he will not play in the game, he still deserves the recognition. After that, I’m trying to talk myself into guys (unlike the West). Some people will hold Jimmy Butler torpedoing the Timberwolves against him and keep him off (and the coaches who pick the reserves very well might), but I don’t have a problem with it. Kris Midleton, Pascal Siakam, Josh Richardson and others all can make a case, but I’ll stick with this group.

Dan Feldman: I choose All-Stars based on the best players right now. It’s not about who’s having the best season. That’s All-NBA. That said, among the many factors in determining which players are best, how they’re playing this season is usually the most important. With my criteria stated, let’s get to the picks.

Kyle Lowry over Kemba Walker was the only tough call in the East starting lineup. The other four were locks.

Bradley Beal worked his way into relatively easy inclusion with his strong play since John Wall went out. That left only the final reserve frontcourt spot as difficult. I ultimately picked Khris Middleton over Al Horford (still excellent some nights, but not enough), Nikola Vucevic (best season so far) and Andre Drummond (not fully realizing his talent).

Dane Delgado: With LeBron James in the West, the East is now just Giannis Antetokounmpo and a bunch of dudes whom fanbases will yell about not getting enough respect on Twitter. That is, until Kawhi Leonard re-ups in Toronto. In the meantime we have a lot of guys coming to the forefront with surprising seasons — Bradley Beal in the absence of John Wall, Pascal Siakam with a heavier minutes load, etc. The NBA is still a player-first league, and that’s perhaps most apparent when considering guys out East when it comes to All-Star voting. I’m just glad that means we get to vote for guys on teams like the Hornets, Bucks, and Pistons without anybody getting mad.

Western Conference

Starters

Pos. Kurt Helin Dan Feldman Dane Delgado
G Stephen Curry Stephen Curry James Harden
G James Harden James Harden Stephen Curry
FC LeBron James LeBron James Kevin Durant
FC Kevin Durant Kevin Durant Anthony Davis
FC Anthony Davis Anthony Davis Paul George

Reserves

Pos. Kurt Helin Dan Feldman Dane Delgado
G Damian Lillard Russell Westbrook Damian Lillard
G Russell Westbrook Damian Lillard Klay Thompson
FC Paul George Paul George LeBron James
FC Nikola Jokic Nikola Jokic Nikola Jokic
FC Karl-Anthony Towns Rudy Gobert Rudy Gobert
WC Rudy Gobert Karl-Anthony Towns Mike Conley
WC LaMarcus Aldridge Jrue Holiday Paul Millsap

Kurt Helin: This was a brutal process of exclusion — there are far more deserving players than can be fit on the team. Mike Conley, Tobias Harris or Danilo Gallinari from the Clippers, Klay Thompson, Donovan Mitchell, Buddy Hield, and others all could have gotten a slot. Also, these picks are a little heavy on big men, but these are the guys defining the conference and changing our perception of what a big can do. The fans wanted Luka Doncic on the team and if that happens I have no problem with it. It’s an exhibition for the fans, and he has been good.

Dan Feldman: Paul George and even Nikola Jokic make cases for having better seasons so far than LeBron James and Kevin Durant. But in my system? LeBron and Durant are still clearly better players. I’m just not that interested in parsing 40-some-game samples when we have far larger bodies of work, though, again, more recent games count for the most.

Most of the West bench filled in easily – until the final spot. I picked Jrue Holiday over a deep pool that included Mike Conley, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Klay Thompson, Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Marc Gasol, Robert Covington, De'Aaron Fox, DeMar DeRozan and Luka Doncic. Yes, that gives the 12th-place Pelicans two All-Stars. I don’t care. That’s the shape of their team. They have a superstar, another star, a couple solid players and some massive liabilities. All-Star is an individual honor, and Holiday (narrowly) deserves it. Lesser players on better teams will get their reward in the spring.

Dane Delgado: The West is once against a dogfight and no doubt we will end up with a couple of guys off the All-Star roster who deserve to be included. The standings heading toward the break don’t look exactly the way many of us figured, and perhaps the most glaring omission here is that of Russell Westbrook. The Thunder star has had the lowest VORP of his career despite leading the league in assist percentage. It seems harsh to leave a guy off the All-Star ballot just two seasons removed from an MVP, but here we are. Guys like Lillard, Thompson, and Conley are more deserving than Westbrook, who might just be the third-most important player on his own team.

Our Midseason NBA awards: MVP, Defensive Player of Year, Coach of Year, much more

Getty Images
5 Comments

The NBA has no chill — Most Valuable Player talk started the first week of the season. Now that we’re about halfway through the campaign we have seen enough games, we have enough data to start saying who is the frontrunner for the NBA’s end-of-season awards. Here is who we have at the halfway point of the season.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Kurt Helin: James Harden (Houston Rockets)

This is basically a coin flip for me between Harden — who has been good all season on offense and has surged of late carrying the Rockets back up the standings — and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been more consistent on both ends of the court this season (and is by far the better defender of the two). Can Harden sustain this level of play long enough to win the award? I have Anthony Davis a clear third and then a host of players going for the final couple spots on the ballot: LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, and others.

Dan Feldman: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

Anthony Davis nearly got the nod. James Harden is surging. LeBron James could get into the race if he gets healthy soon. But Antetokounmpo has been consistently excellent all season. The Bucks’ system is built for Antetokounmpo to shine, and he’s doing it.

Dane Delgado: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

If you use your head and check the statistics, you could come up with a couple other options outside of the Milwaukee Bucks superstar for MVP. James Harden immediately comes to mind. But if I am casting my vote here by who I think is going to win MVP, then Antetokounmpo is the clear-cut favorite. The NBA’s Most Valuable Player is as much about narrative as it is about on-court play, and Antetokounmpo is the man with the story and the stats to back it up. His per 100 rebounds, assists, and scoring are all on the rise, and he leads the league in defensive box plus/minus. I’m comfortable picking the guy from little ol’ Milwaukee any day.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)

We knew coming into the draft last June Doncic was the most decorated European player ever entering the draft — he was the MVP of the second best league in the world — but some still questioned his athleticism and if his game would translate. GMs would rather miss on a player from Duke or Kentucky than Europe (less backlash). Well, the Mavs are Doncic team already and they are in the playoff mix in the West. Doncic isn’t just a ROY, he could be an All-Star. I would have Jaren Jackson Jr. second ahead of Deandre Ayton (Jackson getting it done on both ends for a team that, at least until the last couple of weeks, was in the playoff mix).

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)

Doncic is so skilled and so polished. He’s on another level from a typical rookie.

Dane Delgado: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)

The Rookie of the Year race seems like it will perpetually be a source of conflict between people who believe a rookie must be a first-year professional in the NBA alone. Folks got all riled up about Ben Simmons last season, and if I look into my crystal ball I can only assume people will be using Doncic’s prior experience as a professional in Europe as a means to disqualify him from the award stateside. While many other rookies are fun to watch, it’s clear that the Mavericks are already Doncic’s team. That sets him apart in and of itself, and I don’t see another choice.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)

This race is still wide open (I have a feeling Rudy Gobert will win it again in the end, he and the Jazz are starting to come on), but right now George had brought it nightly for the best defense in the NBA. He’s the best in the league at getting over picks and disrupting plays.

Dan Feldman: Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)

With the NBA’s scoring explosion, no pick here feels great. But George has been the NBA’s top perimeter defender, and his versatility has spearheaded the Thunder’s top-notch defense. I wouldn’t quibble with Rudy Gobert or Draymond Green selections, either. Even if both are below their previous defensive levels, they still might be better than everyone else.

Dane Delgado: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

The player who wins MVP doesn’t typically win Defensive Player of the Year. Not unless that player is named Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon, the only two guys who have done both in the same season. But Antetokounmpo is leading the league in defensive box plus/minus, and his length and athleticism are some of the reasons Milwaukee has the second-best defensive rating in the league. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis could all be listed here instead, but with the expectations Antetokounmpo is carrying with him I’m going with the young Buck.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee Bucks)

This is a crowded field — as it always is — but “Coach Bud” has put a modern system in place in Milwaukee (updating them from the Nirvana-era 1990s) and the team has thrived in it, the Bucks have the best net rating in the NBA. Doc Rivers, Dave Joerger, Mike Malone, Nick Nurse, Gregg Popovich, Billy Donovan, and a few others can stake a claim, too, but Budenholzer has had the most significant positive impact.

Dan Feldman: Dave Joerger (Sacramento Kings)

Mike Budenholzer came closest, but the Bucks’ front office positioned him for success (adding Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, stretch bigs who fit Budenholzer’s preferred scheme). Joerger has the Kings surprisingly competitive while overcoming Sacramento’s front office. That doesn’t reflect well on the Kings, but it makes Joerger’s coaching even more impressive.

Dane Delgado: Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors)

As we have learned over the past couple of seasons, top NBA personalities don’t necessarily always love each other. In an era of infinite statistical analysis, the human side of basketball still remains a major factor. Yes, the Raptors were the best team in the Eastern Conference last season. And Nick Nurse was part of that success. But Nurse has had to incorporate Kawhi Leonard, who left the San Antonio Spurs under inauspicious circumstances, and a moody and oft-injured Kyle Lowry who doesn’t appear to be on good terms with the team’s GM. We just saw Jimmy Butler and Leonard become a major distraction for their respective former teams. That Nurse has been able to steer the Raptors’ ship atop the East yet again — and while replacing a player favorite coach in Dwane Casey, no less — is an impressive feat.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell  (Los Angeles Clippers)

This is a tight two-man race at the top for me, with Domantis Sabonis neck-and-neck with Harrell — fascinating because this award rarely goes to big men, mostly guards (the last big to win it was Lamar Odom in 2011, and he had a unique skill set). If you just watch a little of Harrell you think he’s a classic energy big — comes in off the bench and just outworks everyone — but the more you watch him (especially in person) you see the high IQ plays, and how he gets it done on both ends. Sabonis has been efficient picking teams apart all season. After those two a few guys are in the mix: Derrick Rose, Spencer Dinwiddie, Lou Williams, and Dennis Schroder.

Dan Feldman: Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers)

The Pacers big excels at making shots all over the court. He’s so efficient on both interior finishes and jumpers. I still expect some regression to the mean, but Sabonis’ production so far rates slightly ahead of Montrezl Harrell’s.

Dane Delgado: Spencer Dinwiddie (Brooklyn Nets)

It’s hard not to pick the fledgling Brooklyn Nets point guard here. Dinwiddie is a crucial part of Brooklyn attack on offense, and provides in a bench role which doesn’t allow opposing defenses to let up. Teams need to gameplan for Dinwiddie by himself, which sort of points to why he is deserving of the Sixth Man of the Year award. Dinwiddie has made himself into a better 3-point shooter this season, and cut down on his mid-range jumpers. He’s still just 25 years old, so it’ll be interesting to see if he eventually forms into a more all-around type of player and full-time starter. For now, Dinwiddie is happy to tear up opposing secondary rotations on offense.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

Kurt Helin: Pascal Siakam  (Toronto Raptors)

He has become a crucial player for the team with the best record in the NBA. Siakam has improved seemingly across the board: His defense was always good, but this season he’s been a force on that end; his handles have improved by leaps and bound; and with those dribbling skills has come much-improved playmaking. Beyond that, he has a confidence now that he can make big plays in big moments for this team. I wouldn’t be shocked if at the end of the season Derrick Rose wins this award because his return to his best basketball since his MVP years is one of the best stories of the season.

Dan Feldman: De'Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings)

Like most rookie point guards, Fox was quite bad last season. Now, he’s nearly a star, if not just outright a star. That’s not a normal second-year leap. Fox deserves recognition for his advancement.

Dane Delgado: Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trail Blazers)

This is a tough one to call just because you could pick guys like Jamal Murray or one of several Brooklyn Nets and come out looking okay. But the reality is that Portland Trail Blazers big man Jusuf Nurkic has quickly made himself into one of the best centers in the Western Conference, and part of the reason the Blazers have steadied themselves against a difficult winter schedule. Nurkic has changed how he plays on offense considerably, adding feel to his game where I just didn’t think it was possible. He has all but eliminated most of his bad habits, and that’s to say nothing of how he plays on defense. Nurkic is a shot-alterer, a defensive anti-gravity machine whose importance largely shows up on film but not in the box score. Portland should be struggling this season, especially with CJ McCollum not playing up to snuff, but Nurkic’s emergence is a big reason why they’re a Top 4 team in the West.